My parents’ decision to emigrate from Ireland to Australia gave me not only the opportunity to call Australia my home, but also to be an Irish citizen. My Irish passport came in handy when I went on exchange to London, as it allows me to study, travel and work within the EU without a visa (six months ago, this still included the UK). I arrived in Heathrow airport, flashed my EU passport and was allowed to begin my life in London, when meanwhile there are people quite literally dying to be let in. I felt incredibly lucky.
It is for this reason that I am so passionate about refugees. By no fault of their own they find themselves being persecuted in their own country, having to flee their homeland in fear of their lives. They are left at the mercy of other countries, who scrutinise their claims for asylum and whether they deserve to be given the right to live in their country.
From my privileged position of an Australian and EU citizen, I wanted to stand in solidarity with the people who so desperately sought to leave their countries, but who were not as warmly welcomed by their chosen destinations as I was by mine. And so I decided to end my exchange with a week of volunteering in Lesvos, a Greek island that is the entry point into the EU for many refugees.
I got in touch with Lighthouse Relief, a Swedish non-profit organisation working on the island. The amount of boats arriving on Lesvos has significantly decreased since this time last year due to an agreement between the EU and Turkey. However Lighthouse maintains a presence on the island to make refugees feel welcome by giving new boat arrivals water, snacks and dry clothes before they are taken to be registered.
They also have an ECO project, which involves cleaning the beaches and reusing materials. According to Lighthouse, since the start of 2015, 600 000 life jackets and 10 000 rubber dinghies have been discarded on the shores of Lesvos. It is vital in order for Lesvos to recover the tourism levels that have been rapidly declining, that the beaches be cleared and made enjoyable for tourists to visit.
On my last day on the island I visited a dump especially for the lifejackets that had been discarded by refugees, referred to as the life jacket graveyard. The thousands of lifejackets I saw piled there helped put these numbers into perspective.
What I didn’t know about these life jackets is that most of them are fake. It was a heart-wrenching revelation. People smugglers charge extra for life jackets, many of which are filled with non-buoyant materials and once they hit the water weigh down the wearer and increase the likelihood that they will drown.
Despite the severity and the sometimes seemingly hopelessness of the situation, I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the island. This was mainly due to the wonderful people I met there. One person in particular that I will mention was my friend Omar. Omar is a Syrian refugee, with limited English but an unlimited amount of love in his heart. He swam 14 hours straight from Turkey to Greece with two friends; one could not swim so they dragged him along behind them. Eventually he made his way to Germany, however he decided to return to Lesvos and now spends much of his time helping Lighthouse Relief.
There was something about Lesvos that made everyone want to stay forever. We quickly became a family; it was with heavy hearts that we celebrated each time a volunteer would leave us and many changed travel plans so they could stay for longer. When my final night came, I stayed up late sitting by the ocean, watching the lights from Turkey glistening on the horizon and wishing everyone could come and see for themselves what life was really like here on Lesvos.
During my time in Lesvos I took many photographs to document my experience there. These will be part of a project I am working on this semester, aimed at making information about the nature of the refugee crisis more accessible and understandable through art. It will appear in the graduating exhibition at the ANU School of Art at the end of the year.
For more information on Lighthouse Relief, or to assist in their great work, please visit http://www.lighthouserelief.org