Saturday, 21 May 2016

Life in Lakki

On Sunday 15 May we had planned to have lunch on the beach at Pandeli with Simon and Christiana, but it was grey and windy and raining in and off, so we abandoned that plan, pottering about the boat, catching up TV and going for dinner at To Petrino with Simon and Christiana, where we both shared the superb as usual bon filet. In the morning the electricity blew. It turned out that our immersion heater had shorted – probably because the element had overheated when we ran out of water. The problem with fitting a new element is that the tank is squashed tight in behind the batteries, so will probably have to remove all the batteries and the battery box to get at it.

After many hours repeatedly checking connections and testing voltages, on Sunday afternoon Simon finally diagnosed the problem with the wind instruments – we haven’t got any. Simon thought he should check that the cups are spinning properly, looked up the mast and saw that there was nothing there. It had obviously blown away in the winter. As we have had trouble with all the instruments, which are very old, we have decided to take the plunge and get a complete new wireless system.

One drama I forgot to report last week – two port police were looking in the water at the end of the quay. Later everyone was told to leave the marina because two World War II bombs had been found in the water. Soon everyone was allowed back. The bombs were taken away a bit later and detonated on a hillside, apparently with a large explosion. Apparently they had been dug up during the building works in the neighbouring naval officers’ quarters and had been dumped there.

On Sunday night two of the refugees from Pikpa left for Patras, nobody knows why and they did not want to go. We did not see them off, but there was a very emotional leave-taking as they have been here two months ( ).

On Monday morning Lin went off to teach the children, who are getting better at timekeeping. She has got into a routine of getting to Pikpa before nine, gathering the children and walking them across to the school. 

While we are here, she is helping Anna with the school when it operates on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Although this is only the second week of school, the children are settling in to a routine and Lin and Anna are able to identify particular needs. Anna uses computer based English language programmes that she uses to teach Greek children and is able to pick relevant bits. Most of the children are very eager to learn and some of them came already able to read and write Roman script. There are obviously some very able children who are learning very fast. There is some unsettled behavior from some of the younger boys, who have been through pretty distressing experiences. Many of the kids, boys and girls, young and old, throw themselves on the volunteers, even strangers, for kisses and cuddles, whether in Pikpa or when we meet them out on the street.

After school Lin helps prepare and distribute the lunch before coming back for her own lunch.

Simon tried to sort out how to get at the hot water tank to replace the element and noticed a small leak at the outlet. After an hour or so working on it, he failed to stop the leak. He also tried to get the materials to put a stopcock in the pipe to the tank, so that we can isolate the hot water tank and drain it, but the old British water system uses non-standard pipes so he could not find suitable connectors and gave up, ready to get a plumber in. He did do various repairs and treated the stains on the deck, ready to wash it down, which we did after lunch at Poppy’s.
Nobody has come from the yard to fix the immersion heater, so on Wednesday (May 18th), while Lin went off to school, Simon got down to it again. He found enough fittings in his plumbing bag to fit a new stop cock and drain hose, so he could empty the hot water tank.

On Wednesday evening we met a couple of young Syrian Kurdish guys, one from Pikpa and one from the hot spot, who were shocked to see a Turkish flagged boat. “We thought Greece and Turkey were enemies, I want to stamp on that flag”. We suggested that might not be a very good idea”!

On Thursday Simon cycled up to Partheni to get a new heater element from the chandlers. He then went to the engineering shop from which Frank had borrowed a big socket to remove the old element, but they had lent their socket to Agmar in Partheni, expecting it back in the afternoon. After a beer and lunch Simon struggled to remove the screws that prevented him from lifting the tank to get access to the element. He got two out, but two more were inaccessible, so he had to remove the batteries to get at the tank. He went back to the engineering shop, but Agmar had not returned the socket, leaving the owner fuming, but he found an old socket that worked, so the new element was fitted and the batteries replaced and connected in time for dinner. Although the old heater element was only three years old, the huge sacrificial anode had been completely eaten away. The hot water outlet is leaking, but Argiris has promised to get us a fitting from Agmar.

