Sunday, January 31, 2016

Afghan Hill

i'd been hearing about afghan hill ever since I first started going to moria. It's above the main camp and is a separate entity, run by a group called better days for moria.

The registration area for afghans is also at the very top of the hill in moria, behind the dorms. I'm not sure why afghans have a separate registration area, but I suppose it's the fact that afghan registration is at the top of the hill that gave afghan hill its name. I was a little confused at first, thinking that afghan hill was part of moria, and couldn't figure out why so many afghans were staying in the RHUs and dorms, if they had a separate area. I also couldn't figure out why they had a separate area, just as I still don't know why their registration is different, as I mentioned above. By the way, since I started volunteering at moria, two and a half weeks ago now, i've noticed that we are receiving considerably more afghans than we were when I first arrived. An afghan friend who works for the DRC (danish refugee council) did tell me last night that the security situation in afghanistan is deteriorating. Maybe that accounts for the increased numbers of afghans vis-a-vis iraqis and syrians.

In any case, now I know that afghan hill is not exclusively afghan, and that it's not part of the moria registration camp.

I've been wanting to go check out afghan hill for a while. From the road where we park outside moria I could see some very cool looking tents, and other volunteers raved about how good the food was. But my shift at moria is always so busy, and I walk up that steep hill many times during a shift, taking vulnerable families up to the dorms, fetching blankets...i walk it often enough that the thought of an unneccessary trip up the hill, should I find the time to go exploring, was more daunting than my curiosity warranted.

Last night though, we had a man come to us feeling ill and wanting to see a doctor. Since the MSF (medecins sans frontieres) clinic at moria isn't open overnight, and the clinic in the dorms was closed a few days ago, the only doctor available was on afghan hill. Our team leader for the night said he would walk him up, and since I needed to learn where the doctor was I accompanied him.

Oh that hill. We first walked up the hill past the dorms, past the afghan registration booth, to a small gate that had been open lately. It wasn't open. So we walked back down the hill (you have to walk it slowly, it's sort of ridged, but still fairly slippery), continuing on past our office and the RHUs, down the road to the gate, and just outside the gate turned left, back up the hill. At the very top of the hill, another left (still climbing) takes you into afghan hill.

What a difference from moria! It's palpable in the very air. Where moria feels like a prison camp, afghan hill feels like a rainbow gathering.

The top of the hill is quite rocky, as is much of the island, so walking in some areas requires paying attention. The outside edges of the camp (which is much, much smaller than moria) is ringed with those cool tents which I saw from the road, and a few other big tents like the rubhall from moria. The center of the camp holds about 20 or 30 tipis to house refugees, so most of the tents at afghan hill are cool. Though smaller numbers and its hilltop location make drainage less of an issue, there are small hand dug drainage ditches meandering throughout the camp. There is far less mud. And while service tents are well lit, there are no flood lights as there are everywhere but in the RHU area of moria.
Scattered around the camp people are standing around small fires, chatting and smoking. The air smells of delicious food and woodsmoke. Somebody is playing music somewhere. People look happy.

Inside the medical tent (one of the big square ones, like the rubhall) plywood walls have been built to separate out storage areas, exam rooms, and the large open reception area. The volunteer doctors and nurses are friendly and unhurried.

Of course, to be fair, afghan hill doesn't deal with anywhere near the numbers of people that are in moria, but nonetheless, the camp seems a far more humane place. After climbing the hill twice to take the sick man to the doctor at afghan hill, I immediately had to turn around and climb it a third time to escort a couple with a fretful child—turns out the cute as a button seven month old wasn't sick, after all. Probably just cold and tired and upset at the changes in his routine that the family's perilous journey had wrought. Even at seven months, i'm sure a baby picks up on his parents' fear and exhaustion.

But despite being tired and winded, my legs a little sore, from all the hiking up hill, just spending those few minutes in the free air of afghan hill felt rejuvenating. I wish moria felt as welcoming as afghan hill.

Friday, January 29, 2016

night shift

It's six am at Moria and I've been on shift since around midnight. There's a ferry strike on, another one, so most people in the camp can't leave yet. Once they are registered, they are free to leave, but with the ferry strike on, only those who can afford to put up at a hotel in Mytilini, or fly to Athens or elsewhere, can really leave. Few refugees have money to spend on hotels, so stay on in the camp where, whatever the conditions, they are housed, fed, and clothed free until they can take the boat.

Since the weather has been clear too, and boats arriving, Moria is fairly full, although not as full as it will be if the weather continues clear. In fact, we just got a radio call that a bus load of Syrians have just arrived. I don't know where we'll put them. The rubhall--the large tent for single men, the family compound in the dorms for small nuclear families and particularly vulnerable people, and the RHUs are all almost to capacity, and we've given out all but a few of our remaining tents. We set a record tonight, that none of us want to break or even match for the number of men in an RHU, a refugee housing unit--the IKEA hut built to hold five. Our record for adult men in one? 28.

