Photograph by Mashid Mohadjerin, Story by Jill Johnson
“This is a bad situation. We don’t want them here. They’ve destroyed our island paradise,” he said, swinging the taxi violently around a bend to emphasise his words, making hers and her teenage daughter’s head lurch to the left. They threw each other fearful glances and clung to the car seat.
“Why are you in Lesbos?” he asked.
She’d been prepped for this question.
“Why visit a refugee camp?”
“Tourism,” she replied.
In the rear-view mirror, she caught the suspicion in his eyes.
“Misery tourism,” he tutted, flicking his cigarette into the parched undergrowth on the road side. She worried about wild fires but her attention was quickly taken by the red and orange life jackets strewn along the beach beside the road: shadows of past perilous crossings. Hundreds of them. Thousands.
“Look at the mess they leave behind,” he said. “They’ve ruined our beautiful beaches. No one swims anymore. Too much death in the water.”
Her daughter stared wide eyed at the sea, the horror of his words dawning.
“But we need the tourists to come back, so you are welcome.”
At their destination, the road outside the former prison - now refugee registration centre – was thronging. A sharp contrast to the quaint but deserted town they’d come from. Hundreds of exhausted, traumatised people stood or sat in groups beside the high, barbed wire topped wall, waiting to be issued the identification papers needed to continue their journeys into Europe. At the entrance, riot police with pistols on their belts smoked, chatted and waited for trouble. She took her daughter’s arm and they walked towards an encampment further down the road. On the way, they passed their taxi driver, gesticulating and shouting at a small group of refugees. Demanding payment up-front for the ride to the Athens ferry. He may not want them here but he was happy to take their money.
The volunteer run encampment was the antithesis of the austere and hostile registration centre. A large, brightly painted sign above the entrance welcomed the refugees in many languages. White bell tents, decorated with bunting, dotted the site. Marquees encircled the tents, each with its own function: medical centre, children’s play area, canteen. And international volunteers, with huge smiles and open hearts, chatted to the refugees and cuddled the children. Arm in arm, they walked through the milling crowds to the clothes distribution marquee where they were volunteering for the day. Two long queues of new arrivals had already formed, waiting for it to open. One of men, the other, women and children. Their only possessions; the soaking clothes on their backs and their precious mobile phones - their lifeline to family left behind, and the contacts in Europe.
Her daughter had expected gratitude when she handed out the clothes. With a crestfallen expression she asked the interpreter,
“Why are they so angry with me?”
He explained that the traffickers made them leave their bags in Turkey and pay for a set of new clothes which would be given to them when they arrived. When they see the used, donated clothes, they become angry. The traffickers are lying. There are no new clothes. They don’t allow bags in the dinghies so they can cram more people on. It takes a while to realise they’ve been scammed by the traffickers. It takes a while longer to realise they’re being helped.
“Hang on in there,” he said gently. “There will be gratitude soon.”
She took a selection of children’s clothes into the women’s changing tent. In a corner, four generations of one family sat huddled, waiting to be helped. She knelt and gently pulled a two-year-old onto her lap. The little girl’s clothes were soaking and, as her shoes were lost at sea, plastic bags covered her feet, tied at the ankle with string. Carefully, she untied the string. The girl’s feet were cold, white and swollen. She held her tiny feet and rubbed warmth into them. The girl was docile and silent, too shocked to react to this small act of kindness. She glanced at the child’s mother and was graced with a heartfelt, exhausted smile. Fighting tears, she removed the little girl’s wet clothes and dressed her warmly in thick socks, shoes, coat and hat, in preparation for their onward journey to the colder climate of Macedonia.
In another corner, she watched her daughter helping a beautiful Syrian woman strip off her wet designer clothes, and replace them with a polyester track suit and plastic trainers. She saw her daughter staring at the heap of Prada, Gucci, and Chanel on the ground, only now realising that these people; privileged, poor, educated, non-educated, urban and rural had fled a war zone. Had left their lives, their possessions, their loved ones behind, and now had nothing. After a hesitation, her daughter collected together the sodden pile and dumped it into the bin. She thought of her designer clothes, her bags, shoes, laptop, tablet, safe at home in her well-appointed flat and was flooded with the guilt only felt by those more fortunate. The woman zipped up an anorak, two sizes too big then pulled her daughter into a tight embrace to squeeze her thanks. Over the woman’s shoulder, she caught her daughter’s eye, knowing they had shared the same thought, and they exchanged a guilt drenched mutual understanding.
Later, on their break, they sipped tea and petted the love-starved street dogs adopted by the volunteers. So many neglected dogs, abandoned by the island’s inhabitants who could no longer afford to feed them. She turned to the interpreter and asked how many refugees would arrive that day. His gaze moved to the beach.
“The sea is calm, so we expect about three thousand.”
“Three thousand?” she gasped, thinking she’d misheard. “That can’t be right.”
“Yep, three thousand every day for months now,” he said, shaking his head. “And I can’t see things changing any time soon.”
She stared at him in shocked disbelief.
“No… surely… that can’t be right.”
Jill Johnson has lived in South East Asia, Europe and New Zealand. She has owned an editorial cartoon gallery, a comic shop and has been involved in a graphic novel publishing house. Her novel The Time Before The Time To Come, based on the Māori heritage, was described in Stylist Magazine as 'A rich book about self-discovery, and how the people who came before us can help make us what we are today'. She lives in London with her children. @writerJJohnson
Mashid Mohadjerin’s work explores the boundaries between art and documentary image making, covering subjects such as displacement, social and physical alienation and, more recently, modern day revolt against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. She has won several awards for her work which is exhibited all over the world, and is published in respected titles such as The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, La Domenica di Repubblica, The Globe & Mail and the BBC.