Sunday, November 27, 2016

I Don't Want to Leave

I can't believe I have less than a week left. I don't want to leave. Running the women's self expression group, although I had doubts about taking it on, has had a huge impact on me. Though not many women come on a regular basis, I have become very close to those that do. We mostly don't share a language, but we have an amazing translator--a seventeen year old Afghan woman who is simply lovely.

There is one Afghan woman who comes regularly to the group that has an eight year old daughter in a wheelchair. A couple of sessions ago, she talked about her daughter. Nadia used to be able to walk and run and lead a relatively normal childhood. Though she was diagnosed with some sort of degenerative neuro-muscular disease (I'm not certain what, but think muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis...) at nine months old, medication kept her disease from progressing quickly. For reasons I don't know, her medication was stopped when she was four years old. Her mother told us that the doctors said she didn't need it anymore, that she'd be okay. However, that was not the case.

At some point, trying to escape the war in Afghanistan, the family moved to Iran, (I have heard this from quite a few of the Afghan refugees, but they are discriminated against in Iran, and sometimes deported--my lovely translator told me it's because the Afghans are mostly Sunni and the Iranians Shi'a).

Nadia's mother told me that the medication was restarted at some point, I'm not sure when, but that she has not received any for two months, here in Greece.

I have written about Nadia before. She is the little girl who used to turn the jumprope so cheerfully and willingly for those who could still run and jump and play. I was shocked a few days ago to see that her disease has progressed rapidly in the time I've been here. She would not be able to turn a jumprope now, even if we still had one. She had to bend her head low to eat a cookie her mother gave her.

In the women's meeting where Nadia's mother talked about her disease, she also told us how difficult it was to give her a shower. Imagine trying to hold up a soapy child who cannot stand on her own. I talked to the IRC (International Rescue Committee) child protection officers on camp about a shower chair but got nowhere. I have talked to them several times about Nadia, but nothing ever happens. So I talked to Project Elea, and yesterday at the women's meeting, we gave Nadia and her mother a shower chair.

It is such a small thing. She really needs to be allowed to go on to Germany or somewhere with excellent medical facilities to get the help she and her family need, but that's not likely to happen. Certainly not anytime soon. In the meantime, her father and mother continue to push her wheelchair across the rocks, jolting her terribly, and try to cope with her growing needs. The burdens of being a refugee are heavy enough without the added weight of a handicap, and there are many. Rashid who has a twisted leg and walks through the dense gravel on crutches, the new family in which both parents are blind, five or six people in wheelchairs, and many with psychological problems. Trauma...

And all of them live in limbo. They don't know if they will be allowed to go on somewhere else--where there might be job opportunities (Greece is so economically depressed there are none here), to join their families elsewhere, or whether they will stay in Greece and try to make a life. One special Iranian woman just got approved for asylum in Greece, although she won't get the final papers for several months at least. She is happy about it because it means an end to limbo, but she has grown daughters in Holland she is not allowed to reunite with, and her schizophrenic brother has head trauma from being beaten by the Greek police at some point.

My translator is here with her father, one sister, and one small brother. Her mother, two more sisters and a brother are in Germany. They don't know yet if they will be allowed to reunite their family, and will not know anything for months to come.

Another young woman has been approved to go on to Germany and leaves next week, but she is being sent alone, without her mother and sisters. She has relatives there, but is afraid to go alone.

Then there is the woman whose husband has Norwegian citizenship. They have two small children together who are also Norwegian citizens. The husband came and lived with his family in the refugee camp for eight months, but had to go back to Norway to work, yet the Norwegian government has decided that their marriage is a marriage of convenience, and have refused to allow her to join him.

One of the women I've become close to in the women's group is a 27 year old that I would have guessed was in her forties, she looks so beaten down. Since I have known her she has tried at least three times to go to Germany with false papers. She is eight months pregnant and desperately wants her baby to be born in Germany. This is her eighth pregnancy. Forced to quit school at eight years old because of the war, she was married at thirteen. Two of her children were killed in the war, and she miscarried one child due to the war. She has three living boys here with her and her husband. I don't know what happened to the other child. She has a shrapnel scar on her cheek. Neither she nor her husband can read, but they are lovely people, kind and generous.

Another woman that comes regularly to the group wanted to be an engineer. She wasn't allowed to study engineering because in Afghanistan women are only allowed to be teachers and doctors, and only so that their will be female teachers and doctors for women. Now she doesn't want to be an engineer anymore; she wants to be a judge and go back to Afghanistan to judge on human and women's rights. She and her husband regularly consider going back to Afghanistan because they have no hope of leaving Greece and there is no work here. Her husband is a medical technician and speaks several languages. He used to translate for some branch of the US government in Afghanistan, but they have not helped. I have met quite a few Afghans who worked for the US but have been cast aside. Of course, anyone who left and went back would be in even more danger because they would be targeted, but those who worked for the US would be even more of a target. I try to discourage them from going back. It isn't safe. She is pregnant and so depressed about it. She doesn't want to bring another child into the hopeless limbo they live in.

Refugees here on their own have almost no hope. One Afghan man told me his story last night. How his boat had to turn back the first time. How it was sinking again the second time, and leaking fuel into the boat, and the Greek coast guard ship that spotted them originally refused  to help, telling them to go back. It was on March 19, the day before the EU/Turkey deal went into effect. Ultimately, the Greek coast guard did pick them up. He had chemical burns covering his legs from the fuel and sea water, but if they had turned back and tried later, he would have had even fewer rights because of the EU/Turkey deal. As it is, he, like most, is in limbo, and asked me if he had a future.

I feel so helpless. The problems are so huge and all we can really do is minimally relieve the pain for a moment.

I don't want to leave. It's so ironic that they are all so desperate to leave and can't and I don't want to leave and am forced to.

I worry about them all.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Post Election Post

I haven't written a blog post in a long time. Partly because I'm so busy and exhausted all the time. I am at camp 8-9 hours a day, usually six days a week, often doing physically demanding tasks. But also because this camp is so different--the days run together, one after another, with a sameness that somehow defies description. Yes, there are moments, and stories I've thought about writing, but been too tired. Then when I do have a little time the stories seem lost in the routines of the days. We have a meeting. We might work in food distribution at lunch or dinner--all the tasks around food distribution are mentally (explaining for the millionth time why we can't give a box of sugary juice for every member of the family--we simply don't have enough to go around) or physically (bending to count out apples or onions, prepackaged bread or "cake" they get for breakfast--shades of the French revolution! "Let them eat cake,"--if you're working on packing the boxes) exhausting, or both (making impossible decisions and bending and lifting and carrying if supervising).

We may work clothing (which I avoid like the plague) running back and forth, in and out of a shipping container trying to find one shirt, one pair of pants, one sweater, one pair of shoes... that both fits the "customer" and is to their taste--not to mention bras, underwear, socks, pajamas--for each member of first one family and then another.

We may work with Little Squirrels--our equivalent to day care--or Big Squirrels--6 and up--or work in bike workshop fixing the broken wrecks of bikes many of the children have. We may teach yoga, turn a jumprope, set up a movie--without always having the right equipment--run a women's group, guard a women's or adults' space (from the seemingly thousands of bored disruptive children or the young men who just want a glimpse of a woman exercising), bring out the chess and backgammon boards, run a dance class, run an art class, run a sewing workshop...

I sometimes think that trying to alleviate the boredom of many months in a refugee camp is the single biggest challenge we face that we, as volunteers, have any power to affect.

And so the days run together and I've been here over two months already.

But today, today was different. At least for me.

Today I came to the camp after a day at the Embassy, voting, and reminding me of how when I was a kid anyone could just walk right into the American Embassy anywhere in the world (citizen or not) and state their business, and of how now to enter the fortress requires searches and passport... I came into the camp after a night of relentlessly watching the election returns for President of the United States, my computer screen split between a map with a running map of trending and won states, red and blue, and a map showing how many electoral votes each state carried. I watched Trump come out of the starting gate fast, and painfully slowly, but steadily, rack up the numbers until it was over. By that time it was about 8:30 am here in Athens and I had been up all night. Trump had won. Both houses of Congress were Republican.

I wasn't, and still am not, a Clinton supporter. But the reality of Trump in the Whitehouse--Trump in control of the nuclear, subnuclear, chemical, biological, laser, and conventional weapons that both parties have so using so cavalierly for so long (in Iraq for longer than the US was in Vietnam) is a sobering thought.

