On the Greek island of Lesvos, volunteers and refugees are facing violent attacks from locals.
Each day, dozens of refugees wash up on the shores of the Greek island of Lesvos. They come at all hours and from many different shores.
These refugees will be in the midst of dangerous journeys across the ocean, having fled their homes. Some come to the shores of Greece for a shot at a better life, but most come simply to survive.
One Border Falls, Another Closes
Last week, Idlib—one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria—began to crumble as Russian-backed airstrikes eviscerated its infrastructure. Surviving residents fled in huge numbers to the neighboring nation, Turkey.
Turkey has been shouldering the vast majority of the world's refugees since the worldwide crisis coalesced in the 2010s, and they currently host over three million refugees. Following Idlib's fall, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that Turkey's borders were officially open because his nation could no longer handle the flows of refugees rushing out of Idlib.
This action was in violation of a 2016 Turkey-EU deal, in which the EU promised $6 billion to Turkey in exchange for their closed borders (though Turkey has only received roughly $3.2 million, which is perhaps the cause of Erdoğan's violation).
Many of Turkey's migrant population, aided or pushed by Turkish police, immediately attempted to flee Turkey for Greece, embarking on a journey across the Aegean Sea. Across the nation, Greek citizens and law enforcement officials have reacted violently, greeting refugees with tear gas, water cannons, and brutal attacks. Millions of refugees are now in prison-like camps on Greece's borders; others are still at sea, blocked by government ships on both sides.
Lesvos: A Microcosm of a Macro-Disaster
The island of Lesvos has seen a particularly harsh fallout from these recent events. Since the news from Turkey broke, local islanders have launched huge protests, establishing roadblocks and patrols to prevent migrants from moving from the sea into the camps.
In February, seven Lesvos inhabitants were arrested for planning violent attacks on migrants; following Turkey's announcement, journalists and aid volunteers have been injured by locals, and warehouses containing supplies and donations have been burned. Many of the organizations providing life-saving resources to refugees have been forced to shut down, and locals have been forcing boats to turn away from the island, resulting in the death of at least one child.
A far-right neo-Nazi party known as the Golden Dawn, which may be gaining prominence on the island, may be behind some of these actions.
Crumbling Patience: Lesvos Takes Fallout from the Syrian War
Lesvos's inhabitants were once praised for the strength of their solidarity. The island is vast and full of empty stretches of land, and the makeshift camps only take up a tiny fraction of its dry mountainous areas; but lately, the influx of migrants from Turkey and the threat of new government-built migrant centers have catalyzed a new wave of xenophobic violence.
The horrors of Lesvos's one major holding camp—Moria—are difficult to describe. The camp, designed to hold 3,000, currently holds over 20,000 refugees. Many languish there even though they have family and job prospects in the EU, held in limbo and exposed to disease and traumatizing violence, both of which run rampant in the camps.
In light of the recent riots, North Aegean governor Kostas Moutzouris has called for the declaration of a national emergency. However, politicians and human rights organizations have constantly called for an end to the misery on Lesvos since the crisis began five years ago.
Of course, all these events are tragic consequences of much bigger political movements. The EU's failure to accept more refugees—and its failure to support the people living in its nation's camps—have burdened the island with far more refugees than it can handle. "The Lesbos community has been abandoned by its own government for almost five years to deal with the consequences of a failed reception system. Like the refugee community, it is tired," said Sophie McCann, a Doctors Without Borders advocacy advisor.
In turn, the proliferation of refugees is the result of a complex humanitarian disaster, one that often has unfortunate consequences. "Refugees are not a bargaining chip to be played with at the whims of political leaders," said EuroMed Rights President Wadir Al-Asmar. "Europeans cannot look away from what might become one of the worst humanitarian disasters the war in Syria has brought on its people. Respecting international humanitarian law as well as the human right to protection and refuge remain the sole possible answer in the face of such indiscriminate violence."
