Welcome to Leros is a story of chaos, heartache, sometimes humour; of hope and solidarity. It tells how ordinary people living on a small Greek island join forces with a new community of international volunteers to respond to a sudden influx of refugees fleeing war, torture and persecution in the Middle East. It is the story of an island family and a global community.
During 2015, a mass exodus of desperate people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq leave their homes and risk everything to make the journey of their lives. They wash up on the shores of the Dodecanese and Northeastern Aegean islands of Greece. Many perish cruelly on the way with the islands in sight on the horizon.
On Leros at the beginning of the summer, a handful of local volunteers provide breakfast to hundreds of refugees held in the Hellenic Coastguard’s yard whilst their arrival in Greece is registered. The refugees have to sleep on the ground in the open with no facilities.
Over the following months, more than thirty thousand people pass through Leros, and a huge operation evolves to care for them for the few days that they stay on the island. The operation is initially manned by volunteers and the local islanders. This story chronicles the development of that operation and the evolution of a refugee camp.
I arrive on Leros for an extended summer’s stay in June 2015. My working life in the UK as a freelance child protection lawyer is flexible, enabling me to travel and spend time living abroad, so I am planning to stay for some months.
By August I am unexpectedly in the thick of the crisis, working as a volunteer with the Leros Solidarity Network. I continue to do so for a further six months and witness the island’s transformation from an idyllic tourist destination and sleepy winter haven to an emergency reception centre at the gateway to Europe on the front line of a mass migration: a main player on the stage of a global humanitarian crisis. As the drama escalates, the island is forced to grapple with the tragedy of people drowning in the sea that surrounds it, waters that provide its nourishment, beauty and identity.
Academics worldwide submit a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in February 2016 nominating the Aegean Solidarity Movement (ASM) - a network comprising refugee relief groups formed by anonymous volunteers from the Aegean islands who respond to the crisis with empathy and self-sacrifice. The letter states: ‘the organization of local islanders in the face of the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII has been unprecedented. It constitutes a unique example of spontaneous group mobilizations that have energized and engaged our global community.’ Further: ‘the ASM forms a bright example of possibility for peace and the anonymous volunteers of the Greek islands are leading the way by example. Hopefully, the rest of humanity will follow.’
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu endorsed the nomination, stating, ‘The manner in which so-called ordinary residents of the Greek Islands rallied to provide for an estimated 900 000 refugees was quite extraordinary. Just imagine 900 000 visitors in desperate need arriving at the door of your reasonably modest establishment. Hungry, exhausted and in a state of acute emotional distress… They don’t speak the same language as you or ascribe to the same cultural or religious beliefs. What do you do? You open the door!’
This book tells the story of those so-called ordinary residents and anonymous volunteers of the Greek islands. It tells of a time when thousands of people across Europe rise in solidarity, offering whatever they can of themselves, inspired purely by compassion for their fellow human beings in their time of suffering and need.