Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Refugees on their road...

An odd thing, and I will write something about it. Maybe you've been here, to Spa for the Soul. At rest in a comfy chair on the balcony, it continues to look like a slice of paradise. Meis doesn't LOOK any different. We don't see the refugees soaking wet, cold and hungry in the rocks in the morning. Our village harvests olives and chats together. Yet it is there among us, not somewhere across the world.

Maybe you haven’t been here—to our little slice of Mediterranean Turkey. Think…Momma Mia. Rocky shores, sailboats, fishing boats, olive trees, village folk dressed in the way of 100 years ago, sheep, goats, chickens. A lot of artists and craftspeople, a smattering of foreigners like us, and some cosmopolitan Turkish retirees in the mix. This place has bohemian energy. Think white-washed stone buildings, ramshackle repairs, outdoor feasts under plane trees on stone terraces that overlook the sea, carpenters, stone masons, mosaic artists with their studios, photographers, painters and writers. Forget the little chapel on the hill. This IS Turkey, after all.

Yep. Slice of paradise. From my balcony I see down the hillside over to the nearby peninsula and, behind that, just five kilometers (3 miles) off, the small island of Meis. Meis to the Turks, that is. Kastellorizo to the Greeks, for Meis is Greek, complete with passport control and a duty free shop. We love to ply the coastline in our kayaks, but, no, we can’t paddle to Meis. International waters, proper registrations and transit logs, and all that.

Meis: Population 200. Scattered with holiday homes, small restaurants, and boutique hotels. Served twice each week by ferries from Rhodes and on to Athens, and, in the summer, daily by ferries from here. Now, in winter, the ferry goes weekly. Or not. The island is so small that it has no fresh water supply, and, other than olives, nothing to support food and goods production. It ALL comes by ferry: water, food, and anything else one might need to be there. An expensive place popular with those who can afford it.

And, since last summer, a station on the refugee road to Europe. Not that Greece welcomes refugees. Not that they can board the ferry and enter legally. But if people are in the water, in distress, soaked and wounded from their death-defying clamor, they will be taken to safety, processed and given papers, and allowed to pass onward toward northern Europe.

I’ve been here eight years. I’ve been to Meis only twice. I think. Maybe three times. Pretty little place. But not much there. People who go often go to buy cheap alcohol from the duty free shop, and to buy a bit of pork from the grocer. Mostly Brits. Tourists go so that they can get the stamp in their passport and check Greece off their bucket list. Once I went with the photography club and we hiked the whole island before lunch.

Refugees. Mornings they are found on the rocks just out of the water, sometimes on teeny uninhabited islands nearby. Or they are in the water, perhaps clinging to cheap rafts. Sometimes just bodies are found. Or perhaps a family screaming because their baby or their four year old was lost in the wave-battered scramble through cold and dark.

How did they get there? People smugglers. Men who take sums like 500 euro per person for the three to five mile journey from some hidden place on the Turkish coast. Men who dump their passengers wherever suits them, tell them it is Greece, and leave them to find their way to shore. Or not.

At first it was a trickle. Then numbers grew. Sometimes upwards of 700 souls in a week. The semi-weekly ferry to Rhodes holds 400. But sometimes it doesn’t run. Maybe the workers are on strike, or maybe it is a holiday. Both Christmas and New Years fell this year on ferry days. So some weeks more refugees arrive than can leave. Some have money and can pay for a room. Others sleep rough, outdoors or on the stone floor of a hall the town has opened for them.

The nights around Christmas were balmy with clear skies and a full moon. The rush was on, and one night 182 came. As the New Year dawned the weather turned freezing and heavy rains came. Even then, in one night, 82 survived to reach land. Volunteers helped them to dry clothes. “Please, can I have shoes. You gave him shoes.” Pointing to a hole in the soaked trainer, water oozing out as he bent his toes. “I am sorry. Your shoes are bad, but they will last you the week. We don’t have many shoes to give. The UN, the government, they are not helping in this tiny place. We and our friends bought these shoes, and that is all we could buy.” Children stripped down, toweled off, made warm. Then came the line-up for processing and papers. Outdoors as the rain poured and cold wind cut through.

“We and our friends.” That is the help that is here. No one wants the refugees. Many fear them. Some hate them. They fear the refugees will take jobs, will work for less money. They fear the numbers of single men, though these days many refugees are whole families. They fear terrorism and wonder if the poor souls bring it with them. They fear foreigners whose children need schools, who speak only Arabic or Pashtu or Farsi. But a few want to help.

Some of us help with money. I’ve also gone down to sort donated items. Some give a week on Meis to help with the informal aid effort, handing out clothing and other necessities and showing the way to shelter. David, an American, has spent most of the fall and winter on the island. Another David, the Scottish one, has spent a lot of time there. Renee, an American married to a Turk, goes every Saturday morning on the ferry to help sort and put out the stuff and to give what time she can before the afternoon return. So does Penny. Gerard has worked out a system of communication among those of us who want to know. Kate sources supplies of cheap boots, backpacks and jackets, often finding the last of a lot at an exceptional price. Those who lead the effort have negotiated troubled waters with Greek authorities about bringing in the donated clothing and supplies. They’ve rethought again and again how to give the most effective help with the little that is available.

Where do the refugees come from? Syria, mostly. There are those from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

Where do they want to go? Well, to hope. Turkey has welcomed them, and will allow them to stay. But Turkey has not been willing to grant status that will allow them to work legally. Illegal work is plentiful enough, but employers feel free to decide not to pay. And Turkey puts limits on where refugees can stay. They are not legal here, for example, for this is a designated tourist area.

So. In their journey from violence and death they are safe in Turkey. More or less. But there is no future, no hope.

Last Sunday morning, a new twist. A group of 20 or 30 who had made it to Meis were put on a boat and returned to Kaş. I’m not sure why but perhaps something about a huge aid package to Turkey, just announced by the EU, to provide more help for the million-plus refugees here. In their desperate flight from war and death, there is no place of welcome. Nobody wants them. We encountered them in the harbor and then as they were herded up the road to the local military authorities. As they passed just feet from me, I lifted my eyes to meet those of any who would notice. Those who did received my nod and gentle smile. Every one of those, out of what had to be frustration, misery and fear, returned with their eyes gratitude and gave a gentle smile and nod in return.

Last fall one man lost his whole family to the sea as they tried to get to Meis. “Just send me back,” was his cry. “I no longer have a reason to hope for a better life. Send me back and let me die.”

The refugees are on a road to hope. We are a way-station. But for me, as I gaze out on the island just out my window, always there is the heart-ache. Is there hope at the end of their road?