Access Denied

Context: The procedure for accessing the refugee camps drastically shifted only 5 days before our arrival, affecting many of the previously made plans for performances within those camps. Stay tuned for another blog later today with more details about the Greek authorities’ approach to refugee processing. 

Baltimore to JFK, JFK to Heathrow, Heathrow to Athens, Athens to Lesvos. When we finally arrive, it is late in the evening. The clowns, Sabine Choucair, Jan Damm, and myself look for our bags, filled with colorful costumes, kazoos and a trumpet, bubble wands and hulahoops, juggling clubs and hats. Our tools of trade roll around the corner of the conveyor belt, and I feel the anticipation of what is about to begin.

As we head to our villas, the sun has already dropped below the mountain ridgeline surrounding the island, leaving us in the dark of what might greet us in the morning light. Our host shows us to our rooms and despite my exhaustion from 36 hours of travel, I lay awake in my bed, wondering what the next 12 days will bring.

When the clowns were here in October of 2015, the island was receiving close to 3,500 refugees a day. The numbers were staggering, and the NGO’s on the island struggled to keep up with the massive influx of people crowding into the camps. The clowns were greeted warmly by volunteers at the camps, eager for their contribution, eager for their work to begin. They performed 3-5 shows every day, reaching as many people as possible.

Quickly, we discover the Lesvos of 2016 could not be more different from this. We set out on day 1, gathering current information. Where and when can we start performing? We hope the answer is “anywhere” and “right now!” Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth.

The police guarding the entrance to Moria, the largest refugee camp on the island, tell us that now no one can enter the camp without a permit, this is a recent change and very much news to us upon arrival. We ask to speak to the supervisor, eager to explain who we are and why we are here. He refuses to see us, and we are ushered back towards the front gate. One friendlier guard, with a half smile, takes pity and offers some advice, “maybe you can talk to one the NGO’s working inside, to get access through them.” We already have many contacts at these NGO’s from our previous project in October. But, things have changed so recently, and access is mostly out of their control now. When we seek out these volunteers, they explain that access can only be granted through the police. They advise us to begin the permit process immediately, but no one can say how long that process might take, maybe 2 days, maybe 7. How frustrating!!!

As we stand beside chain link fences, topped with barbed wire, I realize that my worst fear about this project is coming true. We have come all this way and are now faced with the reality that we might not be able to perform for the people who need it most. Sabine sends her bubbles over the barbed wire, and I watch them float through the air into the camp, perhaps they can do some good for the people in the meantime. Luckily, clowns never stay down for long. We plan our next moves, contacting all of our partner contacts and beginning the arduous paperwork process for permits.

Lesvos_2016_Sabine, KolleenOn our second morning, we rise before the dawn. My tired eyes adjust as I tease my hair and put on my makeup. We are headed to the beach, if we cannot get into the camp, we are going to the source, hoping to be there to greet the new arrivals as the rubber boats pull up to shore. After driving through downtown Mytilene, the road becomes one single straight shot, a coastline lined with olive trees. We strain our eyes towards the water looking for boats, the mountains of Turkey looming in the nearby distance. We see a gathering of first responders, looking over the water with huge binoculars. Parking our car, we send our logistician, Tamara Palmer to ask if we can join the effort. The clowns hang back, a mess of tulle, tweed, and tightly crossed fingers. The first responders show us a much warmer reception and after we explain that we will only approach the people after we get a green light from them, they allow us to stay.

It’s hard to tell where the boats will land. They have no captain, and their perilous journey is guided by the current of the water. Their trajectory changes frequently and we follow the first responders as they move along the coast, figuring out exactly where they need to be. We learn that the Coast Guard has been intercepting as many of the boats as possible before they reach the shore. They scoop up the new arrivals and take them directly to the port to be processed. Perhaps this helps prevent the challenging arrivals on the beach, maybe it is better for the refugees? But, we have no way of knowing the kind of reception those people are getting from the Coast Guard. Will they be given dry clothes? Warm blankets? Food? Comforting reassurance of safety?

Lesvos_2016_KolleenWe do not know, but we can only hope they are being treated with dignity. One thing is for certain, there are no clowns on the Coast Guard boats. And perhaps this warm reception is exactly what officials want to avoid. Local volunteers explain that families who have arrived are sending word back home about these helpful greetings, and with pressure being put on Greece to control the influx of people, this message is the last thing authorities want being spread.

By nearly 8am, one boat does make it to shore. The first responders rush in, helping people out, and we wait in the wings while they do their good work. After getting the ok, we delicately, but eagerly, make our way over. The mood on the beach is calm, people huddle together with blankets and water. The children sip water and munch on some snacks, their eyes wide, absorbing what has just happened to them. We make our way among them, and they turn their eyes on these strange creatures with curiosity. A flood of bubbles fills the beach. I trumpet my kazoo and Jan slips and falls on his butt dramatically. A group of children nearby burst into laughter. An aide worker panics, rushing to help him get up. When she sees the red nose, she puts her hand on her chest and breathes a sigh of relief before jokingly wagging a finger at him.

Our time on the beach, while brief, is so rewarding. One woman holds a small baby with brown eyes like giant saucers. I smile at him and he smiles right back; it fills my soul to see such happiness come over his face. His mother laughs with delight, looking at her beautiful son. After lots of love, laughs, and bubbles, the new arrivals load up on the bus to their next stop. As they pull away tears fill my eyes, overwhelmed by having finally gotten to connect with these children and families.

Will we get a chance to perform in the main camps? Our first few days are filled with endless paperwork and running around from one lead to the next….will they let us in? The camps where the refugees are will not allow us access and the volunteer-run camps where we are granted access, have no refugees (for now). What a disheartening process!!! Good thing we are clowns. I am grateful for the strength of the team and the support of everyone back at home, cheering us on. I am hopeful that we will get into Moria.

Lesvos_2016_Sabine, Kolleen

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