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.