Reading a book about the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis may be furthest from your consideration right now. It’s enough to think about today’s dire pandemic without revisiting another year’s tragedy, when thousands fled President Assad’s dictatorship, traveling through Turkey and Greece, seeking asylum in Northern Europe. Who could ever forget that viral, gut-wrenching photo of a drowned toddler lying on the beach, looking as if he’s just sleeping, the horrific reality of the risks being taken, the need for the world to respond. I certainly felt myself pull back when the book arrived from publisher Biblioasis. Then I clicked on a link provided by the publicist to an essay by the author that was published in the Toronto Star. I heard a voice I wanted to continue reading.
On a phone call with his 19-year-old daughter, award-winning Canadian author Steven Heighton expressed an impulse to do something useful, “not just pipe dream and make principled noises; not just write about Mediterranean refugees in a novel, as I was then doing.” Heighton, of half Greek heritage on his mother’s side, overcame default reluctance and acted on the impulse. Three days later, duffel bag in hand, he finds himself walking isolated, winding roads on the Greek Island Lesvos in search of the Captain’s Kitchen, a restaurant that functions also as headquarters of a refugee aid foundation. Within hours of introducing himself to the foundation’s leader, Heighton is registering refugees arriving in Mithymna harbor.
And so it begins: day in and day out learning on his feet amidst managed chaos, a continuous arrival of rubber dinghies filled to capacity, thermal blankets/food/water handed out, lines to be managed onto buses or into clothing tents, a “mayhem of good intentions” going on among officious NGOs (non-governmental organizations) the Red Cross and other volunteer organizations and independents. Some days Heighton volunteers at Mithymna, others at the OXY Transit Camp where refugees are taken by bus to rest before going to the main camp in Moria, and from there to the island’s capital, Mytilene, to take a ferry to mainland Greece.
Over the next month, I and the other volunteers will repeatedly wake to find ourselves entirely unqualified but forced to act.
There is no predictable arrival either in timing or human condition, as refugees land day and night in overcrowded rubber dinghies at the mercy of human smugglers: exhaustion, overexposure, hypothermia, trauma are planned for; drownings are feared. And yet, the one thing that can be predicted is the patience of the refugees, relieved they made it to shore safely.
Heighton organizes his experience in three sections: Initiation (his beginning days); Intermission (the European Union/Turkish blockade of refugees leaving Turkey’s coast); and Intensification (the overcrowding of the island as European borders close). He includes black-and-white photos taken by German photographer Neal McQueen. The photos capture a mood of uncertainty, risk and waiting. Unfortunately, they lack captions. Most are self-explanatory, but others left me wondering and assuming, who and what?
The narrative’s present tense creates a sense of immediacy. This “happening now” atmosphere elevates the trivial to significance, everyday things seen and heard telling the story and empowering it with harsh contrasts: scenic olive groves and island sunsets; beached boat wrecks; tired, heroic, long-time volunteers chain-smoking their hand-rolled cigarettes; locked toilets on the buses to the transit camps; refugee children kicking a soccer ball; island residents suffering from their country’s economic crisis, the loss of tourists; Heighton asking a toothless busker the meaning of a word; two determined big men carrying a generator on a little scooter. One day, Heighton learns many of the flotation vests, sold to the refugees by the smugglers for 10 euros each, are stuffed with cardboard, sawdust, and bubble wrap.
Another dense cluster of passengers is gliding beachward but this time their flimsy vessel is not just low in the water but beneath it. Sixty disembodied heads-and-torsos, men, women, children, approach as if they are seated on the top deck of a U-boat. Instead of calling out excitedly, encouragingly, we volunteers simply stare.
Many volunteers share time with Heighton and yet he hardly gets to know them by the nature of the daily turbulent needs and fluid team availability. He also does not delve into the lives of refugees — he doesn’t speak Arabic — and yet, times occur when a refugee speaks English, such as one of two bankers from Damascus in their wrinkled blazers and designer jeans who received draft notices for Assad’s army, grabbed their money and fled, walking away from all their possessions, the duty to serve “a death sentence.”
As Heighton, by his impromptu arrival, experiences a world crisis unfolding far from his protected home life, so do we through his refreshing style and humble tone, not traumatized as with the photo of the toddler, rather indelibly knowledged and moved. On an introductory page, before the journey begins, Heighton breaks down the Greek word for refugee as “to exist on an ever-vanishing cusp or border, the forward-moving edge of the raft-in-time.” He then writes:
This moment-by-moment limbo is everyone’s dilemma (the past is dead, the future unborn, unguaranteed) but only the homeless fully inhabit it.
Regarding Heighton’s essay in the Star that I mentioned earlier, it’s not about his book but “the global pause” caused by the pandemic. The title is “On hope and embracing the smallest life you can love.” What I like about this discerning, observant author is that he speaks to a meaningful place in life. It’s what came through to me in his essay and then in his book, in which, in the Afterword, he asks if a meaningful place can be found between hopelessness and hope “where useful, urgent action is possible.” Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos is a book you won’t forget.
Correction: Photos in the book were taken by Neal McQueen and not Jack Marvin, as originally stated. Neil McQueen inspired the book’s Jack Marvin character, also a photographer.