The Power Of Queer Community: How The Isle Of Lesbos Is Coming Together To Aid Refugees

This ongoing humanitarian crisis is all of our responsibility. 

Eressos Connected is a Facebook group for the community in Skala Eressos, a beachside town on the Island of Lesbos, Greece. The town is breathtakingly beautiful: traditional tavernas and bars line the seafront, crystals of sunlight sparkle across the water as people eat fresh fish and toast another cloudless day in paradise. It’s also a lesbian utopia; queer women are everywhere and there’s a (record-breaking) three lesbian bars on the main strip. 

Locals, lesbians, Greek families, and hippies live amicably alongside each other, all acknowledging that this is one of the only places in the world where lesbians can go to experience deep, true, long-lasting community. All factions use the Facebook group for general island business: identifying scruffy dogs, renting houses, inviting people to beach volleyball tournaments, or spontaneous lesbian weddings.

A couple of weeks ago, the site had a swell of activity as people smelt something burning, “Is there a fire?” they wrote. “I smell it,” they observed — “strong smoke smell.” The next day, news trickled in, hitting headlines across Europe, and soon the only posts on Eressos Connected concerned the massive fire in Moria, Greece’s largest refugee camp, an hour and a half away from our little lesbian haven. 

The camp, designed to hold 3,000 people, is home — in the most temporary, unsanitary, and unpleasant sense of the word — to 13,000 people: destitute people, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants fleeing war, poverty, or oppressive leaderships. They wait for indefinite periods, hoping to have their applications granted so they can penetrate the highly militarized and increasingly impervious fortress around Europe. 

Refugees do not want to be in Lesbos. Locals feel incapacitated by the influx of people here. Tourism (the island’s main revenue) has been stunted by the unfolding crisis, while Covid has practically brought it to a standstill. Islanders feel betrayed by the Greek government; the government feels betrayed by other European countries. The situation is complicated and burgeoning, the flow of people from the global South to the global North is only in its infancy. 

The Fire 

Trying to discern fact from fiction on Eressos Connected (as with any large social media group) is tricky. Intuitions, truths, and half-truths merge together, sparking passionate spiels, heated keyboard debates, hugging, weeping, and raging emojis. No one’s sure who started it and how the fire started. Most think it was deliberately set — by asylum seekers perhaps, tired of living in purgatory, enraged by the camp’s recent isolation orders (after 35 Moria residents tested positive for Covid). Some say it was set by right-wingers, the police, the locals. We may never know for sure. The fire undeniably caused significant damage. Some zones survived, others are ash and dust. Images of burnt asylum applications are particularly haunting — the prospect of having to start all over again. 

Greek police have built a parameter around the camp to prevent people from finding shelter in local villages. There are refugees demonstrating for their freedom, for the abolition of Moria. Locals on the left and right are calling for the same thing. Army helicopters can be heard overhead. There are reports of police throwing tear gas and photos of refugees pouring coca-cola on their burning eyes. Lesbos is in a state of emergency. Tonight, thousands of people are sleeping on roadsides and petrol stations. A few mountain ranges away, in Skala Eressos, the lesbians are in Flamingo Beach Bar. 

The Sinking Titanic 

The lesbian community in Skala Eressos is international and intergenerational: 70 year olds from Paris, 40 year olds from Cape Town, 20 year olds from Athens. There are women of various political persuasions and economic situations: social workers and public equity lawyers, cleaners and artists, fitness instructors from swanky gyms in Berlin, ascetic-wandering yogis from Goa. All are addicted to this place. Skala is in our blood; it is the closest thing to a home many of us have. 

Fewer bars are open this year, and there are far fewer women than usual. We all took a risk coming here, and sitting in Flamingo tonight, it feels like it’s paid off. The bar pulses as Diana Ross pumps from the speakers and people drink daiquiris, flirt, talk, and dance in their chairs — reaching social peaks they’d written off this year. Most women are on a 10-day vacation. They want to eat octopus, play volleyball, ride paddleboards, chase pleasure and joy, and avoid anything that might ruin this sacred-seeming trip.

