Friday, 29 January 2016

Lesbos Diaries

While I was in Lesbos, I kept a daily diary of my experiences. I shared each day's entry on Facebook, and I have now gathered them up into one blog post for those who didn't get a chance to read them all. Enjoy!

Day 1

After a long overnight flight with a painfully dull 3 hour transfer in Athens, I arrived at Mytilene airport at 8 am local time. I made it to my hostel soon after, dropped off my bags (they wouldn't let me check-in until mid-day, annoyingly) and then got a taxi to Pikpa camp. Pikpa is the camp for the most vulnerable refugees - the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the young kids who are travelling alone or whose parents didn't make it this far.

As soon as I arrived, I fell in with the infamous Dirty Girls (and boys) crew, sorting the sodden clothes and belongings that refugees had worn on their crossing to Lesbos. At 1 o'clock, after sorting all the bags ready to be washed (and later to be redistributed to refugees), we left to go to Kara Tepe (the camp for Syrian and Palestinian families) to check on the clothes situation there, and then we went on to the orientation meeting at the main registration camp at Moria (at 2 o'clock). The camp is wet, muddy, and undeniably miserable - but the refugees and volunteers still manage to keep smiles on their faces.

After lunch was served to the refugees and orientation was finished, we headed to the beach near the airport as we had word of a boat arrival. We planned to give out dry clothes and collect dirty/wet clothes, but as it was a sunny day, there was nothing for us to do except get people warm and do lots of smiling. I then went back to my hostel for a much-needed rest (I hadn't really slept for 30 hours, apart from a brief nap on the plane) and later went into town to grab some dinner, where I met a couple of Syrian refugees who had registered and were excited to be heading to Athens (and then onto Germany) tomorrow. One of them kept telling me he wanted to go to England - I told him he wouldn't get in and that his best bet was Germany (we had a few language-barrier issues, but we laughed it off!)

They were looking for a place to stay that night, so I recommended a few hostels they could stay in – they then showed me their Google Translate saying "is it possible to sit down in your home"... Not sure what they were getting at there (don't trust google translate!) but anyway, they went on their way to find a bed for the night (now that they'd registered, they were understandably eager to get out of the terrible conditions at Moria camp).

UNHCR, Save the Children, Oxfam and all the other big NGOs are at Moria, but they respect sovereignty so they have their hands tied - because the camps aren't recognised as official refugee camps, the Greek government won't allow them to make any infrastructure changes whatsoever (they weren't even allowed to put doors on the toilets, so I'm told). After my encounter with the Syrian fellas, I went for a drink with some Canadian friends I met earlier. I knew I would have an early start the next day (on the beaches at 9 o'clock for early arrivals, then a night shift in Moria camp), so I went off to bed soon after!

Day 2

On the second day, I had an early start roaming the beaches with Dirty Girls looking for landings, but we didn't see any so we went off to Kara Tepe camp to help them empty their distribution huts so that they could put in a new floor (before, all supplies were getting soaked and muddy). I gave some little Syrian kids some toys to play with, which they loved!

We then went off to Moria for our shift (5 pm to 1:30 am) working in the clothes tent giving out dry clothes to refugees who had just arrived off the boats, soaking wet and sometimes covered in vomit or hypothermic. When we closed the hut, it was my job to sit at the end of the line to tell the refugees we were closed – I was lucky to meet loads of amazing people, Iraqis and Afghanis all living in Moria whilst they got registration to go to Athens.

After that, I had a wander around the camp (it’s normally really quiet at night, except when boats arrive) to see the registration point and find out how everything works. There were refugees camping outside the registration and accommodation area (an old detention centre for criminals), waiting until they could go through and get warm. Some of them had been waiting in the line for 8 or 10 hours, and they were all anxious that they might lose their place in the queue.

The camp is built on a sloped olive grove, so when it rains the water rushes down the hill, flooding the refugees camped out at the bottom (where Better Days for Moria work). It's horrific, really. Luckily it was sunny on my second day, so the camp was in higher spirits and not so wet. I got back to my hostel at around 1:40 and crashed out straight away!

