“School’s Full”

We are no longer accepting new registrations at the Hub. This means that people who arrive on the island from today on will not be able to come to our school to attend classes or to our library to study. Of all of the Hotspots, all the refugee camps in Greece, Leros was often looked at as one of the best ones for a refugee to be placed at. The camp doesn’t have tents, first of all, so the people have actual structures over their heads for when it rains. There also isn’t typically too much overcrowding, so people are treated at least marginally more humanely. And, of course, Leros has the Hub, which gives people the critical ability to have something to do and somewhere to go other than the camp. The Hub educates, stimulates, and uplifts. Our blockage of new students is unprecedented, in that, we have never done this before in all of the years that this NGO has existed. It’s really sad, and the decision was not come to lightly by my coordinators, but it feels like the right move. It feels like it’s an immediate way to alleviate stress on the team; however, the solution will only help us a certain amount. It’s like plugging the hole on a sinking boat when there’s already almost enough water to pull the whole vessel below the surface. There’s still a lot of work to do and we’re not out of the woods. The water that isn’t in the boat still wants to get in! Or something like that.

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In 2016, the EU-Turkey Deal went through in an attempt to limit the number of refugees pouring into Greece from Turkey. This was called “the European Migration Crisis.” This deal was a horrible agreement that allows Europe to legally send refugees back to Turkey, even if they aren’t really safe there. It was a bullshit agreement that, while technically legal, was so inhumane, sentencing hundreds of thousands of people (specifically Syrians) to the tumultuous journey of crossing illegally into Europe multiple times, having to make multiple attempts after being returned to Turkey. This was Europe closing its doors to refugees.

We’ve now closed our doors, and the EU-Turkey Deal was the first thing to cross my mind when my coordinators announced their decision to our group this morning. But what can we do, right? There are so many questions that have been floating around in my head. We have so many new rules in place in an effort to make this place operate. At the end of each day and at the beginning of each day at our morning staff meetings, there’s always new examples of how people are finding loop holes in our system for classes and for the vans. We’re constantly finding little problems around the Hub, like people leaving doors open, stealing tea, riffling through bags, etc. We’re waiting. Waiting for all of these new people to not be new anymore, for them to know us and to trust us, to understand the rules, how this place functions, that we are here to help and to love them. Will things ever go back to “normal”? Will the tension in Hotspot inevitably be carried over into the Hub?

For the two days that we have not been accepting new registrations, we have not seen a noticeable difference in the number of people coming to the Hub. Obviously, we didn’t expect to see a difference, since we already have hundreds of people signed up to come to our school each day, but for a few unlucky people, they’ve been denied the chance to come to us for education and relief from the Hotspot. I overheard our receptionist telling a few people about our new policy. The problem is, they’re not understanding what’s being said to them. They only feel the sting of the denial. And even though they’re being told that our new policy won’t last forever, will they be so offended that they’ll simply never come back to us?

All of this being said, despite how crappy it is to now only be serving most of the refugees, I’m still more at ease knowing that our numbers aren’t still growing, even if it’ll never be felt. It is sad to hear about the continuation of boats flowing across the sea each day though, with more and more new arrivals each day, more and more people won’t have a shot at coming to us to relieve stress and to attempt learning English.

I’m ready to take bets on when we will reopen our doors because, for now, there’s one less door open for refugees in the world.

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Rain Dampens the Spirit

When it rains here, it pours, both literally and figuratively. The streets fill with water that comes rushing from the hills and you have to drive a bit more gingerly than usual. The bay, which normally rests quietly a foot or two below town tends to crash ashore when it’s raining, just due to the nature of storms rolling in from the sea. Being on an island, the amount of water becomes much more apparent for some reason, perhaps because it feels as if the rain were to continue for too long, there would be no land left and we would all end up in the sea.

Despite bringing cold wind along with it, which dampens everyone’s mood, rain also brings work to a grinding halt, almost. The Hotspot struggles significantly with rain because of the way it is laid out. When it rains, puddles form almost right away, and then they grow into miniature lakes, which engulf the entire camp. You literally can’t step outside of your caravan without having to walk in water. I’m not sure what can be done to remedy this problem, but it definitely doesn’t help the overall mood in the camp on rainy days. The grayness is bad enough, but feeling immobilized due to the water is worse.