Additionally, we have a severely traumatized man, a deaf and basically illiterate man ( who just asked me for water, but bottled water is something we don't have, and though I gave him a cup I don't think he understood me trying to tell him where to find the taps. When another volunteer returns from meeting the bus, i'll take his cup and fill it for him)  a missing child, and a woman in labor. Just another night in Moria. But I can hear the birds starting to chirp at the dawn of this new day. Somehow we'll all manage.

The above was written early this morning. Now it's late afternoon and i've had a few hours of sleep before going on duty again tonight. i'd like to get some more sleep before we meet up at 11:30 pm for the drive down, but i want to get this updated and posted for you all before i take a nap.

there have been a few changes at moria since i was last there. the construction (of what, i don't know) has picked up considerably. i hope they are 1. working on drainage ditches, and 2. leveling ground for more housing. we desperately need at least one more large tent like the rubhall for single men and more RHUs. given that's it's winter, fewer boats are arriving than are expected this summer. if projections are correct, and lesvos sees an influx of 3 million people over the summer, our meager resources at moria will be completely overrun. as it is, we house anywhere from between 1,000-3,000 a night in cramped and crowded conditions. a better drainage system is also a dire necessity. near the bathrooms at the bottom of the camp is a row of faucets. there are probably about twenty of them, and this is the only access to drinking water most people have. besides the fact that they generally have no cups or bottles to hold water in, and we have none to give out, only one of the faucets has a tap on it so that it can be turned on. when i asked the director of the camp why that was, she told me it was due to drainage issues. walking around moria, it's easy to see what she means. the entire lower level (moria is built on a steep hillside) is a morass of thick, sticky mud. on my way to one of the lower RHUs a few nights ago, i stepped into an area where my foot sank into the mud about 5 inches deep. i can see the depth mark of the mud on my boot.

the picture doesn't really capture how bad the mud is, because the mud is everywhere. and what no picture can show is the stench when you approach the bathrooms. as if all that weren't bad enough, whoever planned the camp put a bank of electric outlets outside the bathrooms, so that there are always a number of (usually) young men just outside the door to the women's toilets. unsavory anywhere, in a culture that puts a premium on women's privacy, this was a major gaffe at the very least. there are many women, including some volunteers and NGO workers who will not go to the bathrooms alone.

another change is that someone had the brilliant idea of closing down the 24 hour medical clinic in the upstairs dorms where the most vulnerable, including the sick, the elderly, and the pregnant are housed. we've had several births at moria during my tenure in greece, and with a woman in labor last night in the dorms, and no other 24 hour medical assistance available, it's hard to fathom just how the decision to close the clinic was made, and why.

the best update from the time i was writing is that the missing child was found. he had apparently gotten up in the night to go to the bathroom, and when he got back went into the wrong RHU, the one next door to where his family was staying. every morning at 8 am we volunteers have the onerous duty of waking everybody and ousting them--with all their belongings--from their shelters so they can be cleaned. it's not till 3 pm that we start allocating shelter again, unless it's raining. though it was cloudy today, it wasn't raining when i left, and it hasn't rained here.

finally, those of us on duty last night are worried about the deaf man. communication with him is almost impossible, and i don't know what kind of effort is being made to find an arabic sign language translator. after i gave him his cup and failed at communicating how to fill it, and before my colleague returned from escorting and assisting the busload (about 50) of new arrivals, i asked a volunteer from the hot tea tent across the way from us to get him a bottle from the dorms. it is the only place we have any bottled water to give out, and it is scarce, so we are stingy with it, giving it only to those who cannot make their way down to the taps (although there are bathrooms in the dorm rooms with showers and perfectly fine water for drinking from the taps in the sink). the other volunteer obliged me by running up the hill (i was alone and couldn't leave, she had a colleague with her and could run the errand without abandoning the tea tent) and bringing the man a bottle of water. he took a few sips, stood up from the chair he had perched in outside our building all night, wrapped the blanket we gave him around his head, asked for a cigarette, and disappeared. my colleague who was down at the gate with the busload of new arrivals, saw him linger near the gate a moment, then go outside. that was the last anybody saw of him before we left. i hope he is alright, and will come back so that we can find him some help, however long it takes us.

nap time. good night all

Thursday, January 28, 2016

other ramifications of the refugee crisis

i haven't worked the past few days as i've had a pretty nasty cold. though i rarely get sick, it's not too surprising. i was just recovering from the flu when i boarded the plane for athens--a pretty long flight. then, an overnight trip by ferry to lesvos, and a bus ride through the mountains to molyvos. the next morning, i attended an induction meeting for starfish--the volunteer group i'm working with--and immediately jumped in to work. at moria, the registration camp where i mostly work, we come into contact with thousands of people every day, some of whom are bound to be sick. i'm also cold all the time; we all are. though i was monitoring the weather in lesvos while still in san francisco, and it appeared to be comparable, it's not. it's much colder here. the only real similarity is that you don't warm up when you go inside, either. there is heat in my hotel room, but it's not terribly effective. those lovely marble floors which i'm sure would be beautifully cool to walk on in the heat of summer, are ice cold in winter.