And I carried that exhaustion and that fear to a refugee camp where about 1,500 of the tens of thousands (in mainland Greece alone) of refugees created by those US policies and practices reside in semi-squalor, bored, hopeless, and alienated through no fault of their own. And I carried the burden of American citizenship with me. I knew that I wasn't up to playing games. I thought maybe I would hide away in the shipping container we call Area 51 (because its house number is Alpha 51 and it is such a mysterious black hole of curious donations--you wouldn't imagine what some people send) and sort toys by age group so we can do a toy distribution. That way I could be alone while still helping.

But then something happened. The wind had been heavy all night as it often is in Greece in winter, and as we approached camp the already grey skies grew threatening. The wind picked up, tearing at the already shredded tents we use as common areas, knocking over a portable basketball goal complete with the huge chunk of cement used to weigh it down, and kicking up a dust storm to rival any Arabian desert khamsin. The sky darkened and low, ominous clouds looked like some kind of biblical retribution for US folly.

Simone, Ellena, and I headed for yet another storage shed to retrieve the rain ponchos we had sorted for distribution and the clouds broke, deluging us with horizontally slashing rain and small pellets of hail. We ran back and forth through the gravel bottomed pools the paths had become, carrying boxes and bags and handsful of rain ponchos, handing them out to anybody caught out in the storm, and especially to those waiting, without shelter, at clothing distribution, at food distribution. Two strong young refugee men joined us--one of whom, a Palestinian, has become a particular friend. Within minutes I was soaked through. I had started the walk over without my jacket, but I don't know how much good it would have done anyway. Hours later, my shoes are still sodden and my pants soaked to above the knees. My shirt hangs drying on the doorknob.

But I got to help. I got to do something that had an immediate positive impact on the lives of the residents I had come to help. And I felt like, in just the tiniest way, for just a moment, I had atoned.

I needed that today.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


A volunteer I worked with on Lesvos has just sent me a file of photos and statements from refugees and volunteers that she compiled into a multi-media documentary that showed at a gallery in Canada all summer.

Reading it left me with tears in my eyes.

I was one of the participants, and as I read my own responses to her questions, I reflected on how harsh I sounded compared to the others, how jaded.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to me. I am pretty jaded. I never saw the horrors that many of the refugee children have seen, but I've seen plenty, and like them and so many children around the world, from a young age. So yes, I'm jaded, but I do still have hope. But I'm a realist and the world can be a very ugly place ,and I feel like some of us have to point it out if we ever want it to change.

There was ugliness this morning. A tiny Syrian boy with heartbreakingly beautiful eyes pulled one of his many horrible and unacceptable stunts. I think I may have mentioned him before as one of the children throwing stones on the day I wanted to just give up.

One of the volunteers had her camera out taking photos (she and I are currently the designated photographers, versed in the rules and cleared to take pictures) and playing with some of the children. They always ask to have their pictures taken, but we aren't allowed to post photos showing anybody full face. Anyway, she had left her camera bag on the bench beside her, and suddenly I glimpsed something round and black in the child's hand. I didn't see it well, but was pretty certain it was something to do with the Ellena's camera. I hoped it was just the lens cap. It wasn't. The child saw me look and immediately made a break for it. I alerted Ellena and we gave chase. He ran between the rows of shipping container houses, and then under them. Never a good idea since, of course, there are rats in the camp. (Fortunately, I don't see them often, and there are traps, but nevertheless...)

With the help of another Syrian child who crawled partway under the unit where the small boy was hiding, we recovered a second lens. The little boy who had taken the lens was furious and picked up a rock a little bigger than a grapefruit and threw it at my head.

It missed me, but I snatched him up and went to find somebody who could show me where he lived. The whole time I was carrying him, we struggled. He, trying to pummel me with his fists; me, trying to hold his wrists to avoid getting hit. He did manage to get in a few blows to my face and torso, but he really is tiny so no harm was done.

I knocked on the door of his house and his mother came out. She doesn't speak English and my Arabic certainly wasn't at a level to explain what happened, but with lots of hand gestures and a few words, I  tried to explain what happened. I wanted her to know what he was doing. I wanted her to take some responsibility for the child.

Like many of the children he roams the camp unattended most of the day and well into the night. An Arabic and English speaking refugee man came over and translated. The mother seemed not to care at all until the child landed his hardest blow to my face. Then she slapped him across the face, and pulled him out of my arms and put him inside the house. I didn't want her to slap him. I just wanted her to pay some attention to what her child was doing.

Leaving their house, the man and another volunteer woman explained that the husband/father was in Sweden and the woman was alone and the child had suffered some trauma.

Yes, that's an old story, and not limited to refugees. Some of you know how much I can relate to those circumstances, and no, it's not easy. It's not easy at all, and I wasn't always a good parent myself, but I still can't understand how the mother can completely ignore the child and expect the rest of the world to take on all the responsibility for him. I had seen her a few times before, but never, ever with the child.

And this same child I've seen blossom when given a little attention. I've had run-ins with him before. He's an avid rock thrower. But at other times, when I or one of the other volunteers have managed to see him doing something positive, and praised him for it, he's like a different child. It's in those moments, however brief, that those big eyes melt your soul.

But we don't have the resources to really help. If we went to the IRC or UNHCR the child might be taken from the mother. Would that be a good thing? I don't know how to answer that. The child is certainly being neglected, as are many at camp, but for a child who has lost so much already, would it really help to take him from his mother? On the other hand, what's in store for him if things continue the way they are? Nothing good, likely.

There is another small boy here who seems to be in a similar situation; I never see him with his mother either. He too roams the camp alone all day and into the night. But for whatever reason, he is the camp darling. The volunteers coo over him constantly, and his behavior, while certainly not always perfect, is generally okay most of the time. Is it the attention he gets from volunteers that makes the difference? Would extra love and attention for the rock thrower make a difference? Probably. But it's really difficult to turn your love to someone who is such a problem, especially when there are so many children who are sweet and personable. The twelve-year old or so boy who is teaching me Farsi words, and translates whenever he's asked, and always has a smile, the eleven or twelve-year-old who helped us retrieve the camera lens and who held a discussion with me and one other young boy in which he argued that just because he and his friend were Sunni didn't mean they should think all Shi'a were bad, that you couldn't just lump people together by such criteria and decide they were all good or all bad, the eleven-year-old girl who has a great sense of fashion and a winning smile and always, always, does so much work for her family, picking up food at distribution and hauling it back, the little girl in the wheelchair who smiles as she turns the jump-rope for others, even though she can never jump herself...

There are so many children here. They have all been traumatized. Some of them have somehow taken that trauma and learned thoughtfulness from it. Some of them have learned only fear and hate, it seems. I wish there were enough volunteers to give them all the one on one time they need. I wish their parents weren't so traumatized or alienated or stressed to give them the care they need. I wish that were the case for parents and children everywhere.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


I just realized it's been a week since I last posted a blog entry. Sorry--there's been a lot going on to talk about, but I've been pretty busy and falling behind. For one thing, after I get home from a day at the camp (roughly 1:30 pm to 11:00 pm--long but I can sleep to a humane hour) I generally get into some sort of political discussion with one or more people at the hostel. I've met some incredible people, many of whom have since become involved. There are two German guys I really hit it off with, Max and Joel, who donated medical supplies before heading off to a perma-culture workshop. They both worked in the ambulance service in Germany and have expressed interest in volunteering when they get back to Athens.

Bonnie is from New York, and was in Athens for some kind of neuro-science conference. She explained it but I didn't get it enough to remember it, really. When I told her what I was doing in Athens, she was eager to help. Bonnie was particularly interested in our plans for a library and is talking to friends in the publishing business and has interested a Brooklyn teacher in coordinating a project with Elea and her high school service learning class.

Then there was the "Kiwi" (New Zealander), and with him, the Australian woman. Jamie was in the top bunk across from my bottom bunk when I came into the room after camp one night. We introduced ourselves and he asked me how I was. I responded tired and he wanted to know why. Well, of course that led into a longish conversation about the refugee situation, and Jamie expressed an interest in volunteering. Normally, Project Elea (and most of the other volunteer groups) don't take people who don't commit for at least a week, but a large group had just gone home and we were a little short on volunteers and I got the okay for Jamie to join us. I was going in early the next morning to do some sorting in our chaotic storage space--we needed to fill some gaps in our clothes distribution room--so Jamie was going to follow at the regular time. I got a call from him telling me about Katie, an Australian woman who had worked in a refugee group home in Germany. She had experience, and as I said, we were short-handed, so Katie got the okay too.

