My five weeks volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos had felt more like five months; to borrow from Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In the thick of a humanitarian crisis you bond quickly with people and see extraordinary things. But I don’t mind confessing, I was tired. The bigotry, violence, and corruption I’d been confronted with, not to mention the bone-deep apathy of many senior aid workers, had worn me down. And the Nameless had sunk that week. I was struggling to stay focused on the extraordinary.
The silhouettes of the refugees lined the deck of the ferry in the soft evening light. As I stared up at the towering ship, it felt like an early scene from Titanic: all smiles and waves and anticipation for the start of a new life in a new world. The big secret, of course, is that for many of them there is no new world—at least, not like the one they imagine, the image of freedom and equality we project for the people of the global South. But it’s hard to be the one to tell them that, after everything they’ve been through to get on that ferry to Athens.
Imagine leaving whatever’s left of your home, saying goodbye to everyone you ever knew; fleeing across a war-torn country to the mass camps in Lebanon, tent cities of squalor that stretch as far as the eye can see; the agonizing wait in Turkey, being spat at in the street; risking the deadly Aegean crossing at night, rather than be spotted by masked men who at best will send you back and at worst, sink you right there in the sea; being churned through Lesvos’ registration system, the endless queuing in heat, hunger, and the cold, and then finally, finally, the ferry to Athens.
Welcome to Sparta
I don’t know why I thought the ferry would be different from the camps, but it wasn’t. They are run like floating apartheid states. Families that could afford one got a cushioned seat to sleep on with their children and the floor of one large hall was reserved for women and children, but many were either crowded out or too afraid or resentful of the staff to go inside, so they slept on deck in the biting wind. From what I saw, one volunteer (me), about eight Greeks and four tourists populated the entire ‘VIP section’ of this colossal cruise liner.
Every time someone tried to leave the ‘refugee hall’, the door guard would put a hand in his face. Sometimes he’d ask to see their ticket, conjuring images of the riot police back at the camp screaming “NO! GO!” in peoples’ faces; but often they didn’t ask anything at all. I had to negotiate permission for them to charge their phones for five minutes in the socket by my chair. For some it was their first chance to tell their families they’d survived the crossing.
I got a pretty clear sense of the situation the moment I boarded, handing my ticket over to one of two Greek attendants at the door. He complained this was too many people for them to manage alone. I agreed, and hurriedly took it back from him, conscious of the hundreds of people still waiting behind me. I was about to pick up my bags when the other guard, a soft-spoken Greek in his early-twenties, flashed me a smile. “It’s like Sparta!” he said proudly. I paused. “It’s too big a challenge for just two of you,” I agreed, “but it’s not like Sparta. The Spartans were fighting other soldiers, these are civilians.” I deliberately made no gesture towards them, as though the racism of Greece’s far-right were some sort of secret that could be kept; like the refugees didn’t know it better than me by now, after coming through Camp Moria.
“But they’re black,” he said flatly. My jaw practically hit the deck but he kept talking. “So they’re like soldiers. It’s a black army.”
“Look, how many women and children you can see.” I was getting angry now. I had no patience left for this. “This is not the war,” I snapped. “You ask these people about war. They can tell you some stories, it destroyed their homes and killed their families, that’s war!” His colleague was between us now, a hand on each of our shoulders, and I let him shepherd me towards the escalator. I wish I’d gotten the guy’s name, but the reality is if you complained about every individual that treats refugees like animals, you’d never be off the phone.
The floating camp
When I went to collect the key to my cabin, a staff member escorted me to the room and when he opened the door, we found two young Afghan mothers with two babies and grandma sitting cross-legged on the floor. They rushed to cover their hair, and so began a quite distressing exchange. They spoke Dari, he spoke Greek, and I speak barely any of either but somehow managed to get him out of the room and them to stay.
Turns out one of them had paid for ‘cabin ticket’ and the rest had to be kicked out, not because anyone else had booked the beds but because the sacred principle of private property is worth making an infant and an old lady sleep on the floor. So important was this principle that I, a woman travelling alone on a ship full of men, would not be allowed to keep the key to lock my own door.
I protested, and was taken to the Chief of Staff, who did his best to horrify me with tales of these barbarians who didn’t know how to queue properly (sure they do, they’ve just been at it for weeks in the camps,) peed on the toilet floor (there’s always one…) and once tried to light a fire in a cabin (once during freshers week at my uni, a British law student put plastic in the microwave. This is not a race thing.) I kept my cool this time. I sympathised. I said they were just changing the babies and then I’d get rid of them myself. And then I stole the key.
It was the small victory I needed to put a smile back on my face. On the way back I stopped by the café to pick us up some well-earned chocolate cake and even helped the café staff form a line by teaching them how to say it in Arabic (while amusing all the customers with my camp impressions) and encouraging them to smile. I told them what the lines had been like at Moria and they were horrified. I think it put the whole thing into perspective for them.