i'm lucky this hotel is even open though, at a price i can bear. usually, it's only open for the season which should start in february. i surely hope that means it's going to warm up soon. but the nice people who own the hotel have opened it for volunteers who need a place to stay. they have told me that they're losing money by being open, but that it's not a lot and they want to do their part to help too. they've  also  told me, more disturbingly, that their bookings for the season are down 80%.
that's a huge--even prohibitive--loss of revenue. tourists don't want to come to a place where they might see a refugee boat landing, i suppose. other business owners here have told me the same basic story. one woman spoke of a friend who owns a jewelry store. she's not getting any business either. the woman who spoke has a job six months out of the year at a local tourist agency. she's wondering if she will have a job this year. she doesn't think so. no job, no income. the woman who founded starfish is garnering some income from her restaurant from the volunteers who are here, but all we volunteers are watching our money carefully. since we aren't getting paid, we don't have much to spend beyond bare necessity, and bare necessity doesn't include a lot of restaurant meals.

and of course, the greek economy is already in bad shape. the revenue lost from a severe lack of tourists is not going to be made up by the limited monies that volunteers, NGOs, and refugees spend.
and it's a shame that tourists won't be coming.

lesvos is lovely. situated in the northern aegean, a short distance from turkey, the island has miles of beautiful coastline, a petrified forest i really want to see while i'm here, two of greece's finest art museums, the ruins of a city that achilles conquered, numerous hot springs, festivals, cafes... there's an old castle here in molyvos i plan to visit on sunday. it's spectacularly beautiful here. the people are nice, the air is fresh, the music of tinkling sheep and goat bells plays continuously in the background. the streets in the old city center of molyvos are cobblestoned and crooked, climbing the hills that rise just off the coast. i'm told there is an old covered market as well, but i haven't made my way there yet. when i'm not working, i'm usually too tired to do much exploring, though again, i must visit before my time here is up.

i worry that tourism is not going to pick up here any time soon. last summer, about 850,000 refugees came through lesvos. this january, alone, there have been about 50,000, and the number is expected to reach about 3 million this summer. as mentioned above, the revenue brought in by refugees, NGOs, and volunteers doesn't begin to match that normally brought in by tourists. and of course, the refugee crisis is a huge drain on extremely limited greek resources.

i wish the governments of the world were concerned enough about the refugee crisis to spend their resources finding a way to end it. rather than spending resources on the continuation of bombing and the closing of borders, spending those same resources on finding a way to end the devastation would clearly be a far better expenditure. of course, i personally gave up on placing my faith in government long ago. at the very least, though, governments should  help alleviate the financial drain on greece that their policies are causing.

but really--just stop the damn wars.

Monday, January 25, 2016

i am troubled

I am troubled

i've just come from the starfish weekly meeting, and I am troubled.
For the past few days, we have been asked for our passports as well as our starfish badges when entering the moria compound.

The greek police run the camp and it's getting increasingly restrictive and oppressive. Supposedly a registration and aid camp, it feels more and more like a detention center. In my first post I told you about the barbed wire surrounding the camp, the restrictions on photos, and I think I mentioned the police presence, but the gate is far more heavily manned now, and one starfish volunteer mentioned at the meeting tonight that an undercover policeman had wanted to wipe out all his photos on his phone after seeing him take a picture with a refugee.

If you've been reading this blog, you have likely noticed that after saying I wasn't allowed to take photos, I have added a background photo to the blog page. It is a view of the barbed wire surrounding the dorms from the top. The forbidding coils of barbed wire contrast sharply with the beauty of the island sunset, as the hell of moria contrasts with the beauty and grace of lesvos and most of its people, whether greek, refugee, or volunteer.

After observing others—refugees included—taking pictures with their phones, I decided I could too, as long as I used my phone instead of my far more conspicuous bigger (and better) cameras. And so I somewhat surreptitiously began snapping away. Though I love taking portraits, the journalist in me was more focused on documenting conditions than individuals.

Last night, during my quiet night at moria, the DRC staff and we volunteers were discussing the photo restriction which is now becoming more of an issue, apparently. The greek police who are administering the camp are reportedly surfing the internet—facebook, mostly—and cracking down hard on those who are sharing pictures of moria, banning the photographer and possibly the organization from the camp. The ostensible reason is to respect the privacy of the refugees, and I can understand that. In a worst case scenario, pictures of individual refugees, if recognized, could conceivably endanger relatives still in whichever war torn land they hail from.

