like a huge crop of stones that had sprouted up in the evening
I don’t ordinarily take review requests, but last month, Shelley Harris, author of the amazing Vigilante, put out a call on Twitter for her friend Bev Jackson’s memoir of a month working with refugees in Lesvos. My friend Esther and I both follow Shelley, and Esther suggested that I take it on. It seemed different and unusual, so I did, and I am so glad. Jackson has written a thorough, surprisingly funny, wonderfully human book about doing what you can in this awful, disorganised, seemingly-imploding world.
She and her wife Heleen had booked a journey to Nepal for October 2015, but the tour was cancelled due to undersubscription. The two women decided instead to use that time volunteering in Lesvos, assisting those fleeing violence in the Middle East. (Many are Syrian, but not all; Jackson meets Afghanis, Iraqis, Persians, Pakistanis and others.) Jackson describes herself as a former hippie and political activist whose fire has been dampened by adult responsibilities; she demonstrated against apartheid as a student but “bumbles along around the midway mark between saintly and satanic, as I guess most people probably do.” It’s this sort of self-deprecation that makes her narrative voice such fun to listen to. She lives in Amsterdam and I can’t help feeling that such charming matter-of-factness must rather suit her to the Netherlands.
One of the really important things that A Month With Starfish does is describe what actually happens when refugees get to the island: where they usually arrive, where they’re sent, what happens to them at the processing camps, and how they journey onward from Lesvos to mainland Greece and thence to the rest of Europe. It’s terribly easy, from the point of view of a European watching or reading the news, to lose sight of the fact that arriving on Lesvos is just the first step in a much longer journey, and that traversing the length of the island itself can be a long and bureaucractic process. Jackson and Heleen volunteer with an organization called Starfish run out of a restaurant called The Captain’s Table in Molyvos, one of the large towns on the island. They mostly work in a processing camp called Oxy, several miles from the beach at Eftalou. When refugees arrive in boats, they turn up on Eftalou’s sands and are then bussed periodically away from the coast to Oxy, where they are given food, basic clothing and supplies, and medical attention if necessary. They’re then bussed down to Mytilene, further south, where there are two camps: Kara Tepe, for the Syrians, and Moria, for the non-Syrians.
For the most part, the systems to take care of the refugees are well designed and integrated, and Jackson never loses sight of how beautiful and enjoyable Lesvos is: she writes with great affection about Nadia, the woman who hosts them for the month, and her gorgeous garden. There is a heavy reliance on technology: all of Starfish’s volunteers are connected through a WhatsApp group, which they use to communicate. Mainly this communication takes the form of calls for assistance. Jackson uses it at one point to request backup at the food tent, which is threatening to collapse under the pressure of people pushing at it from outside; an older volunteer, a German man, uses it to plaintively ask where the key to the “sandwich factory” has been left. Yet there’s a sense of great camaraderie amongst the volunteers themselves. One night, Jackson and Heleen are invited for a drink with their next-door neighbours, and the group of six stays up until 1:30 a.m. talking about politics. Jackson hears later that some of them went out drinking and dancing until 5 in the morning, and wonders idly whether any romances have blossomed over the cartons of donated clothes and lentil soup. It humanizes the relief effort to an extent that I found truly salutory. The refugees are people just like us, sure, but so are the aid workers.
There are some lovely moments of connection and reflection. In the clothes tent, an Arabic woman who speaks no English presses her hand to her heart, then waves it around to encompass the whole area: “I didn’t understand a word she said,” Jackson writes, “but I understood completely.” Another man asks for milk for his children. A boy they’re trying to register changes his age several times, wondering aloud whether it is more advantageous to be seventeen (a minor) or twenty-one. In a moment of glorious sly cultural clash, Jackson tries to learn some basic Farsi on her phone and is temporarily baffled:
I found a site with essential phrases like “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and “When are you coming back?” Oh, that was part 5. I looked for part 1.
“You are big!”
“The light wraps you.”
“A red rose is like a hot kiss.”
“I want to do to you what spring does to the cherry trees.”
Essential phrases indeed.
There are some real issues with the situation on Lesvos, though, and they can’t be laid at the door of volunteers, who are working in shifts twenty-four hours a day with the limited supplies and finances provided by donors. The quote at the top of this review refers to the refugees forced to sleep overnight at Oxy when the bus system breaks down; they huddle in regulation grey blankets like inanimate objects cast indiscriminately over the earth. Moria, the camp for non-Syrians, is an unhygienic mess when Jackson sees it, with filthy, overflowing toilets and large families forced to sleep on the ground. Kara Tepe, by contrast, is UNHRC-run, the toilets spotless. Everyone seems to have a roof over their heads, usually provided by a little cabin-like module. (She later speaks to an Italian UNHRC worker who assures her that Moria is being “prepared” for cleanup. It may have happened by now, although I confess to feeling distinctly skeptical.) I know little enough about international politics, so I have no idea whether it’s significant that the camp only for Syrians is significantly cleaner and of better quality. It’s this sort of news that makes one wonder, then worry, then suspect, then despair. Why should there be such awful disparity? Why should it be so difficult? There’s almost always money involved in such things, and the idea that money should be changing hands over these shattered lives is dreadful to contemplate.
Jackson also doesn’t flinch from portraying the sometimes less-than-supportive attitude of Lesvos citizens; many of them are descended from refugees themselves, and are fully supportive, but others are worried about their livelihoods and about the impact of the boat arrivals on the island’s tourist industry. One shopkeeper tells her that the refugees only come to Lesvos because the volunteers are there to help them. Jackson is gently baffled by this, too; her response to the shopkeeper is respectful, but firm. “Did the shopkeeper really think,” she wonders, “that the Turkish boat mafia chose destinations on the basis of how likely it was that volunteers would be on hand with water and dry socks?” (The prevalence of far-right ideas in some corners of the globe is touched on again when Jackson and Heleen have to explain to a fellow volunteer, a Persian, that Hitler is considered bad in Europe. He has been extolling the virtues of King Darius, the Persian king often associated with cruelty; the difference of perspective is fascinating and sensitively conveyed. The two women part from the volunteer with a promise to reconsider their opinions of King Darius, while he in turn promises to re-evaluate Hitler.)
There is a certain amount of distancing that is necessary in order to work in such close proximity with the distressed. Jackson is aware of it in herself, and sees the effect of trauma on people like the volunteer Kenny, who was present at a terrible shipwreck in October where as many as eighty died, many of them children. Kenny spent hours trying to revive those tiny bodies, bending over them as their parents stood nearby, screaming and weeping. There is no formal provision for counselling volunteers once they’ve left the beaches. Jackson knows she is keeping some of herself back; most of her work, due to her bad hip, is in places like the clothes and sandwich tent, where she doesn’t see quite the level of raw and immediate emotion (whether that be desperation or joy) that the beach volunteers do. It raises an interesting question: how do you provide effective aid—emotional as well as merely physical—while still taking care of yourself?
Jackson’s book is important for raising those questions, and for being positioned somewhere between formal journalism and elaborately constructed memoir. She tells her story straightforwardly, not giving herself the luxury of too much metaphor or pontificating. If you want to know what it’s actually like to be on the front line of the refugee crisis, read A Month With Starfish.
Thanks very much to Bev Jackson for providing me with a PDF of A Month with Starfish. It was published on 9 February, and is available on Amazon for £6.99 in paperback, and in Kindle format for UK customers.