Day 3

I only got to bed at 2 am the night before, so I woke up late on my third day and grabbed some lunch with some friends in Mytilene port. We then got a cab to Moria camp to see what we could help out with - we checked up on the Syrian registration lines and the camping area to make sure all was going smoothly and so that I could get some more information for my article.

When my shift started at 5, 4 trucks arrived from Munich full of donated clothes and blankets, so we unloaded those into the warehouse and distribution tents, and then we started distributing gloves, scarves, hats, socks, and most importantly, ponchos (it was about to rain!)

A little 5 year-old kid turned up wearing only crocs, so I took him to the side and grabbed him the nicest pair of shoes I could find and some warm socks. He was trying them on saying they didn't fit when I realised he had them on the wrong feet, so I put then on for him and he was so grateful! It's moments like that when you realise how important it is for volunteers to be here, not just to give people what they need, but to be a friendly, smiling face to make refugees feel safe and comfortable.

After some more sorting in the clothes tent, I joined a group of volunteers who were digging out rocks to place them on the paths to make a road (rather than walking through mud). To me, it's this sort of thing that seems to be the most important work - little things that will make a huge difference every day. Some young refugees from Iraq helped us to dig the rocks out and break them up, and afterwards we all got together for some chai tea outside one of the tents.

Before I left, a few volunteers and I went round some of the overflow tents giving out blankets to make sure people stay warm. Went for a few drinks after to celebrate getting into Cambridge, and by the time I got back to my hostel in Mytilene I was absolutely knackered!

Day 4

Day 4 was another late start (I'm always knackered after my late shift). I arrived at Moria camp at about 5 pm and finished off building a rock/gravel road through the mud to make sure that people's shoes stay dry and clean for as long as possible.

I then did some more sorting and distributing from the clothes tent, though it was pretty quiet because there weren't many new arrivals during my shift. I also went to have a look at the Afghan registration line and the bus stop to see how things were working down there and to ask some questions for my article.

Later, we gathered in the volunteer tent having some dinner whilst waiting for the new arrivals (we got word of four new boats arriving on lesbos at about 11:30 pm). The camp seemed almost empty - most people were in the tents sleeping.

A couple of friends and I went round giving out playing cards (the refugees here have literally nothing to do, so little things like that instantly put a smile on their faces). One guy spent about 5 minutes showing us a new card trick he had learnt, but it didn't really work in the end (there was a lot of confusion and laughter).

We sat around a camp fire with some refugees and chatted about their lives in Iraq, and most of them were very happy just to be in Europe, despite the terrible conditions in the camp. Finally, after waiting around for the new arrivals, the next shift arrived so we went off for a quick drink in town (there's an awesome place called Damas by the port, always full of volunteers). Then off to bed!

Day 5

Another late start, but it was pretty full-on when I arrived in Moria camp at 4 o'clock. I wandered around the camp to find an Arabic or Farsi translator to help me with my article, but most of them are incredibly busy helping at registration points and talking to refugees (though most of them speak English).

I couldn't really find anyone, so I decided to help giving out tea to the refugees waiting in the registration lines. Some of the young men had been queuing in the cold for 5 or 6 hours. As I was handing out tea to the crowd of shivering refugees, the Greek police opened the gate to the compound. Suddenly there was a huge surge forward and I thought I would be caught in the crowd, but some of the refugees around me made a circle so I could carry on handing out Chai.

I then went back to Afghan Hill (the olive grove area in Moria Camp) to start work in the clothing tent, but within 5 minutes I met a new Afghani refugee who spoke fluent English. The first thing he told me was that he was a "gunner" (an Arsenal fan). I asked him whether I could interview him for HuffPost, and he was really keen on having his story told (an article I’m still working on).

