MARKING A ONE year commemoration OF PIKPA eviction
Text by Elma Talić
On Freedom and the Unfree
The name of an island in the Aegean Sea has become synonymous with the notion of a European crisis. The violation of human rights and the fight for them – the island of Lesvos contains both. And while Lesvos has been about freedom and the unfree for quite some time, it is only now, with the easing of Covid restrictions and the longing for a vacation that the idea of freedom and warm Mediterranean can be brought together. The tireless human rights activist Efi Latsoudi moved to Lesvos in 2001 and has witnessed thousands of people crossing the sea, headed to find refuge inside the EU. For Efi, the warm Mediterranean sea must have been about freedom and the unfree.
With what seems a rather simple, common-sense idea – people seeking refuge should not face detention – Efi opened the first open camp called Pipka in 2012. Together with volunteers, the town of Mytilini, and the migrants and refugees coming into the camp, she created a space that is, in many ways, an alternative to refugee camps found in Greece and elsewhere – a dignified shelter with a community-based approach. In a political system in which the policies act against the refugees and people helping them, "it is important to propose and show that it can happen", Efi states and Pipka indeed serves as the (needed) example.
SCENES FROM PIKPA CAMP
"The work we are doing is about freedom", Efi puts it. For her, "it is not about changing this kind of monster that is trying to have all the territory under its control, but to - under the current (political) setting - have the freedom to believe that what is happening is not right and be able to express it.
"We created a space in a very negative environment; some cracks in the system." The image of cracks, "like small islands", in an oppressive system, is powerful yet simple. The sense of simplicity carried in Efi's words does not negate the widely used expression: the situation is complicated. On the contrary, Efi highlights the issues and challenges that the media perhaps does not, such as, what she calls, a lack of balanced support and the local communities feeling unsupported, and the problems that come with the mechanisms for humanitarian aid that involve big NGOs. She recognizes the dilemma: "Am I going to support a place of suffering, knowing it is there because of a political decision and not a lack of resources?"
A line emerges here that separates individual human decency and the political cynicism of collective governmental and national bodies. The political and cultural climate, mediated by the media, with their othering attitude, is juxtaposed to Efi's work and the work inside similar "small cracks".
"Human nature is many things," Efi affirms, and both solidarity and fear are human responses to perceived crises. Efi recalls the year 2015: "In 2015, Pikpa was like a laboratory of solidarity, with so much interaction between people, sharing so much passion and also fear, despair, creativity, hope – everything was there." Along with this first-hand experience of solidarity and togetherness, Efi experienced the fear-filled side of 2015, when the representation of refugees and the organizations helping them worsened significantly. The expression "illegal migrant" has been used to justify the treatment; the terms such as "flow" or "flood" of people to dehumanize and deindividualize, and to justify the pushbacks ("we can't take all of them in"!).
Demonstration against Pushbacks
Despite admitting to complexities, she finds yet another way to put things simply: "We need to keep our hearts open to people to rework this perceived image of the enemy - this could be anyone. Also, we need to talk about our future and how it is built on other people's suffering. Changing the narrative concerns us, not the refugees."
With her position in relation to this crisis, Efi is aware of both the direction and the urgency of making a change. "To shut down Pikpa is a mistake we cannot afford to make," Efi wrote in October, 2020. Nevertheless, the Greek authorities let it happen and moreover, Moria camp burned down in the same year. Now, people face new restrictions. Detention is justified by the fight against the spread of COVID-19. Medical support is even more limited – again, due to the pandemic. The limits of movement made it almost impossible to witness the illegal pushbacks done by the Greek coast guard.
I believe that our current shaken sense of freedom should not be overseen. A crisis that disrupts our numbed-through-repetition daily lives can be a productive state for rethinking and reconstructing the foundations of our individual and communal lives. However, the scope and scale of this (re)thinking have to move beyond where we are now. Back to the coast of the warm Mediterranean sea, we need to go beyond the newly discovered appreciation for the outdoors and the renewed energy after the slow-paced lifestyles and face what is beyond – the crisis and those on the other side.
pikpa resident in their garden
MARKING A ONE year commemoration OF PIKPA eviction