It’s amazing how much you can communicate when you have cake. Within fifteen minutes I had them smiling and laughing instead of hiding in the toilet. I showed them the key, we established that I could lock them in and would come back later to sleep. I was as grateful to them as they were to me, for giving me the chance to help put a proper roof over someone’s head after days of handing out bin bags to mothers and babies at Moria in the pouring rain. It was like coming back to life.
That gave me the energy to go and distribute some takeaway food from the ship restaurant where the waiter, to his credit, clearly cottoned onto my intentions and gave me obscenely large portions of everything. I emerged on deck to distribute it to some of the families sleeping outside, and recognised Abdul Majid, a Syrian man I’d been speaking to earlier. He spoke perfect English and was as keen to tell his story as I always am to listen.
The night the Nameless went down I had been desperate for a good story. A single human experience I could witness and record that offered hope. That night there was only grief. But my story of hope had finally found me.
The tale of the United Ba’alam
“We were strangers in Turkey but now we are a family,” Abdul Majid began. “We will stay together, protect each other, feed each other. We are brothers and sisters now. This is above politics.”
The 35 Syrians met on a dinghy (‘ba’alam’) from Turkey to Lesvos. 32 are Muslim, three Christian. Five are women and five are children. Some were pro-government soldiers; others were anti-government protesters.
“It’s the same, like you say happened in Greece,” Anas told me in hushed tones. His family was back in Turkey, waiting for a chance to come across safely. “When a politician is coming with media, they change everything, make the camps look nice. This is the system they have to hide the situation from the European people.” The daily reality they reported was worlds away from what the public has seen: hunger, deprivation, and exploitation, even organ trafficking. “I knew one guy, he was injured and got ‘medical treatment’ in the camp. Then when he got to Europe he was still having problems, so he went to another hospital and they told him: ‘do you know you only have one kidney?’”
With their $1,000 tickets from the smugglers, they were “packed like pickles” in the back of a truck and taken to Izmir, near the coast. “We could not move, but there was a hole for air,” Abdul said comfortingly. “It wasn’t like that freezer truck with the dead people. Our smugglers were actually quite good. They said they’d only put 35 of us in a boat and not send us out in bad weather. ‘We don’t send people out to die, it’s bad for business,’ is what they said. So, we were lucky.”
The United Ba’alam crossing from Turkey to Lesvos
My companions grimaced as they recalled their painfully long wait on a Turkish beach for the chance to set off. They had to go at night, for fear of being stopped, beaten, or even drowned by the masked men that patrol this stretch of the Aegean, both in Greek and Turkish waters. The first night, the water was too rough to risk a crossing. On the second, they had gotten the boat into the water when someone spotted the Turkish coast guard. Terrified, the women and children scrambled out while the men lifted the boat above their heads and ran for the treeline. They escaped, and on the third night made it to sea—but some way into Greek waters, the boat started to slow.
Abdul called the Greek coast guard and asked for a rescue, but the man who answered was dismissive: the weather was calm. Abdul insisted the boat wasn’t safe, that it was taking on water and the children were frightened.
There was a pause. “If it’s not safe, why did you get on the boat?”
“Please sir, we are from Syria!”
The coastguard told him they should have stayed in Turkey and asked for their location, but became angry when Abdul tried to ascertain it in Arabic. He was ordered to speak English, turn on the GPS, and give his full name. Frightened now, Abdul hung up and explained to his fellow passengers he did not think help would come.
It was then, Abdul told me, that they realized they would have to rely on each other and organize themselves if they were going to make it safely to Greece and beyond. So they went from being 35 strangers to a United Ba’alam.
Looking back on Syria
Abdul and Bassel were sitting side by side as we talked. “Here we are great friends,” they agreed. “But at home, we would be trying to kill each other.”
Abdul is a Sunni Muslim from Daraa, which remains under military control despite heavy resistance from the Free Syrian Army. Though he never fired a weapon, Abdul was a pro-democracy protester and supported the Free Syrian Army. “They are not all good, though,” he admitted. “The problem is there are people on all sides who want this war.”
Bassel is from Bloudan, an isolated Christian town. He fought in the army and supports Assad, but became disillusioned during his service. He remembers bitterly how the government supplied his village with weapons they said they would need and then, having promised to stay, pulled out of the village, leaving the Christians to fend for themselves in a conflict made inevitable by what looked from the outside like Christian aggression. A devout Christian himself, he also blames the West’s wars and Islamophobic media for the growth of Islamic State. “It gives the Christian world a bad name,” he said desperately, “like we haven’t moved on since the Crusades. They tell such lies about Islam; it drives people to violence.”
