Not interested in the nine to five, one local writer has led a restless, adventurous life. She has also just released a book inspired by the time she spent in a refugee camp on Lesvos. THEO PANAYIDES meets her
It was only three weeks – at the tail-end of 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis – but “it changed my life,” says Melissa Hekkers. So much happened during those few weeks, at the Moria refugee camp in Lesvos. The boats coming in every day – 2,000 people a day, “it was just insane” – from the Turkish coast a few miles across the Aegean. Panayiota from Limassol who offered new arrival Melissa a place to sleep, the two volunteers sharing a single bed – sharing the same pillow, even – just a few hours after meeting each other. A thrilling, heady sense of being thrown in at the deep end, having gone to Lesvos on her own, with no prior experience. Pitching tents, making soup, stacking hypothermia blankets. The man she encountered on a hill at night – he’d just arrived, fleeing the war in Syria – who “fell to his knees, looked at me and said: ‘Please help me’”.
It may seem a bit incestuous doing a profile of Melissa; she is, after all, a fellow journalist, and indeed has written for this very paper. Then again there’s a bigger subject too, her time at Moria, plus a new book that’s come out of that time, Amir’s Blue Elephant (the launch is on Friday, with Covid restrictions applying) – and besides she’s only an occasional colleague, journalism being just one of her various jobs. She’s always been that way, doing whatever it takes. At 16, back in Paphos, she worked in a shoe shop, an Italian restaurant and a graphic design studio, trying to save up for a secondhand car. Later, studying Communications at the University of Nicosia, she worked part-time at the university and at Pharos Trust – and also had a well-paying job as a barwoman in a dodgy nightclub, staying up late and trudging to uni in the morning. These days she does translations and works with the UN and UNic medical school, in addition to penning pieces for the Mail and other outlets. “I do all this so I can freelance and have my own schedule,” she explains. She can’t imagine sitting down to a nine-to-five job, “it would literally kill me”.
Her place, in the Nicosia suburbs, seems imbued with that same sense of freedom, a vast open space – “I’m a bit claustrophobic” – stretching from kitchen to sitting room, with a garden out back. A scent of eucalyptus pervades the room (it’s usually eucalyptus in the mornings and lavender in the evenings, says Melissa), along with soft jazz courtesy of FIP.fr, a French online radio station. ‘Fears Are Paper Tigers’ says a suitably dauntless fridge magnet. On the shelves I spot Auster, Eco, the entire Game of Thrones book series, plus a small pile of Tintins from her childhood in Belgium. On the walls are two fake front pages including a Cyprus Mail dated June 5, 2002, her 21st birthday – a gift from a friend, from the days when she used to present the English news on Paphos TV. She’s now 39, an elfin woman with blondish-brown hair, lounging on a settee with an air of perfect contentment – yet she doesn’t necessarily think she’ll stay here forever, and can certainly see herself going back to Belgium (Africa is another big dream) when her daughter, now 13, comes of age. “I don’t know. It might happen, it might not,” she says airily. “I have nothing really set in stone.”
There’s another reason why some might think it wrong, or at least misguided, to profile Melissa. (Actually, I suspect those people have long since stopped reading; but we’ll mention them anyway.) In 2015, with Syria in tatters and a real humanitarian disaster unfolding, the plight of refugees may indeed have been poignant, they say – but now the whole thing has turned into a scam, with bodies flooding in every which way and the line between economic migrants and asylum seekers rapidly blurring. Only the most incorrigible bleeding heart (they say) could still be unambiguously stirred by the misery at Moria, from our own vantage point five years later.
Melissa, I’m sure, would disagree; after all, as already noted, those three weeks in 2015 changed her life. “When I came back from Lesvos,” she recalls, “I did TEDx talks, I was going to Kofinou [refugee camp] once a week, I was involved with Caritas, I was writing, I was doing human-interest stories… Everything I was involved in, whether it was work, whether it was personal, it was all about refugees.” Yet there’s also a twist – because she’s not actually a bleeding heart, she’s “an analytic person”. (“I’m a Gemini,” she laughs. “I’m a mind person!”) She’s not naïve, or naively emotional. She knows that “a route was put in place” by smugglers and is now being used by anyone wishing to flee their country, for whatever reason; she’s aware of the ambiguities, and the fact that many are abusing the system. Amir’s Blue Elephant ends with a thoughtful chapter where Melissa – actually her alter ego Christine, the book being a hybrid known as ‘creative non-fiction’ – visits a Palestinian-Syrian family in Cyprus, in her capacity as journalist, and loses her cool when the man, despite being in dire need of money, nonetheless refuses to let his wife get a job because “in my country women don’t work”. It’s a two-way street, is the lesson; migrants too have to adapt and make compromises, they can’t ask for things without contributing.
There’s a subtle variation at work here, a significant detail in trying to understand Melissa Hekkers. Most people, if they’re not completely heartless, sympathise with migrants; but most people – even if their feelings run deep – usually end up projecting those feelings from a kind of distance, as you might with a wounded puppy. Their own lives seem hopelessly privileged compared to the migrants’ – so they’ll often inadvertently ‘Other’ them, seeing them as victims, judging their behaviour quite differently than they’d judge their own or their friends’ behaviour. Melissa’s take is a little bit different: “I mean, I’m a migrant,” she exclaims. “I did it, my mum did it.”