On Friday morning Lin went to help Anna teach the refugee children. Simon went along to take some photos, though some of the older ones did not want their photos taken. One pleasant surprise was that Mohammed was back from Patras – it had not worked out and somehow he and the other guy had been able to get back here. Anna gave Lin a little basil plant as a thank you for her help in school. Her contract has been renewed for another month and she has been asked to provide classes for the adults too. Some local people had warned her that she would have trouble from Lerians for helping the refugees, though in our experience the majority are very sympathetic to refugees and it is only a small, if vocal, minority who back the mayor. Anna gave Lin a beautifully wrapped plant as a thank you for her help. Anna came back from Australia and her English school is in her beautiful house, built for a senior Italian naval officer, which she showed us round.

After school we talked to Antoinette, an Irish volunteer, who is only here for ten days but has done fantastic work. She has worked in mental health for thirty years and has been badgering the local doctors and psychiatrists to see those with clear mental health problems, including an old woman in a wheel chair who clearly has advanced Alzheimer’s but needs a diagnosis so that she can travel to Athens to join her family, who have settled there. The psychiatrists have given her a prescription for anti-psychotic drugs, which just keep her, and so everyone else, awake at night. Antoinette has managed to get her into a nursing home for a few days to give everybody, including her son, some relief. Antoinette has also provided counselling for some of the depressed parents, who had switched off from their kids so that the kids were starting to run wild, and that has made an amazing difference.

The biggest problem with the refugees is that everyone is slow to adjust to changing circumstances. The refugees are no longer in transit, they are probably going to be here long term. There is a big stock of clothes and shoes, but they are mostly winter clothes and shoes, appropriate for the winter trek up to Austria and Germany, not for a summer stay on an Aegean island. The food is survival food, meal after meal of pasta with tomato sauce, a bit of salad, a slice of bread and half a banana, which gets so monotonous that people lose their appetites. People are sleeping in bunks in male and female dormitories, or in Portakabins in the hot spot, which become stifling in hot weather. The children need schooling and the adults need something to keep them occupied through the day to avoid creeping institutionalisation. With the monotony, frustration and erosion of hope there are increasing mental and physical health problems. The children, especially the girls, are very vulnerable to every sort of exploitation. These problems are very apparent even in Pikpa, which is a paradise compared to the hot spots and mainland camps.

On Saturday morning we went shopping to stock up ready to go to Arki on Sunday. We had a coffee with Marietta and Sheila, an Irish volunteer at Pikpa joined us. She and Antoinette have been doing fantastic work with the refugees, but they are going back home. Two guys from UNHCR sat at the next table. They have just upgraded the wifi in Pikpa, but Sheila asked them if they can restrict it because the children are running wild while their parents spend all the time on Facebook!

We had been hoping to get new connectors to cure the leaking hot water outlet pipe. Argiris kept phoning the yard, who thought they had some but were not sure and had still not come up with them when they closed at 1. Argiris hoped to get them on Monday, but if not they would have to order them from Athens, which takes a day or two. After mulling it over we decided to stay until we have fixed the hot water system, using the time to do lots of other jobs that we have constantly put off.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Back to Leros

We flew to Athens on Sunday, May 1st, to spend a couple of nights with Lena, before flying to Leros on Tuesday. It was lovely to see Lena, but she is really feeling the pinch, with her pension slashed and taxes increasing. She is very worried about what will happen when pensions are cut again next month. She can barely survive as it is. Meanwhile the government continues with the absurd programme of spending cuts, tax increases and privatisations that cost more than they bring in.

We had planned to take Lena and Margarita to dinner in their local Italian restaurant. Lena said there was no need to book, but when we got there it was full. The only alternatives in the area now are grill places – a sign of the times, when a prosperous district can only support one decent restaurant, so we went to one of the grills for a cheap and just about edible meal instead.