He described his trip from Afghanistan into Iran, onto Turkey and into Greece on the smuggling boats. He had tears in his eyes as he told me about his family in Afghanistan. His story was shockingly horrific, but he took it all in his stride - living in Afghanistan, you become desensitised to violence and terror. I took him to get some Chai tea and get registered, but on the way a young Syrian lady stopped me saying she had lost her family. I didn't know what to do. Luckily, we were able to find them, and I booked them a taxi into town (the women and children felt too vulnerable staying in the large IKEA huts).

Boats kept arriving so the camp was absolutely packed - around 2500 refugees arrived on Thursday alone. This means chaos in the clothing tent: jackets and trousers are left lying about, toiletries and toys are scattered everywhere. I spent the rest of my night handing out clothes, cleaning up the tent, and doing some litter picking around the camp. It was a seriously emotional day for everyone. Little kids walking around bewildered; men and women feeling awkward and frightened.

A few volunteers (Tarah from Canada, Siobhan from Ireland, Dave and Soph from Australia) and I then went for some drinks in Mytilene after our shift, so I only got to sleep at about 5 am. Overall, it was a good day: I helped a load of people, and I interviewed a refugee with an incredible story to tell.

Going Home

I spent my last day in Lesbos travelling around the island with some volunteer friends – we really needed a break from the emotional rollercoaster that is Moria camp. We visited some really cool restaurants and bars by the sea and had a great last night in Damas restaurant in Mytilene port.

On Satuday, my seventh and final day in Lesbos, I woke up early and got a cab to Mytilene airport. It was sad leaving – I felt that I had done so little, and that I could do so much more. I have to say though, the conditions in Lesbos aren’t as bad as they are in Calais – though the need in Greece is perhaps more urgent (as people are arriving traumatised, ill and injured), there are at least large aid agencies in Lesbos and a fair amount of organization.

Overall, I’m glad I went to Lesbos and that I made a difference, albeit insignificant. The trip gave me a broader understanding of the situation in Greece and demonstrated the real need for volunteers in Lesbos, not necessarily on the beaches (indeed, there are often too many volunteers waiting for boats), but in the camps and in the warehouses, doing the jobs that no one else wants to do.

It isn’t glamorous and it isn’t sexy (I can assure you), but it’s worth it to help these people in dire need, many of whom have come from everything, and now have nothing. Anything we can do to soften that contrast is important.