The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, has killed 500,000 people, coming out to nearly 1 in 10 Syrians. The conflict was caused by many complex forces—including climate change, which led to a drought that resulted in congestion and economic stagnation in Syria's inner cities.
For the third installment of the Visionaries Project, we spoke to Sara Gozalo about capitalism, fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Sara Gozalo is an organizer currently based in New Orleans. Originally from Madrid, she describes herself as a "queer immigrant who believes in a world without borders and without jails, where everyone has the right to live in dignity." She currently works as a Unanimous Jury Specialist at the Promise of Justice Initiative, co-founded Students for Peace and Justice, and was formerly the Supervising Coordinator of the New Sanctuary Coalition and a member of the Worcester Global Action Network. We spoke with her about the insidiousness of capitalism, her work fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
LIBERTY PROJECT: I was wondering if you could give an overview of your experience in activism and organizing.
SARA GOZALO: I have been organizing for a long time. I've only been organizing professionally for the past three and a half to four years, but I organized when I was at UMass against the war in Iraq. We did a lot of workshopping and teachings about free trade agreements, and how capitalism was destroying the planet.
It seems like that was such a long time ago, and we're still dealing with the same issues. I think that a lot of organizing is understanding that you're running a marathon, and it's never going to be a sprint. It's going to be a lot of small victories along the way, but you're going to fight the same issues constantly. That can be pretty demoralizing, but it also means you can never stop.
I come from a family that's very political. My dad is an attorney in Spain, and when he was a student he got arrested and kicked out of school for organizing against Franco during the dictatorship. My mom was always very political, and I remember hating that when I was a little kid.
While I was going through my own immigration case, I realized how hard it is for someone with a ton of privilege, and I started to look into what it was like for people who aren't as privileged. I got very involved in the immigration issue. Since I moved to New Orleans, I've seen the same patterns in the criminal justice system.
I think New Orleans brings these issues together. It has been very impacted in terms of climate change. Louisiana has the highest numbers per capita of incarcerated people [in the US], and one of the highest numbers of migrants in detention. The city brings everything together, and ties in all the different aspects that I have organized around in my life. In the end, it is important to remember that they're all related to each other.
Where are you at now?
I moved to New Orleans this summer. My wife was born and raised here. I'm working at the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is an organization that does a lot of criminal justice work.
It's clear that all these issues are very interconnected. Lately it seems that there's been a particular resurgence of anticapitalist sentiment, though that was always there…Is that affecting your organizing at all?
I have been organizing with these anti-capitalists since the late '90s. It feels like the "resurgence" has been a long time coming.
When we were organizing around the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, we were very much organizing under the capitalist lens. Grassroots movements like Occupy and the movement for Medicare for All have ignited something even bigger now. It's become more mainstream.
The fight against capitalism is decades long, and its roots are in the people who are directly impacted, especially indigenous people all around the world. They have led that fight, because they know in their bodies what capitalism is doing to the world. I think it's important that now that conversation is part of western countries, especially the United States, which in many ways is the belly of the beast in terms of capitalism. Anti-capitalist organizing has been there forever; it just now feels like you can talk about it and people won't immediately discard you as someone crazy.
I want to make sure that [in spite of all the] now-mainstream groups that are taking this fight on—which is super important and necessary—we recognize how many people have been fighting this fight for so long and leading the efforts.
I first met you through New Sanctuary Coalition (an organization that provides legal support to immigrants in New York City). You were doing so much for them at once, and I was wondering what your reflections on that experience are.
NSC is one of the most powerful organizing groups that I have ever known, in terms of the numbers of people who are involved. Post-election, after Trump took power, it became very obvious that immigration was going to become one of the issues that he was going to attack the most. NSC grew because there are very concrete ways that people could get involved, and I think that is incredibly powerful. It's led by people who are directly impacted, but it really utilizes the number of people who want to fight alongside people who are directly impacted. That was a beautiful thing to see.
