David and Sophie Lapp Jost were participating in a learning tour on the Greek island of Lesbos with the German Mennonite Peace Committee when a camp housing more than 12,000 migrants and refugees burned. Here Sophie reflects on this microcosm of worldwide injustice. The Lapp Josts serve in Germany through Mennonite Mission Network. David with the German Mennonite Peace Committee and Sophie as the pastor of Bammental Mennonite Church. Read more about the fire.
When we planned our September trip to Lesbos, we expected to enjoy a few days of rest, followed by a study tour to learn about the experience of migrants, refugees and solidarity workers on the Greek island. Two days after our arrival, a crisis erupted at the island's Moria camp, upending our plans and the lives of more than 12,000 people.
The night of Sept. 8, a fire burned the larger of three camps on the island. Although most of our time was spent meeting with human rights workers, the five people in our study tour became personally involved in small ways. For example, my husband, David, created online giving options for people in the United States, where this crisis receives little attention. We helped purchase snacks for minors and deliver supplies to a small group of refugees.
Parts of my experience on Lesbos were surreal. Some of the horrors of the past five years and the present are difficult to imagine when looking out over blue water to the Turkish mountains in the distance. More visceral sights included a secret cemetery with graves of known and unknown people, ages spanning infancy to the elderly. We visited a landfill of discarded life vests and torn inflatable rubber rafts hidden in the mountains.
As we met with non-governmental organization (NGO) workers, certain things seemed less hopeless. A point of agreement with almost everyone was that it was for the best that the Moria camp burned. The migrants were miserable there and glad to be out, even if their future remains uncertain. Lesbos residents are glad, both those in solidarity with the migrants and those who are not. The former because they felt Moria was inhumane, the latter, because of their anti-immigrant views. The NGO workers, who labor non-stop to support people living in such desperate situations, are also glad. All these people are united in their desire to get migrants and refugees off the island to better circumstances. What blocks their desire is the noncooperation of the Greek government, further complicated by European court rules and reduced immigrant quotas of other European countries.
A shocking development on Lesbos and other Greek islands is the increase in pushbacks, the practice of putting refugees who have reached shore onto boats and literally pushing them back towards Turkish waters. Sometimes boats intercept refugees still at sea and transfer them into dinghies without motors to be picked up by the Turkish coast guard. Pushbacks are illegal and are officially denied by the Greek government, but reports from those who have experienced it continue.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this whole situation for me is recognizing how much the societies in which I grew up — and currently belong to — have created the problem. The United States' wars in Africa and the Middle East have caused many people to lose their way of life and livelihood in their own countries. Yet, the United States refuses to accept refugees. Europe has done something, but not nearly enough. Germany has taken in many refugees and will take in 1,500 more after this crisis. Other European countries have taken in refugees as well, but in much smaller numbers relative to their size and population.
The border crises in Europe and the United States might not appear similar at first glance, but they are identical in many ways. Both involve long-term crises imposed by powerful countries in the global North on vulnerable countries, followed by restrictive border policies that forcibly exclude people trying to flee. In each circumstance, economic systems are built to favor those who are wealthy and White. Both employ internment camps that force people to choose between starvation and inedible food. Violence against women and children occur in both situations, as do the separation of families. Dead bodies are discovered at border sites, whether along the shore or in the desert.
Please keep the people of Lesbos in your prayers. The situation is complicated by COVID-19, the Greek authorities, and local people who are unhappy with what life in the last decade has become on the island. David and I appreciate prayers for ourselves and for our study group as we continue to discern the best ways to advocate for relief for migrants in Greece, and for more generous immigration policies in Europe.
When presented with these situations, we often turn to the theme of hope. Like those working in solidarity with migrants on Lesbos, I hope the burning of the Moria camp will be a signal that something must change. My ability as a visitor to bring change to this suffering in an island paradise is limited. But I can tell people about it.
Some solidarity workers prefer to the term "migrant" to "refugee" because "migrant" doesn't assume legal country boundaries. Borders are a human construct, something created to separate, oppress, and keep out the "Other." As I flew back to Germany, this reality became clearer to me. We flew low enough that I could see the landscape below. But without checking Google Maps, I had no sense of what country we were flying over. The mountains merged into the hills and fields as seamlessly as they were created, without fences, or the invisible lines of differentiation.
As a Christian, I understand my role in this world is to work for something that is exactly the opposite of borders. My hope at the end of this tour lies in this mindset of Christ. Putting my hope in Jesus doesn't mean I leave the work to him. Rather, I am called into action, to advocate against oppression, against war, against injustice.