Oscar Wilde professed the following enigmatic view: the majority of people are other people. This eccentric cipher lends itself to diverse interpretations. One of them is that every human being constitutes a mosaic of multiple identities which issue forth according to circumstance. It is thus also with the refugee. He is not only a person escaping from war; in parallel, he can be a father of two children, a teacher, a sports fan, an animal lover. He might even have been the greatest collector of music records in his city. A case in point is that of the 19 year-old Sham from Pakistan. On the footprints of his compatriot Afzal Shauq’s The Peace Wisher, Sham writes the most impressive poems for his age. Together with Ali Reza, film director from Iran, they are active at the Mosaik Support Center, the first cultural and educational center for refugees, which has been in operation since this July, in Mytilini, the capital of the island of Lesvos.
With daily lessons in Greek and English, and Arabic for the volunteers working at the center, with weaving workshops, the creation of various products from recycled materials, such as life jackets, and a very strong team offering legal services, the Mosaik Support Center, on Sappho Street, turned out to be a most useful center in the city, a precious and important tile in the large mosaic of integration.
Away from the refugee camps, the center operates in a renovated historical house built in 1868 — a date ingrained in the impressive mosaic of white and black pebbles , which dominates the entrance to the building. Here, the refugees confined on our island, rediscover their forgotten multiple identities and cultivate the arts and passions that once made them citizens of this world.
“With the signing of Europe’ s agreement with Turkey, we had to reconsider the framework of our work with the refugees. In the beginning, we catered to the needs of people who stayed only for a few days on the island. However, after the “deal” with Turkey, the situation changed. We understood that the processing of applications for asylum and, consequently, decisions on eventual deportations would take considerable time. As a result, the people who reached Lesvos would have to spend a substantial time here. They do not want to stay in Greece. They want to go to Germany and Sweden. They are “stuck” here, however, and they need to adapt to the local society and understand its language. This is what we were told by Chloe Haralambous, member of Borderline-Europe which, together with Lesvos Solidarity-Pikpa, undertook the creation of Mosaik.
Following major steps taken in the previous months by a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who are supporting unaccompanied minors and aim at their smooth insertion in their new environment, as well as the good work carried out by the hospitality center of Kara Tepe, Mosaik’ s engagement with the refugees is sustained by the people of Mytilini, in spite of the critical times they face.
“From the very beginning,” explains again Chloe Haralambous, “we came in touch with the people of the neighborhood. We shopped from the near-by market and took advantage of the contacts we made in order to give information as to our activities and aims. We faced minimal problems. Furthermore, a number of women who give lessons or take care of the children of students during their classes are from the island. We really aspired to that: having local people engage with the question of the refugees in their city. We equally aspired to bringing the refugees into the city, into a space totally different from the camps so that, for a few hours, they can exist not as refugees and come in contact with the local community.”
The program of Mosaik, to which 400 people have already registered, is open to everyone, on the condition that they attend regularly and apply themselves. Transportation is undertaken by public transport busses and discounted tickets provided to the student refugees by Doctors Without Borders in collaboration with Mosaik.
“We would also like to work with people from Moria,” continues Chloe Haralambous. “We hope to attract single adult men who constitute the largest number of refugees, especially, since there are many NGOs and structures who serve unaccompanied minors and families.”
Nevertheless, as it is usual with every cultural center, the women made their presence felt. “The truth is that we are full of women and babies, who were the first to arrive. This is the reason we allocated a special space to take care of infants and small children while their parents attend classes. Additionally, many people come to Mosaik to obtain legal assistance and advice from the recently formed Lesvos Legal Group, headed by Carlos Orjuela who says, “we are here to offer our services to whoever needs them and to inform them about issues regarding requests for asylum.”
“Our aim is to collect funds so that those working at Mosaik are paid. Volunteers come and go,” adds Chloe who is soon to leave for New York in search of donors to promote the work of Mosaik.
Chloe, whose origin is from Molyvos, has been on the island ever since the summer of 2015 and has witnessed, from the very beginning, the drama of the refugees who landed on the shores of Lesvos as well as the fluctuations in the attitudes of the local communities regarding this drama. “There is a great suspicion and skepticism towards the NGOs. From my experience in the village of Kleio and at the Kolios cheese factory, I understood that the reaction of the people was not so much against the refugees, but against the northern Europeans who “invaded” the island through the NGOs, a situation they considered hypocritical when juxtaposed to the official positions of Europe and Greece’ s place therein.”
This Friday, Mosaik is organizing a celebration for the people of the neighborhood. “I might read some of my poems,” says Ali Reza, who is working on an adaptation of “Waiting for Godot” transforming it to “Waiting for Asylum” . “We will organize a party for the people of the neighborhood who have helped so much. Last time, when we organized a talent show a lot of people showed up, ‘some hanging over the rails of the gate. It was great,” says the Iranian playwright who is also one of the translators of the center.
Photographs by Vasilis Kazazis and Julian Koeberer
Translation by Sappho Haralambou.