When driving to pick people up for class, I generally pull the van up as close to the gate of Hotspot as I can, but when it rains, I have to reposition where I park so that the people coming to the van do not have to hurdle themselves over puddles in order to get in. The general tone of Hotspot is something entirely different on rainy days. It looks more like a cage than ever, like the overhanging gray clouds somehow amplify the unwelcoming nature of the barbed wire fences. The people inside look more like prisoners than ever, too, stepping carefully through the water, attempting to keep their shoes or boots as dry as possible as they flash their papers to the guards at the gate and then shuffle over to the van.

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At school, away from the Hotspot, although we are warm and dry inside, the tone that the rain sets on the day is impossible to ignore. With so much water socking in the camp, only a percentage of people come to class. This eases the burden of having the place overrun by 500 people throughout the day, but it’s tough knowing that the empty chairs are because the majority of my students are stuck in their caravans with a dozen other people with nowhere to go and nothing to do. I can’t imagine what that must feel like, especially after months of living that experience.

But rain is something worth mentioning…and making a post over, because winter in Leros is represented by rain. In New York, it snows; in Leros, it rains. That’s just what winter looks like here. I’m taking careful note of the temperature each day, noticing that it is never much below 50 degrees or so, but when the wind blows and I haven’t seen a day of snow this winter due to being in this climate, I feel a bit chilled knowing that my blood is thinning. It’s weird to be a spoiled northerner-in-the-south in the middle of January.

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There is Not Enough

When I think about the larger human picture, sometimes I get a little freaked out. It’s worrisome to think about the future, especially in regard to resources. One of the things I heard years ago, that I really liked, that was used to remedy the worry, was the phrase “there is enough”. This used to be mantra when I worried about the inevitable demise of human existence. With the human population constantly on the rise, this is something that crosses my mind every so often. If, indeed, people continue to arrive to this planet in the way that they are now, we may have a resource problem eventually. For those of us based in the west, this isn’t nearly as concerning as it is for those in nations under more pressure economically and environmentally.

When the conflict in Syria first burst into what was known as the “crisis” in 2015, people flooded the Greek islands from Turkey. They arrived everyday in the hundreds. I wasn’t here, but some of the volunteers who are here with me now were, and they’ve explained to me in detail about what it was like. The streets were makeshift camps, the town was overrun, the population of the island doubled, people waited in herds to board the coming ferries to take them to Athens (and further into Europe). Desperation was everywhere.

When the people were waiting, it would sometimes take a few days to process them before they would be allowed to leave the island. During this time, volunteers were in charge of distributing food to the refugees. At first, the refugees were unaware about the amount of food that there was for everyone, so they were (understandably) nervous, wanting to make sure that their families were fed. Fights would break out, “it was war”. But, after a day or two, everyone would understand that there was, in fact, enough, and everyone would be fed. The lines weren’t as crammed, people were more casual about getting their food, and everything was fine.  Then, after a new ferry arrived, the people would all leave and new ones would arrive and not understand the rules again, therefore, creating more chaos, more “war”.

Right now, at the Hub. We are having the opposite problem. People initially had trust in us, they figured we had enough to offer. But, we don’t. There is not enough. And word is getting out. We don’t have space. We don’t have teachers. We don’t have time. There are too many refugees. STOP. THE. WAR. IN. PALESTINE.

As I’ve stated in previous posts, I remember a time when I hadn’t met a single refugee from Palestine. Come to think of it, three weeks ago, I hadn’t met anyone from Palestine. Now, these are the only people who are managing to find their way into the Hub. I don’t know where all of our “usuals” went from before Christmas, but it’s so sad not to see them anymore.

At present, I’m teaching English classes throughout the entire morning from Monday to Friday and driving in the afternoons. I can wrap my head around what is happening from the safety of the classroom. I know that people are at the Hotspot flooding the vans, trying to grab a seat before they’re full and they become late for class, but when I’m at the school, I only have control over who is delivered to me and how much room I have in the class. I’ve actually been able to get a little bit of teaching in the last few times I’ve tried. My first class was filled with genuine bonafide beginners. I taught them how to write the letters “A” through “J” over the space of 45 minutes. Then, later in the morning, I taught A1/B2, which is a class for people who are really starting to grasp the structure of the English language. This second class is fun because the students understand what I’m saying and they’re able to keep up with the lesson a bit more easily than those who are just figuring out what shapes the letters in the alphabet look like. It’s genuinely fun to teach adults who want to be learning, it’s just that the classroom is designed for ten students, and with the situation as dire as it is, 15 or 16 end up cramming inside, just to have an hour where they don’t have to worry about being in the Hotspot.