There's a Company Trying to Change the World... By Selling Tea Towels

Let me take you back to the 12th of September, 2015: Jeremy Corbyn has just won the Labour Leadership election with a landslide victory and 59% of the vote. There's a speech, a pub, some red flags and wait, what's that? A tea towel? 
Yep, that's right: one of Jeremy Corbyn's first acts as the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition was to hold up a tea towel. A Tony Benn tea towel, in fact, adorned with one of the late Labour MP's most inspirational quotations: "Hope is the fuel of progress, and fear is the prison in which you put yourself." The BBC's Allegra Stratton tweeted during the event, saying: "Quite a moment this - Jeremy Corbyn holding up a Tony Benn tea towel. Some would say the Bennites won today."
But who on earth is making these radical tea towels? Well, it's none other than The Radical Tea Towel Company, an online business that prides itself on its creation of radical, left-wing, environmentalist and liberal-themed merchandise. Their slogan speaks for itself: "You wash, I'll try... to change the world."
I know what you're thinking: who buys this sort of stuff? As with a number of online niche businesses, a surprising number of people, apparently. The company makes thousands of sales every year, their chief market being the large number of left-wingers who like to wear their values on their sleeve and give gifts that 'mean' something. 
The Radical Tea Towel Company told me that their little family venture was no more than an "idea around the kitchen table" that quickly developed into a full-time business. Started in May 2011 as a bit of fun, the company gradually gained traction online through social media and other outlets. In fact, they now have over fifteen thousand Facebook fans and hundreds of followers on Twitter, including the Green Party and their leader Natalie Bennett, Channel 4's Harry Horton, Stewart McDonald MP, Red Pepper magazine, the "JeremyCorbyn4PM" campaign, and a number of the UK's Labour party groups.
In late 2011, the company featured in the Guardian newspaper's "What You Like" column after jokingly sending one of their "Keep Left" tea towels to the notoriously bigoted Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, suggesting that he follow their advice. Unsurprisingly, Clarkson didn't get back to them...
All of their products are manufactured in the UK and designed in-house by the entrepreneurial family that founded the company from their front room. With a father delivering the product and website design, a mother organising the fulfilment and customer service, and a son running the social media and business side of things, they make a perfect team. 
The idea originally came about when the family were contemplating what to buy for a politically-active relative for his 91st birthday. It was then that they believed they'd found a gap in the market: a lack of liberal or left-wing merchandise other than t-shirts and badges. Tea towels were apparently the 'obvious' choice: they're something that everyone needs and uses every day, and decorating them with poignant quotations and images seemed to be the best way to convey pertinent messages and ideals. But The Radical Tea Towel Company doesn't just make tea towels: more recently, the family has started selling aprons, mugs, fridge-magnets and even Christmas cards. 
Starting a small business wasn't easy, they told me, particularly in the economic climate at the start of this decade. But despite having to juggle several projects at once, they continue to thrive, still packing their orders from their home in South Wales, with help from a few friends and seasonal workers. They also remain committed to their goal of "spreading thoughtful and interesting ideas across the world" whilst supporting ethical UK manufacturing. 
Whatever our political views, maybe we can all learn something from this family's little venture. They've shown that we can all do something, no matter what it is, to change the world for the better and to spread the beliefs that we hold dear. A little so-called 'armchair activism' never hurt anyone!
But will making tea towels actually have any effect on today's political landscape? Arguably not; but Jeremy Corbyn's act of holding up their tea towel at least demonstrates an ability to promote ideas and to push out inspiring messages from historical campaigners. The Radical Tea Towel Company is perhaps an example of the UK left's newfound confidence, unafraid of openly voicing their views and beliefs now that one of their fellow radicals has won the Labour leadership. The company shows that the left have not given up hope - even if they risk becoming torchbearers for the capitalist system!