The Elea coordinators were happy they said okay. Katie was great for the couple of days she was there. Jamie is still there and will do his first supervisory shift tomorrow. He came for two days and is now finishing up his first week and thinking about staying longer. He has about three more weeks on his visa, and he still hasn't made it to Delphi, his original plan for last Friday.

And then there's Vasilis, an artist who works the night shift at the hostel and is hooking up Project Elea with a museum to hold an art show of refugee works. There seems to be something about hoteliers named Vasilis in Greece...

It's amazing how the networks grow...

Thursday, September 22, 2016


As a woman myself, and having studied women in Middle East History, specifically, Middle Eastern womens' situation is of great concern to me. Most of the refugee women have spent much of their lives in extremely male-dominated, female-suppressed societies. Though this is less true for the Syrians, it's extreme for the Afghans and the Iranians--and as Syrians are the most privileged (by the EU) and are much more often able to leave for one reason or another, the majority of our camp residents are Afghan or Iranian.

Since most of the women live in cultures where womens' space is private space, gatherings for women are problematic. Other than out in the open, we have two large tents (like the Rubhall shown and described in earlier posts from Lesvos) where activities are scheduled. One of the tents has been divided, providing two semi-private rooms. I say semi-private because the doors don't have latches, and even with a volunteer guard at the door to maintain privacy, children, especially the boys, simply duck under the outside walls of the tent.

Other than in the food line, there are few women to be seen walking around the camp.

A lovely Spanish volunteer who is a psychologist started a women's expression group a few weeks ago. When I arrived, I joined the team for this event which is held Monday and Friday evenings. The first time I attended was pretty good. Probably about 20 women came, and we had an Arabic translator for a brief time, as well as a couple of women who could speak some English as well as their native Farsi or Arabic.

We were able to convey that we were each to count off the fingers of one hand with:

1. our name
2. our country of origin
3. our age
4. Something we liked about our physical selves
5. Something we were good at

A lot of us liked our eyes or our hair, and a lot of us liked, or thought we were good at dancing. We had music, and though getting a connection to play it was a little challenging, many of us danced. There was, and continues to be, a little bit of a rivalry between two women in particular, one Syrian, the other Iranian, on which country's music we should play, so we're going to make a mix on a flash drive to forestall further bickering over the music.

The next session was not as well attended. Our lovely volunteer leader wasn't feeling very well to begin with, and was a little down. It's hard to spread the word about events sometimes, and it's hard to get people to come out to an event--I learned that at kaleidoscope, my former performance gallery.

Anyway, no women showed up for the first 15 minutes or so, and we volunteers spent the time throwing around ideas of what we could do and whether or not we could accomplish anything without translators, and finally decided that we would bring (in addition to the tea and cookies we always bring) some girly things--nail polish, hair ties and bobby pins in pretty colors, some sewing supplies--and that we would make a real effort at inviting women to come. Some women did eventually show up that evening, and we talked and danced a little.

When the day came for the next meeting, our volunteer leader had written out an invitation and we had it translated into Arabic, Farsi, and French. It wasn't in Urdu as I recall; I'm not certain the translation group that works in camp has any Urdu speakers. With our multi-lingual invitations in hand, we split up to go door to door throughout the camp, asking women to come.

Over 60 women showed up!

That's maybe 20-25% of the women in camp. It was phenomenal. We had women from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (even without the Urdu), Sierra Leone, and Somalia in attendance. People were painting each others' nails, divvying up the hair supplies, and talking to each other, often with gestures. We also had paper and colored pencils and some women drew. This is one of the drawings from that night I found particularly poignant. It needs no explanation.

And of course there was dancing. The two women who each want their music played danced, as they always do, and more and more women joined in. There we were, women ranging in age from teens to we older women, from different countries, religions, ethnicities, speaking different languages, all dancing together. Many headscarves came off; the dancing got wilder. We were having so much fun and being so noisy that apparently we made it difficult for the arts and crafts session in the next room to function. Whoops. But oh, we did have a good time.

If you read the blog entry just prior to this one, you read one of the most depressed entries I've ever shared, and sometimes it's like that. But sometimes, sometimes, we all come together as people to people and everything works and I know why I want to be here so much.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Some Days I Despair

I started a blog post a couple of days ago that I was really excited to write because I was feeling so positive about the topic, but I was falling asleep writing it and decided to finish it the next day--yesterday.

But then yesterday was awful.

The heat was oppressive, and in camp, amid the dirt and dust, and with all the glare off the pavement and the metal housing, no trees, no grass, trying to breathe felt like a struggle. Walking from the metro station, through the noisy flea market with Barbie and Monopoly and Dora the Explorer and Star Wars reminders of the globalization that accounted, at least in part, for the desperate poverty of those selling their dumpster-dived wares on dirty blankets in front of deserted and dilapidated industrial buildings baking in the sun was kind of horrifying. I was already drained by the time I reached the refugee camp.

Nothing went well yesterday. The camp of 1,500 probably has 800-900 children in it--children who have lived their whole lives in the horrors of war, children who left war behind only to become refugees--no school, no real home, impoverished, their parents on edge all the time...children without childhoods.

We volunteers try to do our best. We organize activities, dole out juice on the occasions we get enough for everybody, give hugs, whatever might alleviate the boredom and poverty and insecurity that is the day to day reality of refugee life, but there are only about 30 of us on any given day--sometimes even fewer, and resources are scarce. Many of the parents have trouble coping, too, and need our help with the children. They made the enormous decision to flee their homes and throw themselves on the mercy of a world which has ultimately shown little mercy. The world debates their future and they have no say over it. They traded the life-threatening horror of war for the life-eroding horror of human smugglers, a perilous sea journey, and an overcrowded, under-supplied camp with the hope of reaching a safe haven and a chance to restart their lives.

But then, one by one, the borders started closing. Nobody wanted them. Nobody was willing to share their nation. Very few actually give a damn.

And now, after months of living in a ghetto many are losing hope. Some talk of going back to Syria or Afghanistan, of risking bombs rather than continue their refugee existence without recourse or dignity, dependent.

And at times, like when the heat is as oppressive as it was yesterday, or the movie doesn't work like it didn't last night, the fear and the tensions and the anger and the despair are palpable. The children almost rioted over the movie and the respective parents of fighting children themselves began to fight.

It was a day where everything went wrong. It was a day that made me question why the hell I was putting myself through this when I could so easily ignore it all. It was a day that ended as dismally as it began, as I walked back to the metro by mountains of garbage, limping on a swollen painful ankle from a cluster of bites from who knows what, despairing that there was anything they, or I, or anyone could really do.

I took the day off today. My ankle was huge and inflamed and I couldn't put on my shoe, but more than I needed to rest my ankle, I needed to rest my eyes from the sights, my nose from the smells, and my heart from the hurt. My ankle benefitted from the rest and the swelling has gone down significantly, though it is still hot and painful, but my heart doesn't feel any better.

Today, via the Whatsapp of the Better Days at Moria group I was with on Lesvos, I heard the news that thousands of refugees and aid workers were evacuated as tents were burned in the camp. BBC said a riot started at the news that there would be mass deportations.

No, my heart doesn't feel any better. Some days it's hard to find any hope. Some days I despair. What have any of us done to deserve this?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

How Spelling My Name Wrong is Opening Doors

In the babble of languages spoken in the refugee camps, English is the lingua franca. Since I really only speak English, I lucked out. The refugees' native languages include Arabic, Farsi (both Iranian and Afghan), Urdu, Kurdish, Pashtu, French... while the volunteers' include English, German, Greek, Dutch, French, Spanish, Polish... Communication can be awfully difficult and frustrating at times, but sometimes funny attempts to exchange information can also build friendships.

We volunteers wear nametags, and of course I've written my name in English on the badge, but I also added my name in Arabic. Farsi shares (mostly) an alphabet/script with Arabic, and as I can write my name in Arabic-- سارة -- I added that as well. What I didn't realize is that Sara in Farsi appears to be spelled slightly differently than Sara in Arabic. The letters in Arabic are sin, aleph, ra, ta marbuta (the round one with the dots over it on the right) while in Farsi, it's spelled sin, aleph, ra, aleph, or ساراز  

My misspelling (in Farsi) has become a conversation starter with a lot of Afghans and Iranians, and when they find out I have a few words of Farsi they really appreciate it, but wonder why. When I tell them I used to live in Iran, the Afghans are mildly interested, but the Iranians instantly become lifelong friends.