“There are enough weapons in Syria for all the world to fight,” Abdul told me.
“I’ve seen the weapons warehouses,” Bassel murmured. “You cannot see the end of them. It’s like a tsunami.”
Everyone agreed that cracking down on the private arms industry was crucial to ending the war. They reported personally witnessing British, French and Americans selling weapons to both sides of the conflict and also to Islamic State militants: an ugly reality that is just now making its way into media reports of an $18bn Middle Eastern arms race the USA looks set to win.
Abdul holds Assad and foreign economic interests responsible for stoking bitter sectarianism in a nation where, for centuries, different ethnic and religious groups lived side by side in relative harmony. “The West doesn’t hate Assad as much as they pretend, he has been a puppet for them,” he speculated. “They always say they hate their dictator when they want to break the country apart. Just like Saddam and Gaddafi.”
When it came to the question of Western intervention, there was heated but respectful debate between the pro and anti-government crew. Ultimately though, they all agreed that military intervention by foreign nations was the problem, not the solution.
“Western bombing will destroy the entire country, like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Anas warned. “Look how many refugees are fleeing with us from those countries now, ten years after Western liberation!”
Anas, Abdul and Bassel all agreed: “NATO’s just after the petrol, same as always, and Russia wants to stop the gas pipe… They don’t care what happens to the people.” Everyone recognized that ultimately, the conflict would require political compromise, but its chances were dimmed by the sheer number of competing international forces at work now.
The youngest of the group, Salem, had been silently listening to the debate. Abdul told me that Salem had left his wife and children at home in Damascus for the moment because, in the absence of safe passage to Greece, they were too afraid of “the death boats.”
Now, he spoke. “All the world hates Syrians. Europe just needs us to die, to run from our country and die in the sea if we don’t die on the land before we get there.”
Those words stung. I felt ashamed of my country, that we could project such inhumanity. I told him this wasn’t true of the European public, but that it was in the interests of those in power to divide and rule in Europe—just like in Syria. What, then, was the solution, he wanted to know? I told him I believed that if that the media did a better job of educating the public, and people understood who you are, what you’ve suffered, and what you hope for, progressive political change might follow.
He looked disdainful, and told me that foreign coverage “bears no resemblance” to what is actually going on at home; his friends nodded their agreement.
“What good is the media? Maybe you are different, but the ones we see on international TV, they explain nothing, they ask no questions, bring no hope, give us no power as a people. They’re just counting the punches as Syria is beaten to death.”
I remembered the media’s obsessive counting of the “migrant dead” after the Nameless went down, and I could see where he was coming from. It might be at odds with the free market model, but reporters have a moral obligation to convey nuance, not bulldoze it; to tell the stories that matter instead of sensationalizing the ones that don’t; and to give people a chance to speak for themselves in more than sound bites.
It means recognising heroism and courage where we find it, not reducing a whole nation to infighting victims. It means telling and learning from stories like the United Ba’alam.
When I described my own frustrations as a human rights and peace activist in Britain, Salem’s tone changed again. He hoped, he said, that I would not lose faith. “Not when I meet people like you guys,” I said. I was so moved that this man, pushed to cynicism by such extraordinary suffering, was now able to give me that gift.
“This is how all people should be,” Abdul smiled. “See now, how we are sitting and talking together. This is what Syria needs to do. This is what East and West needs to do. It is the only thing that gives any of us hope one day to go home to a land free and peaceful and shared by all.”
Abdul Majid is right. Those 35 strangers cast adrift and alone in a great, dark sea overcame their differences and found solidarity. From one end of Europe to another, they stayed united and survived. And from the broken aid system on Lesvos to the halls of power in Fortress Europe and at the Pentagon, we all have much to learn from the United Ba’alam.
The next day, as I hauled my sleep-deprived body up for the coffee necessary to power me off the boat, I met Christos, an old Greek man from the island of Chios who spoke about six words in English. “Refugee helper?” he asked. I nodded. He squinted at my Greece Solidarity Campaign badge—which reads ‘solidarity’ in Greek—and became irrepressibly enthusiastic.
He met my eye and raised one hand. “Greece,” he said. He raised the other. “Syria.” He put his hands together and said: “Same.”
Then he swept his hands across the crowded deck. “Love, love, love!” he sang.
The United Ba’alam crew made it to Germany, where most reunited with family. Eight members continued on to Norway, where Bassel and one other man will apply for asylum. The remaining six returned to Sweden, where all but one chose to register. Now that he has seen his crew safely to their final destinations, Captain Abdul Majid is returning to Germany to meet his brother and seek asylum there, and hopes one day to bring his wife and children. His elderly parents, he says, “will die before they leave Syria.”
Originally written for The Leap