The Labour Party Is Now in Dire Straits: Corbynistas, I Hope You're Happy

Read the original article, published on 7th January, here:
The Labour Party is in dire straits. Despite frequent claims that he would enjoy listening to all the different opinions of Labour's "broad Church", Jeremy Corbyn seems to be doing precisely the opposite. Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden were both fired for speaking out and letting their views be known, and Maria Eagle was moved from the role of Shadow Defence Secretary because of her support for Trident, despite her position being in line with Labour's current party policy. 
As Ian Austin MP has suggested, Corbyn and his team seem to have launched an all-out attack on what John McDonnell falsely and spitefully called "a narrow right-wing clique... who've never accepted Jeremy's mandate". It's no surprise, then, that hours after Corbyn's long-anticipated "revenge reshuffle," three very impressive Labour MPs, Jonathon Reynolds, Stephen Doughty and Kevan Jones, have resigned from the Shadow Cabinet. 
And they should not be blamed: they clearly felt that, since they shared similar views to Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden, they could no longer play a front-bench role without feeling not only conflicted, but also vulnerable and intimidated. After all, their colleagues were fired for championing the principle of "straight-talking, honest politics" - a principle that the Corbynites seemed to forget during their hostile briefings.
To make matters worse, much of this spat has been carried out on live television. Two days ago, we saw Labour MPs Cat Smith and Chris Leslie clashing on the BBC, a damning indictment on the state of the party. What is more, Stephen Doughty told yesterday's Daily Politics that Corbyn's team told "lies" about McFadden, Kevan Jones told Sky News that Emily Thornberry, Labour's new Shadow Defence Secretary, "knows nothing about defence", and Jonathon Reynolds said that Corbyn's plan of a diverse front-bench has "not worked out to anyone's advantage". Reynolds, along with many others, seems to see this as a purge of the more moderate MPs in the Shadow Cabinet. Indeed, it would not be surprising to hear that Benn was only kept to avoid more resignations like these. 
Social media has also been rife with debate, with Labour MPs Chucka Umunna, Wayne David, and Ian Austin all expressing their regret, and even anger, at yesterday's events. Robin Cook's former special advisor, David Clark, has also stepped in. Commenting on the report that Pat McFadden was sacked because of his views on terrorism, Clark tweeted: "The reason offered for sacking ‪@patmcfaddenmp‬‬ is disturbing. Is it now against Labour policy to blame terrorists for their own actions?" With all this public quarrelling, one can't help being reminded of the Labour party's infighting in the late seventies and early eighties, which arguably lost them the election in 1983.
It's clear, then, that what Doughty described as yesterday's "pretty unpleasant operations" have left the Labour Party in complete disarray. Labour MPs are spending more time attacking each other than they are attacking the Tories, making them a totally ineffective opposition and allowing the government to continue to implement their dangerous and uncaring ideological policies. The Labour Party is weak and divided, and this should make us all very anxious.
But is this a surprise? Not really. Yes, it's true that Corbyn was elected on a huge mandate from party members (something that Corbyn's team are constantly reminding us of), but he only has the support of a very small handful of Labour MPs. What is more, those MPs who do support him, like McDonnell and Abbott, are generally considered to be even more divisive than Corbyn himself. It's true that the leadership election was a thoroughly democratic process, but since party members share very different views from the PLP, it was inevitable that Corbyn's election would leave the party incredibly conflicted - a conflict that has reared its head over and over again. 
Jeremy Corbyn has spent most of his time in parliament on the back-benches. For 32 years he has been an uncompromising radical, defying Labour Party orders more than 500 times (opposing Labour plans more than David Cameron himself) and frequently marching with rival parties against the policies of the last Labour government. How could anyone possibly think that he could ever unite the parliamentary Labour party? How could anyone think that he could lead an effective opposition? And how could he possibly expect Labour MPs to do as he says, when he himself consistently defied previous leaders?
Well, Corbynistas, I hope you've got what you wanted. Not only is your magnificent Jezza unable to appeal to the electorate, he even fails to unite his own MPs. The idea that a man who can't even lead his party could possibly lead his country is utterly ridiculous. As James O'Brien said yesterday on LBC, "This bloke couldn't even run a bath." But sadly, Labour party members have been too caught up in their staunch idealism to realise this. They have failed to accept that the majority of people in this country don't agree with them and that such a divisive and hard-line politician could never credibly lead Her Majesty's Opposition. Reality, it seems, is not a word in their vocabulary. 
Corbyn's mandate can only go so far. Really, what his mandate shows is that the far-left is still comfortable with sitting in its own echo-chamber talking to itself, rather than appealing to the general public and ensuring the Labour Party's electability in 2020. If this conflict within the party continues, and if Corbyn decides to fire more MPs who disagree with him, then the next four and a half years will be disastrous for the country. Unless Corbyn realises that the Labour Party is no longer the hard-left party it once was, and unless he can finally unite the MPs on the benches behind him, then the poorest people in society, those who desperately need a Labour government, will continue to suffer - and they'll know who to thank.

I'm 18 Years Old: Why Am I So Terrified of Death?

I’m young, I’m healthy, and, most importantly, I’m relatively happy. I was born into a loving family and I have an excellent group of supportive friends. I’m on a gap year, and next year I’ll be starting university. Life’s swell. But still, I’m perpetually haunted by the thought of my own death.

It’s not so much old age, the sadness of incapacity, the pain of disease, or even the thought of dying that scares me – it’s what comes after. The everlasting emptiness; the utter lack of sentience and thought; the inconceivable nothing.

Of course, I try not to think about it. I distract myself by working, reading and socialising. But distraction is and can only be a temporary solution. When I’m alone, this harrowing thought always returns: that one day, I will no longer be able to think, to worry, or even to be afraid, a thought so eloquently expressed by Philip Larkin’s famous poem Aubade, in which he describes death as “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.”

