On the tide of misery

February 18, 2016

Every day for months now, hundreds and sometimes thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing the Middle East and Africa--especially the civil war in Syria--cross the Mediterranean seeking entry into the European Union (EU). Those who don't perish during the crossing frequently land on Lesbos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey. They are housed in refugee camps while they wait to be processed, so they can move on.

Katina Cummings is a union organizer and activist who recently traveled to Lesbos to offer support for those fleeing to Europe. She spoke to John Godfrey about what she witnessed and the consequences of the refugee crisis.

TELL US how you came to be interested in helping refugees.

I'M A union organizer. I worked for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the AFL-CIO, mostly on health care issues. I worked with injured coal miners in West Virginia and girls trapped in the juvenile justice system in Chicago. I have taught disadvantaged children in urban areas, and cared for elderly people with dementia before moving to Vermont to work with poor families trying to pay off medical debt, and also working with people with mental illness or addiction.

I was in Greece for a wedding--I am a Greek-American, and my grandmother is from Greece. I learned over the course of this trip that she had come to Greece as a refugee herself, so I am from a family of people who sought refuge in Greece.

While I was there, I saw and heard on the news about how this refugee crisis is unfolding. At the same time, Greece has been in the news a lot lately because of the horrible austerity measures they have been forced into by the EU. So Greece is already a poor country, and they are taking the brunt of the refugee crisis.

Refugees arrive at a Greek island
Refugees arrive at a Greek island (Ben White)

I wanted to help both sides--Greece and the refugees. I became obsessed. I started researching, and two months later, I was back in Greece helping people.

WHAT DID you see when you arrived on Lesbos?

THERE WERE lots of volunteers there. They were mostly Muslims from England and a few other countries. You don't hear about that when they talk about the refugee crisis on the news--that it is being handled largely by Muslim volunteers.

The lack of any kind of official response was really frustrating. The governments involved seemed to be acting like they expected this to end soon, and so we would have to just sit tight. But there is no sign of it ending--in fact, it is getting worse.

January had more recorded deaths than any month until now. The bombings continue and the terror continues, from the Russians and from the U.S., so I don't know how the EU could think that this crisis would blow over any time soon.

There were 200 NGOs working at the processing center, but they weren't working together. They worked during daylight hours, which meant that everyone who came in at night had to wait.

Ours, the Moria Registration Camp, was the biggest camp on Lesbos. There were over 2,000 refugees coming into our camp per day. There was no plumbing. The toilets areas were so filthy that people couldn't use them. There was garbage everywhere, not because the refugees were careless, but because there was no garbage removal.

When I arrived, there had just been a major storm. There was flooding everywhere, so the government opened a barracks that had been closed until then. Until then, everyone had to sleep outside in the rain. Sometimes we had sleeping bags for them, but sometimes we didn't even have that.

It was very different from day to day what we had on hand. Sometimes we had supplies to pass out, sometimes we had clothes, sometimes we had sleeping bags, sometimes just bananas.

The barracks was very bare bones, even when they did open it. Some of the beds didn't even have mattresses. And it was only available to the most vulnerable families, those with sick or elderly people, children and pregnant women. Everyone else was still outside on the ground.

WHAT WAS it like when the boats came in?

WHEN WE saw a boat coming in, we waved the orange life vests that littered the beach to signal to them. The boats coming in were so overloaded. They were made for 15 people but they were filling them with 50, 60 people--because, of course, [the smugglers] make more money that way. So you could see that some of the boats were already starting to tilt while they were in the water. We would see them and think, "That one isn't going to make it."

Some of them would make the trip, seven miles from Turkey. Usually there was no one with them. It was a refugee driving the boat. Someone on the other side would point the direction, give them a three-minute pilot lesson and wish them luck.

Sometimes they ran out of gas part way. Sometimes they sank. Sometimes they would make it all the way to Greece, and they would get hung up on the rocks. That is how a lot of people died, drowning within sight of land. A lot of the life preservers they had were fake. We ripped some open and they had bubble wrap inside.

When people got to land, some of them cried. Some of them kissed the ground. They were so grateful to us for helping them. They would hug us and kiss our cheeks. Once they got on the shore, their trip still wasn't over. There was still a six-kilometer walk to the processing center. It was very difficult. Older people would just collapse on the side of the road. There was no way they could make it. We did our best to ferry people back and forth in a minivan.

In processing, people were separated by country of origin. Syrians were processed faster, maybe because they are higher profile right now. Syrians were processed by a private company called Frontex. Refugees from other places were processed by the Greek police, and they often had to wait for weeks to be processed.

WHAT WAS the voyage like for the refugees you encountered?

IT WAS awful. I spoke with women who had been raped. I spoke to people who had just lost loved ones, had lost part of their family.

Many of the people coming had already split up their families because they were afraid they wouldn't all make it. So they had to decide which was more dangerous, staying or going. And hopefully, if some of them made it to Germany or Denmark or wherever they were going, they would send for the others later.

It's hard to imagine being in this situation. You would think well, if it's so bad, why do they go? But really, the refugees are being rational. This is a rational response to the situation they are in. If I was being bombed, you could bet I would take my daughter and get out of there. These are people protecting their families.

There were men traveling alone, but they were a minority. Sixty percent of the migrants are women and children. For the most part, it was families or parts of families and a tremendous amount of minors traveling alone.

Unaccompanied minors were kept under wretched conditions. They were put in a fenced area they couldn't leave. They weren't receiving any education--nothing but food and shelter, sometimes for months. Since these aren't technically refugee camps, they can sidestep the rules. These are supposed to be temporary facilities, so they don't have to meet the same international standards, even though some people do spend months there.

WHAT STANDS out most in your mind about your experience?

THERE WAS so much sadness there, but also so much joy. I never experienced anything like hearing refugees when they finally caught sight of the people on shore signaling to the boats. They yelled out in praise to God and in gratitude to the people helping them. I never experienced anything like the gratitude that they showed us.

And when they were finally processed, and they had their certificates that said they could pass through, they were so happy, because they knew that part of their journey was over.

They didn't know, like the volunteers knew, that outside of Greece, the borders were already closing.

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