We flew to Leros on Tuesday morning. There were only a dozen people on the flight – surprising as it was the end of the Easter holiday. The flight was early and there was no sign of Costas with our hire car. I phoned him and it turned out he thought we were coming tomorrow. He arrived with a car fifteen minutes later and we went down to the yard to find our boat. Apart from the cover, which we knew had flogged to death and disintegrated, everything looked in surprisingly good condition. We had booked to launch on Monday so got straight down to work preparing the boat, doing all the jobs that had to be done before launching, though we did go in to Lakki later in the afternoon to go round seeing old friends and to meet Frank and Lin for a drink on their boat and then dinner at Ostria.

Frank had offered to come and help with polishing the hull, with his powerful electric polisher, so on Wednesday Simon gave the hull a good wash, ready for polishing on Thursday. Frank came up on the bus on Thursday and we set to work polishing. With Simon putting the polish on and Frank buffing it with his polisher we got the job done in three hours and went off in the car for a very good light lunch at Blefouti, where Lina works as the waitress in the taverna. After lunch Frank helped us get the main sail up and put it on. Simon then took Frank back to Lakki.

On Friday Simon derusted the keel and polished the propeller, while Lin went on sorting everything out and polishing below. In the evening we met Frank and Lin and two other couples for Frank’s birthday dinner at Dimitri’s.

On Saturday we drove in to Lakki for lunch at Poppy’s with Frank and Lin and Mike and Ann. Frank and Lin had decided not to leave for Levitha until Sunday.

On Sunday Simon anti-fouled the keel and anointed the propeller with udder cream (to keep the barnacles at bay). The wind was very light so we managed to hoist the genoa (strictly forbidden in the yard, but it was Sunday so who was to know -  sails were going up all over the place). In the evening we went to dinner with Jad and Julie in their old house in Planatos, just above the old Jewish quarter (the Jews were forced out at the beginning of the last century). Jad and Julie had just been up to the camp at Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border, to collect some things for Leros that had been trucked out to Idomeni by an Irish charity. Needless to say, this being Greece, nothing had gone to plan – the van they had rented did not exist, so they had to make do with a people carrier stripped of its seats, and they could not get it back to Leros as planned because the big ferries have been on strike for a week. They told us that everything is far better organized and calmer than it was last autumn, but the problems faced by the refugees are at least as great. In the autumn they were just in Leros for a few days before moving on, but now they had been stuck here for months, with no idea of what is going to happen to them, so the stress and depression is much worse than it was last year.

We got up early, ready to launch, on Monday morning. Christina arrived at about 7.30 to collect the hire car. The tractor and lift arrived at 8 and we were in the water by 8.45. 

The engine started first time and there was no clunking and grinding noise, which there had been just before we lifted in the autumn (and we had paid the yard 620 euros to try to find the source of the noise. They took out the gearbox and dismantled it, inspected the shaft and engine mounts, but found nothing). We motored over to Arkhangelos, where we anchored, put the dinghy in the water and hoisted the main to rig the reefing lines. There was still very little wind, so we motored down to Lakki and were tied up in the marina by 11.30. On the way in we passed the British rescue boat, tied up on the quay, designed for the North Sea, but which has been picking up refugees for the last few months.

Lefteris, in the marina, told us that he and Kyriakos had spent three months working on the MSF rescue RIBs. He said he would never forget some of the things he had seen and done, picking bodies out of the water. He said it was nothing like you see on TV. There are almost no refugees coming over now, but whether this is because they have heard that they will not be able to go any further or whether it is because of more effective policing nobody knows.