And he’s right: there really is “nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” You miss the point if you claim that death is not to be feared because we will not be able to feel or experience it: this lack of feeling and experience is precisely what keeps me up at night. And what is more, death is the one event in our lives that is inevitable. Everything else is just a tiny blot on the timeline of eternity.

So perhaps I’m not the only one who harbours these fears: after all, Larkin felt the same. But Larkin wrote Aubade when he was in his mid-50s, and his life was largely a concoction of miserable circumstances. I’m only 18, and I have everything to live for. Shouldn’t I be enjoying my time as a teenager, unrestrained by the constant presence of the inevitable? Shouldn’t I be careless like everybody else my age? One thing is certain: I shouldn’t be waking up at night, fearful of time’s passing and the idea that every second I grow closer to the day of my death.

I know what I ought to think, that I’m lucky to be alive, and that I’m lucky to live comfortably in a secure environment. Of course I am. But that doesn’t dispel my dread; in fact, it makes it worse, because I know that one day my luck will run out, and that this glorious life that I’m so fortunate to have been blessed with will one day end. Even my agnosticism and the hope of an afterlife that I so pitifully cling to don’t help: they only make the future more uncertain.

To make matters worse, the more I think about the peculiarities of my dread, the more I feel estranged from the people around me. I’ve written countless poems about my fear, many of which were met by baffled awkwardness and laughter. Nobody else seems to feel as I do, of if they do, they hide it. I recall going to a councillor last year to discuss how I felt, and even she was puzzled by what I told her. If my angst is normal, it certainly doesn’t feel like it.

In fact, I’ve recently become embarrassed about my fear, as if there’s something dreadfully wrong with me that I have to keep quiet about. I almost feel ashamed. But doesn’t everyone feel as I do? Aren’t we all afraid of what is to come? Isn’t that why Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy is one of the most famous pieces of verse ever written?

According to Lisa Fritscher, an expert in phobias, fear of death is, in fact, quite common. Then why does nobody talk about it? Is it because we are all trying to forget about it and distract ourselves? Perhaps this is part of the problem: perhaps if others talked about their feelings, then we may all feel more comforted that we are not alone in our distress. After all, death is central to the human condition: poets talk about it, so why don’t ordinary people?

I try to live my life to the fullest and to embrace the opportunities I have, to enjoy myself and to help others. But it’s hard to do this when I feel not only afraid of what the future holds, but also alienated by others, alienated because nobody seems to share my feelings. If it really is true that my fears are not unique, then why do I still feel like I shouldn’t discuss them? Why is it still taboo to talk publically about our feelings, our fears and our anxieties?

It’s time to stop sweeping these problems under the carpet and telling people to “get on with it”. It’s precisely this stalwart attitude that has made my anxieties all the more potent, making me think that I am alone as a young person who worries about mortality.

In 2016, we must strive to bring mental health and issues like these more into the public sphere. Only then will people begin to feel less estranged by those around them. Only then will people feel more comfortable with discussing their fear or their sadness, and perhaps, through discussion, these problems may be overcome.

"By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept..." - T.S. Eliot and the Refugee Crisis

It’s quite rare that I cry. I’m normally quite good at staying composed and outwardly controlling my emotions. But during my time in Lesbos, I struggled. I remember sitting in a cafĂ© in the port of Mytilene and looking out at the Aegean Sea with tears running down my face. As I sat there by the water, I couldn’t help recalling a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…”

Eliot wrote a large part of “The Waste Land” on the shores of Lake Geneva, known by many in France as Lake Leman. He was suffering at the time from what he called ‘aboulia’, defined as a lack of will and motivation. Really, it seems, he was in a state of anguish, lamenting the horrors of life and the imperfections of the human race. The line I have quoted has often been read as a reference to Psalm 137, in which the people of Israel, having been exiled to Babylon, weep by a river as they recall their glorious past in Jerusalem. Eliot, along with the entirety of Europe, was similarly mourning for a lost past – the glory of Europe before the devastation caused by the First World War.

