They wash ashore daily. This Greek island is the first port of call for many of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the war-torn failed states that encircle Europe today. Some 33,000 arrived in Lesbos in August, according to international aid groups, though local authorities believe the real number was much higher. Roughly a third escape Syria’s war zones. The rest hail from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, even Bangladesh.
Popular with tourists for its mountain vistas overlooking a deep-blue Aegean, Lesbos now doubles as a front-line processing center amid the biggest global refugee crisis since World War II. From here, the refugees sail on commercial vessels to Athens, then make their way by train, bus and foot to Macedonia toward destinations in Western and Northern Europe. The journey begins the moment they set foot on Lesbos.
Disembarking dingy boats on the island’s northern shoreline, five miles from the Turkish coast, they walk to a makeshift outdoor camp in Molyvos, the first European town they encounter. Body odor mixed with the stench of urine engulfs you even before you set foot in the camp. Families sleep on the ground, garbage strewn all around them.
“I used to see camps like this in Iran and look the other way,” says a 23-year-old Iranian-born Afghan. “Now I’m in a similar camp.” Like most of the Afghans here, he speaks Dari, a linguistic cousin of my native Persian, and like all the refugees I interview, he declines to give his name, fearing deportation.
Locals are puzzled by the surge in Afghan refugees. They know about Islamic State and the horrors of the Syrian civil war, but why so many Afghans? “It’s because all those people who’d hoped Afghanistan would become peaceful now realize it may not improve anytime soon,” says a tall, 21-year-old man with striking green eyes. Having spent years in Iran, waiting in vain for better days in their native land, these Afghans are now streaming into Europe.
The camp managers—island residents as well as volunteers from Europe’s prosperous north—are overwhelmed. There are too many refugees and not enough portable toilets, sleeping bags, bottled water and biscuits. Luckily Molyvos is a brief rest station. From here, the refugees cross almost the entire diagonal span of the island to the main port of Mytilene, where they must register with Greek border authorities.
It’s an arduous 40-mile trek, much of it on an uphill road that snakes around the island’s northern mountains. The daytime temperature is close to 100 degrees. There are barely enough buses for women, children and their immediate male relatives. The next bus arrives in 48 hours. Single men must walk.
I accompany a dozen or so Syrians on part of the first leg of the walk, about 12 miles from Molyvos to the village of Kalloni, their next rest station. The 10 adult men and two boys in our group—one age 3 and the other no older than 7—are from Deir ez-Zor, a town in eastern Syria partially controlled by Islamic State. They are lucky to have among them a 17-year-old young man from regime-held Homs, who speaks English.
“I saw everything,” he says. “I saw the gas. I saw the barrel bombs, the jets, the helicopters.” The Assad regime, he says, “has no mercy.” His family immigrated to the United Arab Emirates after the civil war broke out, he says, but he returned to Syria in the hope of escaping to Europe to finish his education. Studying in the U.A.E. “is not possible for people like me,” he says. The Emiratis don’t grant citizenship to, let alone educate, Syrian and other Arab refugees.
Barely into the first mile, sweat begins to pour down my forehead and back. The road is flanked to the right by the seashore. This is the world of flimsy bikinis, wedge sandals and beach cocktails—all set to the rhythm of European dance music. The miserable procession through this beach idyll, of refugees who a month ago lived under the caliphate, is a surreal sight. Many tourists and locals display great solidarity, delivering bottled water, juice and candy. Others are more callous. Two 20-something women riding a scooter wave and blow mocking air kisses. “Yoo-hoo!”
Hassan, the amber-haired 3-year-old in our group, walks vigorously. Does he understand what’s happening? His parents have stayed in Turkey, and he is traveling with a young uncle. Hassan has been made to understand that he is on a mission to reach Germany so he can rescue his parents. When we reach a public park in a town called Petra, he laughs joyously on swings and plays on the slides. For 10 minutes, Hassan gets to be a 3-year-old. Then we walk on.
By the seventh mile a sun-madness sets in. It becomes a steep uphill. Hassan’s uncle now carries him, now drags him violently, now soothes him with kisses. Gazing at the sun, the young man from Homs and I burst into laughter for no particular reason. In my case the laughter could easily melt into tears—and I have a cozy hotel room waiting for me.
Eventually, we get to the roadside restaurant where I parked my rental car. The restaurateur refuses to give away or even sell bottled water: “All the rest will come, and they will eat both of us.”
I offer the two children and their guardians a ride to Mytilene. As my car rolls out of the parking spot, the restaurateur runs after us with four bottles of ice-cold water in a plastic bag. “Everybody is a good person,” he says. “But we have limits.”
At Mytilene port, we part ways. The Syrians smile triumphantly, and Hassan’s uncle ruffles the boy’s hair affectionately. Their Greek odyssey has just begun.
Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial writer based in London