In the summer of 2017, a horrific earthquake hit the Greek island of Lesvos. In the summer of 2017, my family’s village, Vrisia, was reduced to a terrifying pile of fractured, falling buildings and rubble.
My memories of Vrisia are damaged and seemingly random, like the items salvaged from the catastrophe-torn buildings.
I remember the hedgehog we found on the side of the road that we squirreled away to our garden, my six-year-old hands wrapping tightly around its small, odd-looking body. The hedgehog's spiky parts weren’t pointy enough to prevent me from hugging him close to my chest. When he escaped from our garden, I nearly cried.
I remember the local museum and the preserved shell of a Pinta Island turtle inside. The turtle's ancient shell seemed impossibly large. The majestic relic of the extinct breed of Galapagos island turtles seemed too foreign to comprehend. My only thought then was that I might strap it to my back and become a turtle myself.
I can vaguely recall a Playmobil toy set of Antarctica. There were plastic glaciers that came with a basin you could fill with water. My sister and I played with it for hours. I’d attach the polar bear and penguins to the glaciers and she’d attempt to create a waterfall with the cups of water we were supposed to use to hydrate ourselves. By the end of our playing, we had thoroughly drenched each other.
I remember our house. The porch and the tree-like vines that crept above it in a canopy, the unassuming blue door wedged between two other buildings that led down to our home, the room we would sleep in, the color of its walls—all of these things feature prominently in my attempts to reconstruct our Vrisia through memory.
Five years and one earthquake later, we’ve returned. The house is still damaged even though my grandmother has been rebuilding these past years. She and my aunts live in Athens, an hour's flight or an overnight boat ride away from Lesvos.
My dad took us on a tour of the village yesterday. It’s strange to stare at a place almost totally changed and have your mind confront you with your younger self’s muddled, distorted, and fragmented memories.
“This is the mini-market we would send you to buy groceries from,” he says, pointing at a few bricks surrounded by weeds. A memory flickers in its wake—seven-year-old me walking to the market with her twin sister, her younger sister scuttling behind on her four-year-old feet. The rush of happiness felt at the independence. The old grandmas sitting outside that greet us as we pass.
“This is the house of a few of our old friends.” He gazes solemnly at a doorframe standing on its own, surrounded by dead grass and covered in dust. I can imagine a younger version of myself rushing past it on her way to the town square.
"Here is the church." The door bears a bright red spray-painted cross, a marker indicating that the building has been destroyed so much that the best course of action is to tear it down. Each place has a spray-painted cross in green, yellow, or red. Green is the most infrequent of the colors, meaning that a building has suffered little or no damage and is safe to inhabit. When a cross is yellow, there is a severe need for repairs. But the church, one of the primary sources of hope and inspiration in this village—destroyed.
We continued to walk. One house resembling a Jenga tower before its collapse had us staring in awe. The front wall was missing, and you could see the slanted, falling floor and all the broken furniture covered in dust and debris. A car honked behind us, and we hurried out of the road. The man drove by, warning us to stay away from the houses—most of them could collapse at any moment.
The situation is surreal. I feel like a piece of my identity is crumbling under my shaking fingers and before my petrified eyes. The repairs on our house are done, but we overlook a view of rubble. A bustling village that once housed nearly two-thousand now might be occupied by fewer than two-hundred. There are no open restaurants, most of the houses still need to be torn down or require severe repairs, the local school is damaged, so children are being taught in tiny container houses, and the earthquake destroyed the village's two factories.
Around the world, natural disasters are increasing. Scientists may not have found solid connections between climate change and an increase in earthquakes, but they have found that climate change causes an increased amount of other natural disasters.
Central and Northern Europe recently suffered from intense flooding. California suffers from an ongoing drought. People are dying. The effects of humanity's carelessness are manifesting. After witnessing the destruction nature can cause firsthand, I have only been made more aware of the gravity of our situation. Right now, we can save ourselves. It's up to the youth to try to heal the Earth before it suffers irreparable damage.
It's up to us to stop our homes from turning into rubble.