OPINION: History, identity and borders are on the move with these refugees

OPINION: History, identity and borders are on the move with these refugees

by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, New North London Synagogue 

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

“They’ve been arriving day and night.” I was standing with Praksis, World Jewish Relief’s implementing partner in Greece, at the viewpoint of Katya on the island of Lesbos. Rescue teams watched the Turkish coast day and night. At the first sighting of a boat, they used Whatsapp to summon volunteers to the anticipated landing place. Using flags or bonfires, they directed the incoming refugees to the safest beaches.

The shore had been covered in discarded life jackets, but the non-governmental organisations had used some quiet days to tidy up. Nobody was sure why the traffic had slowed. Maybe it was the weather, or because NATO warships were now patrolling the straits. Greek coastguards had also begun intercepting the boats, rescuing passengers and taking them to the port in Mytilene.

The torn plastic sheets on the rocks puzzled me.

“Those were the dinghies,” I was told. “That’s all they’re made of. They’re meant for 15 people, but the smugglers pack in 50. Some boats drift for hours. The dinghies are punctured after landing.”

I found a life vest on the shore. A worker from IsraAID unpicked the seams and showed me: it was fake. It wasn’t filled with tough foam to make it float but contained water-absorbent material instead. Yet someone had sold it to an unsuspecting refugee for 20 euros; there are always those eager to profit from the misery of others.

But I was more struck by those there to help. “The Greek people show deep kindness,” Marie from Praksis explained. “The grandparents of many islanders were refugees themselves, fleeing Turkey across these very waters in the 1920s. They remember; they bring soup, and help the old and the children.”

At Moria, the nearby camp where those who make it over the sea are registered, there are numerous NGOs. “It’s usually packed with thousands of people. Buses arrive constantly.” There are different reception points according to nationality; interviews and fingerprinting are conducted by the EU’s border control. Only after registration can refugees proceed to Athens. Volunteers are ready with essentials; sleeping bags, blankets, backpacks, nappies, food. There are special areas for women, children, breast-feeding mothers. World Jewish Relief plays an essential supportive role.

A bus arrived. An older woman turned round and I caught her look of bewildered exhaustion. “To Athens,” said her husband, directing her back into the queue. The women seemed more tired; they had the care of the children. I remembered Primo Levi’s description of the mothers in Fossoli the night before they were deported by the Nazis, washing their children’s clothes, preparing food.

I joined some men waiting on a pile of rucksacks. “Afghanistan,” they explained, “Germany”. One of them added: “London, Arsenal, good,” before our common language ran out. I wondered whether there would be new lives, jobs and hope after these terrible journeys? Or would they still be waiting for a better future a decade later, wherever in an ambivalent Europe their travels ended?

Lesbos is beautiful. Ancient olive trees, rooted for centuries, stood in silent witness to this great uprooting of peoples.

Amidst one nearby olive grove was the cemetery where the drowned were buried. There we met Mustafa, an Islam scholar from northern Greece. When he learned there were dead still in fridges after 30 days, he took personal responsibility for burying them with dignity. Helped by the local authorities, he created this place of peace. Small marble slabs marked the graves.

One word appeared repeatedly, alongside the age and date of death: ‘agnostica – unknown’, ‘unknown child, aged three months’… Here lay the price of this flight from war and violence, undertaken for a better life for these very children.

We visited two houses for unaccompanied minors, run by Praksis and full of brightness and affection. “Some re-join their parents through family reunification. Some don’t want to leave; they can be children here, play football, study.”

A young boy – there are almost no girls – mimicked the staff and everyone laughed. An older teenager showed his paintings, excellent and sad. Marie promised more equipment. “It takes two weeks before they talk about what’s happened,” she explained. Astute kindness now accompanies these children all the time.

One’s heart aches to witness such things. More than people are on the move: history, identities, perhaps the very notion of borders. The outcomes are unclear. But one cannot be human and fail to help.

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