We went straight over to Pikpa to see about helping with the refugees. There we met Jo, an English woman who has lived in Leros for eleven years, who was in charge of the morning shift and who briefed us about the situation. There are enough volunteers to provide for the basic needs of the refugees and enough money coming in from donations to pay for the food and so on. There are also some paid staff employed by various charities and agencies, most of whom seem to do nothing but sit around. Anna in the local English language school is starting this week to provide English language teaching for the kids in the mornings, so Lin arranged to come in next day to help with that. We met some charming Kurdish Iraqi boys, Reger and Rehat, who have been here with their older brother and sister for two months.
Reger and Rehat

Their parents are in Germany, but they cannot join them so they are stuck in Lakki. We then went off to have a beer and chicken club sandwich at Poppy’s. That evening Sue and Steve arrived from Crete, via Astipalea, and we went for dinner with them in Ostria.

Most of the refugees, about 850, in Leros are in the ‘hot spot’ at Lepida, a euphemistic term for a prison camp, surrounded by barbed wire. 

They include people who arrived in Leros, but mostly people shipped here from other islands and from Athens for ‘processing’. According to the EU there are 25 Frontex Officers (Screening and debriefing teams. Border Surveillance Officer and Advance Level Document Officer) and two Europol officers in the hotspot, but there is nobody from EASO (the European Asylum Support Office). Legally the refugees cannot be held for more than 28 days, but in practice they are not allowed out (and if they do get out it is a long walk into town), though we are told that for some reason the arrivals from Castelorizo are allowed out. The only people allowed in are those from the charity Ekho, founded by a woman from Patmos, who has managed to get through the barriers of registration (which includes registering staff as ‘acceptable people’). They deliver additional food every day, because the army does not provide enough, and help to distribute the food to the prisoners. Nobody knows what is happening or what the future holds for these prisoners. The volunteers describe the present situation of the camps and sites in Greece as “more desperate than before because refugees are losing hope, waiting long periods of time in limbo with no sight of any solutions”. The teams are constantly learning how to cope with stress, anxiety and a host of psychological and social problems in refugees.

Lepida was notorious first as a leper colony, then as a concentration camp in which 4000 political prisoners were held under the dictatorship (1967-74) and then as a mental hospital in which more than 3000 patients are said to have died under harsh conditions, which were denounced by an article in the Observer (and a photo-essay ). The mayor of Leros had been campaigning for the past two years to open Lepida as a prison camp for refugees to keep them away from tourists (and no doubt to get the substantial revenue to be expected to finance the construction of the camp and restoration of the buildings). The Leros Solidarity Network ( ) had been campaigning against this proposal, with widespread support in favour of Pikpa, the hospital building in town converted by the volunteers of the Leros Solidarity Network. Prime Minister Tsipras came to Leros in December and visited Lepida, as well as Pikpa. He declared that ‘Pikpa brought hope’, but this did not stop the construction of a new concentration camp at Lepida, which opened on 1 March. The conditions in the hot spots are so bad that UNHCR and MSF have refused to provide assistance to them.

Pikpa now accommodates 103 people in dormitories with bunk beds, toilets and washing facilities, a TV with Arabic channels, a kitchen, a play area for young children and a yard with a covered area with tables and benches, so it has been reserved for vulnerable refugees – unaccompanied minors, families with young children and the disabled. Recently about 15 of the younger unaccompanied children were dispersed to orphanages around Greece, the group being broken up and the kids being sent in twos and threes to different orphanages – we hate to think about their fate - so now the youngest unaccompanied child is Reger, aged 12.

Lin went over to Pikpa on Tuesday morning to help in the school, but it turned out that school is only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, so she went back at 10.30 and spent the morning working with the kids in the yard and then helping to distribute lunch. Simon, meanwhile, got on with jobs on the boat.

On Wednesday Lin and Simon went over to Pikpa and this time Lin could help Anna in the school.
On the walk to school

The younger children’s lesson is from 9 to 10.30, though it is difficult to get them to turn up on time. We took them over to the school, where three people from UNHCR were there to watch the beginning of the teaching. There are eleven in the younger group, aged from 10 to 14, and they have each been given an exercise book and a pencil case, but have no course books yet. The UNHCR are trying to get permission to spend money on course books. The younger kids are enthusiastic, but some find it hard to focus, especially if they are hungry because they got up too late to have breakfast. Quite a few can read simple stuff and they can all write the Roman alphabet so they must have had some English teaching in the past. They are learning basic conversational English. Most are willing to talk, but some are shy. Quite a few are very bright and learning very fast.