Most of the refugees have some English by this point--the first word they all seem to learn is "problem", and the children, of course, are learning particularly quickly, but many only have about as much English as I have Farsi or Arabic. In other words, barely enough to be useful. One of my personal goals for this round of work is to teach English. Education doesn't really fall under the purview of Project Elea, but every interaction is an opportunity to help with language.

As word has gotten round among the Iranians in camp that I used to live in Iran and speak a (very) few words of Farsi, more and more are approaching me for help. To my delight, much of my work day in the camp is now spent sitting and chatting with various Iranians, swapping languages. My Farsi is improving, and I hope I'm improving their English. To give them that skill, or  to enhance it, would be reward enough, but we get so much more than language from the exhange.

A couple of days ago I sat talking and laughing with two young men in a back and forth mix of English and Farsi, until I was called away to help an Iranian woman with English. We wrote simple sentences in her notebook--"Hello, how are you?", "I am fine, thank you.", "My name is...", "What is your name?", "I have a son named...". Again, there was much bonding and laughter over our bungled attempts at each others' language.

Then yesterday, while knocking on doors to share information about an activity we had planned for women (carrying a paper with the info written in English, French, Arabic, and Farsi), I met an Iranian man who wanted to learn to dance. He complained about his muscles being tight, and knowing we offered yoga for men, but not knowing the exact time, I offered to return after the women's activity with the day and time men's yoga was scheduled.

As promised, I returned a couple of hours later to tell him yoga was on Tuesdays at 6 pm. He invited me in for tea, and I sat with him and two other Iranian men, answering questions, practicing English, and, as always in these situations, laughing a lot. It turns out he didn't just want to stretch; he wants to learn ballroom dance. Project Elea doesn't have that in the schedule now, but who knows? Maybe at some point we can offer it. Some other volunteers told me that a former volunteer kept offering to teach the Lindy Hop, so you never know. Ironically, it was in Iran that I learned to ballroom dance.

Anyway, all these attempts at language, by virtually everybody in camp, volunteers and refugees alike, are all attempts at understanding each other. And after all, isn't that the goal? Makes me glad I don't know how to spell my name.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Back in Greece; Working in Athens

I've been back in Greece almost a week now after a three month stay back in San Francisco, but it already feels like much longer. I'm in Athens this time, rather than on Lesvos, working in a camp in the industrial neighborhood of Eleonas. It's an official government camp, with very little NGO presence--MSF pulled out not long ago over some dispute in the way the camp was operated--but a volunteer group called the Elea project works there trying to make the camp more livable for the residents. Currently there are about 1,500 people living in the camp, and another 750 in a different camp right next to it. The other camp is run by the military with no volunteer presence, but I've heard they're slated to be joined, and our population will include the second camp. I also heard that the wall between them will stay up, though. I don't know why. It seems counterproductive.

In many ways the camp is much better than either Moria, the official registration camp on Lesvos (now a detention center) where I worked, or the spillover, volunteer run, Better Days for Moria camp. If you've read earlier blogs you know that in Moria, housing consisted of overcrowded, tiny Ikea huts without electricity, and that housing at Better Days was in tents, also without electricity, though charging stations were available at both camps. But the electricity supplied shipping container houses at Eleonas are much nicer. They have private bathrooms afford some privacy to the residents. Many have beds with mattresses, though some are still sleeping on thin, yoga-style mats.

The geography of the camp is much different too. Instead of hilly, rocky, and muddy, the land is flat, graveled or paved, and dusty, and the flatness makes the area of the camp consequently seem much bigger. There is room for sports and biking, which the residents very much enjoy, although the women have asked for an area where they can play sports in relative privacy, and that might not be possible.

A few trees have been planted, but they provide no shade yet. A garden area is in the works, with herbs and flowers. I haven't seen or heard of any vegetables being planted yet, but food distribution here doesn't just consist of prepared meals but includes occasional bags of vegetables--potatoes, tomatoes, onions... as well as packages of bread at every meal. Since volunteers work only until 10:30 pm when we all have to leave the camp, breakfast is distributed with dinner. Everybody complains about the prepared meals, and they are far worse than those on Lesvos. When I did food distribution two days ago, the meal was potatoes in tomato sauce. Starchy foods like rice and potatoes are the staple. Meat is served once a week.

Other than the sports area and equipment, the volunteers have started a number of activities for the residents. I have been involved in a women's expression group, run by a young Spanish psychologist, henna night (where seven and ten year old Afghan refugees Shabanaz and Maida decorated my hands, and I decorated others), movie night (Kung Fu Panda--the kids loved it), and some game playing. There are also yoga and fitness classes, a bike workshop, a football tournament (that's soccer to my US readers), story time, and various other activities of the like. Some English classes just started for the children, but I haven't been involved yet. My main project, and the one I'm most excited about, at Eleonas will be setting up a library. Currently, though, the only container building we have access to for the library serves as a storage area for clothes and toys.

The weather is just beginning to cool a little, so winter clothes distribution will start soon, but clothing distribution in general is not an everyday task as it was on Lesvos. Here the refugees know they will be staying some time (though they all desperately want to move on) and there is space to do laundry. Clean wet clothes hang to dry between the rows of shipping container houses, some of which are beginning to reflect their inhabitants' aesthetics, with curtains, or a few plants. I have yet to be inside one, though Farah, a lovely Iranian woman, has invited me for tea any time. According to the ministry rules, we are only allowed to stay 15 minutes inside a refugee's home.

There are already toys floating around, but the Project Elea team is still trying to figure out an equitable way to distribute the toys that are in storage in our future library. Apparently, too, nobody wants to distribute the pile of donated Barbies. I understand their concerns, but if the decision were mine, I would go ahead and give them out. Unrealistic Barbie is not that big a deal compared to what these children have seen, and bringing them some happiness is important.

This post has taken me two days to write--yesterday I spent most of the day looking for an apartment--and now it's time to go to camp. I'll try to write more often. As always, thanks for reading, thanks for caring.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Deportations in the Dark: A Report from a Refugee Camp

It's 4:30 am here and I've just spent the last half an hour messaging with a friend who was taken to one of the Greek mainland camps at near Kavala. What he told me is seriously disturbing.

About ten minutes before he messaged me, between 3 and 4 am, over fifty Pakistanis were taken from the camp for deportation. Apparently this is the second middle of the night deportation from the camp at Paranesti Drama, outside Kavala. According to my friend, all those taken for deportation had signed papers requesting asylum, and all of them had been given papers saying they would be there for 6 months to a year. None of those taken for deportation had a lawyer. And since they were at the camp at Paranesti Drama, they arrived in Greece prior to the EU-Turkey deal which began on March 20, and were therefore all eligible to request asylum.

This appears to be in contravention of the policy saying that all who requested asylum would get fair treatment on a case by case basis, as there has not been time for claims to be properly assessed and processed.

Moreover, the paper saying the refugees would/could be there for six months to a year should be the paper they receive after requesting asylum and giving them temporary status for the length stated in the paper.

I am not absolutely certain this paper is that document though because my friend can't send me a photo of the document. None of the refugees at Paranesti Drama have phones anymore. He told me that when they arrived at the camp in northern Greece on March 26 their cell phones were all taken away, and that they were told by the Greek police running the camp that if they wanted their phones back they could have them after they (the Greek police) had broken the cameras.

My friend further reported that they were only fed once a day, that (like in Moria) the food was inadequate, that there were no proper doctors, and that it was like a jail. There are no volunteers, NGOs, or media present.

I have promised to help to the best of my ability, and am writing to every contact I have in various NGOs that were working in Moria, and every press contact I have. If any of you reading this have any good contacts, please pass on the information to them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Report from Moria

I realize I'm not writing these days; I don't feel like there's much to say. But I still keep up with events in Mytilini and Moria through a Whatsapp group.

Conditions inside Moria have been getting progressively worse. I think I told you all about the hunger strike a couple of weeks ago. Many issues have revolved around food. There hasn't been enough of it, the police running the camp apparently don't really know how to distribute it, and judging from the photos uploaded to the group, the food has been less than satisfactory.

pile of rejected food from the hunger strike. they look like hot dogs.
photo by someone known only to me as Secoady in the group

meals in moria: bread and potatoes, bread and pasta
photos by Sham Jutt

One of the refugees who used to stay at Better Days for Moria, a Pakistani, Sham, has been regularly reporting from inside about the worsening conditions. A few days ago he reported that after asking a policeman why he put two people in front of him in the food line, the policeman kicked him and said "Fuck you, I'm an officer and management and who are you? Garbage Pakistani?" and our friend didn't get food. 

photo of the police coming after Sham with his nightstick out
photo by Sham Jutt

Though food has been a point of contention, it's certainly not all about food. The following short video, also taken by Sham I think, captures part of one of the protests inside Moria this month. 

