Justen Ahren was visibly jetlagged when we met at the Black Dog cafe on April 2. He had just returned from Lesbos, Greece, where he had gone to aid in the ongoing refugee crisis and to document refugee journeys in verse and black-and-white photography. Ahren was solemn and sincere as we sat to discuss his recent trip. He is at heart an observer of the human spirit and its complexities, a word catcher for the human experience.
MVT: Tell us how you became involved in the refugees’ story.
Ahren: In 2015–2016 when the refugee crisis was at its peak, I saw daily, on the news, the boats arriving on the shores of Europe. As an artist I needed a way to respond, to name the experience as a witness, and, if possible, to give voice to the plight of these people.
Ahren traveled to Italy in 2016 and 2017 and began tracing, photographing, and writing about refugee routes through the country. During his visits, he began to gain an understanding of the plight and the perseverance, to hear stories of the mass exodus from war, starvation, and political persecution that propelled people out of their countries in search of a better life in Europe — a whole generation torn from their cultures and families.
Over the past two years Justen projected the experience in a flow of black-and-white photography, poetry, and a multimedia performance of original music compositions, poetry, and projections titled, “After the War for the Valley.”
Islanders following Ahren on Facebook and Instagram have seen his journey and the images — shards and glimpses of a people’s plight.
MVT: How did you become a volunteer in Lesbos, Greece?
Ahren: I was making a lot of art on the theme of displacement — on refugees — but I felt detached, all in my head. I hadn’t helped directly, and I wanted to, so last November, I began to look into volunteering.
I searched for opportunities in France and Serbia, but was really called to Greece, where eventually I found A Drop in the Ocean, a Norwegian NGO working on Lesbos. Drop’s main mission is to patrol six miles of coast to assist the refugees coming ashore there. Because of its proximity to Turkey (imagine Woods Hole to Oak Bluffs), most boats arrive on these east-facing beaches. And most occur at night in order to evade Turkish and Greek coast guards. Most refugees coming to Lesbos are from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but many come from Pakistan, Kurdistan, Sudan, and Nigeria, as well.
From the first Google search, Ahren’s journey to Lesbos happened quickly. Within a couple a days, his application was filled out, his airline ticket and hotel were booked, his car was rented — it became a goal in motion.
MVT: What happened once you arrived?
Ahren: When I arrived I was trained in water rescue, treating hypothermia, and CPR. Also, there is a coordinated emergency system for when a boat is spotted and landing: First, we set a pin on Google Maps with place and time of landing, and send this alert to the Lesbos Southern Shore Response Team. This is a network of volunteers, doctors, police, and other nongovernment organizations charged with patrolling and assisting refugees upon arrival. Within 10 minutes, dozens of people are onsite to receive the boat. In the two weeks I was there, three boats arrived, and two others were picked up by the coast guard.
We were trained to form a landing corridor, two parallel lines of bodies, to direct refugees to the front of the boat and up onto dry ground. We were trained to speak calmly and quietly, to say things like, “It’s OK, you’re all right … we are going up here to sit down.” We had in our vehicles emergency blankets, water, and warm, dry clothes. We assessed everyone we brought ashore for signs of injury, sickness, consciousness, and called a doctor for them, if needed.
It all happens very quickly. And before you know it, the police are loading [refugees] onto a bus to take them to the transit camp, where they are processed. Here they may begin their application for asylum. Eventually, they may be granted an E.U. passport. But this process is taking longer than ever. A year to 18 months is normal. In the meantime, they must live in notoriously overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous camps.
In Moria, the largest camp, there’s a backlog of nearly 5,000 people living in makeshift shelters built for 1,200 people.
MVT: How has a little island changed and adapted with so many arrivals?
Ahren: Lesbos, while not as popular as islands such as Mykonos and Santorini, is dependent on tourism. The arrival of 10,000 refugees a day in 2015–2016 and the subsequent media coverage has turned tourists away. However, with so many NGOs and volunteers coming to assist, hotels and restaurants are booked, and the capital, Mytilene, is a bustling, energetic town with a cosmopolitan feel. People from all over the world are here giving their time and energy to help the situation.
MVT: Did you talk with any refugees? What were their stories?
Ahren: The Drop’s other mission during the day was to staff a community food kitchen and clothing warehouse called Home for a Day.” So after patrolling through the night from 11 to 7 am, we’d sleep a little, then come to this center around 1 or 2 in the afternoon to help feed refugees and supply them with basics like jackets, gloves, underwear, diapers, baby blankets, etc. Whatever they needed.
Home for a Day was founded by two locals, Nikos and Katerina, at the head of a bay a few miles from Moria Camp. For the past few years, they have served free meals to refugees with the help of A Drop in the Ocean. They rely on donations of food, clothing, and money to operate. Often they use their own money to buy food.
At Home for a Day, I talked with many refugees and heard many stories. One person I met there was Hussein, a 24-year-old-man from Iraq. He’d come to Lesbos by boat two years ago, and though he had been given asylum, he now volunteered, helping refugees like himself during their transition.
Nearly half of the arrivals are children, and many of them are unaccompanied. One day a group of 14- to 17-year-old boys came to Home for a Day for lunch. As their journey continues, they are at risk of sex trafficking, sexual assault, and exploitation.
I spoke with one teenage boy from Pakistan, who walked 11 days just to get a bus to bring him to the Turkish border. There he met a smuggler who drove him and several others 36 hours, “going 150 kilometers an hour,” he said, to Istanbul. From there he paid another smuggler $1,000 to go in an inflatable rubber dinghy with 72 other people and cross to Greece.
The captain of the boat was a young man he’d traveled with through Turkey. During the crossing, a child fell overboard and drowned. When they landed, the “captain” sat on the beach with his head in his hands saying, “I was the captain,” over and over, blaming himself for the child’s death.
Later that afternoon, another boy stole his food while he was in the bathroom. The two jawed at each other, then squared off and started throwing punches. We had to separate them. There is so much they are processing. I can’t imagine their pain and anger.
MVT: What were your takeaways?
Ahren: While the U.S. is obsessed by Trump, the largest refugee crisis since World War II remains uncovered by our media. Nearly 1,000 people per month are coming to Lesbos alone.
I was surprised the number of people and organizations who are helping on Lesbos. It was encouraging to witness people coming together to help one another. There was a lot of music and laughter at the community center during the day; to help provide a safe place for refugees to relax, share, and enjoy some normalcy was a privilege.
Justen Ahren is the Martha’s Vineyard poet laureate, founder and director of Noepe Center for Literary Arts, and author of “A Strange Catechism.” “A Machine for Remembering,” a collection of verse and black-and-white photographs documenting the journey of refugees through Europe, will be published by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2019. You can see his work at his website, justenahren.com, and follow Ahren on Facebook and Instagram.