The Communal Refugee - Toward Community

The Communal Refugee

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The refugee crisis is clearly visible in Lesvos, Greece. William shares his recent experience as a volunteer on the island.

“What I did see, feel and experience though was some incredibly good people helping and welcoming fellow refugees who were desperate.”

I’ve been getting my communal-on in an entirely different way recently. I took a trip to Lesvos, the Greek island six kilometres from Turkey. I know it’s six kilometres because I have been helping the people who have just made that trip on overly loaded dingies and rusty old ‘ferries’ as they escape one type of ignorance and persecution for a different type of ignorance and persecution. If you hadn’t worked it out by now I have been helping refugees. I didn’t really look at it from a communal perspective at the time, I kind of didn’t really look at it from any perspective to be honest, it was hard to try and do anything when you are shocked, horrified, sad and then angry and frustrated. This was a type of communal life the vast majority of people in eco-communities across Europe will never even have to comprehend. I used to view squats as real survival in community form but it seems now like nothing more than people playing games in comfy palatial ruins because they can. One thing that has always been at the front of my argument for why humanity will never become extinct is that when in times of real strife humans will always come together and remember they are in fact communal animals. Humanity survived the early strains and struggles of time and evolution because they supported one another; strength in unity.

Well I didn’t really see that on Lesvos. This is not a criticism of refugees, I don’t have a fixed idea of what people will do in times of crisis, and certainly don’t believe anything is black or white, right or wrong. Right now though as I write this and think about the situation, my mind’s reality and my Utopian dreams don’t quite line up. Of course there were many moments of people looking out for each other and those ranged from guys carrying an ill old couples bags to people refusing food because they believed there was someone else in more need. Generally though these were desperate people, and usually the first thought of a desperate person is survival, and in the temporary nomadic nature of the moment it didn’t evolve into harmoniously coming together as one unit. However, the nature of the place and the lifestyle of the people would certainly have had an affect. I called it nomadic, but it was more transitory, as no camps on the island were permanent; people were only ever passing through. I would be very curious to see what is happening in Germany or Sweden for example, in some of the more permanent, but still hopefully temporary, camps. There will still be a sense of survival of course; but with the pressures and dangers being slightly less immediate, will people come together and organically form communities within the artificial one they have been forced into. As I write this I realise I really want to know and am going to perhaps try and find out. Maybe a trip to Germany is on the horizon, or maybe ‘The Jungle’ in Calais.


Language and culture are enormous issues too in my understanding of the communal refugee. With language I heard what people said to me in English but at no point would I have been able to overhear and understand the small talk between people, the very conversation which gives away many aspects of a relationship. Much of what I say about the refugees and their approach to community is completely ignorant because despite being around them, and despite spending time actually interacting with them like human beings I still have no idea what it is like to be in that situation. I can’t at present understand what they are going through and therefore for me to give my opinion one way or another about the strength of their community is deeply flawed from the start. I lack their language, I lack their experience and I lack any real understanding of their culture. Everything I have been told, seen, or experienced has come at me from a preconditioned angle. There are infinite versions of community in this world. We may think of the eco-settlements, the riverboat families or the mountain villages, but this is an Arab culture I have very little understanding of in an environment I don’t have to fully experience.

As I write this I don’t see where I can go from here. How can I talk to you about the refugee crisis from a communal viewpoint when I have just said I cannot truly understand the reality of being a refugee in a community. We are so lost in our own self-importance and transfixed with having opinions about things we have no understanding of. After three weeks with refugees in varying levels of desperation I have gained a level of comprehension, but one through warped privileged eyes. What I did see, feel and experience though was some incredibly good people helping and welcoming fellow refugees who were desperate. I also had people complaining to me because the children were being fed first, but then that is one voice not an entire community. I know I missed so much through a complete lack of understanding. To say ‘I didn’t see that on Lesvos’ is a ridiculous and inaccurate statement to make. What I didn’t see was the romantic utopian community we aspire to, more a post-apocalyptic dystopian realism. To really understand community it must be viewed from all sides in all moments and we must always remember it can be formed out of extreme suffering just as often as it can from a desire to grow organic vegetables beside a yurt on the side of a hill. We are striving towards community, but for many the luxury of communal choice will only ever be a dream.

– – –

On a far more positive note there was one group on Lesvos trying to help the refugees worth mentioning. On the south of the island just outside of the capital Mytilene and away from the hero action junkies on the beach in the north, is a small collective which houses injured and vulnerable families unable to continue with their immediate journey. The people here are of course temporary and many are families waiting for one person to get better. Of course they have their faults like everything and everyone, but they are a collective of people with no hierarchy and were established and currently run mainly by women, very strong women. It is an incredibly maternal place, which it took me about two weeks to realise, and I found this very refreshing when surrounded by the ego-trips of the other organisations operating. This is a positive example of a pro-active grass-roots community thriving in the middle of a very real crisis. This is Pikpa Lesvos. The skeptical old bastard inside of me doesn’t say this very often about places and organisations, but please please support them in any way you possibly can, they are doing incredible things and are more than worth it.

The Pikpa Crew Hard At It
The Pikpa Crew Hard At It

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William Home

William Home is a Scottish traveler and freelance writer. See William's Website

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