I’ve nearly missed the ferry at Lesvos. But it wasn’t a matter of life and death, like it is for thousands today.
It was three years ago. I’ve been thinking about it lately; whether there was something in the air I could now identify with the power of hindsight. I can see it in the resigned shrug of friends working two jobs to help parents clear their lingering debt, shuttering away their dreams “just for now.” People furrowed their brows over money as they passed platters of honeyed feta, fresh fish and steaming bread. But none of us back then would have predicted the refugee crisis.
Nearly 1000 refugees step onto Greek beaches every day, having survived terrifying dinghy trips across the Aegean. Half of these arrivals feel Lesvos sand between their toes. From the eastern side of the island, the Turkish coast is visible, a desperate 10km of turquoise water separating the two islands. But it’s in Mytilini, 70km through the mountains on the east coast, where the crisis has come to a head. It’s here that refugees have to register with police and wait to be transported to the mainland for processing.
But the ferry. I’m anxiously leaning out of the little car as it zips past the port. My friends want to show me the castle, now illuminated on the hillside. The gears clunk noisily. I can see the cars slowly being swallowed into the enormous ship. “It takes ages to load them,” they assure me. “We have plenty of time.” It doesn’t settle the uneasy feeling in my gut. Logistically, I know we are in trouble. We reach the battlements, and all of Mytilini is spread before us. It is breathtaking. Yet I can’t pull my eyes away from the ferry, the string of lights blinking on the deck like warning beacons. The long line of cars inching into the ship’s belly are gone.
Back in the car. We speed past the port once more. My hand is squeezed in reassurance as I open my mouth to protest. I am led up onto a roof on the other side of the city. She used to live here. I am humbled, standing quietly on the still-warm tiles. In the darkness, the city is opened up. The buildings bow down to the sea, the castle a sentinel above the harbour.
I can hear the ferry horn blaring. For the first time, my friends show faint signs of discomfort. We teteer downwards, driving impossibly fast. We rush onto the bitumen in a bundle of limbs and bags, giggles rising in mild hysteria. We barely make it aboard.
But I am with someone I love, and I can appreciate the city I am leaving behind. I imagine I can see the lone rooftop, as important now to me as the ancient castle stones. I’m not worried about finding a place to sleep, or food to eat. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been unduly concerned about my next meal, or the safety of my family.
Today, there are thousands of people catching that same ferry. I doubt they feel a fragment of the security and peace I felt on that clear night three years ago. We’re removed from all of this, back here in Australia. We can think to ourselves, “how awful”, and then simply switch off our televisions. It’s easy to do. I’ve done it before. Our tourist beaches this summer won’t be filled with dehydrated, terrified Syrian refugees. Instead, our refugees come from the north, and are whisked away to detention before we even register their arrival. Yet they, too, are leaving behind terror and grasping for an uncertain future. We just aren’t confronted with the reality in our everyday lives, like the residents of Lesvos. Our refugees don’t feel Australian sand between their toes.