As I told you before, most NGOs pulled out of Moria when it became a detention center, though EuroRelief was still inside. Amnesty International was granted access in early April, just after the first deportations started on the fourth. Human Rights Watch went in shortly thereafter, I think. I know they went in, but not sure exactly when. However, it doesn't seem to have made much difference to conditions inside. Where it may have made a difference, though I'm not sure, is that a few days ago Moria, and the camp VIOL on the Greek island of Chios, opened their gates, allowing refugees some freedom of movement.

However, there were many people still locked up. A majority of the Pakistanis (who have been treated especially badly throughout this whole mess) and for some unfathomable reason the unaccompanied minors who are supposed to be under the aegis of the UNHCR.

Sham reported this morning that there was a riot or near riot around food distribution again. He said that Syrian and Afghan men with rocks and iron (I'm not sure what the iron was) started a big fight in the distribution line, that the stones were "coming like rain", and that many people were injured. Sham also said there were only three or four policemen there, and two or three army men, and that very few people got food.

Then around 5:00 this afternoon, reports started coming in from volunteers who were near the camp that there was another riot situation, that people were throwing stones at the police and that police had responded with tear gas. 

Apparently, the riot started when the unaccompanied minors (I'm certain my friend--the trauma victim of an earlier post--was in on this, possibly one of the instigators) broke out of their cells. I don't blame them at all for breaking out; the fact that they were locked up at all is unconscionable. 
Reports said a fence was torn down, fires started, and offices broken into. EASO (European Asylum Support Office), EuroRelief, Moria's director, and refugees receiving medical care were all evacuated. The latest reports say that the refugees are now in complete control of the camp and were apparently broadcasting "Freedom, Freedom" over the loudspeakers.

I hope they get their freedom. All of them.


The refugees are still in control of the camp, but there have been many injuries. Ambulances did arrive to take out wounded people. Apparently there are many fires as well, and the police were being driven out of camp. It's inspirational that they were able to stand up for their rights, but I'm terrified of what will likely happen tomorrow. The authorities are apparently already talking about mass deportations without redress, but I fear there will be much violence. Below is a photo taken inside the camp this afternoon. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Last Days on Lesvos--for so many

Again I must apologize for falling behind in my posts. After everything fell apart in Lesvos, I was pretty sick, exhausted, and depressed again. I think we all felt like we had been hit with a tsunami--that everything we had worked for was swept away by a force far too large to resist with any success.

People are still there resisting. Refugees, volunteers, NGO staff, local residents... But I couldn't stay and be part of that, though I love a good protest. My visa was about to expire and I had to leave enough time on it that I can go back to Athens for my flight out. I left about a week so I have time to check out the anarchist scene in Exarchia where squats are being set up for refugees. I hear it is especially busy now that the EU in its infinite wisdom decided to clear everybody out of the functioning camps and move them either to Athens or to some quickly erected make-shift camps all over mainland Greece. Especially since these camps have absolutely no facilities other than tents. No running water. No electricity or wi-fi (so no light or connection with friends, family...anyone). No medical services, distribution... Really, nothing.

One particularly problematic aspect of having no electricity or internet is that those seeking asylum (and they are all supposed to be able to) are given Skype appointments to request it. A little hard to keep a Skype appointment without wi-fi. Although, maybe it's a moot point, because according to all reports I've heard the Skype number doesn't work or isn't answered. Great. Good job EU. Missing an appointment through no fault of your own is a great way to deny asylum. It's so easy.

Ugh. What a mess. Deportations started on April 4th, but stopped on the 5th. Then they started again, but there haven't been that many. However, I heard today that the port of Piraeus (near Athens) is to be cleared out by Easter--the Greek Orthodox celebrate Easter May 1st this year) and the government has been trying to clear the makeshift camp at Idomeni on the Macedonian border. MSF does have a small camp there built to accommodate 1,500 people, but there have been up to ten times that many stuck there recently.

There have been thousands stuck there since the borders closed. Yesterday, apparently, a group tried to break through and the Macedonian police used tear gas and rubber bullets to stop it, wounding a lot of people in the process. People have tried to cross through the closed border before--last month two groups attempted to cross the river. In one group, that wasn't as organized, several people drowned. The other group used a cable, but were brought back as soon as they made it across.

Though I think the EU's deal with Turkey, and much of the way they've handled this has been awful, I still have to fault the US even more. Much of the blame for the crisis must be placed squarely on the shoulders of US policy. I found it incredible when a US State Department undersecretary (or something) showed up at Moria a couple of weeks ago--after it was turned into a detention camp. The State Department put out a statement saying they were very concerned about the refugee issue, but apparently not concerned enough to stop dropping bombs on half the world and making economic war on virtually all of it.

And still there are refugees coming here to Izmir hoping to cross into Greece and start a new life in Europe.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

1,000 Cigarettes

Though writing my blog entry yesterday felt final, there are stories yet to tell, and I can't resist telling this short one, even if I am one of the stars of it.

On Sunday, I think--the week's been a blur--when the Pakistanis had held their meeting to discuss what they would do, and decided that they would go in to Moria quietly with heads held high, small groups began heading down the hill to the Syrian gate where they knew they were going into detention. There were some tears, lots of hugs and handshakes, a few brave jokes.

Our lovely tea tent people who passed out thousands of cups of tea and biscuits, and fed we volunteers three meals a day on virtually nothing, made up bags of goodies for those going inside--a packet of biscuits, a bottle of water, an apple, some chocolate...

I was really touched by that simple gesture, and it sparked a eureka moment. For weeks, those in the camp had been saying "Mother, one smoking please,"  to me. They mostly called me mother. They started out calling me grandmother, but I wasn't down for that. It became a bit of a standing joke at times; if they wanted a laugh they called me grandmother just to watch my reaction. Ha ha.

And often, I said no to their requests. I gave out a lot of cigarettes, but it's impossible to fund the smoking habit of hundreds of other people.

On this day though, it felt like the refugees left in the camp were condemned men. And the only thing I could offer them that they wanted was a cigarette. So I went to the kiosk near the entrance to BDFM and bought five packs of the cheapest cigarettes they had. Not anyone's favorite, but I could get so many more and there were so many people.

I stood next to the tea tent folks with their goody bags and started handing out cigarettes. I was mobbed. Clearly, it was something they really wanted.

Other volunteers started chipping in to buy more, and all day I kept replenishing my stock. At one point--the second time I was mobbed--I realized my method wasn't working well, so drawing on our strategy of teaching about queuing by saying "Line, line," as we secured places in the food line, I yelled line. Lots of laughs, but it worked. People began lining up. Some of them asked for two, but I wouldn't give more than one per person. There were just too many people. Then some of them began getting in line a second time, using little tricks like adding a jacket or pulling up a hood in the hopes I wouldn't recognize them.

I'm sure some of them got away with it, but it was all pretty high spirited.

By the time I left camp at 1:30 am, I had given away at least 1,000 cigarettes. That's 50 packs.

The next morning I gave away my last two packs. For a minute, anyway, I was able to give them something they really wanted.

Thanks you all who donated for helping me do this, including the kiosk man who gave me a discount on the last packs, and donated a lighter. There are nice people everywhere.

photo by Emily Smith

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Heartbreak on Lesvos

I was already exhausted when I heard the news. There had been a couple of days of awful weather--rain and high winds that shifted my tent under me and soaked my suitcase. And the situation with the Pakistanis was getting worse. The police started coming to the camp, wanting to deport them. When they came into the area of small tents above the fence line at Better Days for Moria, and arrested three Pakistanis, I decided it wasn't wise to camp there anymore. When I got to camp after a night away, somebody told me my suitcase was in the info tent. Except for that, my tent and everything in it was gone.

What really sucked for me was not losing the tent or the food in it, or even my eye drops and Tums...what really sucked was that many of my absolute favorite clothes were out of the suitcase drying. My grey Norma Kamali coat that I've worn nearly every day for 10 years now. My HowellDevine t-shirt, my kaleidoscope free speech zone sweatshirt that was my first ever start to finish screen-print and splattered with kaleidoscope paint, my Al Awda sweatshirt from an April 2000 protest in NYC, and other band/protest shirts. All gone. Along with all my socks and underwear and my only other pair of jeans. The halfway decent ones. Broke my heart.