But the impression most of us have gotten is that the police are more concerned with their own image and privacy. Some volunteers have seen the police being abusive toward refugees in the registration line. I have seen some yelling and shoving, but have not personally seen the kind of abuse reported by some of my fellow volunteers. Given my general impression of police everywhere, though, I can't say I was surprised to hear their reports.

Our meeting tonight was much longer than usual as we debated our role in moria. It is not the only effort the starfish foundation I am affiliated with is making. We also help the IRC (international relief committee) with clothing distribution at a center here in molyvos, sort and store clothing donations at a warehouse we call donkey (for the donkey farm next door), and do harbor duty out of captain's table, the restaurant starfish founder melinda owns. Harbor duty involves a certain cooperation with the police as well. When a boat comes into lesvos on its own, the refugees on board are free to make their way to moria for registration and new lives as EU citizens, as are refugees rescued by Greenpeace. However, refugees on boats that are brought in by the coastguard are automatically under arrest, and harbor duty with starfish includes registering the arrested refugees and transporting them for the police, though we also provide them with food and dry clothes. I have not seen any boats on either of my harbor shifts.

However, the long debate at the meeting tonight included the question of whether starfish should be assisting the police in their looming clamp down on moria—whether we should pull out of the camp altogether.

We have been asked, as a provision of entering moria to perform our duties, to fill in and sign a form with some personal details, including email, telephone, passport number, a photo, and a photocopy of our passport, even though as volunteers we have already had to register with the police. By signing the form, we are also agreeing to the moria rules printed on the back of the form. Most of them are unobjectionable, stating what we all believe about treating refugees with dignity, not exploiting them sexually or financially...basic tenets of respect. But the ban on photos is in the rules, and some people argued that by our continuing presence at moria in the face of the increased restrictions, we are supporting an aspect of a police state—that we are tacitly sanctioning the abusiveness some have seen at the hands of the police, and that moria is turning into a detention camp. In light of the ever increasing tightening of borders against the massive and growing refugee population, it isn't hard to imagine moria becoming a detention camp.

Others argued that it's better to be at moria ensuring refugees get services to the best of our ability than to abandon the task.

Politically, I certainly agree with not wanting to support any kind of police oppression, but in the face of the enormous need, I cannot agree with turning away from what succor we can offer.
And as far as signing the document? My word is important to me, but my word given under coercion or duress is a different matter. It's important to me that the rest of the world's population is shown the conditions under which the refugees are suffering, every step along their treacherous path to what I hope will be a better life for all of them.

If starfish foundation does in fact decide to withdraw from moria, I will withdraw from starfish. I may anyway, but that is another story. I came here to help where I am most needed, and that's what I intend to keep doing. Wish us all luck. We need it.

a quiet day at moria

My shift at moria yesterday was quiet. The ferry strike over, many refugees who had been stuck at moria for the duration of the strike had left, and the weather had precluded many boats from arriving. For once there was enough room in camp to offer a measure of comfort and privacy we don't usually have the luxury of providing.

I was able to move one large family of afghans from their unheated RHU prefab hut to one of the very few with heaters. their new heated quarters cheered them and the queen mama of the family and I shared hugs and smiles to supplement our limited verbal exchanges with my extremely limited farci. (funny, but I find my memory of farci is coming back more readily than my arabic, though I spoke arabic far better than I ever did farci).

Each night at moria, as we clothe, shelter, and feed the wet, tired, and hungy refugees, as things settle down, we seek out those who are sleeping outside in the cold. It has been especially bitter the past week or so with snowstorms, high winds, and lower than averages temperatures, plummeting to below the freezing mark. last night, with room to spare, we approached not just those with no shelter at all, but those in small tents as well. An afghan staff member,  and I approached one tent harboring a family with several small children. We tried to convince the family to move to one of the RHU huts or the heated dorms up the hill, but they refused to go.

Though our mandate is to treat all with dignity, there have been many issues over privacy. As I noted in an earlier post, we often have to cram the huts and the dorm rooms with far more people than capacity. Ikea, who manufactures the huts, says that each building will house five people. We usually have at least eighteen to twenty in each, and sometimes more. When we bring a new group to an already occupied hut, either those already in residence, or those we are bringing to share the small building, or both groups, are resistant.

This can be particularly frustrating. Of course it is easy to understand that people have been through so much yearn for some measure of quiet and comfort—and as I noted above, it is part of our mandate to treat all with dignity and respect. However, if it's a case of ceding a bit more comfort to one family at the expense of another being quite literally left out in the cold, the whole notion becomes more problematic. It can be difficult to understand the lack of empathy with others who are in the same boat. As in the case of the second imad I wrote about, families who were again literally in the same boat were reluctant to share shelter.

