Wednesday, January 11, 2017

First Day in Lesvos

Finally, I have arrived in Lesvos. After getting up at 4:30 and taking the bus the airline provided for us to get to the airport, I made it onto my 7:00 flight into Mitillini airport on the island and we landed smoothly and easily. I don't remember much from this trip because I was half asleep the entire time (I fell asleep on the bus, in the terminal, and on the plane) but as we were coming down in the plane I was stunned how incredibly beautiful this area is. Lesvos is a fairly large island in the Eastern Aegean only a few miles off the coast of Turkey. 
Lesvos is in the top-right part of this picture, much closer to Turkey than it is to the Greek Mainland
Mitillini, where I landed, is on the Southeastern part of the island, so anywhere you look there are beautiful views of the mountains on the Turkish coast and the straits between the island and the mainland. The weather was fairly warm (in the high 40s) and the sea was extremely calm. Once you have a sense of the geography and climate of the region, it is pretty clear why this has become such a popular place for refugees to cross. Lesvos is not only extremely close to Turkey, but the bay is very protected. It is surrounded by the peninsula to the North, the mountain range in Turkey in the East, and the island in the West, so the breeze is pretty light unless it is coming out of the South. Furthermore, there are geopolitical reasons for crossing into Europe at this point based on the long history of disagreement between Turkey and Greece. I'm not going to get deep into this history right now, but conflict between the modern Greek and Turkish states goes back to Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832 (aided by the British and other Western powers) and their relationship has been characterized by intermittent periods of fighting ever since. While they presently maintain diplomatic relations, they are not cooperating closely on this issue, so once a raft of migrants crosses into Greek waters, they will not be returned to Turkey and they will land on European shores and once they receive papers, are able to take a ferry to the Greek mainland and continue into Europe from there.

It was pretty clear by the time that I landed that the initial chaos of the stream of refugees has settled and there is a large amount of international cooperation (NATO warships, several NGOs, Greek Coast Guard) that is dealing with the landings and processing of the refugees. I was picked up at the airport by an ERCI volunteer who was a Spanish man that appeared to be in his 50s. The eldest member of the 8 people that are currently working with ERCI, he spent his life in the Spanish Navy and after retiring last year, decided to come help in Lesvos. He has been on the team for 3 months and plans to spend 3 more before returning to Spain, which is the longest stay of anyone in ERCI – except for the Greek boss, Nassos. (The average stay is about 3 weeks, my 1 week stay is very short but unfortunately my thesis will not write itself). We also picked up two German volunteers who arrived by ferry, picked up some groceries for the week and headed to the house for the volunteers.

Tonight I will be watch with a partner from 8PM - 2AM using binoculars and thermal binoculars to see if anyone is trying to make the crossing. Since the wind has picked up from this morning and is expected to be around 29kts and heavy rain, we don't expect anyone to be coming tonight. More updates to come!

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