Steven Heighton reflects on working on the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis

Reaching Mithymna is a finalist for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Read an excerpt now!
Reaching Mithymna is a book by Steven Heighton. (Mary Huggard, Biblioasis)

Reaching Mithymna by Steven Heighton is a finalist for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The winner will be announced on Nov. 18, 2020.

In 2015, Heighton made a sudden decision: he would travel to Greece and volunteer at the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis. Once there, he found himself working in a transit camp offering support to refugees who recently made the harrowing journey across the sea from Turkey, and alongside the refugees and the aid workers stationed there, finds himself overwhelmed. Heighton shares this story in Reaching Mithymna.

Heighton is a novelist, short story writer and poet from Toronto. His other books include the poetry collection The Waking Comes Latewhich won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry, and the novel The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep.

Read an excerpt from Reaching Mithymna below.

"This way," I call out, waving my hand. As if I pass for a trained guide — a legitimate authority who knows the town and our destination beyond it — the densely packed group follows without hesitation. They walk resolutely, almost marching, as they did after disembarking from the rescue ship. Their various clothes — long tunics, scarves, jeans or slacks, ragged blazers, hoodies, parkas — are mostly dark. A few of them sport thermal blankets like shiny superhero capes. Anyone not in a hijab has some kind of winter hat now. Their belongings they lug over the shoulder in black garbage bags, and each family has at least one, while the single men carry either a daypack or nothing at all.

I head uphill away from the harbour along the pavestoned main road. To our left: the steeply rising tiers of the town and, high above it, the heroically footlit castle. To our right: a chest-high stone wall above a rock face plunging to the sea. The road climbs steeply and I feel it in my thighs and worry again about the children and the older or sicker or wearier adults, but every time I look back, they're all moving well. The encouragements I instinctively call — this way . . . almost to the top! — are, to them, both incomprehensible and unnecessary.

I offer to take a stuffed garbage bag from a hunched woman who looks too small and tired to carry it (her husband cradles a dozing toddler, maybe a grandchild, swaddled in a man's jacket). Will she trust me? She hands it over instantly. I prop the bag on my right shoulder and brace it with my hand, feeling dampness through the plastic.

The encouragements I instinctively call — this way . . . almost to the top! — are, to them, both incomprehensible and unnecessary.

Every minute or so I pivot and walk backward a few steps, facing the group. When I catch a glimpse of Pilar, I wave and she waves back, cigarette between her fingers, the burner a tiny beacon. All well! Darren advised me not to let the group bunch up and clog this narrow main street, so now I'm signalling and calling, "Move over, please, shukhran!" Cars and scooters squeeze by at an unhellenically tolerant pace. Peaceably enough, old men with worry beads look on from streetside coffee houses and teenagers watch from the tables of fast-food joints. But then a driver accelerates furiously past us, his face gargoyled with rage.

After 20 minutes or so we reach the edge of town: the final café, the last few street lights, the bus stop where, impossibly, I stepped down barely seven hours ago. Our route has been simple thus far, straight south along the main street. Now we need to make a left turn. I assume this fork must be the place — a road angling off to the southeast and climbing into darkness. I pivot and announce our turn with what I hope will sound like veteran nonchalance. "This way — yes — please be careful — stay to the side!"

Steven Heighton plays soccer with refugees at Camp Moria. (Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

When you're trying to follow rough directions, the anxiety that you might have missed a turn or overshot your goal slows time to a quantum crawl. A 10-minute walk, especially in the dark, can seem like an hour as you scan both sides of the road with fading confidence. Every minute might be taking you farther in the wrong direction. You glance again at the instructions, if they're written down, or you try to recall them word for word. You can't. Idiot, why didn't you just listen carefully for once in your life? Maybe you fume about whoever gave you the directions, his casual vagueness, her lazy impatience in describing a route she herself could sleepwalk.

This anxiety feels a lot like full panic when you're trying to guide 60 chilled, hungry people who have already had to be rescued once tonight.

As the road ahead disappears into darkness, a puzzled murmuring starts up behind me. I notice I've slowed down. I shift the garbage bag to my other shoulder, feeling the clammy chill through my jacket and sweater. I turn and walk backward. Behind the steadily advancing refugees, the lights of Mithymna, crowned by its castle, are receding. Two men call out in worried, questioning voices and I call back, "Soon, soon — almost there!", which might or might not be a lie and anyway will mean nothing to them. I check my glowing watch. Thirty minutes' walk, Darren told me. Somehow we're only at 25. Thanks a lot for the directions, man. You couldn't have come along, my first time? The road is turning, descending, the lights of the town setting behind the hill. Pilar must be back there somewhere. Does she too assume I know where we're going?

A 10-minute walk, especially in the dark, can seem like an hour as you scan both sides of the road with fading confidence. Every minute might be taking you farther in the wrong direction.

I keep looking to the right; according to my marching orders an expanse of playing fields and basketball courts should be opening there, and across those fields a bus should be waiting. Instead I see — sense as much as see — a slope of olive trees falling away from the roadside. We've picked up speed, walking downhill, which should be encouraging — we're making progress! we'll be there soon! — but this momentum merely adds to my panic that I'm leading them ever farther from safety. The muttering behind me increases. I decide to say nothing, simply lead them faster — maybe doubling down on my mistake? Sweat prickles into my armpits. There's an open area of some kind to our right now (the fields?), but I can't be certain and there's no sign of a bus.

I plod on, barely able to see my feet, not to mention the road. A minor eternity of minutes. Finally — just as I start talking to myself, "Right, of course, you would screw up already, you would lead 60 freezing survivors into the middle of nowhere" — in the darkness ahead a large object erupts into life with a terrifying roar. The bus's windows and acetylene-white, red and yellow headlights, sidelights, rooflights all ignite like a festooned Christmas pavilion, or the mother ship ready to lift off. Cries of relief and joy surge up behind me and I exhale, "Thank God."

Excerpted from Reaching Mithymna by Steven Heighton. Copyright © 2020 Steven Heighton Published by Biblioasis.  Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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