Still, I would have to say that it was a relatively good night at moria. Many, if not most, had some heat in addition to shelter. There was plenty of food and hot tea to go around. It's far easier to take care of people with the limited resources at hand when there are fewer people clamoring for them.
With less work on our hands, we starfish volunteers and the DRC staff spent more time indoors as well. The DRC office is one of the ikea huts and the door is always open, so though we've had a small space heater longer than the housing units, the office is nearly as cold as outside. And when we're busy, most of us spend most of our time outside, talking to those looking for shelter, taking them to where we place them, pointing out the blanket line, the food line, the charging stations, the bathrooms... and when we do have a moment inside the hut, unless we are directly in front of the small space heater, we are still cold.

Of course it's difficult to complain. We volunteers and staff are dressed in multiple layers. We generally are wearing shoes that are adequate. We are generally not completely wet, although i've been pretty damp a few times. But even decently dressed and dry, it's difficult not to get cold when spending hours in freezing temperatures and brisk winds.

So last night, since all was so quiet, we fashioned a door to the DRC office hut. We squandered two
flimsy,clear plastic rain ponchos for the makeshift door and for once, huddling in borrowed refugee blankets over our layers of clothes, felt a measure of warmth. I felt the warmth on the inside too, as our little group, united in our efforts, had the opportunity to share tea and stories with each other, relatively relaxed for once.

Not that we haven't shared some stories before. The hour or so commute each way between molyvos and moria is often a time of sharing. A smoke outside the hut in a stolen moment sometimes opens a window on a colleague's life. Even within the course of our duties, we sometimes glimpse an insight.
I gained new respect and an appreciation for the tolerance and humor of my afghan friend at DRC. the other night when he and I were talking to a group of iraqi men. he was explaining to them in arabic that they would be sharing the hut with other single men we had already placed there. One of the men started babbling about how they didn't want to share with afghans, that they were this and that and talked too much. he assured them that they would be in a hut with other arabic speakers. They were all clearly relieved, and the man who had made the racist comments shook his hand, and told him he was a good man. he responded that he wasn't a good man, he was an afghan.

The men at least looked ashamed, but i've seen this kind of prejudice more than once at moria, against afghans, against somalis, against iraqis and syrians and kurds, and non-kurds. Running for their lives, some people still find time to scorn others. Sometimes I despair of humankind.
Gul isn't the only person i've met with a witty appreciation of irony. One of the greek family who runs the hotel where i'm staying, cracked me up just after I posted my last blog entry yesterday.
(was it really only yesterday? So much is packed into a day here, it feels longer ago. I can't believe i've been here less than two weeks.)

anyway, I asked him where the closest place to get cigarettes was, as i've run out of those I brought with me. He told me, then offered me a couple to hold me till I could get there. I demurred, but he insisted, giving me three cigarettes. With a straight face, but a twinkle in his eye, he told me that they were good good german cigarettes; that he wanted to support the german economy because it had suffered a little over the past couple of years. We shared a good laugh over that one.

Though his family's business has suffered greatly throughout the duration of the refugee crisis—the tourist trade has dropped off by more than half—vasili told me how honored he was to offer discounted housing to volunteers, that he was impressed and moved at how people came from all over, sometimes far away, to work for no pay to help out, and that he was happy to do what he could to help. I have a lot of respect for vasili and his family, and most of the greek people i've met here who are rising to the occasion and offering what they can despite their own grave troubles.
I've written a lot today. It was my day off, so I wasn't hurrying to make my shift, but I feel like i've given you all enough to digest for today.

There's so much to say it's hard not to just spill words in all directions.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

rose and the tents

during a lull in the clamor outside the DRC (danish refugee council) hut while we volunteers were resting briefly, a young girl came alone to the door. we invited her inside and asked her what she needed. it appeared she wanted to chat--to practice her english, which was already better than my arabic. still it was limited and our conversation with rose proceeded with many hand gestures, puzzled looks, and repetitions on both sides.

she was adorable. in a cherry red coat with bright, inquisitive dark eyes and wavy black hair, she looked to be about 9 or 10. when we asked where her parents were, she told us her mother and father and brother and sisters were sleeping, when i asked. though we were enjoying her company, and she seemed ok, after 2 or 3 visits from her i think we all began to wonder if there wasn't more to the story than we were getting. surely her family weren't all asleep somewhere while this young girl wandered the camp alone.

eventually i asked her, in arabic, what the matter was. i was distressed, but not surprised, when her smiling, inquisitive face dissolved into tears. after holding her for a minute, i somehow managed to get her to take me to where her parents were. 

holding hands we walked, not far, across the rudimentary road to where two men and a little boy were trying to set up one of the small tents we dole out when the dorms, the rubbhall tent for single men, and the RHU (refugee housing units) are full. this was her father, an uncle perhaps, and her little brother. her mother and sisters nowhere in evidence i realized she had not told us precisely the truth. 