There are others here tonight who look drawn and drained, like they’ve spent all day squinting at their phones in the last of the summer’s sun, reading and watching the refugee crisis unfold a few hundred kilometers away. They’re haunted by the proximity, by the identical terrain in the news and all around them. They deeply feel the dichotomies of the sea as life giving for them, life taking for others; the mountains as places to hike, or places to hide from the Greek police; the sun they tan in, the same sun that pounds onto the tarmac of petrol stations. These women are sat in Flamingo, anesthetizing themselves with ouzo, watching their community, wondering why no one else seems to care. 

There are undeniably different attitudes to the refugee crisis on this island — in this very bar. There are those worried about the local economy, about Greece’s financial troubles, and about the depths of their own pockets. There are women here who tirelessly volunteer with refugee, teaching English or violin or basic refugee rights. There are women who used to give time, energy, and resources but feel disillusioned now, like their efforts did nothing to remedy the situation. There’s condescension from those who’ve thrown in the towel, which knocks the wind out of those who’re ready and raring to do what they can to alleviate the suffering of people in urgent need.  

As a community, we seem to be paralyzed by the divergence in opinion and enormity of the situation. We don’t know what to do, who to believe, don’t know where to send our money. We don’t have tangible skills to help and support. We know that giving emergency aid, sleeping bags, and sanitizer is something, but not a solution at all. 

Though it would be hard to charge anyone at this bar with not caring, there is a notable silence, heightened — this year, more than ever — by a desire to not ruin anyone else’s vacation. The silence leaves us all hanging out in this beach bar, the moonlight dancing on the water, filled with the eerie sensation that we’re toasting the night as the Titanic sinks.

The Lesbian Response 

When the party at Flamingo started to feel a little too disconnected from reality, something remarkable happened. The DJ faded out of a Stevie Wonder track and passed a microphone to someone in the crowd. “Hello Flamingo,” she said, before namelessly introducing herself as a member of a local queer womxn’s collective, Ohana. They are a group of 10 who live on a piece of land a kilometer from the beach.

“This afternoon, our collective got together and talked,” she said. “We talked and talked and decided there’s an elephant in the room in Skala Eressos. We are all aware of the unfolding refugee crisis on this island, it is in the back or the front of all of our minds. And yet, we don’t seem to be doing anything about it. At best conversational or keyboard activists, we offset our guilt with a like or a mention before getting back to our ouzos, daiquiris, and lesbian love affair.”

“All these things are great, really great; we are a marginalized community in a patriarchal world, we are allowed to experience joy and pleasure and belonging,” she continued. “But we must do this consciously. We may be home, but thousands of people on this very rock are far removed from any semblance of home.”

“So tonight,” she said, “we’re going to start fundraising. We’ve linked up with a local NGO called Pikpa Lesvos Solidarity. They’ve been working on this island for eight years, primarily with vulnerable populations (and mostly women and children). With the money raised tonight, two members of our collective will shop for the necessities — think hand sanitizer, powdered milk, underwear, water — fill a Jeep, and drop them off at the organization’s HQ tomorrow afternoon.”  

As the speech drew to a close, she asked people to give the cost of a shot or a cocktail — anything they can. Applause broke out, and a profound sense of relief surged through the crowd. An improvised donation’s bucket went around, swiftly filling with 20s, 20s, 20s, 50s, singles. After a swift half-an-hour whip, €620 spilled from the bucket. Community activation clearly isn’t difficult. The lesbians here just needed a place to pour their resources, a path to make positive social change.  

As the final couple of tracks played at Flamingo, the stars punctuated many tiers of the sky, and the Ohana member took to the stage to thank everyone profusely. She was genuinely gob-smacked by the overflowing bucket. “Thank you, thank you, efcharisto,” she said. “We were expecting 100 euro, maybe two, but this is unbelievable!” 

She paused for a moment before she said, “We are the lesbians of the island of Lesvos; this is definitely our responsibility too.” It feels like lesbians all around the world can stand in solidarity with the lesbians on the island of Lesbos. This ongoing humanitarian crisis is all of our responsibility. 

To donate to Pikpa head to Stay tuned for more updates on the situation in Lesbos.

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