So just as Eliot mourned the sadness of WW1, so I wept for the refugees who never made it to the safety of Europe, who lost their lives in trying to secure a better future – Eliot and I were both in a state of anguish. But I suppose I, too, was weeping for a lost past – not my own past, but the past of the refugees. Like the Israelis in Psalm 137, the refugees of today have been forced to leave their homes and their countries, the places they were born and the places they grew up.

But they have lost far more than just that – not only have they had to leave their countries, but they have witnessed first hand the destruction and the ruin of the world around them. They have seen their friends and loved ones killed and injured in the horrors of war, only to arrive with nothing on European shores and to be housed in what was once a Greek prison, now a registration camp for refugees. It’s no wonder that shock and grief often characterize the faces of refugees in Lesbos’ Moria camp.

So, I wept not only for those who have died, but for the lost beauty and happiness of Syria before the civil war; I wept for the lost beauty and happiness of Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban; and I wept for the past of all nations now torn apart by war and the devastation it brings. Eliot, I’m sure, would have wept with me in Lesbos, pitying the dreadful nostalgia and suffering of those arriving on the Greek island.

It was this reflection that got me thinking about Eliot in the context of the refugees travelling to Europe. It’s rare that I turn to deceased anti-Semitics for advice and guidance, but that is what I did. I opened my book of Eliot’s poems and I was struck by the connections and links between Eliot’s work and the refugee crisis of today. He was, after all, a great poet, and all great poets have an unparalleled awareness of the human condition, of human suffering and of existence itself.

One of the most obvious connections is seen in Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”, a conversion poem about the journey of the three wise men to Bethlehem. The first few lines immediately caught my eye:

“‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey;
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’”

Like the refugees, the three wise men walked night and day for miles and miles to reach their destination. And like the refugees, they miss their homeland, “The summer places on slopes, the terraces,” particularly when they compare it to the new lands they are travelling through, “the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly” and “the lack of shelters” (lines that remind me of the horrendous conditions and police brutality I witnessed in Calais). Eliot clearly understands the hardships of travelling long distances through alien and strange places.

In another one of Eliot’s poem, “A Cooking Egg”, the speaker idolises his or her future in Heaven (“I shall not want Honour in Heaven / For I shall meet Sir Philip Sidney…”), and again this got me thinking about the journey to Europe. All humans tend to idolise the future: the grass is always greener, as they say. And, of course, the grass is greener in Greece, Italy and the rest of Europe: these countries aren’t ravaged by war.

And yet, many of the refugees I spoke to were disappointed, and it’s no surprise: as I said earlier, the conditions in the camps are horrendous. The hospitals are full of refugees suffering from hypothermia, and some have even died from the cold. These are people who were once wealthy and successful, now lining up in the freezing weather just to ask hesitantly for a warm jacket or a sleeping bag. And what is more, the European Union is struggling to handle this crisis. Like Prufrock, the self-conscious man who is unable to sing his love song, the EU is failing to act effectively, if at all.

It is this failure and this lack of a political solution that has now turned parts of Europe, including parts of Lesbos, into a waste land – there’s no other way to describe it. Moria camp, where I volunteered, is an old olive grove that has now turned into a wet and muddy dump with a huge puddle in the middle. Like in Eliot’s “Waste Land”, the trees are dead and nothing can “grow / Out of this stony rubbish…” Indeed, the soil has been so polluted by faeces and waste that no vegetation will be able to grow there for at least ten years.

“I had not thought that death had undone so many,” Eliot comments, and one could say the same when watching the crowds of refugees walking through Europe. War, and indeed death, has undone them all, their lives, their families and their countries. And there seems to be no real hope: the huge influx of refugees has left the EU in huge trouble. There’s no easy answer, but perhaps Eliot can provide us with some guidance.

“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata…” are the three Sanskrit words (meaning “Give. Sympathise. Control…”) employed by Eliot at the end of “The Waste Land”. He suggests that if we give, sympathise, and control, then we can overcome our problems and improve the wasteland in which we live. Perhaps, by acting according to these words, we can also solve the current refugee crisis.

