Reviewed by Kaleigh Studer
In the fall of 2015, Steven Heighton traveled to the Greek island of Lesvos to help the influx of refugees fleeing Syria for Europe, a humanitarian crisis in the wake of the Syrian civil war. Heighton dropped everything and landed ill-equipped and unprepared for what lay ahead in the month-long mission.
The book is written as a first-person narrative that allows Heighton to reflect on what was rather an impulsive decision: “I’m still not sure why I’m here,” he writes, “beyond a wish to do something useful, involving flesh and blood people instead of invented characters and words.”
There is a raw, naive, honesty to his words that speak of his experience as a poet: “From where I’m lying, the one visible patch of sky, through the branches of the pomegranate tree, seems a darkening panel of violet glass,” and, “Down from the mountain comes the ancient music of autumn on the Aegean isles—the tinkling melody of goat bells, the back beat of sticks slapped against branches to bring down the olives.” The beautiful scenery is a sharp contrast to the horrors the war refugees relate.
The refugees are cold, tired, and traumatized. The Greek authorities are doing their best, but a lack of infrastructure and resources means his first job is to record the passport information as the refugees arrive. It is a terrifying transition for Heighton, a somewhat sheltered Canadian who has not grown-up in turmoil or with catastrophic tragedy.
He reflects: “Isn’t it often the things we overlook, forget, or bury that catalyze our decisions, as they constellate our dreams?” Back at the camp, the living conditions for the refugees are far from ideal and Heighton worries about their comfort and safety despite the fact that many of the Syrians are happy to be safe on land. The children even high five him as they walk past.
In between sections of the novel there are photographs taken by Heighten that showcase the island of Lesvos, the boats of refugees, and the volunteers. In black-and-white he captures these moments first-hand. He intertwines real and sometimes comedic dialogue between himself and the volunteers, or locals who spoke English, moments relatable to any traveller.
In the book, Heighton asks one refugee, who is also a translator, what the journey across the sea has been like. The man says, “Good luck was with us. The water was only to our knees. I was scooping with a pail. But some were too afraid to do anything.” He then explains why he needed to leave Syria, “I left because my president is trying to kill me.” He goes on to explain that ISIS, the Americans, the French, and the Russians were also trying to kill him, so he needed to leave.
Any great memoir offers the reader immersion; the author researches his material by living it. It also has a protagonist with whom the reader can identify, not to mention suspense, urgency, and dramatic conflict. Heighton’s visceral and sensory scenes and authentic emotions build tension and rightly earn him CBC’s Best Non-Fiction Book of 2020, and a finalist position for the 2020 Writers Trust Prize for Non-Fiction.
Reaching Mithymna is a breathtaking look into the turmoil and heartbreak of refugees fleeing to safety on Lesvos and the volunteers whose courage and strength is second only to those they are trying to assist.