But there was worse heartbreak to come.

After shift on Friday I went to the beaches for boat watch. About 10 o'clock the next morning, I headed in to town with one of the beach leaders and a brand new volunteer who had walked down to campfire from the airport close by. The lifeguard that heads the beach watch every other night gave me some pamphlets on how to greet boats. She wanted them put out at BDFM. I took the new volunteer to the bus station to buy her ticket to Molyvos, then we went to have breakfast and wait for the protest scheduled for the square and the port. I had been up over 24 hours and was feeling kind of rough.

A drenching rain--it had rained on the beach all night and I was already pretty wet, my coat soaked through--delayed the protest, so the new volunteer didn't get to take part. She had to catch her bus, but I joined in and we marched around the small labyrinthine streets of Mytilini before heading to the port. At the port, I was called over to hear a woman from Pikpa--the camp for especially vulnerable people.

She was distraught. She had just come from the mayor's office where the phone call had come in while she was there. The phone call telling the mayor that due to the EU-Turkey agreement due to start implementation the next day, all refugee camps on Lesvos were going to be cleared in the next 24 hours.

All sleepiness disappeared and I went into high gear. I joined a photographer friend and another journalist and spent two furious hours alerting people and trying to verify the information. I couldn't believe that all of it was ending, just like that.

A lot of other people didn't believe it either. It was surreal. I went to my evening shift, and we began telling people. The EU agreement was supposed to start on Sunday, but it seemed as though even those there before the agreement were to be deported. Evening shift was long, and we had drinks after because so many of we volunteers were leaving this week too, as I am in a couple of days. We never dreamed our leaving would coincide with the end of days. That's what it feels like. The end of days.

Imagine living in a tiny town of 1,000 people on less than an acre of land, and suddenly finding out that about 900 of them are being sent to prison, just for being from the wrong place.

We were all horrified. Camp that night was sober. Lots of the Pakistanis who made up the bulk of our camp recently, sat in the info tent, trying to reach loved ones on their phones. We volunteers tried to find out more information. Rumors were flying. Everybody was going to be sent to Kevalla in the north of mainland Greece. It was going to be a lockdown camp. It was an open camp. Refugees were going to receive 180 Euros a month for personal expenses. Could that be part of the EU deal? After all, these people were here before the cut-off date of March 20. Surely something would be done for them, and refugees said friends had called from Kevalla telling them that. But we also heard everybody would be deported to Turkey. That was in direct contravention of international laws on refugees and the just signed agreement. And the horrible one-for-one human trade would happen, but not as we had thought--Pakistanis for Syrians. Instead, it was going to be Syrians for Syrians, which doesn't even make any sense.

On Monday--having not slept in 45 hours--I found out that Moria had become an official detention center. UNHCR pulled out on principle, DRC was gone, all volunteers were in the process of being kicked out. I-58, a religious based volunteer group from the US who did great work were taken out of the dorms which were now detention dorms rather than the family compound and moved down to the tea tent. I don't know if they're still there, but MSF pulled out last night. So all the big NGOs are gone and Moria is a prison again. A doctor from Better Days told me they seemed to only be getting one meal a day, shoved under the bars at 3 pm. Another volunteer has reported that when asked for water cops are responding "Wait for the rain."

We still don't know for sure what's going to happen to people. Some reports say that all the Pakistanis are being handcuffed for transport. Some of our friends among the refugees have contacted us, so we have some first hand reports, but they are confusing. The ferry the Iraqi tattoo artist I wrote about was put on went to Athens instead of Kevalla. There is some speculation Kevalla was a ruse to misdirect volunteers who might show up to protest.

But from there, it seems that some were taken to a bleak looking camp at Volos where there is reportedly no running water. I saw a picture. Just tents--row after row of tents. Volos is on the mainland between Athens and the northern border. But then I heard that some of the refugees were allowed to board a bus for Athens, that the bus driver required them to pay 20 Euros for the trip and they refused, saying let the EU pay it. The story goes that the bus driver threatened to kill them and eventually dropped them off in the middle of nowhere, but since some of our friends have made their way to Athens, who knows? And apparently it wasn't straight from the ferry, but I can't quite get the story. Anyway, good to know they're safe for now.

My young traumatized friend went with the Urdu speaking doctor to be put in UNHCR protective care as an unaccompanied minor. I got to say goodbye, but yesterday I stood outside the so-called Syrian gate, the main gate to Moria camp, and waved at the small barred metal building in which he was being held. I didn't see him, though.

Tonight I didn't go to camp. The shift leader told me there are only about 10 people left. My young friend whose arm and neck were cut up by the Taliban left on the ferry for Athens tonight where a protection specialist will meet him tomorrow. I hope he will be okay.

Another friend, a Pakistani man, I ran into on a bench in Mytilini. I was pretty confused by that because the Pakistanis are particularly at risk. Yet there he was, with another Pakistani man, taking the sun by the sea. He gave me his phone number and asked me to contact a lawyer for him. I think he might have a good asylum case. I hope so. I hope he gets to use his right to apply for asylum. We're hearing conflicting reports about that too.

And now it's time for me to leave Lesvos so I don't overstay my visa. It's a particularly unsatisfactory way of leaving, but it would be pointless to stay anyway. The refugees are gone. Some 50,000 people--including the 900 or so from our camp--have been disappeared.

At least BDFM did our own registration in these last days. We'll be able to say they WERE here. Here are their pictures, their names. They do exist. Where are they?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Trauma Victim--One of Many

I spent much of last night with a trauma victim. He's a young man from near Islamabad, the capitol of Pakistan--only 17. I got involved with him when he cut his hand. This is a fuller story than the one I briefly outlined in the post The Pakistanis.

I was in the info tent when he came in about a week ago with blood all over his palm and somebody took him to the doctor at the other end of the camp. Not long after, someone from the health tent came down to info asking if we had seen him and saying he had left. I was a little surprised but didn't really know the situation and didn't think much more about it till I saw him at the campfire that evening.

His hand was wrapped in an a torn up white t-shirt which he had also fashioned into a sling. I asked him about the doctor since it was obvious no doctor had done the bandaging, and that was when he told me that when he was asked his name, he was afraid of the police. Since his English is very limited, and my Urdu virtually non-existent (he taught me a few words last night) this was communicated without much context other than what I knew of the political situation.

Knowing there was an Urdu speaking doctor around, I went to tell her the situation She talked to him and between us we convinced him--I with a cigarette bribe (he had asked and I had demurred, saying I'd give him one if he went to the doctor). The doctor, by the way, is awesome. She cleaned and wrapped the wound, and somehow managed to convince him to accompany her inside Moria registration camp so MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) so he could get a tetanus shot. He had a deep wound from a razor blade. He said he fell on it.

I saw him the next day and he showed me his medical papers. MSF had also given him an Hep-B shot. Then I didn't see him again for a couple of days, but yesterday there he was--his bandage soiled and bloody. I told him he had to go back to the doctor to have it cleaned and rebandaged. We joked about no police at the doctor. I finally convinced him and he asked me to go with him, so I did.

That evening I attended the second in a series of three psychological first aid mini training courses offered by a catastrophe specialist psychiatrist. At some point during the meeting, she referenced a trauma case she had talked to that afternoon--a Pakistani minor who might be cutting himself. I instantly thought of the young man with the razor wound, and indeed, that was the young man in question.

I saw him again after the meeting and he conveyed to me that he wanted me to go sit with him. He took me to the casbah--the nickname of the comfortable quiet room in the medical tent where we had had our meeting, and we sat awhile. At times he was agitated. He opened the blanket sealing off the room from the rest of the medical tent. He wanted to know what was going on, and he wanted the Urdu speaking doctor to come talk to him. He taught me a few words of Urdu, including one phrase he was adamant I learn. When he was ready to leave, I went outside with him and repeated the phrase to the Urdu speaking doctor. She was surprised and asked if she was rude. Apparently he had taught me to say someone was very rude. The doctor asked me to stay with him. We then went to the info tent where he pointed to a volunteer and repeated that phrase. The volunteer in question is actually very nice, but communication is difficult and combined with frequently limited resources, misunderstandings are frequent. His impression was that the volunteer in question was very rude, though I doubt if  that was really the case in this instance.