i don't mean to imply that she lied. rather, it seems as if she could not process what must be the truth that her mother and sisters sleep was permanent. they were not at the camp in moria, and i don't think they were just left behind.

her father and (presumably) uncle were struggling, trying to set up the tent. i can only imagine how long they had been attempting to erect their scanty shelter, because rose had been visiting us off and on for at least an hour by then. maybe longer.

those of you readers who know me would be the first to attest to the fact that i'm a city girl. not really the outdoorsy type at all. nevertheless, i did know how to set up the tent, and proceeded to show them, helping them gain some small shelter from the cold and wind. i spread out some cardboard underneath for a little extra warmth and padding from the rocky, muddy site they had chosen. of course, all the possible sites were muddy and rocky, pretty much, although a few people had set their tents up on concrete slabs here and there.

after the tent was set up, rose didn't come to the DRC tent to visit us anymore that i saw, although she had made particular friends with one of the other volunteer women, and did see her again. rose insisted on giving two pairs of earrings from her little bag of treasures to michelle, her volunteer friend. michelle, in return, gave rose the earrings she was wearing. 

still, rose and what was left of her family must have gone to sleep shortly after their tent was set up. i hope she slept warm and well, and that her future is better. this bright, beautiful, and strong little girl has much to offer the world.

the funny thing, is that after setting up the tent, one of the DRC staff members realized i knew how, and i have become the resident expert in tent construction. the night after our sojourn with rose found me demonstrating tent set up to a group of about 30 afghan men, including the DRC staff member.

i certainly never thought i'd be the person people turned to for camping advice, but i sure appreciate the irony. hope those of you readers who know me got a good laugh out of that one.

more tomorrow.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

the second imad

the second imad is another story of failure. on my second moria shift, i was assigned to be a runner with the evening shift at the RHUs--the refugee housing units, the small tin buildings used primarily to house families.

however, the weather had been fine and many boats full to overflowing with refugees had landed that day. typically, i'm  told, these small rubber dinghys carry about 50-60 people, though another volunteer who has been here a long time told me that he had seen 83 in one boat. even 50 is a criminal overload, but somehow, most make it. fortunately, the sea is generally quite calm, and most don't put out to sea when the waters are rough.

because of the high volume, all housing units were severely overcrowded. as a runner, my job was to check with the "keyholder" as to which unit might be able to accommodate the group i had, then escort them to the unit and see them safely inside. protocol is to try to keep families together, to keep nationalities--or at least common language groups together, and to, of course, treat all with dignity and kindness.

this imad, the second imad, was the apparent head of my first group from syria. they were a large family. i don't recall now exactly how many--9 or 10. i was told to take them to building 4, where i would find another 14 syrians already in residence. when we reached the unit, i knocked and we waited to enter. in fact, there were 17 people already in residence.

that's not supposed to happen. there is a large whiteboard that the keyholder keeps up with the number and nationality of residents already in each unit. however, in the madness of people coming and going (people leaving to find food or blankets, people being moved to another camp or leaving for the ferry following registration, etc.), other family members that might not have been revealed, and who knows what other variables, the counts were sometimes off.

in any case, rather than 14 in residence, there were 17, most of them sleeping on pallets of UNHCR blankets, head to toe, crammed in almost as tight as they are in the inadequate boats. i was fortunate in that the second imad spoke fairly fluent english, so my scant arabic wasn't put to such a severe test. he told me after ebullient greetings in arabic between the two groups, that in fact both groups had been on the same boat. though the unit was already crowded, i had been told that we must put 25-30 people in each unit, so adding imad's family would fall within those guidelines. of course, if the camp is less crowded, we put fewer people in each unit, but the camp was swamped that night.

the refugees already in residence didn't see it that way though. they were highly resistant to the idea of more people sheltering in their already crowded unit. despite the fact that they had been boat mates, the were adamant about not taking in imad's family.

since i had been told in no uncertain terms that we must put at least 25 in each unit in order to house as many people as possible, i did my best to persuade them of the necessity of squeezing in imad's family. i adjured them to pile shoes and backpacks in a small a space as possible, and make room. finally, the syrian family already in residence in building 4 agreed to take all but two of the men--imad and a teenaged boy.

i didn't know what to do. my instructions had been specific, and had included no room for contingencies or decision making. i was distressed, and tried to talk imad into going back to the DRC (danish refugee council) building where the whiteboard was to see if we could find something elses, but imad had had enough. the rupphall (the huge {heated!}) tent for single men was also full to overflowing, and imad just wanted shelter. he asked me if there was anywhere he could get a tent, and i told him that the vendors outside the gates had some.

imad set off with his teen son--i assume it was his son, but maybe a nephew or cousin?--to buy a tent. once again i felt i had failed in providing someone already so beset with what he needed.

