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.