Saturday, September 30, 2017

Lesvos, an Island Not to Forget


I have a new book coming out in January, but this post is not about that book.  It’s about the issue that led me to write it.  I’m still in Greece—at least until next weekend, when I head back to North America to ready myself for interrogation by Caro at Bouchercon Toronto. 

When friends visiting from outside Greece ask me about “the new book,” I tell them it takes place on Lesvos (aka Lesbos or Mytilini) and focuses on the plight of refugees. In response, I far too often catch an "I thought that was over with" blank stare, followed by questions about Lesvos, and the underlying elements of the refugee crisis that spurred me to write An Aegean April.

So, as a public service, I thought I’d give a bit of background on both Lesvos and the still extant refugee crisis.  Here goes:

The northeastern Aegean island of Lesvos, a place of quiet beauty, storied history, and sacred shrines, has long drawn the attention of tourists, though never quite the hordes of off-islanders that descend each summer onto some of its much smaller, but far more notorious, Cycladic island neighbors to the southwest.  Its reputation as the bird-watching capital of Europe, possessing the greatest array of wildflowers in Greece and one of the world’s largest petrified forests, draws a different sort of tourist.

Lesvos ranks as the third largest of Greece’s islands, behind Crete and Evia, with roughly one-third of its 86,000 inhabitants living in its capital city of Mytilini, an alternative name used by many Greeks for the island. Most Greeks, though, know very little about modern Lesvos and think of it, if at all, as little more than the serene agrarian home of Greece’s ouzo and sardine industries.

That abruptly changed in 2015.

Virtually overnight, thousands of men, women, and children fleeing the terrors of their homelands flooded daily out of Turkey across the three-and-a-half to ten-mile-wide Mytilini Strait onto Lesvos. Tourists, who’d come to holiday on the island’s northern shores, found themselves sitting on the verandas of their beachfront hotels, drinking their morning coffee, watching in horror as an armada of dangerously overloaded boats desperately struggled to reach land. 

Inevitably, tourists stopped coming.

But not the refugees, for they saw no choice but to come, no matter the predators waiting for them along the way: profiteers poised to make billions of euros off the fears and aspirations of desperate souls willing to pay, do, or risk whatever they must for the promise of a better, safer existence.  In 2015, more than a half million asylum-seeking migrants and refugees passed through Lesvos, looking to make their way to other destinations in the European Union (EU). 

The chaos of the modern world had spun out a rushing storm of profit for human traffickers of every stripe, and Lesvos sat dead center in its path.  Greece had not experienced immigration of the current magnitude since the early 1920s, when 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians were expelled from Turkey, an event to which most residents of Lesvos traced their ancestors.

What had triggered this nation’s modern migration deluge? Under Greece’s prior government, the Greek Coast Guard intercepted and turned refugee boats back to Turkey, but in early 2015, Greece’s new government ordered its Coast Guard to allow refugee boats to pass into Greece.  Germany’s later announcement that it would accept one million Syrian refugees that year made what followed inevitable.  From that moment on, it would have been irrational for those caught up in war, Syrian or otherwise, to remain in danger rather than risk a journey toward the promised peace and security of a new life in northern Europe.

Many Lesvos residents joined in doing what they could to help lessen the suffering of the refugees, as did many tourists and off-islanders, but the onslaught soon overwhelmed them.  With the arrival of the international media and their cameras, a world outcry arose, bringing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in to fill the void left by the confluence of EU political paralysis, and Greece’s obvious inability to bear the financial burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of new arrivals while so many of its own eleven million citizens struggled in the depths of a Great Depression-like economic crisis. 

Many saw the NGOs’ efforts as admirable but severely wanting in both coordination and execution.  What troubled them most was the utter absence of an organized plan for addressing the chronic problem of processing and humanely caring for the masses fleeing to safety in Europe.

Threatened bureaucrats entrenched in doing things their own way feared such change. Worried elected officials concerned with playing to their voters wanted no such plan.  And, for sure, human traffickers and their allies, who profited from the status quo, didn’t want one.

But that was then.  Wrong.

Moria Refugee Camp, Lesvos.  Petros Tsakmakis/AP

Today, the rhetoric may be different, and the focus (for now) on different parts of the world, but the attitude of our allegedly civilized world toward refugees brings to mind the words of Lesvos iconic poet, Sappho (630-570 BCE).  Words that might sadly prove to be the refugees’ epitaphic message to us all:

“You may forget but let me tell you this: someone in some future time will think of us.”


Jeffrey’s October Events

Bouchercon 2017, Sheraton Center Toronto, Ontario

October 12 (Thursday), 8:30AM-9:30AM, Grand Centre Room
“Bouchercon 101: An Introduction to all that is Bouchercon.”

            October 14 (Saturday), 4:00PM-5:00PM, Sheraton C Room

                        “The Blue Detectives,” moderated by Caro Ramsay.


  1. The human mind seems incapable of focusing on more than two things at a time (maybe because our brains are only divided in two?). Alas, both of those focuses seem to be completely occupied with the destructive behavior of El Gilipollas, the Great Gasbag Emitter of Putrescence.

    1. EGGGEP, now that's a catchy moniker, EvKa, though even catchier spelled backwards...which perhaps is appropriate as that seem the way PEGGGE is hellbent on taking US.

  2. Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking.

  3. But no matter their own economic struggle, the people of Greece, and, Lesvos, in particular, have shown the world how human beings should treat each other, the true meaning of humanitarianism and what it is to be human.
    They have given beyond what they could give and been exemplary towards the refugees. If only other countries and people could emulate them, the world would be in a lot better place.

    And I include the U.S. in this discussion, as so many politicians and their followers, are hostile to refugees. Many are being rounded up; the status of thousands, even millions, is endangered.
    Would that they all emulate the people of Lesvos, of Greece.