LESBOS, Greece – It was New Year’s Eve in Scala Sycamnias, a small fisherman’s village in the north of Lesbos island. In a coffee shop at the port, an unusually diverse crowd was gathered around the fireplace. Some people were wearing wet suits and ski jackets, others were dressed in woolen coats and hats. Young men and women who appeared to be travelers sat with middle-aged fishermen from the villages, drinking coffee, tea and ouzo.
Scala Sycamnias has become a hub for rescue teams and activists from around the world, some of them representing registered NGOs of different sizes, and others who are part of citizen-led community initiatives. Together, they have been assisting refugees arriving by the thousands from the Turkish coast. The 7.5-mi (12-km) distance between Greece and Turkey has become the only chance for a new lease of life for many asylum seekers.
The number of people arriving in Greece exceeded 100,000 within the first two months of 2016. According to the International Organization for Migration, 21 times more people arrived this January than during the same period last year. These overwhelming rates of arrival prompted volunteer groups from Europe and other parts of the world to continue to galvanize aid and conduct rescues at sea.
Larger NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, ActionAid, Save the Children and the Red Cross have been assisting the UNHCR since the Greek government set up open reception hotspots for refugees in September 2015. But, over the winter months, as the arrivals continued despite harsh weather, increasing numbers of smaller organized groups of doctors, trained lifeguards and nurses arrived from around the world to help.
Amid the people with brightly colored lifeguard jackets and fancy rescue equipment at the cafe, a small, understated group stands out for more than one reason. Platanos, a self-organized Greek initiative that sprang up in solidarity with hundreds of refugees arriving from Lesbos in boats over last summer, has led by example.
“I remember the sense of belonging to a community,” said Vasilis, a 40-year-old man who works in the private sector. He is part of the Platanos rescue team that helps people after they disembark and had taken time off from work to help.
“I had already felt that way during the Syntagma protests in 2011 when we occupied the central square of Athens for almost three months. Here at Platanos, as in Syntagma four years ago, we are doing the same by organizing different teams in charge of food, cleaning, information, storage,” he explains.
Greeks have played a particularly vital role in the absence of concerted E.U. efforts to aid arrivals.
Solidarity movements, which became Greece’s first line of defense over the past years of E.U.-imposed austerity cuts, have also extended their support to refugees in need of medical aid, food, shelter, clothing and legal counseling.
An unexpected camaraderie has been brewing between Greek citizens and refugees as both groups feel marginalized by their respective governments’ policies and lack of sufficient support from the international community, especially the E.U.
Local groups and community initiatives that fostered social cooperatives and civil society groups to cope with the impact of austerity measures have empathized with refugees, who have also been forced into destitution after losing their homes and communities.
In October 2015, ten members of the Athens Solidarity Movement, mainly doctors, came to the northern coast of Lesbos and built a tent on the beach. The next day they put up a second tent that contained donated clothes from people all over Greece for the refugees. By the third day they were able to provide food. As the refugees continued to arrive throughout the winter months, these tents became landmarks outside the small village of Scala. Identifiable from a distance, and near a large maple tree whose branches expand through this settlement as if welcoming the refugees with open arms, the tents came to be known as Platanos.
Platanos is the Greek name for the plane tree, known for its ability to provide shade and shelter – an apt name for the group that has become a safe haven for thousands of refugees.
Later that night, inside a taverna close to the coffee shop, the Platanos team indulged in a New Year’s Eve feast. They had chosen to welcome 2016 while awaiting new arrivals of refugees at the nearly frozen port. They remained on standby to receive arriving families and individuals, while being away from their own.
As with most self-organized movements in Greece, the group doesn’t accept monetary donations. A general assembly of members makes all decisions. The basis of the system is that people should help people, and that help must be direct. When someone wants to donate money, it is sent to the shops or pharmacies with which Platanos has made arrangements. The shops convert the donations into vouchers, with which the group can buy food and other essentials for the refugees.
“There is no boss, everything is horizontal,” said Vasilis.
“No wonder it takes so much time to make a decision,” Abdoul, a Syrian who has lived in Greece for 10 years, teased Vasilis, who responds with a mild nod.
Our discussion is interrupted by the countdown to the New Year. This coldest night of the season is fraught with turbulent winds, so no boats arrive and the party continues.
People from all over Greece, Europe and even as far as the U.S. and Malaysia are on the island. They have come at their own expense and have been distributing warm clothes and cooking meals. Some villagers allowed volunteers to stay in their houses for free.
For those who stayed up, the next day’s shift is a brutally early start. Some of them may have had to force themselves out of bed, but everyone lines up before dawn. The wind has stopped, allowing for large numbers of arrivals.
“Usually the boats come at dawn,” said Apostolis, a 58-year-old farmer from a village in southern Lesbos.
“These criminals, the traffickers, force them to embark by 40 or more [people] in these useless boats with small engines. Sometimes the level of the boat is so low that people look like they are actually sitting on the waves. In the summer it was not as hard, but now people are getting out of the boat soaked and frozen,” he said.
“My heart hurts when I see women with babies and small children having blue feet and hands,” he continued. The emotion in his weathered voice is palpable. Apostolis has three grandchildren.
He had been involved with local solidarity initiatives even before the refugee flows started to increase. The Greek economic crisis that has continued unabated since 2011 has been accompanied by a rising number of refugees arriving in the country. Both events prompted him to join community-led initiatives.
“Immigrants have been arriving for the last seven years in Lesbos,” Apostolis pointed out.
“Once I saw a woman’s jaw trembling for 40 minutes as I escorted the boat to shore,” said Iason, a 31-year-old engineer from Athens who brought his boat and has been conducting rescue missions for three months.
The people at Platanos remain angry. They are angry at Europe, at Frontex, at their “leftist” government. Sometimes they burst into tears when receiving groups arriving in states of shock. They brace themselves as they handle wet babies with hypothermia and mothers with nothing, not even dry clothes. Most importantly, they remain – even as others leave. Day after day, group after group, person after person, they assist those in need without losing their empathy.
“Solidarity is only a reaction,” said Iason. “But it is not a solution, as we have to fight and change the politics. Europe should open its borders and not let the sea here and elsewhere become a graveyard.”
The members of Platanos are naturally worried about the latest agreement reached between Europe and Turkey that aims to deport the arrivals.
“Europe is turning her head away from the core problem once more. Whoever thinks people will stop coming because we give 3 billion euros to Turkey are wrong. There is no future for them in Turkey. Every refugee that speaks English is telling me so,” said Agni, a solidarity member from Crete.
“If the war doesn’t stop, the refugees will keep coming.”
This reality, reiterated by the unceasing flows of humanity, has been clear as daybreak to the volunteers working around the clock at Lesbos.
This story is part of our series Community Initiatives, where we profile individual and community initiatives that are leading by example by filling the systemic gaps in protection.
Top image: A rubber dinghy with migrants and asylum seekers aboard, reaches the Lesvos Island (Refugees Deeply/Stefania Mizara)