“This island is no longer just my husband’s place. It also belongs to me, and to everyone who has ever reached its shores.”
- By Zora O'Neill
18 April 2018
For a decade, the Greek island of Lesbos was my one true getaway. As a travel writer, I’m usually working when I visit beautiful places, following a strict schedule and always taking notes. But on this idyllic island just off the coast of Turkey, I would do nothing but eat grilled sardines and watch the sun glimmer on the clear blue Aegean. I was content to fill my days with a swim and a book, largely because Lesbos never felt like my place. It was my husband’s, and always had been.
Peter and his Greek-American family had been visiting Lesbos since 1992. They had no roots there but felt immediately at home in the tiny seaside retreat of Skala Eressos. They loved the village’s narrow stone streets and its beachfront boardwalk lined with unpretentious cafes, its stark, rocky landscape and its broad, placid bay.
By the time I joined the annual trip, my husband's family had long since established their routine. Hotel: Galini; restaurant: their pal Panagiota’s place or Costa’s eatery; film at the open-air cinema: yes. They also all spoke Greek. I nodded along vaguely, even on the day Peter and I were married in the village church. On the map that decorated every restaurant tablecloth, I would trace the rough triangle of Lesbos. I knew Mytilene, on the eastern point, for its airport and ferry dock, and ‘our’ village, near the western point. But the island’s other 1,600 or so sq km remained a mystery.
View image of Writer Zora O’Neill has vacationed with her husband and his family in Skala Eressos on the Greek island of Lesbos for years (Credit: Credit: Malcolm P Chapman/Getty Images)
In 2015, Peter and I made our summer trip to Greece just as refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond began arriving on Lesbos’ shores in numbers that made international headlines. Their overcrowded rubber boats were beaching far from our village, on the island’s other coasts, not even 10km from Turkey. I speak Arabic and had visited Syria several times, so I proposed going to help. Peter, afraid he’d be in the way, begged off, but I rented a car and set out. For the first time ever on Lesbos, I sat in the driver’s seat.
The transit camps, where thousands of people were waiting to receive their registration papers from police, had been hastily arranged in places that weren’t marked on the tablecloth maps. I knew only that they were across the island, near Mytilene – and I barely knew how to get there. After five wrong turns in the town of Kalloni, I finally rolled down my window and called out to a man: “Pou einai drómos Mytilene?”. I was surprised to find I knew the words for ‘where is’ and ‘road’, and he answered, ‘50m’ and ‘left’.
This was so far from the Lesbos I knew, a place I’d never thought to imagine
Kara Tepe, the camp designated at the time just for Syrians and Iraqis, was not so much a camp as a large car park. I joined a group of Greeks cooking pasta for lunch, hundreds of servings at a time. My Arabic helped with crowd control, and food prep was done in pantomime. There was enough English to go around, just as, after a second batch of pasta, there was enough food.
Late in the afternoon, I felt savvy enough to drive an Afghan family who had been misdirected to Kara Tepe to Moria, another camp nearby handling migrants from Afghanistan and elsewhere. Though upon arriving, my confidence staled, as I saw the former military installation’s high walls topped with razor wire. This was so far from the Lesbos I knew, a place I’d never thought to imagine.
A few months later, I went back to the island alone. Since the summer, I had helped build a network of volunteers. From the days I’d worked at the camp and what else I knew of Lesbos, I co-wrote a guide for others who wanted to make the trip. The situation had turned grimmer and more complex, so I had come to strengthen the network, update the guide and support the refugees however I could.
View image of Over the past several years, Lesbos has become a temporary refuge for Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans fleeing war (Credit: Credit: Zora O’Neill)
As my ferry from Athens pulled into the port, my project suddenly felt like folly. I knew nothing about this place – I’d driven one road on this island, worked at one camp and peeked at another. Nor did I know what I might encounter here and whether I was capable of handling it. There was only one way to quell my anxiety: move forward.
That week, I crisscrossed the island in my rental car, collecting information and new contacts from the camps, the boat landing spots and other aid points for refugees. Along the way, I marvelled at this new-to-me Lesbos. The brown, summer-sun-baked terrain I was used to was lush and green after the autumn rain. I saw other crystal-blue bays, other stone-paved village squares, and another view out to sea, direct to the coast of Turkey.
I felt each day more capable; each day, the people of Lesbos pushed me on
Every time I hopped out of my car at a new site, I forced myself to say kalimera (good morning) or kalispera (good evening). Without Peter as my safety net, I flung the only greetings I knew like a rope. Greeks grabbed it and pulled me in. They answered my questions about the needs at the camps and told me their stories and why they had come out to help. Many had refugees in their own families, only a few generations back, from the Greco-Turkish War and the ensuing population exchange of 1923, all of which forced more than 1.5 million Christians and Muslims from their homes.
Until then, I had seen the Greek penchant for welcoming foreigners in action only at, say, a beach taverna (a small restaurant). But in this emergency, in service of those fleeing violence and religious and political persecution, it was an altogether more awesome force: fierce and righteous and driven by the island’s history. Working in its glow, I felt each day more capable; each day, the people of Lesbos pushed me on.
View image of Overcrowded rubber boats carry refugees to Lesbos from Turkey, a short journey that has proven dangerous (Credit: Credit: Zora O’Neill)
The last place I visited on my return trip was Moria camp. Now vastly overcrowded, awash in mud and trimmed in a second layer of razor wire, it was even bleaker than when I’d delivered the Afghan family in summer. I walked around for an hour, handing out maps and information packs, dry socks and chocolate, but the capability I’d felt elsewhere was sapped. My gestures felt small and futile.
Out by my car, a Kurdish family flagged me down and asked me how to get to the port. Months before, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. This time, I knew the bus timetables well enough to say they’d missed the last one, but I could offer them a lift. At the port, I helped them buy ferry tickets and made sure they ate a good meal. As they boarded the boat for the next leg of their long journey, they were smiling for the first time in hours. Playing host, I’d restored their spirits, and mine.
View image of Signs posted at the Mytilene port detail transportation options around Lesbos and to mainland Greece (Credit: Credit: Zora O’Neill)
Since then, I’ve been back to Lesbos twice more on my own and visited nearly every corner. The island feels smaller now, the mystery of the tablecloth map solved. But it also feels richer, as the place names now evoke two islands: the hazy Lesbos of my summer holidays, and the vivid Lesbos of the refugee crisis.
Some spots on this new Lesbos are marked by tragedy – Molyvos, where villagers had to tend to the casualties of a shipwreck, and Moria, that chronic dark spot. But I also associate the island with a newfound joy, one that comes from clear purpose and common cause. As one island resident wrote to the volunteer network, “Lesbos now is a great school for all humanity,” and every place I visited stands as a lesson in generosity and compassion.
My solo experiences on Lesbos have been so intense, so separate from my husband and so intimately mine, that when it came time for our usual family trip this past summer, I was apprehensive. Could I return to the routine of sun and sardines and open-air films? Rationally, I knew that my holiday was also a way of helping the island, as its tourism economy had suffered after all the dramatic headlines. But when we set off for ‘our’ village, I still felt as if I was sneaking from one island to another.
View image of Zora O’Neill: “Every place I visited stands as a lesson in generosity and compassion” (Credit: Credit: Zora O’Neill)
A few days into our trip, I sneaked off again, to have tea with a fellow volunteer, an Australian expat who’d lived in Skala Eressos for years. (“Since when do you have friends here?” my brother-in-law asked, bewildered.) It was briefly jarring to see her at ease and not in emergency mode – and then it was comforting to catch up. As we chatted about refugee needs, volunteer dynamics and life in the village, I gradually felt less conflicted. My two experiences of Lesbos were knitting together.
Lesbos now is a great school for all humanity
Everyone on Lesbos, I saw then, has had to redraw their personal maps, to reconcile their previous lives with the current situation, deciding how, when and where to help. And for the Afghan family, the Kurdish family and the hundreds of thousands of others who have passed through or are detained on the island, Lesbos is forever marked on their own life maps.
This island is no longer just my husband’s place. It also belongs to me, and to everyone who has ever reached its shores.
Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Travel, Capital, Culture, Earth and Future, delivered to your inbox every Friday.