He then took a guitar from another volunteer with a gesture asking if he could play, and began to strum. He didn't know how to play guitar, and it was out of tune, but it didn't matter. He was obviously soothed by the music he was making. A group of boisterous Pakistanis entered the tent then, and in moments he asked me to follow him outside. He took the guitar with him and we sat down nearby where he continued to play around on the guitar. Then the same group followed us outside and showing some agitation, he again asked me to walk with him. He seems to be torn between wanting to talk to the other refugees who share his language and wanting to avoid them. Playing on the guitar along the way we went again to the medical tent, to the casbah room. We sat there--him playing--for a long time. The psychiatrist sang a beautiful old folk song, which he enjoyed, but when she started playing the spoons he gestured his displeasure and said calm--an English word he seemed to understand. Then another worker in the tent--a medical student--sang to him while filling small bags with gummi-vitamins to hand out to kids. Finally another Urdu speaking doctor who would be on the night shift joined us and they talked a little, translating for me sometimes. After a while, we took the guitar back to the info tent where we hung out a minute. Then he told me I should go to sleep and he disappeared.

A few minutes later I walked down to the medical tent to see if I could ask about his story since he had latched onto me. There he was. They filled me in briefly, but it wasn't much more than I knew. Apparently, he hasn't really shared his story.

Throughout the course of the evening I sat with him, the second Urdu speaking doctor, and another young doctor. I learned he has four brothers and a sister; I got him some clean clothes and dry shoes that fit. They made a bed for him in the medical tent out of two exam cots because he said he was afraid he'd fall off. I brought blankets and a sleeping bag from storage. At one point we inquired about a bleeding cut on his knuckle of the same hand whose palm was cut. As the doctor cleaned and bandaged it he said that he had cut it at the same time he cut his palm and that sometimes it opened up and bled. It was a much smaller cut, but I don't recall seeing it before. And it's a little hard to believe that he cut his hand on both sides by falling on a razor blade. The bleeding started while he was out of our sight, changing into his clean clothes.

I went to bed around three, though I carried a radio with me in case they wanted me--it was a long day. How does an untrained volunteer help a young man who doesn't speak her language? I wish I knew.


Some updates to previous posts:

On Truth and Consequences--the post more people have read by far. Starfish, the organization that covered up the rape, has been banned from working inside Moria and all former Starfish volunteers banned as well. Starfish is continuing  to cover up the situation, spreading the story that their removal from Moria was the result of a normal rotation of NGOs by the Greek government. The victim is out of the country, considering her options and, last I heard, seeking therapy.

On The First Imad--I since learned that for refugees who have lost their money, or claimed to do so, the standard operating procedure is to wait three days and see what the people in question do. The logic behind that is that those who have resources will utilize them to move on, and those that truly don't will still be stuck. If they really are stuck, financial assistance will be offered through one of the groups that offer that kind of aid. Makes a certain amount of sense to me.

On The Second Imad--I was such a newbie then I didn't know who or what to ask. Turns out the DRC do have tents available that they hand out when necessary, or I could have tried to put them elsewhere, or I could have sent them to Better Days. The learning curve is steep here. I hate to think how many of us make mistakes out of ignorance. It's legion.

On The Pakistanis--I've since had explained to me that many of the Pakistanis really are economic migrants from the Punjab region. I'm not convinced, however, that their economic woes are not war related. And they're not all from Punjab as I'll write in my next post.

On An Iraqi Story--the young man in this story has become quite a star, being interviewed in a number of media outlets. He often claims in these stories that he is from Iran because, as he explained to me, where he wants to go (Norway if I recall correctly) Iranians are treated better than Iraqis. I tell him he may be hurting his chances of moving on, but it highlights the issue of refugees telling the interviewers (both media and government) what they think the interviewers want to hear. They are afraid. One of the most common scenarios with making up stories for the government interviewers is that of unaccompanied minors saying they are older because they think that will help them more. In fact the opposite is true. Anyway, for more about Ramiar--the young man in An Iraqi Story--check out this BBC video of him.

On Better Days Camping--I didn't join I Am You because I found out no former Starfish volunteers are allowed to work inside Moria, so have been at Better Days for the past couple of weeks. Since I live there, I mostly work on projects or make myself useful wherever and whenever needed instead of signing up for specific shifts. Camping is going ok. I definitely get a better understanding of the refugee experience--worrying about rain and wind, no shower available, no toilet paper in the port-a-potties (though I carry a roll with me most of the time), frustrating, terrible internet, the unending noise of living in a tent in close quarters with many others in the same situation, the almost constant chaos of a refugee camp...and some things that are more specific to my situation: staying up as late as I can so that I don't have to get up in the middle of the night to walk to the toilets, being able to wash my clothes in the taps as they do, but being reluctant to hang my underwear to dry in a camp mostly full of single men... but many thanks to a fellow volunteer who washed my clothes and let me use her shower. you rock!

Monday, March 7, 2016

On the Beach--My First Boat Arrival

This is a hard post to write. I'm not sure I can adequately describe what it's like being on the beaches watching for boats, but I'll try. After doing it the first time, I tell every volunteer who hasn't experienced it that they really should.

We left Better Days in the wee hours of the morning and drove out to the campfire on the beach. The lifeguard in charge gave us a briefing about what we should look for and what we should do in case of a boat landing and we began scanning the sea for the tiny glimmer of a regularly blinking light.  As a newbie, I kept seeing lights blinking on the Turkish shore and thinking they were signals, but when I finally saw one, there's no mistaking it. Even though it may start as a faint flicker far away, it blinks  regularly. Some refugee on a tiny rubber boat out in all that black sea--indistinguishable from the black sky sometimes--is huddled together with maybe 50 others in a low riding boat, shining his little flashlight in a signal pattern, looking for an answering flash from us on shore.

A little after 3 am we saw the first one. One of the experienced lifeguards estimated arrival in about 10 minutes, based on the distance. But ten minutes came and went and the boat didn't seem any closer. The tension on shore mounted. We kept flashing. The boat didn't seem to come any closer. Another 10 minutes crawled by, and another. The refugees were clearly in trouble. Finally, around 4 am the boat was close enough to see, a dim grey shape, low on the water and filled with black silhouettes--the refugees.

Right now, writing this in a cafe in the port of Mytiline, I'm shaking again remembering, reliving, the fear we all felt for them.

As they approached shore six professional lifeguards in wetsuits waded out and, three to a side, hauled the heavy boat up onto the beach. After all the fear and tension of watching their approach, after all the fear and tension of  their dangerous sea crossing, they had reached land and there was a moment of universal joy and celebration like I've never seen before. Every single person there shared this moment of such joy. It was the best high ever. But then we went to work. We quickly formed a corridor to lead the refugees off the front of the boat--going off the side is dangerous--and helped them out onto land and up to the blankets we had spread as they neared. We helped them sit down, figured out those who needed special assistance, passed out water, helped remove life-jackets and wet shoes, helped them put on dry socks and wrapped their feet in squares of emergency blankets. Other emergency blankets we wrapped around them inside their wet coats. Hypothermia is a real issue. The water and air are cold.

Within minutes, the UNHCR bus, called when arrival was imminent, drove up and we ushered the refugees on board. The bus left and we cleaned up the beach, and went back to watching for the next boat. But during clean up, when looking at the boat I noticed the lone paddle left behind in the boat. We knew the engine had quit, but it was only then I realized they only had one paddle to propel them across miles of the Aegean Sea. More horrifying was when I noticed the cheap toy pumps next to the partially deflated boat and realized that the refugees had been pumping all the way across to keep their overloaded boat afloat on the water. Then a lifeguard showed me the life-jackets. They were all fake, filled with a substance that would actually soak up water and ensure  their drowning if they tried to rely on them.

The sheer horror and unmitigated joy of that night will live with me the rest of my life.

these are pictures from my first experience--the deflated boat, the paddle, the pumps, the fake lifejackets. sorry for the quality--i phone in the dark

the following pictures are from a later boat arrival, in sequence


There are so many long term residents at Better Days for Moria, and even though (unlike the main registration camp) there is community space--a children's play area, benches around the fire barrel's where we all gather to get warm at night...--people are bored. The few guitars that live in the camp seem to all have broken strings, the only drum has a broken head (it was a cheap plastic head), the balls are worn out in a matter of days. Toys are scarce.

But volunteers are getting creative.

