The Summer I Understood War

The Summer I Understood War

War was something that happened on TV until the summer of 2004. A boat carrying Iraqi families had crashed somewhere on the coast of Attica in Greece. I had just started volunteering for Amnesty International and I drove over with a friend to make sure the refugees knew their rights to asylum.

The police had locked them up in an empty school. Some locals were driving over, leaving bags of food and dry clothes outside the gates. Bodies had been collected from the water. Not all had made it alive.

I'd seen refugees before in the centre of Athens, though that's not what we called them. Most of them were raggedy young men who bundled together in Omonoia square asking passing cars for work. Sometimes they were women clutching babies, begging for money. Us Greeks didn't pass by Omonoia square if we could avoid it. We called them migrants. The word 'refugee' we saved for stories of our grandparents fleeing the Turkish war.

That summer of 2004, as I entered the school's assembly hall where the refugees had been herded, something changed. That was the summer I understood war. We were going around the room informing people of their rights, telling them they could ask for protection. We spoke in low voices. The police were not too keen on the refugees knowing their rights.

Most people we spoke to were relieved to be alive, except for one man. I was 22 then and he must have been a few years older. He was crouched in a corner of the assembly hall. Unlike the others, he hadn't changed into ill-fitting clothes donated by the locals. His own black jeans and shirt had dried on his back. His grief seeped through the area around him. I didn't want to approach. It was the sort of grief that infects you if you get too close.

The others told us his story. His young wife had drowned. They were newlyweds. The Greek authorities had arranged for her burial while he was locked up in the school. He hadn't been able to save her. He had begged the police to let him bury her. They'd refused. What if he'd tried to escape?

I folded away that man's grief as I moved to London that fall for my masters. I got a job, put down roots and didn't return. London became my home. I attended anti-war demonstrations until the war too was forgotten. The conversation changed from bombings to terrorism. The two were rarely linked. But in the past few months, the endless stories of refugee children drowning while trying to reach the Greek islands have made that grief resurface.

Greece is bankrupt. There was never much support for those fleeing war, but now the state can barely sustain its existing population. Most refugees who come to Europe, arrive on the Greek islands. Lesbos alone has received nearly 100,000 refugees over the past year. That's 10,000 more than its permanent residents and eight times more than the refugees who have arrived in the UK this year.

Like always, supporting those people lies in the hands of volunteers. Living here, I can no longer be one of them. I called my old friends and colleagues to find out what was the best organization to support in Lesbos. The hope was that if I raised funds, I'd feel a bit less helpless.

"The man to speak to is Father Stratis", a friend from UNHCR told me as she gave me his number. "Be patient though, he is very sick and he speaks slowly. You can call any time. He's always there".

I dialed the number and introduced myself. "We need warm clothes," he said. "Winter is coming. We need money for clothes, food and shelter." I promised I'd do my best and he said that's what they all did. His last words before I hung up were "I hope it's not the last time I hear from you."

Father Stratis was a legend on the island of Lesbos. For ten years he had been tirelessly helping the refugees there through Agkalia (Embrace), the small charity he founded. His respiratory condition meant he went everywhere carrying his oxygen tank. The UNHCR estimated that for every £1 given to Agkalia they produced £4.80 of work.

Unfortunately, I never got to speak to Father Stratis again. He passed away two days later. The volunteers working with him at Agkalia barely had time to grieve. The priest had made them promise not to stop, "not for one day". So they didn't.

Wanting to keep my promise too, I set up an Indiegogo campaign and filmed an appeal video with young people from Integrate Bristol, a small charity I know well from my work on FGM. When I first told people about our intentions, some pledged thousands of pounds. The pictures of Alan (that was his real name, not Aylan), the young Kurdish boy who drowned trying to reach the island of Kos were everywhere on the news. People were feeling helpless like me, and like me wanted to do something.

Unfortunately, capital controls in Greece, meant that it took us nearly three weeks just to help Agkalia set up a PayPal account to accept donations. In that space, the world moved on from the images of the drowned boy. Donations for our #WarmWinter appeal have been slow. But I made a promise to do my best, and I'll keep it. On the 9th of October, we're organizing a concert in the Bristol Tobacco Factory. We're still hoping to get the support of schools. But we need help from everywhere. Not just likes and shares, but donations - however small.

In the past week alone, fifteen small children died trying to reach the Greek islands. Hundreds more made it alive with their parents. As countries across Europe are shutting their borders, those families are now faced with the reality of a harsh winter ahead. Please help us change this.

Father Stratis' last words were:

"Love each other equally and indiscriminately. Love the whole world, like the constitution of our Agkalia says. Irrespective of ethnicity, gender, race, politics. Irrespective of anything, love each other without limits. Only this way we can call ourselves human. Only this way we can beat death."


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