However we decide to confront this crisis, we must act with humanity, kindness, and sympathy. This is the only way forward, as reflected in Eliot’s words. But we must also act with control rather than with knee-jerk reactions spurred on by intense emotions. Germany’s decision to open its borders completely was an act of love and kindness, but it was not one of reason: Germany’s reintroduction of border controls on the 14th of September demonstrates this need for control. We cannot have open borders – it simply wouldn’t work. However, we can come up with a sensible, rational solution that validates the humanity and compassion of the European Union. It’s in this sense that I think Eliot’s words can guide us.

I suppose my experiences in Lesbos have endorsed and confirmed the skill of Eliot as a poet and his knowledge of the human condition, a knowledge that transcends time and place. He understands the struggles of nostalgia and change; he recognizes the difficulties and hardships faced by those fleeing their homelands and arriving in strange new places; he grasps the flaws and inhibitions facing the human race, particularly in times of crisis; and, finally, he provides hope, hope that one day the refugee crisis that we face can be addressed and perhaps solved. Our solution will only work, however, if we recognise and sympathise with the hopes and dreams of those who flee their countries. It will only work if we allow love to guide us in our decisions.

Personal Reflections on my Experiences in the Calais "Jungle"

Europe is in the throes of a crisis: the largest influx of refugees since World War II. Fleeing the horrors of the Syrian Civil War, Assad’s ruthless regime and the imminent threat of Islamic State, thousands upon thousands of Syrians are gathering their meagre possessions and setting out on the treacherous journey to Europe. Governments are paralysed, press coverage is ambivalent, yet the human tragedy is all too real, regardless of politics. This autumn, I felt I had to do something to help, however small.

I travelled to France as a volunteer with the charity Help Calais, which distributes vital supplies to the refugees living in the so-called ‘Jungle’. I was 18 years old, alone and uncertain, but I wanted to look behind the headlines, to see the crisis for myself. Never did I think that this experience would so dramatically change my perspective on the world; not only did I witness real human suffering, but I also came to realize that, whatever we label these people and however they are presented in the media, they are all human beings, just like you and me. Every day I spent in Calais, I discovered I had more and more in common with the refugees than I could ever have imagined. They welcomed me into their makeshift homes, offering me food and cups of tea, despite having so little for themselves. They smiled, they hugged me, and they talked to me about their hopes, hopes of becoming doctors or lawyers and studying in English universities. I began to realize that these people – whose lives had been decimated by war - are doing precisely what we are at liberty to do every day of our lives: pursuing their dreams. It soon dawned on me that, if I was living in Syria, Gaza, Eritrea or other such countries afflicted by war, persecution or abject poverty, I would have done exactly the same thing, and I would be in exactly the same desperate situation as they are in now.

It was this epiphany that fundamentally affected me as a person, bringing home to me the truism that we are all created as equals in this world, and that collectively we all deserve to be treated with love and humanity. Refugees have suffered ineffable pain during their journeys, witnessing the deaths of friends and loved ones. No one deserves to live in a camp nicknamed the ‘Jungle’ because of its terrible conditions; no one deserves to be treated as an animal because of their origin or skin colour; and finally, whether these people are refugees or economic migrants, they still have the right to live fulfilling lives. This is why I was so sickened by the violence of the Gendarmes, who bulldozed refugees’ tents and destroyed possessions, including passports, immigration papers and family photographs. I saw grown men weeping and young children fleeing tear gas and rubber bullets – these are the images that shall always haunt me.

During my time in the Jungle, I met the most inspiring group of people and I heard the most astonishing stories, stories of incredible hope and stories of heart-breaking loss. My experiences in the camp encouraged me to reexamine my own life: though I worked hard in school, the opportunities I have before me are as much the product of luck as they are endeavour. And so, as I enter adulthood, I understand my duty to make the most of my chances so that, one day, I can make a difference in the world.

My article about police brutality in Calais and the overall plight of refugees: