On the final day as artist in residence, Siân Norris talks with poet Helen Calcutt, who in May 2017 visited the Pikpa refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece.
Siân Norris: What made you decide to go?
Helen Calcutt: I was already on the island (Lesvos, Greece) on holiday. The hotel owners, Daphne and Iannis, had done a lot of work with the refugees since the initial crisis in 2015, but I didn’t know they were directly involved with Pikpa. When I found out, it was an immediate, gut reaction – I have to go.
What did you hope to achieve on the trip?
I wanted to connect with the place and the people. Both those fleeing their homes, but also those helping them on their journey. I wanted to feel what they were feeling – to have an authentic understanding of the situation. Again, it’s to do with being removed. We bang on about immigration back home, but it truly hasn’t affected us in any way. Mytilini was flooded with 30,000 refugees in the first year, equalling their population. Can you imagine this? Tents on your doorstep with families inside. Tents in your garden with orphans, with mothers who have lost children, or men who have lost wives. Tents under trees, by restaurants, outside supermarkets. We have no idea really what it feels like to absorb this level of human pain and suffering; to house and to home it. Essentially, I wanted to level with it all. To grasp the realities of it, and to help.
What were your first impressions?
The quiet. It’s so heavy, and controlled: and beyond any kind of sadness you can imagine. It’s goes further than sadness. You can feel how much has happened there. The volunteer and aid workers are remarkably positive, and they bring a huge amount of life and light to the air. But the quietness….it almost hums. I hadn’t experienced anything like it before. There’s a vacancy behind the eyes of the people on the camp too that’s disturbing – with the men especially. Sadly, I feel there may be no way out for them now. With the children, you feel a certain level of fight and vivacity. But the men – they’re gone.
Can you tell me about some of the women you met and their stories?
When the first wave of refugees reaches the shores, there were just hundreds and hundreds of women. Many of them had children, some sick, some dying, some dead. There were more dead babies than could be accounted for. The sea air was too cold, and the journey too long. A number of women lost their children to the sea. I heard one story of a man, whose child was crying. The guard on the boat threw it overboard to so they wouldn’t be detected before they reached the coast. I don’t know if he rescued it or not.
The main issue for the women is the loss of life as they knew it; of their motherhood. The language barrier was a problem too. Dimitri, one of the two nurses on site, said she lost count of the number of women she had to console on a purely non-verbal basis. She had many ‘non-verbal’ conversations with many distraught women as to why they were still expressing milk. Their babies had drowned or died in their arms, or been lost on the rocks; and they were still expressing milk.
One moment I will never forget was when I came face to face with a refugee mother. It was a briefest of moments, but it will always stay with me. She was beautiful, dark haired, very thin – almost gypsy like, and with the heaviest eyes I’ve ever seen. I noticed she was pushing around an empty pram. I didn’t know if she just had the pram, or if her child was around somewhere. But this single moment, this single image, in many ways, told me everything I needed to know about the place, about its story.
What does the camp need right now?
Pikpa needs people to know it’s there, and it needs people to care about what it’s doing.
Following this, it desperately needs funds for medical care and medical recourses. When on the camp it became clear this was the area in need of most financial support. Costs are astronomical. For a simple insulin shot, including needles and a few hours hospitalisation, it’s €700. The Greek government has made it compulsory that all refugee children attend school. However, every child requires a series of vaccinations to attend. Each vaccination course costs €600 per child, and the government won’t provide funds to support this.
Pikpa also doesn’t just care for its 90 or so residents; it’s a haven of hope and health for all refugees across the island, housing the most vulnerable refugees, including orphaned children and families. Pikpa has seen everything from child cancer, to infant mortality and domestic abuse, and its small team work tirelessly to reach as many vulnerable refugees on the island as it can. Other camps, such as Moria, aren’t so accommodating to human rights and health, and those working on Pikpa do their best to obtain and care for those currently housed in dangerous and unsanitary conditions.
