Learning to Question the Lightning by Isabel Rosenbaum (A’21)

by tuftsigl
Sep 17

On my commute to work every day this summer, I would pass the walls of abandoned buildings and billboards where people had written No Borders. No Human Is Illegal. EU, Where Are You? Similar phrases characterized much of the graffiti found in Mytilene’s side streets and on café bathroom doors.
Mytilene is the capital of Lesvos and the biggest town on the island—the vast majority of inhabitants work in jobs unrelated to migration or the refugee community.  However, from graffiti to the presence of Frontex boats (Frontex is the European Union’s border control and coast guard agency) docked next to holiday yachts in the harbor, walking around Mytilene one sees constant reminders and evidence of the 10,000 people who crossed the sea in tiny boats and the European policy keeping them on the island. 
Certain signs and dynamics are easy to bypass when one has the privilege to only be on the island for a few weeks or months as a volunteer. One night, while walking along the coast, there was a violent flash of light. Thinking it was lightning, I said something hopeful about rain. An Iraqi co-worker and friend corrected me. Pointing out the massive NATO patrol ship halfway between us and Turkey, he said that the light was a floodlight flashed so the coastguard could spot and pick up a group of refugees attempting to reach Greece. More difficult than learning to recognize border control boats was the process of realizing how deeply people’s daily lives were impacted by the policing of the refugee community, even those living outside of the camps.

Although I had heard that police frequently harass and detain refugees for no reason, I only became acutely aware of the extent of harassment when friends would be late for coffee or the beach because they had been picked up and brought to the police station and then had to walk the several miles back to town (and given the levels of abuse against migrants, these experiences were brushed off as mere annoyances).

As a volunteer at One Happy Family (OHF), I had the opportunity to meet people from a huge array of backgrounds and become part of a community that extended beyond the OHF gates and working hours into daily life. Walking through Mytilene and bumping into people I knew from my English classes were frequent and welcome opportunities to meet a student’s husband, or wife, or kids and practice English with them outside of the school setting. Attending workshops and events held by different NGOs expanded my understanding of the current situation and the different ways organizations provide support and confront challenges. Meeting at cafes after work provided a time for reflection on the day and discussion about any news (political changes, boat arrivals) that had just come through. This experience—living within a community united by a basic common goal and working, no matter how slowly, towards that goal every day, made it incredibly difficult to leave the island.

Right now, refugee arrivals to the Greek islands are the highest they have been since 2015/early 2016. The camps on the islands, especially Moria in Lesvos and Vathy and Samos, are incredibly overcrowded and the already limited resources available are even more strained, leading to horrific conditions. Unlike three years ago, the situation in the Aegean rarely makes international news. To learn and stay informed about the current situation, I recommend Aegean Boat Report for daily updates and breakdowns of boat arrivals as well as weekly and monthly statistics. UNHCR has less frequent updates but is also useful for tracking arrival numbers. A report called No End In Sight was just published by Refugee Rights Europe, which reports on the current mistreatment and living situation of asylum seekers in Greece and draws information largely from the smaller NGOs engaged directly in the Aegean.

I am incredibly grateful to the IGL for the opportunity to study migration intensely over the past two semesters through EPIIC and then go directly to the field. The combination of theoretical and practical experience is invaluable and has given me a much more nuanced understanding of migration in the Eastern Mediterranean.