I've worked with other groups where there isn't a clear way for volunteers to get involved, and I think NSC recognizes that people can fight against the system with the support of others with more privilege. It's a great way to utilize the privilege that US citizens have. The [idea] that the people who are impacted lead, and you're showing up for solidarity—not to help or save anyone—is really important.
The accompaniment work, in particular, was hard for volunteers in that it was so boring, but it's such a good example of how much privilege US citizens have, and how important it is to show up and not feel like they're saving or leading. They're just standing in solidarity, which is an incredible exercise for everyone.
It did feel at times overwhelming, which obviously leads to a lot of burnout and the sense of, oh my God, I am never doing enough, because everything is an emergency.
It felt at times that I was just pouring oil on the machine as opposed to throwing a wrench in it. For instance, if a judge said, I need an asylum application in three months as opposed to the year, we became so good at meeting those demands that it felt like in some way we were contributing to them.
I think that's a constant in organizing. There's a big difference between asking, what can you today to help a person who's going to be deported unless they show up with an asylum application, and what can you do to dismantle the system? Of course you're gonna support the person who's dealing with something today and not think in bigger terms, and so those were some difficult moments.
I don't have the answer. Maybe we need organizations that do more direct impact service work, and other organizations that only do the disruptive work; maybe that's the balance that we could work towards.
When I was leaving this summer, a lot of people finally went out on the streets, and people got arrested by the hundreds. I think that's the energy we need in the streets, while organizations like NSC do the day-to-day work that's helping people stay in the country and not be deported.
Speaking of those larger systemic changes, are there any visions you have of changes that you would like to see happen on a large scale?
Yeah, so many.
First of all, we need to realign our belief system. Our bones, our insides, are so ingrained with this capitalist system of oppression. We make decisions on a daily basis that are informed by that upbringing. I admire Decolonize This Place and other groups that are really going to the roots of the problem, recognizing that unless we deal with those root problems, we're never going to affect systemic change.
For instance, we can't deal with climate change from a capitalist perspective. My friend was just fired for his job—which was to install solar panels—because they tried to unionize. We can't keep moving forward from the perspective of putting capital before humans and before the planet.
I really would like to see us having very honest conversations in which we start seeing, within ourselves and within our communities, how colonized we really are. We need to look at the root causes of the problem, if we really want to achieve any change that's going to make a difference, for our planet and for the survival of our communities everywhere in the world.
For instance, in Chile, I love to see the women who are protesting with everyone else and also bringing up the fact that the patriarchy is one of the biggest problems we have. Everything we see as an injustice has a root problem that's attached to racism and capitalism, and we need to address those, otherwise we're really not going to achieve the change that we want to achieve. Having these issues come into the light is an important step.
Women in South America sing against gender violence www.youtube.com
I think I would like to see more compassion in our organizing. I think we're all very angry. We're all very quick to attack each other while not understanding that organizing is hard. Organizing is the hardest thing you can ever do, because there are no models for the world that we want. We have to reinvent the world.
Because we don't have those models, even nonprofits and some of the most progressive groups continue to replicate the systems of oppression that we are fighting against. [We need to ask], what does the world that we want look like, as opposed to fighting against something with means we learned from something we're fighting against.
I've read a lot about how organizations can replicate the systems they're trying to take down—people will be like, let's change ICE, but it really needs to be abolished, and I feel like that's symbolic.
I also really admire abolitionists; their clarity about what they're fighting for could be used by all nonprofits and all other organizing groups.
Do you have any advice as to how to keep going in this long fight?
In your struggle, you have to allow yourself to be led by the people who are directly impacted, because in a way, people who are directly impacted don't have the privilege of giving up. When you surround yourself with people who have to keep fighting, it helps you keep fighting.
I would say surround yourself with a supportive community, with people that you trust and people you can confide in and talk with when things get hard. And I would say be compassionate with yourself. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. That doesn't mean you're a terrible person. Everybody makes mistakes, and learning from those mistakes is the only thing you can do; don't beat yourself up so much that it paralyzes you.
And take breaks. I have been planting trees, I started a compost bin in my backyard, and I am learning how to plant vegetables. Putting your hands on the earth is actually incredibly therapeutic, and it brings everything back to what matters the most, which is life and sustainability and love for each other and our planet. When you bring it back to those core values of what really truly matters, then it allows you to breathe a little bit easier.
The refugee crisis hasn't gone anywhere. But news outlets and political leaders everywhere are ignoring it—and xenophobia is making it worse.
Around 2015, the so-called European refugee crisis was topping every newspaper headline. Reports of the 5.2 million refugees pouring in from Syria and other war-torn countries that year led to mass calls for mobilization to create infrastructure and support systems for displaced peoples. The photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old who provided a name and face to the crisis, sparked international acknowledgment and inspired humanitarian activists all over the world.
Alan Kurdi, via Medium
But that was four years ago. What has happened to those 5.2 million since then?
Firstly, there are a lot more than 5.2 million now. According to the UN, as many as 63.5 million people have had to flee their homes because of conflict since World War II; and today, roughly eight thousand people per month arrive in Greece, Italy, and Spain from Syria, Guinea, Algeria, and neighboring countries. These numbers are staggering; the lives they describe are almost impossible to imagine. But each figure corresponds to individual experience and a body that likely has crossed countless miles of ocean to arrive on European shores. Though it is impossible to generalize their stories, the majority of these people are currently stranded in liminal places like refugee camps or living as undocumented citizens without access to rights, living wages, and other protections.
According to the Aegean Boat Report, around 20 boats have arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos alone in February 2019, carrying a total of 791 people. Lesvos's Moria Camp holds somewhere between eight to ten thousand refugees; it was initially designed to hold ten. Many have been there for over half a decade, and the conditions in the camp are becoming more and more unlivable by the day.
Moria Camp, via Al Jazeera
Many refugees go through hell and back to get there. Left with no choice but to flee violence and unlivable conditions, many spend thousands of dollars on hiring a smuggler who could carry them across the sea. The journey is treacherous—smugglers sometimes have deals with authorities or even pirates, and recent reports have revealed that the journey is more dangerous than ever before, with 1,600 to as many as 2,730 people dying at sea in 2018. The
UNHCR released a report which argued that although the official number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean fell last year, this was likely due to "reductions to search and rescue capacity coupled with an uncoordinated and unpredictable response to disembarkation." This in turn, "led to an increased death rate as people continued to flee their countries due to conflict, human rights violations, persecution, and poverty." As the world forgets, the little structure and safety netting that does exist inevitably falls apart.
The news is a strange beast. Some stories can dominate for months and fade out so suddenly it's almost like they never happened; particularly shocking acts of individual or random violence can consume headlines while systematic, long-term horrors can fade away, having lost their ability to capture audiences' attention. With countries like South Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan steadily experiencing mass exoduses for years and years at a time, and with the inundation of tragic stories and gory photographs from Syria, it's easy for ongoing horrors to slip underneath an ocean of facts and figures that seem too overwhelming to address.
It's also easy for governments to shirk off responsibility for taking in refugees, seeing as technically they are stateless and, therefore, are not protected by any citizenship rights. Though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees basic protections for all people on earth, it does not specify which countries are responsible for providing these protections.
But every political decision manifests in lived experiences. For example, when migrants arrive on the shores of Lesvos, they are sometimes met with volunteers who provide water and transportation to the camps. Families and individuals are assigned at random to tents, which are crammed next to each other, creating unlivable conditions.
Image via aljazeera.com
Lesvos, in particular, has an extensive volunteer population, but overall aid groups often work as band-aids, failing to heal the sources of a larger issue and failing to structure a pathway forward. Instead, aid groups and refugees languish on Lesvos, in the grey area of statelessness and global amnesia. NGOs are gradually shifting their focus to working with refugees and locals to develop long-lasting relationships and skills, which can propel migrants forward into new lives.
But in light of the antipathy many locals hold towards newcomers, and also because of the trauma, language barriers, or other struggles that migrants face, the process of adjustment is challenging and will require individualized attention, patience, and cohesive efforts. Reports reveal that the majority of refugees fleeing severe conflicts will have vestiges of trauma; the IRC reported high levels of depression and PTSD among refugees across the board.
A 2011 Oxford University study found that the best way for refugees to move forward is through integration into life in their new countries. Solutions lie in treating the wound at its source, addressing xenophobia, and fighting for fair opportunities to education, jobs, healthcare, and other vital structural support systems. On the other hand, stranding migrants in places like Lesvos—where they live in unsanitary and dangerous conditions, surrounded by strangers who may also be experiencing trauma, with no idea of if or when they will be able to leave—is a product of a collective worldwide amnesia, a refusal to see what is happening in real time.
Long-term, slow-moving challengers are not foddered for breaking news. Particularly massive floods of refugees might pique the interest of a world leader; an artist might draw attention to the crisis through an installation in a busy city; but always, the cycles of violence and erasure continue as the world gets caught up in shinier, brighter topics. But remembering and acknowledging what is happening is the first step to moving in a new direction.
Image via Oxfam Novib Academy
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City.
While U.S. policies block many refugees from entering the country based on arbitrary or prejudicial criteria, Asylum remains a federal protection from persecution or fear from persecution.
When Joe Biden spoke at the 2019 Munich Conference in Germany, he spoke highly of America's participation in the global community. He told the European leaders, "The America I see…does not wish to turn our back on the world or our allies." This stands opposed to the policies Donald Trump's administration has enacted. As Biden added, "The America I see values basic human decency, not snatching children from their parents or turning our back on refugees at our border," he said. "The American people understand…because it makes us an embarrassment. The American people know, overwhelmingly that it is not right. That it is not who we are."
While U.S. policies block many refugees from entering the country based on arbitrary or prejudicial criteria, Asylum remains a federal protection from persecution or fear from persecution. Individuals may file on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Asylum has actually saved the lives of multiple high profile figures.
Here are seven famous asylum seekers:
1. Albert Einstein (physicist)
The Nobel Prize-winning scientist fled Germany in 1933 in order to escape persecution from the Nazis. After his safe arrival in the. U.S., Einstein notably said, "I shall live in a land where political freedom, tolerance, and equality of all citizens reign."
2. Mila Kunis (actress)
Kunis and her family fled Soviet Ukraine during the Cold War. That 70s Show actress was seven years old when she was granted a refugee visa.
3. Gloria Estefan (singer)
Born in Havana, Cuba, the "Queen of Latin Pop" fled the country with her family when she was just two years old. After Fidel Castro led the Communist revolution in 1959, her family moved to Miami.
4. Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State)
Born in 1937 in what was then Czechoslovakia, her family fled Nazi persecution during World War II. Although they attempted to return, they had to leave permanently in 1948. She later became the first female Secretary of State.
5. Henry Kissinger (former Secretary of State)
After spending the first 15 years of his life in Germany, his family fled in 1938 during the early years of the Holocaust.
6. Marlene Dietrich (actress)
The Hollywood beauty started her film career in Germany in the 1920s. When the Nazis gained power, she fled to Hollywood, where she became an American citizen and made a point to perform for troops during World War II. Later, she said, "America took me into her bosom when I no longer had a native country worthy of the name."
7. Regina Spektor (singer)
After being raised in Moscow, the singer's family fled the Soviet Union when she was nine years old in fear of religious persecution. They settled in New York, where Spektor would later begin her singing career
This week, immigrant advocacy groups lobbied to block an order under the Trump administration that would force asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until their case files were seen in immigration courts. Based on the fact that lives could be endangered if the order were executed, the group stated that asylum seekers "are being returned to Mexico without any meaningful consideration of the dangers they face there, including the very real threat that Mexican authorities will return them to the countries they fled to escape persecution and torture." The federal courts have yet to make a decision on overturning the order.