later in the evening, i found out that DRC actually had some tents for distribution when necessary, and indeed, we gave out many that night. but imad, cold, hungry, exhausted, had already been sent to spend his undoubtedly limited resources on something i could have provided him with, if i had only known. in the teeming throng of thousands milling around the camp, i had no way of finding him, and many other families waiting for me to find them shelter. i didn't go looking for him. by the time i found out we had tents, it was too late anyway.

additionally, and again, if i had but known, many people who had already registered were moved out to another camp for those already registered, and room freed up in the rupphall--the large tent for single men.

his last words to me were to try to rest and take care of myself. his dignity and his kindness were meant to warm me, i'm sure. rather the irony put me to shame, that once again, i had failed. this imad, too, will ever be in my thoughts.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

the first imad

within the first few minutes of my first shift at the refugee registration camp moria, i was asked by a woman with UNHCR to take a wheelchair and retrieve a disabled man from the top of the hill outside the gate where he had been dropped by the cross country bus bringing those who had landed at various points on the island.

another volunteer and i pushed the wheelchair to where the man was waiting. not only was walking very difficult for him, he had no shoes. he was also soaking wet. we helped him into the wheelchair, and because he was a large man, pulled with all our strength to keep the wheelchair in check--it wanted to barrel down the hill at top speed.

when we got to the gate at the bottom of the hill it was a different story. here, we were pushing him uphill on a rocky, potholed road. fortunately, the registration area where we were taking him wasn't far. as we had walked with him, i had attempted conversation with my limited arabic. since he had some limited english, we were at least communicating to some degree. his name was--his name is--imad.

when the UNHCR man who joined us at the registration area saw that i was able to communicate on some rudimentary level, he asked me to stay with imad, taking him first to passport check, then to be fingerprinted, then photographed. finally, i was to take him to the doctor.

not all refugees get such immediate attention. most wait a long time, but imad had been fast-tracked because of his disability.

the UNHCR guy sent the other volunteer back with the wheelchair so i ended up supporting imad's weight, and carrying his heavy sodden bag, as we negotiated the short distance across gravel to the passport area.

the police doing passport checks wanted to know why he had previous visas from spain. somehow i was asked to serve as translator (ha!) but between us all we managed to piece together that he was a businessman, a restaurateur, who had enjoyed better fortune before the war.

finally, questions answered to the police's satisfaction, and passport duly stamped, we again slowly negotiated our way across gravel to the building where he was to be fingerprinted.

as imad was surrendering his hand to the officials in charge, a german working in the office struck up a conversation with me. he was stunned to find i was volunteering, that i not only received no pay for my work, but was in fact paying my own way to be there.

following fingerprinting, i helped imad make his painful way across the gravel yet again to be photographed. we then crossed the gravel one more time to the doctor's office, where after helping imad onto the examining table, i waited outside. as i waited, i saw many women coming in to get baby formula. though breastfeeding is strongly encouraged, it seems that many women's milk had dried up in the trauma of their escape, although i only learned that later as one of our tasks is to sterilize bottles.

when imad emerged from the doctor's office, i took him one last time across the gravel courtyard to a small clothing distribution post where he was given dry clothes and shoes. when he emerged more comfortable and well on his way to his new life, a team from frontex waited to offer him a new home. while he spoke with them, i was sent back up the hill inside the camp to retrieve the wheelchair.

this proved no simple task. the woman who had first sent me with it was nowhere in sight and others did not want to hand it over to me. i was an unknown quantity. it took about half an hour for this snafu to be sorted out, then i finally took the wheelchair back down. i was happy to have played a role in easing imad into his new life.

unfortunately, when i arrived, it seemed that imad had turned down FOREX' offer because he wanted specifically to go to norway where his friends were. his money and cell phone having been lost in the sea, along with his shoes, the various officials and ngo reps were angry at him for turning down their offer. i was sent back with an empty wheelchair and imad was left to his fate.

i wasn't happy anymore. i felt like i had failed. certainly the system had failed in some way.

i don't know what happened to imad, and i'm sure i will never know. it haunts me.

Monday, January 18, 2016

monday, january 18, 2016

i've finally got a transformer so i can charge my phone and computer, so here is my first attempt to convey what i've seen and done as a hands on volunteer with the (not just) syrian refugee crisis, here on the greek island of lesvos (lesbos).

as we are not supposed to take photos in the refugee camp, most photos will be taken with my phone, which is far less noticeable than my larger camera. consequently, photos may be limited and i must do my best to paint word pictures to convey the overwhelming enormity of what i am seeing.

after a typically grueling trip i arrived in molyvos, on the north coast of lesvos, last tuesday. siobhan, another volunteer i met leaving the ferry and i checked into the marianthi paradise hotel and wandered the cobbled streets of this small fishing village, making our way to the captain's table, a restaurant/cafe on the harbor front. the captain's table is owned by melinda--a long time resident who founded the starfish foundation, with which i am aligned for my work here. it is our headquarters and hang out.

