Tor Hogstad, a clinical psychologist from Norway, was expecting to devote at least half his time in Greece to doing nothing this week.
He had signed up for a three-day psychology seminar on the island of Lesvos, and for the rest of the week he had booked a room at the island’s Sunrise Resort Hotel, whose website invites its guests to “let the days be whiled away by the swimming pool.” Then, on the day of his arrival, Hogstad saw that first weird boat landing on the beach outside his window. Several others followed, each one consisting of little more than a pair of rubber tubes attached to a crude motor, and all of them overflowing with about 40 migrants – elderly women, children and babies among them.
“I had to do something,” says Hogstad, who is 49, but looks much younger in a wiry, sharp-featured way. “It was just not possible to sit back on your ass and enjoy the pool when you see those boats coming in.”
Well, not quite impossible. The island of Lesvos, a prime tourist destination with about 85,000 permanent residents, is currently hosting more than 10,000 stranded migrants, most of them escaping war zones in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Their arrival in Greece over the last few weeks has made the island a hotspot in Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis – and has caused some of the most peculiar culture clashes Lesvos has ever seen. Lounging in the sun with a cool drink, a well-heeled European might look up from a romance novel to see a black dinghy come ashore not twenty feet away, carrying a cargo of some of the most desperate-looking human beings imaginable.
Reaching land, these interlopers spring from their vessel and tear off their life vests. They embrace and cry with relief, sometimes prostrating themselves in prayer or hilarity on the first scrap of beach they feel beneath their feet. Even before they dry themselves or ask where exactly they have landed, the Syrians are particularly prone to unwrapping the layers of waterproof tape and plastic from their smartphones so they can pose for selfies in front of the boat that has brought them to Europe.
The holiday-makers react to this spectacle in different ways. Some watch in awe and smile in greeting at the foreigners. Most do their best to ignore the breach in their tranquility. But a few volunteers have stepped in to help in ways that Greek authorities have not. Dozens of times a day, they stand on the shore and wave the incoming refugees away from sharp rocks that could puncture and sink their boats, and then they welcome them on the beaches with water, smiles and sandwiches.
For the last seven months, Eric and Philippa Kempson, a middle-aged couple from Windsor, England, have been patrolling the northern shore of Lesvos this way in their hatchback, using a pair of binoculars to spot the boats crossing over from Turkey. In the last few days, they say the number of migrants has broken all records.
One evening this week around sundown, Eric said, a ragged flotilla of 21 overcrowded boats came in all at once on a two-mile stretch of the coast, rendering hopeless any attempt to guide them all safely to shore. “That was a rough day,” says Eric, who leaves most of the talking to his wife. “We already said in May that we can’t take anymore,” Philippa adds. “Now it’s September, and it’s just not going to stop.”
To their relief, likeminded souls have come to help this summer from various parts of Europe – Danes, Dutchmen, Germans – some of them using their vacation time to go on patrols. On Friday morning, a handful of them, led by the Kempsons, gathered at a spot on the beach near the seaside town of Panselinos where they figured the next boat would land.
“Eric can sense them coming,” one of his team members said. And sure enough, a blob came into view at the edge of the water, followed by the nasal whine of a motor and, finally, hoots of joy.
They were Syrians, packed tight and hanging over the sides like octopuses drying in the sun. The eldest, who looked about 90, had to be carried out of the boat and placed on a stone to rest. She and the other women were then invited to the volunteers’ cars and driven to the edge of the nearest town. Before the first car set out, Amjad Shakhshir, a 20-year-old from the Syrian city of Hama, ran up to the rear window, where his mother Sawsan was sitting, and urgently asked her for something in Arabic. Digging in her purse, she produced a selfie stick and handed it to her son through the window.
“It’s a Syrian thing,” Philippa Kempson remarked when they were gone. “The Afghans think of survival. The Syrians come and first thing they ask is to charge their phones and start taking selfies.” Her opinion on this matter was that the Syrians arriving in Europe are mostly from the middle class, savvy and cosmopolitan.
“Now it’s all Damascus,” she said. “We have days when all the boats, all of them, are full of people from Damascus.” Without taking his eyes from the binoculars, Eric added quietly, “Damascus is falling.”
Thousands of the Syrian capital’s young men—university students, businessmen, their families—are now walking from the beaches of Lesvos to its main port, where they wait for days for ferries to take them to Athens to continue their exodus.
Because Greece has taken a harsh approach to enforcing its laws against human trafficking, taxis and public buses are not allowed to give migrants a ride. Complaints from the locals have also forced the volunteers to stop driving the migrants into the town of Molyvos. They take them only as far as the bus stop at the edge of town. From there the migrants spend a day or two walking the length of the island in the blazing sun, hugging the roadsides and laying down to sleep on the bare asphalt at night when they are exhausted.
Hogstad, the Norwegian, has spent most of his holiday giving lifts to as many as he can manage. He and two of his colleagues from the seminar rented three vans earlier this week, each one with room for nine passengers, and began driving around the coast picking up migrants on the side of the road. “We take the women and children mostly,” Hogstad says. “The elderly people.”
A couple of days ago, when one of their vans packed with migrants pulled into a gas station to refuel, the attendant grabbed the keys from the ignition and, wagging his finger, called the police and the rental company to complain. “He said it’s illegal to do this,” Hogstad says. “We aren’t allowed to help them.” The rental company called that day to demand the van back, leaving the Norwegians with only two of the vehicles, which they drive around in shifts.
Tina Cella has observed this strange traffic from her vegetable stand on the side of the road, where she sells everything she and her husband grow on their small farm. “What do I think of it? It’s war,” she said, looking over at the Kempsons and their crew helping another boat full of migrants come ashore. “I understand them.”
Twelve years ago, the Cellas moved to Lesvos from Albania, escaping the effects of the war that swept through that country in 1999. “I know they don’t like it,” she said, grimacing, of the locals. “They also don’t want us here,” she added, looking over at her 6-year-old daughter Margarita, who was born on the island. “But there is one God. Let Him judge.”