The older group of 10 teenagers and young adults had been a problem on the first day because there were some who were really not bothered in the group, but once the main trouble-maker had been excluded they turned out to be a mature group, very keen to learn. Lin identified two people, Mohammed and Wavin (Reger and Rehad’s seventeen-year-old sister), who had serious eyesight problems and Lin is helping to arrange for them to see the optician. There is a very bright twenty-two year old Syrian mother, Najar, with a ten-month old baby whose husband, who has never seen the baby, is in Germany.

Simon, meanwhile, helped to prepare and distribute breakfast, a sandwich and half a banana each. 

When the younger kids came back from school they spotted our IKEA folding bike and one asked to have a ride. He took off at great speed, doing wheelies and burning tyres. The others clamoured to have a go and soon Mohammed had them organized in a queue, so they spent the rest of the morning riding around. Some were very good cyclists, some were rather wobbly and some could not manage at all. When Matina and Spiros arrived they put a stop to the cycling because of the risk of accident and consequent legal liability.
Mohammed with Jo and her dog

Reger on the IKEA bike

After an afternoon working on the boat, we went to dinner at Ostria with Richard. Just before we set off Christiana phone to suggest dinner at Ostria, and she and Simon, who had arrived at dawn on Tuesday, joined us. Adrian, a Dutch harmonica player whom we had not met before, also joined us.

On Thursday we went and had coffee with Marietta at her and Tacis’s shop and sat and talked to her. She is very worried about the situation. Like many other people, she and Tacis have mounting debts for electricity and the ever-increasing taxes and their only hope is for a good tourist season, but she is afraid that people will be put off coming because of the refugee situation, although now that the refugees are almost all in the prison camp the refugees have no impact in town. Marietta, like the majority of people here, hates the racists and is very sympathetic to the refugees, but faces a dilemma because their presence scares away the tourists. When she was a student she was teased because she came from Leros, notorious as a prison island and then for its mental hospitals. The islanders have spent twenty years overcoming that reputation, only for it all to come back. Marietta was born in Australia so the family have been preparing their papers so that, as an absolute last resort, they can go to Australia, but they dread leaving their beloved island and way of life. The crisis has bitten so deep that we are probably going to see a rerun of the 1940s and early 1950s when half the population of the Dodecanese were forced to leave for Australia and the US. Many came back when things improved and it is now their children, often born, like Marietta, in Australia or the US, who are retracing their parents’ steps. The rest of the day was spent on cleaning, maintenance and repair on the boat, though with the south wind getting up and rain forecast we put off the outside jobs. The wind blew hard overnight, peaking at about 6am. A very large Maltese registered yacht moored on the town quay left to anchor on the other side of the bay because the Norwegian yacht next to it was swinging around so much. The Norwegian then went alongside the quay – it looked as though his anchor had dragged.

On Friday Lin went to help in the school for the morning while Simon, at last, installed the new water filter, which Lin had been dreading in the expectation of leaks filling the kitchen cupboards – all went well so we now have a tap delivering filtered water. One of the young men in the English class told her that he had to say goodbye as he was being sent to Patras on Sunday. He had no idea why he was going and he didn’t want to go. We can only imagine that he has been granted asylum in Greece. There was also a crisis because Omar, a young Syrian man, had lost his mobile phone – it was not clear whether it was lost or stolen, but he was distraught, not because of the phone but because it held all his contacts and photos. Matina announced at lunch time that there would be no salad until the phone was found. We left to go back to the boat.

Saturday was gloomy, with drizzle on and off all day, and more forecast for tomorrow.