on wednesday, siobhan and i were the only two attendees at the weekly new volunteer introductory meeting. we were given an overview of the work we do and sent off to register our volunteer status with the local police. after receiving an impressive array of stamps on a registration form fulfilling our obligatory bureaucratic duties, we added our names to the weekly schedule and were free to go. real work started for us on thursday.

having signed up for the morning shift at moria--a registration camp in the southeast part of the island, i bundled up and trudged down the road to our meeting place in the dark. almost immediately after arriving about a dozen of us crammed into two small cars and drove through the winding mountain roads of the island's center to moria.

the first word to come to mind is bleak. an old army base, moria sits on a steep hillside surrounded by high fences, curled barbed wire at the top. the rocky hillside is guttered with rain induced gullies, scattered with tents and small metal temporary buildings, thick with mud, and covered in trash--some in enormous piles comprised mostly of UNHCR blankets, wet, abandoned clothes, and small plastic food containers. the camp is teeming with refugees and aid workers. depending on the weather of the day before there are more or fewer refugees, but always there are aid workers and volunteers.

if the weather was fine there are more refugees. the sea crossing from turkey to lesvos in tiny boats is dangerous enough without the added peril of foul weather. nonetheless, some attempt it even in high winds and rain. we heard of several drownings a couple of days ago in an ill advised trip. the only survivor was a turk who has been arrested and charged with manslaughter. at least, that is what we heard. on friday, 2,663 refugees arrived at moria, because thursday was sunny and warm, the seas calm.

my first day at moria on that sunny thursday i was assigned to the RHU team. RHU stands for refugee housing unit, and there are almost 60 small, one room, metal buildings and one very large floored tent in the group. the large tent is heated and used mainly for single men. the smaller buildings are about 100-120 square feet with no heat and no electricity. these units we try to reserve for families, but conditions are so crowded that we are forced to cram up to 30--and occasionally more--people into each unit. working under the auspices of the DRC--Danish Refugee Council--we try to keep families together as much as possible, and house Arabic speakers with other Arabic speakers, Farci speakers with other Farci speakers. up the hill are permanent dormitories with heated and electricity supplied rooms are reserved for the most vulnerable cases--mothers with small children, the sick, the disabled, the elderly. these small rooms too, hold too many people, lying side by side on pallets made from the UNHCR blankets. there are a few yoga mats available and now--since i have come--a few bunk bed style cots. still most sleep on the cement floors.

most of the Arabic speaking refugees are from Syria and Iraq, though there are some from Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Morocco, and Algeria. not considered as coming from war zones, the North Africans, especially, are sometimes turned down for asylum during the required registration with the Greek police who administer the camp. Farci speakers come mainly from Afghanistan, though there are some from Iran as well. other refugees hail from Somalia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, that I have seen. there may be more; I don't know.

every morning at 8 am, refugees are turned out of their temporary housing for cleaning crews to come through the units. the cleaners are greeks who, previously unemployed, have been hired expressly for the camp. we starfish volunteers are supposed to oversee their cleaning and frequently do much of the work as well. nobody is allowed back into any unit until evening when they start queuing up outside the DRC building--another small metal building. we though, have a small heater and electricity inside.

the waste is appalling. not all refugees understand that when they are turned out in the morning they must take all their belongings with them, because there is no assurance that they will be in the same tent or building in the evening if they are still at the camp. most are not at the camp long. having received a numbered ticket on arrival they register with the police in order of the numbers on their tickets. following successful registration, they are free to leave the camp--to a hotel, the ferry to athens, wherever...

but back to the waste. many belongings are left behind. backpacks and baby strollers, food, clothing, and Qur'ans. thousands of UNHCR blankets, thick and grey are brought outside and piled with the rest of the detritus of the refugees' lives in huge mounds of trash. apparently, it is too expensive to wash the blankets. a group of volunteers called the dirty girls, do wash some of the blankets to recycle them, and some of the clothes, but they won't take baby clothes. i don't know why, because baby clothes is something we are perpetually short of. everyone who has ever taken care of a baby knows how many clothes they can go through in a day, puking and shitting and pissing.

there are tents in the piles of trash as well, and shoes. thousands of worn and wet shoes. and yet, every day, we face shortages of clothes and shoes as we endeavor to replace what has been lost or ruined along the way. a couple of days ago, during the afternoon/evening shift, samaritan's purse--another ngo who distributes blankets--was closed for hours. we don't know why, but people were desperate for blankets in the cold, and we had none to give them, but there were thousands piled in wet gray heaps all over the camp, unusable.

time for me to go meet up for today's afternoon shift at moria. more later.

in solidarity---sara