I’m skipping a day because last night was crazy and I want to talk about it. Anna and I went to Moria for the night shift after a full day at Pikpa. We caught a ride from Damas, the local Syrian restaurant, with another volunteer and got to Moria for 01:00. There’s a coordination meeting at the beginning of each shift, and we were told that the last ferry for four days would be leaving at 06:45 the next morning.
Greece is currently on general strike. All the shops are closed, no one is working anywhere. That includes bus drivers, gas stations, and taxi services. The ferries are participating in the general strike, which will last for two days, but they will continue their strike for two more days after that. “We have to get people on that ferry,” said Cyril, one of the evening shift coordinators. “We will have volunteers with cars to take them to the port. If we do not have enough cars then I’m afraid we must tell them to walk.”
It’s a two and a half hour walk from Moria to the port, but if the refugees missed this ferry then they would be stuck on the island for a minimum of four days. Of course, just because the ferries go on strike doesn’t mean the smugglers stop sending people over. Even when the weather is bad we usually get a few boats. That’s fifty to five hundred people a day, and most of them wind up at Moria. It’s not a huge camp, and four days of buildup would strain resources even among the resourceful volunteers of Better Days for Moria. We organized a convoy of volunteers from all over the island to come to Moria at 04:00 and shuttle people down the hill and along the coast to the port.
Most of the people going to the ferry from Moria would come from inside the compound where independent volunteers are not allowed, so we prepared to meet them as they exited the gates. We would be there with water bottles, hot chocolate, and information about where they had to go and which tickets to buy. We would tell them to buy both a ferry ticket and a bus ticket to Macedonia, because all of the bus stations in Athens would be closed for the strike, and they ran the risk of getting stuck in Athens.
Anna and I made hygiene packs for an hour or so while we waited for the rush to start. We put toothpaste, soap, shampoo, hand lotion, a razor, and a toothbrush into little plastic bags to hand out. Around us, longer-term Moria volunteers discussed the case of a small family traveling together in a desperate situation. Two young women, one pregnant, two babies, one man, and a teenage boy had been robbed at gunpoint in Turkey and lost all their money. They could not pay for the ferry, and even if they could, they had no money to continue their journey through Europe.
The short term problem was solved in minutes. Remy did a quick fundraising round of the volunteers, and within fifteen minutes he had enough for all five ferry tickets. The question then became, once they were in Athens, again penniless and now with no helpful, and generous volunteers to give them money, what would they do? Was it better to stay in Moria until they could raise money somehow, or have their family send them something from overseas? Anna and I suggested that they might be able to stay in Pikpa until something could be worked out, especially since one of the women was pregnant. I don’t know how or if the issue was resolved, because then it was four o’clock, and time to start shuttling people to the port.
Anna, Remy, and I wheeled two barrows down to the Syrian Gate, one filled with hot chocolate and one with water. We had bags filled with tiny hats and gloves in case we needed to hand them out to children. Then we waited.
A few cars arrived, and we told them to wait. We thanked them for coming at this ungodly hour of the morning, and gave them hot chocolate. One family came down the hill slowly, three adults, each carrying a baby, and several small children. None of them had hats or gloves. I rustled through the bag to find cute hats for little girls, and put fluffy white mittens on a baby. Then it was “Yallah, yallah,” and soft, “Thank you, thank you,” from the mothers, and we bundled them into a large car.
Then a taxi drove up, despite the strike. Then another, and another. More of our volunteer cars arrived, and we ushered several more little family groups through the gate. Some had time to stand and drink some hot chocolate, but for some I ran after them and curled small fingers around balled-up gloves, or tucked child-sized hats into a mother’s purse. When I could I put the hats on the kids myself. I said, “Habibi, habibi,” and pointed to my hands or patted their heads to ask if they needed something warm. Sometimes they smiled, sometimes they just stood and let me move them around, too tired or overwhelmed to do anything.
Then the taxi drivers got angry. “You’re taking our business!” they said, and when we tried to calm them down they only shouted louder. One Greek woman from Praksis began arguing back in rapid Greek, trying to get them to back off and calm down, but the situation escalated. By the time there were five large, angry taxi drivers shouting and gesticulating at us the police came out of the compound and made everyone back off. We agreed to send people in taxis if they were available.
In the meantime, we started a minor radio campaign to get people to leave the compound by the other gate, where we had a convoy of volunteer cars waiting to give people rides. We moved the hot chocolate and water. The taxi drivers stayed where they were, engines rumbling, and we all did very small victory dances.
The next two hours were a slow, stressful endurance test. We knew that the ferry was supposed to leave at 06:45, but we didn’t know how long they would sell tickets. We didn’t know how many tickets were left, or how many people were in the compound. We kept sending people along, but it wasn’t many. Where were the nine hundred we expected? We tried to contact the aid workers inside and were told they had not been waking people up. Then two multilingual girls from the organization I Am You showed up.
They were allowed inside the compound, so they took a radio and started waking up families. They saw many people waiting to register, and were told that Frontex had informed the refugees to come back at eight. It was now almost six, and we started running up the hill to help carry bags whenever we saw a family emerge. “Yallah, yallah, now,” we said. They were running out of time. I didn’t bother handing out hot chocolate. I shoved hats and gloves into bags if I had time, pushed families into cars together, and hoped there were still tickets.
The taxi drivers came back. This time they were spitting mad, and drove up so fast they almost hit two people. A family was getting into the car and the taxi driver pulled one man out by his arm. “This is not allowed! You take my business! I pay my taxes, I have wife and children to feed! I will call police, this is not allowed!” He got right up in our faces.
“You told us you would be on strike,” said Cyril, the most levelheaded man I have ever met, “We checked with the taxi companies and they said no taxis, so we organized lifts for these people. They need to go now.”
“Look at me! I am not on strike! They come in my taxi! We fight, you want fight?”
At this point the man he had grabbed started pushing his family into one of our cars, walked up to the taxi driver, and said in passable English, “Not with you. No drive with you.” Then he turned in the most dismissive way I have ever had the privilege to see, and got into the volunteer car. They drove off before anything else could happen.
It took twenty minutes to make the taxi driver calm down enough to get back in his car. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that most of the taxis will only allow four people in, and many families had twice that. Keeping people together is a huge priority for us, so we were not willing to split families into two taxis. The only time it almost happened accidentally the young man said, “Brother, brother, no, no!” and pointed frantically at his brother, who had almost disappeared with a different car. We managed to squeeze him in, and they stayed together.
By 06:20 we got the news that there were only fifteen tickets left. We had only sent, at a generous guess, two hundred people to the port. No one else looked like they were coming. We packed up and went back to camp, where we all started to slowly crash. I had some delicious cinnamon tea from the 24-hour tea tent, then some spicy bean soup from Skipchen. Dawn lightened the horizon to a pale grey, and tents appeared like ghosts on the hill between the olive trees. Suddenly, there was nothing to do. Anna and I sat on benches made from food crates and life jackets and drank our soup. A bus arrived, but they went straight to the Syrian gate and bypassed us. We loaded a few cars full of blankets and fruit to send down to the port in case people were cold or hungry. Eventually our shift ended and we went home.