Once the teenagers of Lesbos came here to practise hill-starts and three-point turns. Now the dusty tarmac of the driving lesson centre is a mass of tents. Old-style canvas mess tents with sturdy wooden poles are interspersed with pop-up tents in bright nylon. A local man is selling them from the back of his van for 30 euros each. A woman with gold earrings is selling sleeping bags for 10 euros, a snack bar is selling overpriced food and drink, while a gaggle of Vodaphone reps, in red baseball caps, are doing a brisk trade in simcards.
For the local entrepreneurs, business is booming. But their captive buyers are not festivalgoers or tourists, but tired and hungry refugees, anxious to phone home. There’s a flipside to this apparent exploitation: one of the reasons people head to Europe is this potential for entrepreneurism, this chance to make something of yourself, in spite of where you come from and what you’ve been through.
This particular camp, Kara Tepe, is reserved for refugees from Syria. In the strange hierarchy of people on the move, Syrians come at the top – whether because they’re fleeing a war, because their babies and grandparents come too, because they’re perceived as wealthy and educated, or because of how they look.
MSF’s Chiara Montaldo, working at a reception centre for migrants and refugees in Sicily, had told me,“Sometimes the migrants are on a boat with two decks – Syrians on the upper deck, Africans in the hold – they say that if the rescue boats see migrants who are white, they are more likely to be rescued”.
Whatever the reasoning, Syrians get priority treatment over other nationalities in Greece, and can expect the wait for their papers to be a couple of days, rather than a couple of weeks.
But even a couple of days in Kara Tepe is too long.
As soon as we get out of the car, we’re surrounded by familiar faces: many of the people we helped ashore the previous day have ended up here. The young men whose savings were stolen come and shake hands, but they’re no longer joking amongst themselves. Ashur smiles at us sadly; his beefy friend is red-faced and furious. “We have no food, we have no water, this place is shit,” he shouts.
And then we see Shirin: heavily pregnant, dressed in her pink hijab, frantic with worry about the baby she hasn’t felt move for five days. She’d told us the previous day that she had money for a hotel room in Mytilini, while her cousin in Norway had begged us over the phone not to let her go to a refugee camp.
“Where did you stay last night?” I ask. She gestures at a square of dirty flattened cardboard at our feet. “We stay right here,” she says.
A volunteer doctor has told Shirin that she can’t have a hospital scan till she reaches Athens. But MSF’s medical team has just arrived for their shift, and the doctor and nurse (a young Greek couple, newly married, spending their honeymoon working for MSF) organise a car to take Shirin to the island’s hospital.
Dafni and her new husband hold a drop-in clinic every afternoon inside a portacabin. Most of the people they see are exhausted and dehydrated from the journey. Many have bad sunburn; some have benzene burns from boats awash with leaking fuel. “We are also seeing more and more children,” says Dafni, “lots of them with skin infections and fungus from living in such conditions.”
In the absence of any proper camp management, MSF and a team from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have installed standpipes and a shower and toilet block and employed cleaners.
Across the track from MSF’s portacabin clinic is the overflow of Kara Tepe camp, itself an overflow of the official reception centre. People who can’t find space in a tent, or afford to buy their own, are sprawled on the ground under trees, sleeping off their journey and the long walk.
Samir and Mohamed met on the road, and are now firm friends. “We’re travelling buddies,” they tell me. Samir, in sunglasses and baseball cap, was a student of English literature at Damascus University. Mohamed, from a town on the outskirts of Damascus, was studying for his baccalaureate when his high school was destroyed by a bomb. Faced with forced conscription into the Syrian army, both decided they had to leave.
“I love my country,” says Mohamed, “but I don’t love having to hold a weapon and kill someone I don’t even know. In my country, since the war started, we feel we are just like animals. They don’t care about our humanity. They kill people as if they are insects – it’s as easy as stepping on an ant.”
Samir and Mohamed both headed for Turkey, but found it hard to survive. “In Turkey, there are no residence permits,” says Samir. “Istanbul is more expensive than Europe. You work too hard for very little money. You can’t afford to rent a house, you can’t get married, you can’t live.”
Mohamed’s neighbour organised his passage to Greece. “He took me in a van with 12 other people – Syrians and some Kurds – to a secret location north of Izmir. We stayed there for two days, sleeping with the snakes and the scorpions in the forest. There was no water and very little food. We stayed hungry for two days. After sleeping two nights in the forest, we left on a boat for Lesbos.”
Rumours circulated amongst the refugees of masked men, dressed in black, who travelled in speedboats and preyed on boats of refugees.
“The sea was very calm, but we were afraid of the commandos,” says Mohamed. “We don’t know who they are, but we do know they are attacking the boats we travel on and hurting the people inside. They appear from behind a big ship, on a black boat, and they wear black – black masks, black pants, black shirts, black jackets. And they harm the boat and they push it back to Turkish waters, and then they return to Lesbos. But we were very lucky because they did not appear to us.”
Standing in the middle of this unwelcoming wasteland, Mohammed tells me again how lucky and how grateful he is to be here. “The UN and the other organisations are trying to help us,” he says. “This is the first time that someone has taken care of me. Now, for the first time, I feel like I am really human.”
“Where now?” I ask. Mohamed replies, “I will travel on the basic roads that all refugees walk. I will try to get to France in any way I can. And after that I will go to England, because England is one of the greatest countries in the world. It is full of great history and nice people, and I hope to work and study there.”
“The journey will be an adventure,” adds Samir.
These two young men leave me feeling stunned – by their fortitude, their independence, their unshakable optimism. I hope they make it and find what they want – I hope that more than anything.
We have to leave – we’re late. As we climb into the back of the car, we hear at last that Sherin has had a hospital scan and the baby is ok. Amidst all the frustration, uncertainty and chaos I’ve witnessed on Lesbos, it’s one piece of pure, golden good news.