The island of Lesvos, Greece, is normally an idyllic escape from the turmoil of the world with stunning scenery, romantic hillside castles and a dreamy languor. During the spring of 2015 this Mediterranean oasis was confronted with a dramatic increase in the arrival of a human tide of refugees crossing the short distance of roughly ten kilometers from Turkey. The population of Lesvos is approximately 86,000 inhabitants. During 2015, over 500,000 refugees fleeing the wars and societal turmoil in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan landed on its shores in small rubber rafts holding 40-65 men, women and children. The island is a gateway to the European Union for many desperate individuals and families who have been forced by war to flee their countries.
The village of Molyvos, on the northern coast of Lesvos, has borne the brunt of this influx of refugees and economic migrants. Its population of 1500 normally deals with the fulfillment of the needs of low-impact tourism. It is also a village that I have been visiting on a regular basis over the past 10 years. So it was with a sense of curiosity that I arrived in Molyvos in May, 2015, to assess the firsthand reports from village friends regarding a dramatic increase in the number of refugees crossing from Turkey to the beaches and coves nearby. It soon became clear that what began as a trickle was rapidly becoming a flood of desperation as the rubber dinghies hit the island in steadily mounting numbers. I began to document the arrival of the boats and as the summer progressed, the growing number of refugees forced to walk the seventy kilometers from Molyvos to the island capital of Mytillene to ad hoc refugee camps where they were officially detained by Greek authorities.
This photographic essay has a dual purpose. Initially it was an attempt to capture the early triumph of reaching European shores by people who had faced astounding hardships. I was one of the first photographers on the scene to document the crisis and some of my initial images, published in European news outlets and by Amnesty International in their first press release highlighting the issue, quickly attracted the attention of the world to the scope of the problem.
As events unfolded, it became clear that the story that was not being told was the impact of the refugee tide on the people of the village. That became my second purpose for the project: to photograph and interview a variety of villagers to assess their reactions to the historic situation that confronts them. Fishermen, local officials, shopkeepers, teachers and even trash collectors are all part of this divergent and expanding village portrait. The project has become an ironic mélange of the faces of refugees fleeing turmoil juxtaposed with the faces of Greek villagers, many who have aided them, and all who also realize that their lives have been irrevocably changed by the perfect storm of Greece's macro-economic crisis and the ravaging of their livelihoods due to the human tide of refugees. Some of their faces and stories follow: