‘I first realized the full extent of the refugee crisis when I flew home from Athens to my family on Lesbos for the 2015 Christmas holiday. As the plane approached the island, I looked out of the window and saw that the entire coastline was orange. Thousands of orange life jackets were lining the beaches, and each and every one had been worn by someone who had fled their country to escape violence and persecution. This realization really hit home.
I followed the Master’s degree programme in International Rights Law in Groningen from 2019 to the spring of 2020, and was a research assistant for a project about anti-discrimination legislation. I had always wanted to be a lawyer. My father was a lawyer, and so was my sister. They both practised private law. They showed me how rewarding it is to use the law to help people. Human rights advocacy is not an obvious choice in Greece. It isn’t sexy, and the Greek political climate doesn’t help. At first, people cooked for the children, and the locals took in refugees and looked after them. But this has made way for racism and aggression. The island has become hugely polarized. It makes me angry to think that people don’t see each other as people, but as a nuisance.
My girlfriend Markella (25) and I had a good time in Groningen, we lived close to the UMCG. Markella is Greek too, she came with me to Groningen. She taught a reception class at an international school. I had just finished my Master’s degree when the pandemic reared its ugly head. We flew back to Lesbos, found a place to live and both found a job. Markella now works as a reception teacher in a refugee camp, and I’m currently working as legal aid coordinator for a small organization that helps refugees. One of my happiest moments was when, after helping a young Afghan couple to apply for an asylum permit, they came to tell me that it had been granted and that they were now safe.
This can be very demanding. It’s not easy to forget some of the stories that you hear. There is a lot of violence towards aid workers. The recent fire in the Moria camp and the violent interventions haven’t done anything to make the work any safer. Luckily, I haven’t experienced anything like that. I go on long walks along the coast with my dog Simoun (which means ‘sandstorm’ in Arabic). Sea and walking calm my mind.
When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to leave Lesbos. It’s a small island, a long way from Athens. The only tourists were hikers, and nothing ever happened. I went to university in Athens and didn’t think that I would ever come back, except for family visits. And now I’m living here again - who’d have thought it!
Lesbos has changed so much. For the good, too. The culture is much more international, society seems to be more open-minded and there are some great initiatives. I don’t think that it helps to only focus on the negative things. To me, Lesbos is livelier and better than when I was a teenager. I’ll probably stay here, but I wouldn’t totally rule out returning to the Netherlands!’
Text: Sara Plat
Source: Broerstraat 5
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