I’m sitting at 7 Gates in Lakki, Leros for probably the last time for a long time. I thought this before, in August, of course; however, being just one ferry ride away this whole time, it doesn’t seem completely inconceivable that I find myself in this chair once again. This cafe has become one of the places in the world that I think of the most. It’s an interesting blend of feeling like I’m home and feeling like I’m on an adventure at the same time. It’s quirky and perfect.
I really didn’t think I would be back to this place during this stint in Greece, but when I was making plans for my final weekend in Greece last week, someone casually mentioned to me if I would be traveling back to Leros. The idea hadn’t crossed my mind, but once it had, I couldn’t let it go. The next thing I knew, I had lesson plans written out for Monday and Tuesday for all of my English classes, and was boarding the overnight ferry on Friday to make it to Leros by Saturday morning.
I set myself up with a one-room Airbnb about a thirty minute walk from town. This was a bit excessive, but it made it so when I left my place in the morning, I had to consciously pack and plan as if I would not come back again until the evening. I think it also kept me in town longer than I otherwise would have stayed, which made for more time to create memories.
This return has been…well, it’s difficult to describe. Things have changed, but they haven’t, and that is the main problem I’ve been observing over the last few days. The people that I knew, the people that I know, they’ve been here for the two months that I’ve been gone. They were also here for 7 or 8 or all 9 of the months that I was here from November to August. I’ve done this once before, I’ve left and I’ve returned. But the last time I left, I was gone for six months, so there were only a handful of people still here from my previous stint. Of these people, I didn’t know any of them well, so I didn’t have much to compare when it came to their situations, how they were before and how they were when I returned.
This time around, two months removed, I’ve returned to almost entirely the same crop of people. And they feel heavier. There is no other way to describe it, they’re two months further into their “journeys”, but they’re not moving. They’re stuck here. They’re waiting. And, as they wait, they’re suffering. They live in close quarters, they’re treated as less than human. This wears on a person, this makes you feel a certain way, and as you’re stuck in this position, it becomes heavier. I can now perfectly describe what exactly two months of the weight of a difficult life looks like on a person. Although this is an intriguing “study”, I wish I didn’t know.
Beautiful people, people with so much life in their eyes and pep in their steps, have shriveled. Their lights have, not just dimmed, but gone out entirely. People who used to smile don’t so much anymore; they crack fewer jokes, they’re less tolerant of the difficult situation they’re in and the simple interactions around the Hub. Some of their bodies have withered under the stress, others have gained weight in self defense. Everyone is a bit more on edge. I feel like I could literally see the sadness in their eyes. If sadness were palpable, I could taste it. My four days on the island felt heavy. Heavy, heavy, heavy. These are people that I care about, and I was baring witness to their descent.
The thing about seeing so many people going downhill, is that the recovery process is not an easy one. What they are going through is something that they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives, in one way or another. They’ll get better (hopefully) when they escape the situation that they’re in, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t have to forever “have” this experience with them as they go forward. That may be the most difficult thing to think about. Of course, even just writing that sentence is a direct example of my privilege, to be able to think about what it’s like to go in the direction of “forward”, to be able to think about what a difficult experience will mean in the future, while it’s happening. Ah, I really don’t know where I’m going with this.
The island itself has stayed the same, but I’ve never been here in October before, so I’ve noticed a haze in the air that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I keep referring to it as “gray”, the island seems a bit…gray-er. I don’t know.
Numbers-wise, the population of refugees on the island has only continued to increase each week, setting new records each time there is an official update. When I left two months ago, the population of the Hotspot continued to swell, but it has since blown passed the 2,000 mark and is now quickly approaching 2,500. With this large of a number on the island, hundreds of people have now been denied access to the Hotspot and are forced to sleep outside of the camp, with no official place to lay their heads each night. With the camp being far beyond capacity, every new refugee who arrives now has to buy their own tent and pitch it either on the beach near the camp or squat in one of the dilapidated hospital buildings that have not been in use for decades.
Looking at the camp, it’s nothing compared to what is happening on many of the other Greek islands. There are still just a fraction of the people here; however, it’s still bad. And cool days and cold nights are just weeks away at the point.