A Tale of Two Toilets

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A year ago, my partner and I began hearing about refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesvos, especially along the north coast closest to Molyvos, the village we have visited twice a year for many years. We know the local volunteers who organized the first relief effort, and ourselves were willing draftees into the cause once we arrived in May: making sandwiches, passing out food, handing out hats—and shedding tears. Because it is impossible not to shed tears for the refugees.

What started as a trickle of two or three rafts a week soon became double that a day, then double again and again. By the end of the summer, routinely over 3,000 refugees landed daily. Most of them never really came through the village but skirted it. Still, a predictable schism developed between the villagers who wanted to help them and those who feared that any help at all would encourage more refugees to come.

Toilets became emblematic of this great divide.

The debate over how to help the refugees distilled itself into whether or not to create a proper transit spot where they could find some shade, toilets and showers; and have a place to rest—perhaps as long as overnight—before starting their forced 70-kilometer march to the island’s capital. The naysayers wanted nothing that smacked of a camp, and a transit spot did. As it turned out, even a portable john was too much of a Pandora’s box.

I had started collected donations to help the refugees, initially for food. In June, after local volunteers received approval to install toilets, I paid for two portable johns. They were only available in bright red, and we painted them green, thinking it might mollify some of the naysayers. It was a waste of paint. Three different spots were picked for the toilets to be hooked up, and every time the local Tourist Board managed stop it.

Of course, two toilets would hardly suffice for the many tens of thousands of refugees who would eventually pass Molyvos, but they would have been two more than the zero toilets provided through the long, hot and chaotic summer. (Tourists, fortunately, weren’t bothered—a note on that below). While the number of refugees soared, the Greek authorities were hopelessly overwhelmed, the international NGOs excruciatingly slow in responding, and the European Union more interested in blaming yet another problem on Greece rather than aiding her.

Early in the year, when the (heroic) Greek Coast Guard’s rescues of refugees at sea became regular occurrences, volunteers in Molyvos organized themselves to provide emergency relief—food, water, dry clothes. Over the months, those nascent efforts expanded and coalesced into the Starfish Foundation. By September, the foundation had a team of long-term foreign volunteers working with it.

When Starfish received a quiet nod from a private landowner, it solved a lot of problems in one fell swoop by creating a transit spot—Oxy Camp—before anyone had the wherewithal to stop it. Like an old-fashioned barn raiser, in one day tarps were strung up, the two toilets installed, and hundreds of refugees stranded on the road relocated to it.

Creating the transit camp solved some immediate problems, and it created an opportunity for local volunteers and international NGOs to find ways to work together. At Oxy Camp, which operated through the end of the year, UNHCR eventually donated tents that provided real shelter, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) assisted in transporting refugees to the island’s capital.

Throughout the fall, the plan was for the IRC to establish a transit spot on the north coast, which it finished a couple of months ago. So now, Oxy Camp has closed and the Starfish Foundation is assisting at the new camp. (It is responsible for clothes distribution.) It also continues to help all the refugees brought into Molyvos harbor, which are increasing in number as the Coast Guard and other services try to collect people off the overcrowded rafts rather than risk their capsizing.

Winter isn’t over, and the number of refugees is already several times what it was at this time last year. Also, as countries north of Greece close their borders, they are getting trapped all the way back up the line, meaning more refugees will stay longer on the island. In every respect, the needs continue to be staggering. Fortunately, there are more organizations trying to help now, and other worthwhile private efforts in addition to Starfish Foundation. Even so, the resources they have pale compared to the plight of so many people.

The refugees, of course, are the real losers in the situation. The devastation and risks they have fled are so staggering that, were it not for videos, it would be impossible to believe their descriptions. But the Greeks are losers, too. On Lesvos at least, their worst fear is coming true: because of the refugee crisis, tourism to the island will crash and burn. In Molyvos, hotel bookings for the summer are down about 70 percent, and the majority of the weekly charter flights to the island have cancelled.

It’s a shame for many reasons. The refugees aren’t loitering in the village, pulling guilt trips on wealthy tourists. You can still drink your ouzo and dance your syrtaki and ‘be Zorba’ without their interference. They are picked up, taken to the IRC transit camp, and whisked away—out of sight, and as out of mind as you want. Or if you want, you can glimpse an historical event in the unfolding, if only with a drive-by of one of the camps. The facts are: ferry boat operators say that stealing aboard their boats is way down when it comes to refugees versus usual passengers; and, to my knowledge, on the island there has not been a single incident of assault, rape or robbery connected to them.

So support the refugees by giving yourself a Greek holiday! (I have lodging and restaurant recommendations for anyone who asks.) On the heels of a national economic meltdown, poor Lesvos did not need to feel the brunt of a modern-day Exodus. It’s such a great country, island, and village. Go visit!

I want to thank everyone who donated money through me to aid the refugees. Together, we made a small difference in thousands of peoples lives, brought smiles to a lot of their beleaguered faces, and helped build local organizational capacity as well. We bought a lot of food and water, and some medicines and nursing services. We fireproofed the kitchen at PIKPA, the camp for the most vulnerable refugees. We contributed small food stipends for long-term volunteers. We paid for a few dozen buses to transport families to the island’s capital. We also bought 135 pairs of shoes, 1,550 insulated beanies for children, 1,380 sweatpants, 8,000 rain ponchos, 13,000 caps—and of course, two toilets.

If you want to donate to assist the refugees, here is a link to the Starfish Foundation.

If you want to see good photographs documenting the refugee situation, please visit Michael Honegger’s portfolio ‘Human Tide’ at: www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com.