Sunday, February 14, 2016

Finding Hope

By request of a friend who reads my blog, I am going to ditch my usual style of writing without caps. He says it makes it hard for him to read.

I found hope yesterday. After almost a week of feeling pretty low, not working since I had quit Starfish, feeling a little isolated because virtually all my socializing was done at work, wrestling with my own moral and ethical issues as I mentioned in the author’s note to my post Truth and Consequences, the ramifications of NATO coming to the Aegean in response to the refugee crisis and not knowing where I was going to go or what I was going to do next, I found hope.
Literally and figuratively.

I hiked overland—following the roads, but still a hike—through the hills to a lovely spot more northerly on the coast. I found the Hope Center. Along the way I met a young volunteer from Austria who only had a few days of holiday and had chosen to spend it here on Lesvos, volunteering. We walked together, stopping to commiserate with a dog who wanted company, then finally reaching a battered sign saying ELPIS, the Greek word for hope.

There at the bottom of the gently sloping hill was a rambling, slightly gone to ruin building. It had been a hotel that had been sitting empty for a number of years. The heirs to the property didn’t want to run a hotel, but when the refugees started arriving, the old hotel had been leased to a local ex-pat couple to create a safe and welcoming space for refugees. Some donor group, I’m not sure who, have paid the entire first year’s rent of the five year lease. After that, when presumably the need for a refuge will have ended, the old hotel will be turned into an art space for women to have their studios and sell their wares.

When I arrived, there were a few people there working on various projects. The young volunteer I walked with immediately set to work clearing out overgrowth in the terraced garden by the pool, algae-green with neglect. As I talked with some of the volunteers, hearing the history and discussing future plans and strategies, others arrived in an almost continuous stream. A young man wearing an Engineers Without Borders t-shirt advised that there was an unused, unclaimed pellet stove at a warehouse in Mytilini that would be perfect for Hope. Another pair of volunteers reclaimed some wood and rebuilt a small section of roof that was rotting and close to collapsing. More volunteers joined the garden crew. Some young women put away donated supplies of shampoo and soap. They had made small survival bags for refugees consisting of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and other personal items for refugees who had lost everything. We all agreed, laughing, that the packaged energy bars included should be taken out so they didn’t taste like soap. Though tranquil, the Hope Center was a hive of activity. As they said, though it’s quiet now, the refugees aren’t going to stop coming, and when they do, we’ll be ready.

On a tour through the rambling building, I saw the men’s and women’s clothing rooms, coats and jackets, shirts, sweaters, and pants on hangers to more easily allow wet refugees to choose their new clothes. I saw the future medical clinic, donated beds and stretchers leaning against the wall. I saw family rooms waiting to welcome refugees to shelter.

The Hope crew talked about their plans for a children’s playground, about the group of volunteer architects who had advised them on repairs, about the one time—not yet ready, but needed—that they had housed refugees and the ensuing legal headaches when they got in trouble for housing 150 or so refugees. It was not long ago, at a peak in refugee arrivals, when the north coast of the island was overwhelmed. The Greek police had come to them, asking them to take in the overflow who could not be accommodated elsewhere, in the already established transit camps. But unregistered refugees (and the only place to register is Moria, in the south) are not allowed to stay at hotels and technically, the Hope Center was still a hotel.

They have, as I understand it, worked through that tangle and are confident they will get all their licensing and legal framework in order soon.

Meanwhile, they will continue to offer first response with tea and blankets, dry clothing and comfort to refugees whose rubber boats end up on their beach, and the work continues. On the wall of the reception area, near the fireplace, is the job board. A cluster of small notes, categorized by type—sorting, cleaning, construction, skilled, etc.—each with a job listed on it that volunteers can perform as the Hope Center prepares for the day they can legally house refugees. One of the categories of jobs is entitled Creative. One of the jobs listed under this category is “Make friends with NATO.” The Hope Center hasn’t lost its sense of humor in the midst of so much human misery.

As the afternoon waned, one of the volunteers pointed out a rainbow arching over the Aegean. It seemed to embrace the Hope Center and those few miles of sea separating Turkey and Greece, those few miles of sea that, crossing, deliver the refugees safely to Europe and out of their war ravaged homelands.

Over dinner last night, we discussed what we could do today that would embrace the spirit of Valentine’s Day and send their message of love and solidarity.

I’ll let you know how it turns out. I found hope.