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Why I Travelled to Lesbos in the Middle of a Refugee Crisis

Having grown up Catholic, I suffer from that stereotypical illness that is Catholic Guilt Syndrome (or CGS. And the older I get, the more I realize it isn’t actually limited to Catholics).

So, the impetus for this post initially came from wanting to defend myself – both to others and to, well, myself, for travelling to Greece on what’s basically a holiday when hundreds of thousands of refugees are (sometimes literally) dying to reach these shores.

For those of you who don’t know, here’s my story: I’m a Canadian freelance writer/photographer/videographer who is currently travelling around the world for about a year and a half, reporting on various human rights and human interest stories. My main theme, though, is LGBT rights and the situation for the LGBT community in the countries I visit. (Check out the articles I’ve written so far here)

Being a lesbian myself, I naturally wanted to visit the “homeland” – the island of Lesbos (or Lesvos, or Mytilene) in Greece. Particularly the village where the famous poet Sappho was born, Skala Eressos.

Having just been in Lebanon for two weeks (visiting and learning about projects assisting Syrian refugees, among other things), and heading to Israel next week before visiting Jordan, I needed somewhere to go in between as I couldn’t fly directly (Lebanon doesn’t allow people to enter the country who have visited Israel, let alone let people travel directly to its neighbouring country, for a wide variety of reasons that are too complicated to address in this post). Deciding to forego Turkey until after the election and judging the security situation there then, Greece was one of the few viable options.

And so I found myself on the island of Lesbos, as originally envisaged so many months ago when I first set off on this journey. After landing in Mytiline, a shared taxi took me into town, passing groups of refugees walking into town with all their possessions on their back. (I did have to smile to myself as I noticed how many were wearing winter jackets in 20 degree weather; I, after worshipping fans in what was apparently “cold” weather in Lebanon, was comfortable in a t-shirt).

My first day on the island, I spotted a huge coast guard ship enter the harbour around 4pm. IMG_8551

I walked along the coastline some more, and as I came back, the ship had docked and a hundred or so refugees were disembarking.

Tiny babies, some who looked no more than a couple of months old, were gently taken from their mothers by the coast guard men (sailors? What are they called?) so they could safely walk down the sloping plank, and then carefully lifted down to another man, who placed them back into their mothers’ arms.

The migrants and refugees (I don’t know if it was a mix of both, or just refugees or just economic migrants) were quickly loaded onto a bus, probably going to one of the makeshift camps set up near where the ferries leave for Athens.


It was a heartbreaking sight – seeing people who were so desperate to leave whatever trauma and hopelessness they’d experienced behind and risking their lives and their children’s lives to come to Europe.

LGBT Syrian refugees are among some of the worst off – they’re fleeing torture and the very real threat of being thrown from the top of buildings to their deaths by ISIS.

So in the midst of all of this, what am I doing here? I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to be like these horrible people, blaming refugees for “ruining” their holiday, but still.

I did consider not going. This trip to Greece is largely a break for me after some long days in Lebanon. Am I selfish to go to a country that is in the middle of a refugee crisis? Are my actions insensitive to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees risking their lives to arrive in Greece, a country I reached via an easy flight, no questions asked about my origin?

But then I rephrased the question a bit – am I selfish to go to a country that is in the middle of a refugee crisis and still dealing with the effects of an economic disaster?

No. To have planned to go to Lesbos and cancel would help no one, besides perhaps myself by clearing my conscience and not having to face these difficult questions. Rather, by travelling as a tourist to Lesbos, I can inject some (not much, but some) money into the Greek economy. I can offer to help local Greek organizations that are doing everything they can to assist refugees in need, people arriving in shock and traumatized after everything they’ve experienced.

Organizations like The Captain’s Table in Molyvos, a restaurant and its owner that have been described as “a beacon of hope” for incoming refugees. Here’s a short video about their efforts, where the owner, Melinda McRostie says people should not feel guilty for coming to Lesbos on holiday. Imagine having no tourists – many Greek islands’ biggest source of income – she explains, along with the economic crisis and the refugee crisis.

And perhaps I can also give my friends and family a unique perspective on the refugee crisis, having interviewed Syrian refugees in Lebanon and now meeting them in Lesbos after a harrowing journey with human smugglers.

Because I still come across horrible things people say and believe, on the Internet and in person. Things like: they’re only trying to steal our benefits, or they’ll never assimilate, or they’re all just opportunistic economic migrants – and while it’s true that there are economic migrants arriving, there are also many, MANY legitimate refugees.

Some even criticize the way they look, how they’re dressed, or what they’ve brought with them. “They have a smart phone, so how downtrodden can they be?”

Yes, they do have smartphones. These are people who were often well off in their native Syria, who had good jobs or good educations. Imagine if you, living in the Western country you live in, suddenly found yourself in the middle of a violent, brutal civil war – one that has killed hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens and displaced millions more. Would you leave your phone behind – or throw it away – when you always have it with you, so that strangers in a land you hope will welcome you will think you’re more deserving?

All of these stereotypes – all of these fears that people have about “hoards of Muslims infiltrating our countries” – are completely baseless. Plus, I think it’s pretty ironic for Canadians or Americans to complain about immigration ruining “our” countries based on our history with colonization and past and present treatment of Aboriginal peoples.

Check out this short video for some fast facts about the refugee crisis:

And yet, the guilt is still there – it’s there every time I consume or do something that isn’t “necessary” – like visit a museum or drink a beer. But guilt is an unhealthy emotion – it basically stems from feeling like you’re not doing what you should be doing, or not doing enough. Or at least that’s what it is in my case.

But I can still do something – I can give a monetary donation to the volunteer groups helping newly arrived refugees and offer my own services as a volunteer for a couple of days when I arrive in Molyvos tomorrow.

And I can keep doing the work I’ve been doing – attempting to amplify the voices of people who aren’t always heard, like members of the global LGBT community and refugees from a variety of countries.

Funnily enough, I’m reading Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn and just came across this passage, which is quite relevant to today’s situation despite being set over 250 years ago:

“Despite the expense and difficult of the journey, despite the pain of parting from friends and family and homeland forever, the immigrants poured in, in hundreds and in thousands, carrying their children – those who survived the voyage – and their possessions in small, ragged bundles; fleeing poverty and hopelessness, seeking not fortune but only a small foothold on life. Only a chance.”

I think that we, in all our infinite privilege, can give them a chance. Don’t you?


A sign in Mytilene Town, the capital of Lesbos