Overnighting at the Olive Grove

I’m sitting shoulder to shoulder in a crowded bar, smoke wafts and a Grecian vocalist belts out a blues rendition the red hot chilli peppers alongside a double-bass. The crowd is singing amongst shouts of ‘Yamas’ and clinks of raki glasses. Less than 48 hours ago I was standing on the side of the road ushering sleepy refugees into the backs of private cars, dodging raging taxi drivers who were supposed to be on strike. As I’ve mentioned, no two days are the same.

Let’s rewind a little here. 

It’s a Wednesday night, the waterfront restaurants are bustling with Mytilini locals. We are standing on the corner out front of the main stretch, the cold wind biting at our cheeks with a handful of future friends. This is the unofficial meetup point for the Moria nightshift, people with cars collect those without and we all head inland for 8 and a half hours of the unknown. I don’t yet know these people, but I know by the time we watch tomorrows sun rise over the wasteland of tents and olive groves we will be comrades.

If I had to summarise the differences between here and there in one sentence, it would be this: Pikpa was once a summer camp, Moria designed as a prison. Razor wire tops high fences that loom menacingly. Much like its former prison existence, this camp is a controlled area. Only certain organisations are allowed in, alongside only certain nationality of refugee. This ‘hot-spot’ sits atop a hill and at times has been referred to by some as ‘the worst refugee camp in the world’. Things have picked up recently and the conditions aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be, however, it’s certainly no island paradise up here.

As certain economic migrants were refused entrance, they began to give up hope. Despondent shells of humans began to sleep in the mud under the olive trees dotted down the slopes outside Moria. A need became apparent, volunteers began to create a makeshift camp. Providing food and water to those living on the hill, ‘Better days for Moria’ began to take shape. Now it’s a community of volunteers supported by cooks, medical teams and distribution tents. It’s not pretty, but it’s making a difference every day. Known by some as ‘Afghan Hill’, others ‘The Olive Grove’, this patch of hillside houses those that won’t be accepted anywhere else. This is where I will be spending my night.

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We meet up in the reception tent at one in the morning, a small group about to face one big problem: a country wide general strike. The daily ferry that we rely on to move refugees on to Athens will be out of action for four days. Add to this the inability to buy supplies or petrol and we potentially have a difficult few days ahead of us. The solution? Getting as many refugees out of here and onto a last minute refugee only ferry leaving at 7am. The catch? They can’t buy tickets until 5am, they don’t yet know about it, there’s 900 of them and taxis are on strike. So begins ‘operation wake up 900 refugees at 4am, mobilise every volunteer car we can find, and get them to the port.’ What could possibly go wrong?

Dazed and dreamy people stumble out of the main gates of the compound where we are armed with mittens and huge vats of hot chocolate. Volunteers from across the island line up down the road, they have responded to our whatsapp group call for help. So far, so good. We wait patiently for hoards of refugees, but they dribble out slowly. We fit oversized mittens onto tiny hands and scoop out ladles of sweet hot chocolate into paper cups. A yellow taxi pulls up, then another. Clearly the taxi strike is going well. I’m warned by longer-term volunteers that tension here with the taxi drivers is not a new phenomenon. They want business, they need money to support their families during these tough economic times, some are happy to throw punches to make a point. We try to ensure the taxis are filled before any private vehicles. More and more taxis arrive, agitated that the families who don’t want to be split up are being taken by private vans. Voices raised, no Greek translation is needed to understand how hostile this situation is getting.

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This is a tough situation for all involved. We spend the rest of the morning shepherding refugees into orderly lines, keeping them off the road and out of the way of furious taxi drivers accelerating hard around the hilly roads. Trying to keep the peace. Racing against a deadline. Eventually, it’s over. Those still left at Moria will be spending another 4 days. The rest, I hear, are facing pandemonium at the port where cold weather and a delayed ferry has lured a different team of volunteers down to hand out more food and blankets. Either way, tickets are sold out and at some point in the morning our guests will be departing for the shores of Athens.

Day breaks to a desolate panorama of tents and trash strewn amongst the olive trees. Two refugees gather around a fire billowing smoke out of a steel drum, a single volunteer joins them. For whatever reason, they didn’t make it on this ferry; perhaps they didn’t have enough money. The muddy slopes around Moria will remain home. I stumble down the hillside to join them – I’ve been awake now for 24 hours, not that I’m counting. A moments tranquility and a fragrant paper cup of masala chai from the tea tent is interrupted by a distressed African man. ‘Somalians are still humans’ he wails. He lifts his jumper to reveal his teeshirt soaked in blood flecked vomit. ‘I’m sick, look.’ life here is hard, even harder when you can’t get registration. He is inconsolable as a patient volunteer tries to resolve the situation. This man is claiming that his registration papers were torn up by officials as they deemed him to be Kenyan, rather than Somalian. We’re living in a world where the words on the front of your passport mean everything. When you have no passport, it becomes almost impossible. 

I watch him leave, escorted by a volunteer and trailed by his family, we will make up a tent for them in the meantime. Who knows how long this will take to be resolved.

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Hunched over a spicy tomato and bean soup in the skipchen food rescue tent, home time is feeling within reach. It’s been a long night, and I still have lots to do over the course of the morning before I will finally make my way to bed. By the time my head hits the pillow I’ve been awake 36 hours, sleep feels like a luxury, I indulge myself.

I reflect amidst the vivacious energy of Bobiras, a popular volunteer hangout in the centre of Mytelini. A rare evening off, a time to share war stories with my fellow comrades. To talk about our plans and say hello’s and goodbye’s to the never-ending revolving door of short term volunteers passing through the island. Like a half-drunk UN, I wouldn’t be surprised if we spanned all corners of the globe from this packed in little night spot. It’s been an interesting week of re-finding my groove now that there’s no boats to be rescued, but each day I find new ways to fit myself in to this surreal little island.

Feature image photo credit: Sonia Grace

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