Light, Camera, Action

Steven Heighton

From Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers & Refugees on Lesvos. Published by Biblioasis in 2020.

A   few nights ago, when I helped here briefly, the refugees were too cold and desperate to form a patient line. Today it’s the rainstorm pushing them in—seeking shelter as much as clothing. We need to do this fast. For a few minutes Klaus and Larry and I hold our own, the two men calling requests back to me—pants, large coat, small boy’s shoes, size eight—while I scramble, ducking the two hanging bulbs in the dully lit tent, locating stuff. Dieter and Oskar must have been here this morning; the tent’s contents have been ferociously curated; the good order is helping me keep up.

But every time I return with something, the front of the crowd has splayed wider and is pressing in harder. A young man edges sidewise around the barrier of the tables, speaking in Arabic as he points at his shoes and lifts his foot. The shoe flaps open like a puppet’s mouth. Larry orders him back. The man shrugs, tries again to explain. Two men are slipping in around the other side. Now a beefy man with a broad, aggressive smile—he is used to ordering, not asking—shoves to the front. None of the men he has bumped aside protest. I signal to the other two who are trying to slip in: please wait. They pause and nod, but as I hustle back toward the clothing bins I see them, peripherally, pushing in again. “Get the hell out of here!” Larry snaps, the first angry command I’ve heard any volunteer issue.

The big man is suddenly next to me at the back of the tent: carnivorous grin, black eyes flashing as he gestures toward a pair of oxblood brogues. His own shoes look scuffed but solid. I point back at the queue: “Please go wait in line.” He snatches the brogues and walks off, meanwhile raising his free hand like a stop sign, ordering the other men back. For a moment they retreat. Then they resume pushing in. Within minutes the tent is steaming with wet, shivering men rifling through bins and boxes. Their clouding breaths are rank with the ketones of hunger. Klaus, Larry and I have been demoted to mere observers trying to ensure that no one grabs more than one of anything.

“Larry, this guy here”—I nod toward a haggard adolescent, who’s pointing at his shredded trainers—“he still doesn’t have any shoes.”

“He checked all the shoes,” Larry snarls. “He just didn’t like the style.”

But Larry’s mood doesn’t affect his work ethic, and when the rush finally dies off he once more radiates fatherly goodwill toward everyone, refugees and volunteers alike. Does he mind if I go help out at the buses now? “Sure thing, Steve. You too, Klaus. We got a lot of folks into nice dry stuff, huh? I can hold the fort here on my own.”

I put on my fedora and splash past the two UNHCR tents, full of people sitting, eating a hot meal, waiting for their turn to board a bus. Kanella’s barking, muffled by the pelting rain, comes from inside the canteen hut where she has to stay at busy times. I join the other volunteers at the bus-boarding zone: five roped-off lanes sloping down to the lower parking lot, where a fleet of buses sit idling. The ropes, slung from rebar stakes pound­ed into the dirt, are trimmed with ribbons and parti-coloured scraps like prayer flags. These could be ticket lanes at an indie music festival.

On a wooden post at the head of each lane hangs a board painted with a symbol: red heart, black diamond, green flower, blue lemniscate, yellow circle (on which someone has drawn a happy face). Refugees travelling together receive chits marked with one of the symbols and line up accordingly, so that family and village units, as well as ethnic and linguistic groups, stay unified. Today I’ll be collecting the chits, counting out sixty—one busload, minus small children, who can sit on their parents’ laps—then admitting the group to a boarding lane closed off at the lower end by another volunteer.

Refugees are emerging out of the tents into the rain. A Dutch film crew is recording everything for a news documentary, the cameraman hunched under a streaming black poncho like a Victorian photographer under a cape. From the base of the lane, the shift foreman, an MFA student from Baltimore named Jaquon, yells something I can’t quite hear over the music now thumping out—the Clash, London Calling—but I think he said Two minutes.

The buses are backing into position. I turn to face the refugees—they’re getting soaked all over again—and raise two fingers. “Two minutes!” A man of about twenty-five stands at the front, a step away. His blue eyes bulge at me. His red hair, receding at the temples, is plastered to his skull. Trimmed goatee, skin sunburned pink. Among the darker, black-haired Syrians he looks almost albino. One of the men says something to him and he—keeping his eyes on my face—replies in Arabic. Then to me, in barely accented English: “Will there be enough buses?”

“I can’t say for sure”—I have to raise my voice over the Clash—“but I hope so. We hope so.”

“Why are you not allowed to say? This is some secret?”

“No, I mean I’m not sure.”

“You are not sure.” He stares, blinking rain out of his eyes. It’s pummelling down, dripping off the end of his nose, sluicing in streams off my hat brim. My jacket is damp and heavy. The people behind him look back and forth between us.

“You’re the first fluent English speaker I’ve met so far,” I say.

“Yes, I am acting as translator on our journey.”

“I’ve wanted to ask … I hope you don’t mind … the crossing … what was it like?”

A blank look—then he nods. “Good luck was with us. The water was only to our knees. I was scooping with a pail. But some were too afraid to do anything.”

“You weren’t afraid?”

“Something gave me strength,” he says, “for the crossing.”