Comparisons only go so far, of course. No-one, including Melissa, would equate her situation with a woman fleeing genital mutilation in Gambia, or a bisexual from Cameroon who’d end up in prison back home (both are examples she gives to illustrate the injustice of refusing asylum to non-refugees). She’s what might be called a “luxury migrant”, allowed to stay on because she (or her mother) had money – “but I get it,” she affirms with emphasis. “I get it that you don’t speak the language, I get it that it’s a different culture. And I get it that you feel like a Mr. Nobody in front of immigration officers who have the power to say ‘no’.” It’s not just that she moved to Paphos from Brussels with her mum at the age of eight, after her parents divorced; it’s also that her life – pretty much until she became a mum herself in 2007 – was always quite scattered, turbulent, restless. One can easily imagine her watching the refugees stagger off the storm-tossed dinghies in Lesvos, trying to find their feet, and some primordial part of her subconscious calling out: ‘I get it!’.
Her parents are artistic, and bohemian; her dad, a well-known designer in Belgium, has nine children by four women, only two of whom he actually married. (Melissa, too, was never married to her daughter’s father.) Both parents are good with their hands – Melissa too loves being “hands-on, whether it’s gardening, or drawing, or writing” – and averse to nine-to-five jobs. Her mum came to Cyprus for the summer and ended up staying, putting little Melissa in an international school, “so I was definitely the foreigner living in a village. I really didn’t have any contact with anyone local”.
In her teens, impelled by “a need to belong”, she insisted on going to Greek school, which of course brought its own set of challenges. She could count and recite the months of the year, but her Greek was hardly fluent. She failed the first year, hence was always slightly older than everyone else – and a foreigner, and culturally different (easy to forget what a backwater Paphos was in the 90s): “I mean, the girls around me had to clean the house every day, they weren’t allowed to go out… And I was always considered kind of – I mean, they used to call me the poutana [whore] because I was – free, you know?”. At 16, she left home to live with her boyfriend; she hung out with rebels and “dubious” types, and “did get involved in all sorts of things unknowingly”. At 18, a flatmate’s suicide shook her to the core; she broke off her studies and went travelling alone – “I’d lost trust in people” – then fetched up in London for a year, having found a job selling Cyprus as a holiday destination on Teletext. (She’s always been personable, and good with people.) Even now, she notes, most of her best friends are half-and-halves, or have dual nationality: “I think I’ll always be surrounded by these kind of vagabonds, and people who’ve collected experiences around the world”.
Vagabonds aren’t quite refugees – but they’re not too different, either. Her life experiences didn’t quite prepare Melissa for what she saw in Lesvos, but they didn’t hurt; and besides, no-one was entirely prepared for that frenzied human exodus. “There were days when it was just like [dazed expression] ‘What are we going to do?’,” she recalls. “There were just so many people! They were hungry, cold, wet. In disbelief, didn’t know what they were doing. They were realising that, shit, they’d arrived on an island.” There were people who were lost, like the man who fell to his knees and begged for help, there were people sleeping rough by the harbour. The official registration camp – manned by the state and the big NGOs – soon overflowed, unable to deal with the numbers, “so, in an olive grove next to the camp, there were hundreds of people who had no support”. This was where Melissa joined a rather ragtag team of “independent volunteers”, doing their best with scant resources.
She came back just before Christmas, armed with useful knowledge (eggs are the ideal refugee-camp food: they don’t get contaminated, you can save them for later, and they’re packed with protein) and a rather judgmental attitude. ‘You’re only getting one Christmas present this year,’ she told her daughter, and spent the next few days glaring at strangers in the supermarket who’d stacked their trolleys full of unnecessary stuff. “I came back angry.” Some personality types might hold on to that anger, using it as fuel for future projects – but Melissa doesn’t seem to be that type. “I’m an adventurous person,” she tells me – and adventure needs an open mind and a lightness of spirit, otherwise you remain stuck in place and miss the new excitements life has to offer.
Amir’s Blue Elephant may be a kind of closure – “a human story,” as she puts it, making something tangible of the chaos and distress she witnessed five years ago. Her involvement isn’t over but it’s been scaled down, made manageable: she’s still in touch with four refugees, and helps when she can. “You know, if you’re helping four people, it’s more than enough.” Writing a book was also a challenge, one of those things she’d always wanted to do (she’d previously written children’s books and colouring books), indeed I seem to have caught Melissa Hekkers at a time of important milestones. Her daughter became a teenager this year, she herself will be 40 next year, she has a book coming out – and she also spent lockdown in Belgium (not by choice; she got stuck there), the longest she’s spent in that country in decades, making her think once again about who she is and where she belongs.
“I don’t know,” she muses lazily, sitting in her den with its synaesthetic blend of jazz, eucalyptus and wide open spaces. “I feel that – if I was to die tomorrow, I think I’ve done most of the things that I wanted to do.”
Really? That’s pretty major.
“Yeah, I’m content… I think I’m happy with the person I’ve become.”
Has she changed that much, over time? Maybe not. She’s no good with dates, admits Melissa, or numbers, or maths in general (it takes us ages to establish what happened when) – but she’s good with people, yearning to connect, just like she did when she switched from the foreigners’ school to the Greek school back in the day, yearning to belong; yet she also loves – and always did love – her freedom, the freedom to move around and keep her mind occupied. When is she happiest? “When I’m busy!” she replies with a chuckle. “I’m happiest when I’m around people, and I’m busy and doing things.” Journalism suits her, three weeks in a refugee camp in the middle of a global crisis also suited her. And life in general? That suits her too, I suppose – at least when it’s honest, and vibrant, and free and adventurous.