In 2015, half a million refugees fled Turkey for Lesvos. A century ago, my family did the same

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In 2015, Canadian author Steven Heighton travelled to Lesvos, Greece, where he volunteered at a transit camp for refugees who had just arrived from Turkey. That year, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesvos, and several hundred drowned. Heighton writes about his experience working as an untrained volunteer with Lesvos locals, aid workers and refugees in his new book Reaching Mithymna, from which this article is excerpted.

For a couple of hours we remained on the beach, awaiting two other rafts that had embarked with the first three. I grew steadily more worried; the doctors and Fara reassured me that vessels that set out together rarely arrived together. The missing ones, if not rescued by the coast guard, would have landed elsewhere to the west after drifting, mis-steering, or simply aiming for other beacons on other beaches.

"But could they have sunk?" I asked.

"In such conditions, no," said one of the doctors. "In such conditions, the worst possible thing is... well, really very bad. Last month, several boats drifted past the final, the final...pos to lene, akrotiri?"

"Cape," the other said heavily.

"The final cape of Lesvos. They were seen a far distance out, but never found. One day, we may discover boats on one of the deserted islands."

"And bodies, I'm afraid," said the other. "Bones."

"But many boats have been arriving tonight at Efthalou. The other two are probably among them. We will be certain later."

9 p.m.: a number of refugees are being treated for shock or hypothermia inside the medical van and the Red Cross tent. The other two hundred or so, Afghans as well as Syrians, have been bused half an hour over the mountains to OXY. A few Red Cross sentinels remain on the beach, drinking tea around a luridly yellow, obviously toxic bonfire of life jackets, while most of us retreat to a restaurant charmingly called "I zoi en tafos" -- Life in the Grave. Inside, a long-dead mulberry tree as thick as a baobab erupts out of the flagstone floor and passes through an opening in the roof. The seal around it doesn't keep the rain from trickling down the lacquered bark into the restaurant.

Beside this magnificent corpse, a plaque. Author Stratis Myrivilis was born in Skala Sykamineas in 1890 and wrote his best-known novel (the source of the restaurant's name, I see now) at a café table under the boughs of this tree after serving in the Greek army's campaign in Turkey in 1922. The plaque doesn't mention that after the Greek defeat, countless boatloads of Asian Greek civilians had to flee with him and the army across the straits to Lesvos -- the very vector that current refugees are following almost a century later.

I've known about that earlier exodus, or call it ethnic cleansing, for years. Yet it was only a few nights ago on the ferry, reading about Lesvos, that I learned those Greek refugees had followed this same escape route. (Of course they had; Lesvos is the closest main island to Turkey.) Even more oddly, only now does it strike me that along with those refugees must have come relations of my own: some with the name Afaganis, "from Afghanistan," and some bearing my grandmother's surname, Smyrlis, "of Smyrna," a city across the straits and now called Izmir -- the chief staging point for the current wave of human traffickers and asylum seekers.

I say "oddly," but don't we always look past the obvious -- those facts and stories we've breathed in from infancy? And isn't it often the things we overlook, forget or bury that catalyze our decisions, as they constellate our dreams?

So here I stand in Life in the Grave. A hanging fireplace, packed bodies, the warm smoke of cigarettes and pipes...the place is snug and noisy. Fara and her friend are catching up at a small table, two petite, chain-smoking women whose jug of beer looks enormous between them. I sit down with the doctors and two older Antifa volunteers. These women are friendly at first but steadily less so; once it's clear that my Greek is too flimsy for serious conversation, we default to English, and the women can't manage as well as the doctors.

As the beer and the shots of raki relax them while also making them less patient -- more intent on voicing vital matters efficiently and clearly -- they start snapping off sentences and then whole thoughts in Greek. Soon they quit speaking English altogether. As the doctors too switch over, their formality vanishes and I realize that what I saw before as calm, courtly deliberation was simply the effect of having to overthink every phrase.

The moment all four settle into Greek, talking politics, how Fascism is revanchist all over Europe, I become a ghost. Could their now-exclusive, quadrilateral focus signal the start of an impromptu double date? But the doctors don't look interested that way. Nor do the older women. When intellectually engaged Europeans talk politics, it's always more than a mere proxy for emotions or desires. One of the women -- a pinched chain-smoker given to indignant grins and derisive laughter, especially after references to the Greek government and the NGOs -- scowls as she notices me trying to follow.

I feel a bit hurt, but I get it. I've been in their position, humouring a non-fluent outsider while eager to skip ahead to the night's freer, wittier, creatively collaborative phase, jazz artists indulgently jamming with a student. I walk to the bar past that fabled tree still weeping with rain and fetch another pint, then find a corner table and dig out my pen and lined journal -- all but empty, no chance to write a word until now -- and begin scribbling notes.


Disposition is destiny. Its data points -- the experiences you select, save and revisit, and that somebody else might have instantly deleted -- form a living archive, the reference library of your character.

I'm a few days into my teen years. It's August 1974, hot in Toronto but hotter in every sense in the eastern Mediterranean. On Cyprus, the UN has brokered a fragile truce and interposed a Green Line between the invading Turkish army and the outnumbered Greek Cypriots. It's rumoured that the military regime in Athens has been flying Greek commandos into Cyprus to help the losing side. At any moment a larger war might break out between

Greece and Turkey. A river of refugees, both Greek and Turkish Cypriot, is flowing in two directions across the Green Line. Ethnic cleansing: a term not yet in use in 1974.

I'm sitting at the kitchen table reading a book while my mother, Lambrini George Stephanopoulos, scrapes and scrubs every dish in the sink before racking it in the dishwasher, a practice whose seeming redundancy fills my teenaged soul with annoyance. Still, on the whole she and I get along well and I like being in the same room with her if I'm reading, as I usually am. The radio is tuned to a Toronto Greek station, probably on the Danforth. Its Hellenic uproar -- songs! news! weather! ads! --is no impediment to concentration, since I understand none of it.

My English-Canadian father enters the kitchen. For some reason my mother leaves. The lugubrious song on the radio ends and a male voice starts declaiming in staccato Greek with a slight, ominous reverb effect. My father glances at the clock -- 6 p.m. -- then tilts his head, biting his lower lip, trying to follow the speaker's ranting. He knows just a little Greek.

"What's going on?" I ask.

He cranks the radio higher. That terrifying voice shakes the room. "Lambie," he calls, "come back! I think Greece and Turkey have gone to war!"

She runs into the kitchen, stops, regards the radio for a moment through her cat-eye glasses. "It's a carpet sale on the Danforth," she says.

Excerpted with permission from Reaching Mythimna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos (Biblioasis, September 2020).

Steven Heighton is a Canadian writer whose other recent books include The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep and The Waking Comes Late, which won the 2016 Governor General's Award for Poetry. 

Image: Fotomovimiento/Flickr

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