At this point in the script, the cut and paste Muslim should praise Allah for lending him strength. This man shows no inclination to attribute his strength or survival to mediation divine or otherwise. His protrusive eyes look ready to pop from his skull in fury, as if I’ve done him some personal harm, though I sense he always speaks bluntly and maybe more so when translating his words.

“You ask me why I left Syria?”

“No,” I say, “but—I mean—I would ask.”

“I left because my president is trying to kill me. And because ISIL is trying to kill me. And because the Americans”—he blinks, eyelids red, as if unconsciously including me in an accusation he is trying not to spell out—“the Americans are trying to kill me. And the French are trying to kill me. And now the fucking Russians are trying to kill me.”

Seeing light and feeling heat, I glance to the side: the camera under the rain poncho is nosing in while a crewman gaffs a small arc light above it. The Syrian looks over, clears his throat with the word “enough” and melts back into the crowd. The camera halts, pans away downhill.

At the bottom Jaquon waves a limp, sopping baseball cap and yells up to me, “Let’s do it!” The frenzied opening bars of “Brand New Cadillac” rip through the rain as if on cue. I yank back the rope and the refugees start down while I collect their chits, trying to keep count.

Probably the Syrian’s brief speech was rehearsed—maybe while bailing out the raft during the crossing this morning? Maybe he sensed that his only chance to deliver it was now—that later, while queued up at European borders, he would be well-advised to say nothing.

While the refugees flow down the five lanes toward the buses, I notice several NGO reps standing around the film crew. There’s Andromache—a social worker from Mytilene, the island’s capital—who’s on subcontract with the UNHCR. Unlike the regular reps with their various team-logoed rain gear, she in her light parka and jeans is sodden, her blond curls pasted flat. She’s the only rep not making a point of constantly, flagrantly passing in front of the camera to log media hits for their brand. She smiles gamely and gives me the thumbs-up. I nod back, trying to keep my count.

When I look up again, a Dutch NGO rep across the lane is eyeing me from under the sagging brim of a Tilley hat. “Can we not turn off this ridiculous music?” Her pleading eyes are not unkind and for a moment I think I see what they see: OXY’s manic, make-do informality, the rutted bus lanes bannered with rags, the shingle overhead with its smiley circle like a sun in a toddler’s finger painting, the soggy chits, the shriekingly unsuitable playlist, the volunteers in their unmatching civvies …

Moments later, just after Joe Strummer bawls Jesus Christ, where d’you get that Cadillac, her wish is mysteriously granted. The music stops, its raving replaced by scores of voices, English and Arabic overlapping, some arguing (“Stop now, man, I think we’re over sixty!” Me: “No, I counted fifty-five!” Jaquon: “Better count again!”), and the rumble of buses, and the lashing patter of rain on mud. I start recounting and discover a note pencilled on a scrap of newsprint: WE THANK YOU. Runnels of muddy water are gushing down the lanes. Somewhere Shayn calls repeatedly, “Mind your step, mates!” And now—just as randomly as it cut out—the music revives, this time a Bollywood dance medley.

Despite the rain and cold, my own discomfort, my concern about the refugees (how can they not be exhausted and hypothermic by now?) and my novice fear of fucking things up, the day has become exhilarating, in fact beautiful. The refugees are clearly pleased, relieved to be making progress. Their feelings are contagious. The young ones high-five me as they stride past. The older men put a hand to their hearts—a gesture I’ve always loved and now mimic—or else shake my hand and chant, “Assalamu alaikum!” A few young men bearing chits for later buses try to push into the queue, but mostly everything clicks along. I’m swaying a little to the Bollywood bass line, in part to keep warm but also because of the unspoken esprit de corps now encompassing both volunteers and refugees.

Night falls early, the rain tapers to a trickle. By 7 p.m. the last available bus groans away and by the time my shift ends, at eleven, just a dozen refugees—three families—remain in OXY. They have one of the space-heated big tops to themselves. Maybe the extra room is a slight consolation; what they wanted, of course, was to move on with the others. We’ve served hot soup, pita bread and fruit to these few overnight guests, whom we get to pamper.

A car arrives from town and Omiros climbs out of the passenger seat with an unlit cigarette between his lips. He’s here for the overnight shift. I and a few others will return to town in the car. I put out my hand for a shake and he counter-offers a fist. As we bump fists, he says in his villainous Spanish basso, “I hear that some refugees will stay here tonight and take a rest.”

“They were disappointed at first,” I say. “They seem happier now.”

“I will go see them. I wish I could speak Arabic.” (I keep forgetting that he can’t, although his father was Syrian.) “I wish all of them could stay overnight, for a rest. More and more, they go straight to Moria, which is much too full.”

He issues me a statutory cigarette (all the volunteers smoke) and while I peer at my fingers holding it, he draws a lighter from his trenchcoat.

“Here, Stavros.”

“OK,” I inhale. “Thanks.”

No items found.

Steven Heighton

Steven Heighton received the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his 2016 collection The Waking Comes Late. He was the author of many books. His fiction and poetry have appeared in the LRB, Zoetrope, Tin House, Best American Poetry, Best American Mystery Stories and the Walrus.



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