Pikpa is also a wealth of social and political knowledge when it comes to refugee action – they’ve been there since the beginning, and know what needs to be done. In less than a couple of weeks all the major charities on the ground will leave because the Greek government has declared that the ‘crisis is over’. It isn’t. And with Turkish agreement unfolding, a fresh crisis is presenting itself. The medical centre and its staff is a stronghold for the protection of those in desperate need of prolonged physical and mental care.
Mental health, is probably one of the largest concerns for all medical professionals working in refugee action. With the right support, Pikpa, and its circle of supporters, can continue to argue the case for those who both want, and need, to remain in mainland Europe. It is absolutely vital that the children especially, are given a chance to recover, and aren’t uprooted from their homes once again. Our world is made of money. And so it’s money they need to help them move forward.
Do you feel our attention has drifted from the refugee crisis? Why do you think this is?
It absolutely has drifted – and it’s because it’s gone out of fashion to care.
This is going to sound unfair, but some humanitarian or environmental causes become trendy, and so inspire certain groups to follow and support them. And trendy causes are taken up just as quickly as they’re dropped. When the crisis occurred in 2015, everyone was talking about it. How could you not? The response was unanimous outcry – and rightly so. But it almost felt tribal. It energised people and bound them in the sense that they were all experiencing the same rage and sadness – watching all those people crawling and crying from the sea.
But where’s this sense of unity now? As we speak the Turkish government are deporting people from mainland Europe. People who almost died in the waters to get away, are being taken back to the very place from which they fled. And quite frankly no-body seems to give a shit. I know this because I talk with people. People who initially threw up their hands in horror, just shake their heads and shrug now. What can they do?
There’s plenty that can be done. The truth of the matter is that, on the whole, it’s fallen out of favour to care. This if very telling of the age we live in. The era of instant gratification – instant remorse, instant recovery. The energy of the crisis has gone, partly because we’re lazy, and partly because we’re so far removed.
Social media has an ugly role in all this – in removing us (let’s not forget that social media is just another grim extension of our fascination with ourselves.) It’s very easy to ‘like’ a post about the migrant crisis, and think you’ve done your bit – “the Facebook me cares!” But this does nothing actually – and doesn’t help the real flesh and blood people across the Atlantic whose faith in humanity is rapidly dying.
I also feel we’re too disaffected to be able to engage with any of this properly. There’s so much human suffering in the world; so many causes and campaigns – all fed to us online day after day – we’ve become enormously desensitised to it. We’re more likely to respond to a picture of a dog chasing its own tail, and spend a few minutes on that, than a post about a man whose child was thrown overboard because it was making too much noise. Getting people to share, re-post, or follow through on anything I’ve shared about Pikpa, has been one of the hardest tasks of the campaign. Even close friends and family members, people I expected to be quick to support, have given me absolutely nothing. Just silence. And I can’t help by feel appalled by that.
Some might argue that we’re helpless. “It’s the mainstream media, it’s the government” etc etc. But I’m loathed to blame them; because this only shifts the blame – from me to them. I’ve read plenty of articles in the Guardian and Independent of the crisis as it unfolds – there are constant tricklings of informed, useful coverage. It’s getting a healthy readership that’s the problem. I’m wondering now if it’s just people. People who live sheltered privileged lives who needn’t concern themselves with the ailments of others in hot, sandy countries. Or whether it’s the poverty here too. Daphne made a very fine point. She said, with all the corruption of the Greek authorities and police, and indeed some of the locals too, it’s clear that giving is only possible when you have a good life. She considers herself someone with a good life – so she can give. This was her biggest realisation when the crisis struck. She was initially horrified by the hostility of her own people towards those seeking refuge. But now, she says, she understands. If you don’t have a good life; clothes, shelter, self-fulfilment, love, peace – then giving to others is out of the question. You simply have nothing to give.
(Image credit: Aurelie Blondeau-Calcutt)