There are two pizza ovens in the upper part of the camp, made out of clay mixed from the mud that we walk on and a pile of sand that somebody dumped. Here, most evenings, vegan pizzas are cooked in the traditional wood burning clay ovens and distributed throughout the camp. You can usually find refugees eagerly awaiting the fresh hot pizza, a real treat, though the daily food the Skipchen makes for refugee meals is delicious.

Another group, who don't work exclusively at Better Days, come and hold workshops on how to make their recycled rubber dinghy back packs. You can check out a video here.  The Dutch designers provide tools and materials and the refugees get to make their own water resistant, lightweight, and stylish backpacks. Since backpacks are not plentiful in the distribution tent, this project not only gives the refugees something to do for an hour, but leaves them with a much needed backpack. The only drawback is that a team of 2-3 working on a pack only leaves one in possession. However, plans are afoot to scale up the operation and I've never seen a refugee who worked on a pack begrudge it going to someone else.

There are several people who are offering English lessons. Someone--I'm not sure who--thoughtfully provided a big bag full of small notebooks, and yesterday somebody brought two boxes of pens. Volunteers and refugees sit in small groups, or one on one, anywhere they find a quiet space (something at a premium in a small over-crowded camp never meant to be a long term housing community) and work on English--a valuable skill no matter where the refugee ends up.

Two young women who worked on shoe cleaning (washing and drying the wet shoes refugees arrive in to recycle them and replenish our stores of dry shoes to distribute) during their volunteer time built a shoe shine stand for the camp which now stands below the tents and near the distribution area, offering supplies and a place for refugees to clean and polish their own shoes. It's a popular place. People are into having clean, shined shoes.

My own projects are still in nascent stages. After a few sleepless nights (boat duty and other things keeping me awake) I slept well last night and am refreshed, but had to come into town today in order to access the internet and get these posts up. I'll get back to projects tomorrow.) The first one I started involved making rag dolls for the children to keep. So many of them are traumatized, I thought something cuddly of their very own would be nice. The first day I set up, I had a number of people working with me--girls and boys, men and women, cutting the patterns, sewing the edges, stuffing the toys, and finally drawing on faces. But the space where we worked is not really optimal, and many of the women don't really hang out in the communal spaces much. I've decided I need to go up and sit among the tents, with "kits" ready--the cut out pieces, a needle, and thread and stuffing ready to go. Then they can work at their own leisure to make the dolls.

My other project is really more my kind of thing. Sitting with a group of Iranian men, it suddenly occurred to me that a backgammon board should be easy enough to make, and culturally, backgammon is huge. So we gathered some cardboard and started to work. We managed one board but cutting cardboard with a razor knife is a pain, and making the dice was a bit of a challenge. Nonetheless, we now have a functional backgammon board. Since it took us all afternoon to produce one board though, and it's not easily transported, I thought about the project some more. The Dutch artists' backpacks inspired me though, and from now on the boards will be made out of recycled life-jackets. That way they can be rolled up and stored and carried in a small bag we will sew for each. We will make the pieces out of two or three layers of life-jacket vinyl (there are lots of colors available) and draw on the points as we did on the cardboard one. I cheated on the dice though. I went to town and bought some. Another volunteer who bought some playing card sets to distribute gave me the dice that were included in them, so I now have enough supplies for about 10-15 backgammon boards. Cool. I won the first game I played with an Afghan refugee. He seemed surprised. Ha ha. Little did he know he was taking on a champ.

Finally, on the bus in to town today, I decided we need to make some simple two piece wooden jigsaw puzzles for the little ones. Maybe with numbers and pictures--for example an apple on one side and the number 1 on the other, two balls and the number 2, etc.  Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments section, and as always, thanks for reading.

the Pakistanis

About a week ago I guess, a lot of Pakistanis started showing up at Better Days for Moria, aka Afghan Hill and The Olive Grove, where I am now living and working. We had already had some show up, but the first incident I knew of when they started coming in large numbers involved one of my nights on the beach, watching and waiting for boats.

There was a young woman--a New Yorker--whose last night she chose to spend on the beach. Though I stayed behind to help at the main campfire site where we watch, many volunteers headed south to several confirmed boat sightings. Along the way, the teams stumbled on a boat that had somehow escaped our watch and landed on their own. A rubber dinghy of 69 Pakistanis had just arrived. Maybe because they were all young men, with the strength implied in both men and youth, they had gotten onto the shore by themselves without mishap. None of them were wearing shoes.

They were shoeless, because apparently the smugglers--the human traffickers operating out of Turkey who arrange the boats--are now selling package deals. They promise not just the boat trip but new shoes, clothes, and who knows what else on arrival for the exorbitant prices they charge ranging from 500 to 2,300 euros per person from personal reports I have heard.

Anyway, from the chaos of trying to reach multiple boats arriving at once, somehow the young New Yorker got left alone to help the Pakistani men. She had no supplies--blankets, water, dry socks (much less shoes!) and no way to call for the UNHCR bus that would take them to Moria. At first, they were happy at having made it safely, but soon--when they realized there were no new shoes, no water, no bus anytime soon--they got angry and began burning things. Fortunately, it didn't get too out of hand before help arrived and they were all transported to Moria. The young New Yorker was then driven (not far) to the airport and embarked for the US and home, her last moments on Lesvos being memorable indeed.

However, their problems were just starting. In their infinite wisdom the powers that be have declared that Pakistan isn't a war zone because there are safe places in the country those in danger (from US drone bombings among other perils) can internally immigrate to. Ha! Though it seems they should know better, apparently the powers that be have absolutely zero concept of the numerous drone out-of-target bombings or the complexities of tribe and clan that may make one "safe" area unsafe for people fleeing other unsafe regions. Moreover, anybody who lives there or has been there recently, or even read the news closely, knows there is not really any place in Pakistan that can properly be considered safe. But since Pakistan is not deemed a war zone, the EU won't accept them. To the EU they are simply economic migrants who therefore don't qualify for asylum.

For the past week, as more and more Pakistanis arrive the situation has gotten more and more tense. The least of it was the scabies. There have always been a few cases here and there at Moria, but inside the main camp it is easier to contain. At Better Days, coping with the cases was really difficult. All the Pakistanis had to go back to the main camp to be treated and quarantined until danger of spreading the parasites was over, and the amazing Better Days tent crew worked like mad to clean and disinfect all the tents, dispose of the clothes and blankets and shoes. Then, when the Pakistanis arrived back, we had to distribute new clothes and shoes and blankets all over again. Clothes we had, blankets were a bit of a problem because we don't get allotted the huge piles of UNHCR blankets, and washing blankets with Dirty Girls is expensive, but the shoes! We never have enough shoes in the most needed sizes, and here we were having to give them out to the same people again, one or two days later.

Because the Pakistanis don't want to stay inside the main Moria registration camp. I can't say as I blame them. There have been lots of stories of Pakistanis who have been told by the police to come register and never seen again. Day before yesterday a Pakistani was telling some Better Days people that 40 of his group had been taken the day before and nothing heard from them since. There have been many meetings regarding the situation and the best answer that has been decided is to deport all the Pakistanis back to Turkey. The EU is paying Turkey to take them in, though what will happen inside Turkey is anybody's guess. However, it's a slightly better answer than it was when first discussed. The original plan was to deport them all back to Pakistan. For those who have had their passports seized (yes, it happens, too much) they would be issued temporary  travel documents and deported to Pakistan, questioned by the FIA--the Pakistani equivalent of the FBI) and finally released. Those still in possession of their papers would simply be deported to Pakistan where they would be questioned by the FIA and finally released. Not much difference. More worrisome than missing papers, someone working on human rights in Pakistan expressed concern at just exactly what form the questioning might take.

So deportation to Turkey, although hardly ideal, is still probably a better option for the Pakistanis stuck in Lesvos. But it's heartbreaking. Unlike most refugees, most of the Pakistanis had to stop often along the way to work for slave wages in factories to earn enough for the next stage of their journey. Hope kept them going. Now they have little hope and much fear.

One young man cut his hand with a razor knife yesterday. Someone escorted him to the doctor, but when they asked for his name he bolted. I had seen him with blood all over his hand and when I saw him at the fire last night with an old white t-shirt wrapped around his hand, I asked what happened. He told me doctor, police. He equated giving his name with being arrested and summarily deported back to Pakistan. He opted to wrap his hand himself rather than risk yielding his name to those in power. That's so sad. With the help of a cigarette bribe and an Urdu speaking doctor, he finally had his wound cleaned and properly bandaged, and a much needed tetanus shot.

I'm happy to say he was not deported. Yet.