My introvert brain is overwhelmed by the never ending stream of refugees coming through our doors, but I pretend that I’m here for a reason, I put on a brave face, mostly because I have to. But when I have to jump into one of the vans and start shuttling people to the Hotspot and picking new people up to bring them to lessons in the afternoon, it’s completely exhausting to be policing people over and over again, trying to maintain some sort of order, trying to be fair, trying to keep things organized. We’re struggling to process how to deal with the current number of people, and trial and error is the only way we can adjust things, which only throws people off, only causes more confusion, only causes more frustration.

I wish I could bottle up the tension in my brain and body when I’ve concluded a day with hours and hours of driving, just to remember later on what it is like.  I carry so much of the anguish with me as I try to keep things truckin’ and fair. It’s so bizarre, being able to let something go the moment it’s over, but suffering fully through it as it’s happening. But this is reality for today, and tomorrow and maybe for a little while after that.

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The Leros Hotspot in 2016, before the overcrowding began. 

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You’re Just One of Many

With Sunday wrapping up now, it’s a little daunting to be staring down the face of Monday morning again. What’s going to happen? After last week’s flood of new arrivals and hectic schedule, will there be any sense of normalcy established going forward?

The weekends here on Leros are a peculiar thing for me. They fly by, but at the same time, there isn’t necessarily anything to do. Normally, I’d be pretty good at making my own fun, or my own way, but the weather was grey and rainy all day on Saturday, which limits the number of things to do. With only one day off per week, sacrificing the only day off that I can spend on top of a mountain, gawking at the sea is a bit troubling when it’s because of rain. I like being able to use nature to reset. Without that yesterday, I was left to my own inner strength to kickstart things today.

Our weekly team meeting was spent trying to talk ourselves through how to manage the immense number of refugees on the island. Has the population of the camp ever officially been this high? The Palestinians continue to pour into Greece. Fifty-five new arrivals just happened upon Leros again this morning. The numbers only continue to grow. I’m starting to wonder what actually happens once things balloon to the point of not being able to treat people with any dignity. Can you imagine being one of thirty men who have to all sleep together on the concrete ground inside of a large tent? And then it rains…and breakfast is a small piece of cake…and lunch is some boiled beans in oil…and dinner is some undercooked rice…and your only saving grace is a little school on the other side of town, but you can barely understand what is going on there, or how the rules work, or why the vans only come at certain times and they always seem to be full before you can get a seat.

I then think about the refugees who have been crammed in the camp for months or even over a year. What is it like for them to have their lives closing in on them? They’ve grown used to what life is like in the camp, it’s tough, but they’ve grown used to it being a certain way. And then the camp fills up, mostly with single men, which drastically changes the tone of things. It becomes harder to get your meals in a timely fashion, you need to watch your back a little bit more, and the school you’ve been going to for months, the one place you can count on for a break, for a little relief, it’s been overrun with the new people. You can’t get a seat in the vans anymore because there’s always dozens of people waiting to go to school ahead of you. So, you decide to walk the half hour to school, but when you get there, the building is so crowded that you have to shoulder past people just to check the schedule to see when your class is. You see that your class is due to start in five minutes, but the room is already jammed full and you’re being told there isn’t any room for you. The only thing you can think to do is try and get there sooner the next day, but the place that the school was for you before is now gone. It’s no longer the escape that you need it to be because it’s so crowded. And you’re no longer able to learn English because you’re never sure if you’ll make it into the classroom, and even if you do, you won’t necessarily be granted any individual attention, because you’re just one of many now.

So, as one of the three teachers currently on the ground, it feels a bit like going into battle in the morning. How can I possibly make sure the maximum number of students are learning? It’s so worrisome. If I’m failing at teaching, then what am I doing here?

Inshallah, this will be a good week. I could see it going either way.

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“I spend the whole day watching my clothes dry.”

“You caught me,” he says to me as I step into the yard of the Hub. One of the refugees is hanging about ten items of clothing on the single clothesline we have in our backyard. I smile at him, unaware that I’ve caught a man with his hand in the cookie jar, but he explains himself to me.

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At the Hotspot, all of the laundry must be washed by hand because there are no washing machines or places to clean your clothes. But, worst of all, when you’re finished washing your clothing, you need to hang it up to dry outside. With so many people living in the containers, there is no room to dry your clean clothing indoors.

When I drive by Hotspot, I often see makeshift lines of clothing hanging between different structures. Something that didn’t factor into my brain though, until I came across my friend hanging his clothes outside, was that you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. With the moisture from the sea constantly in the air, clothing is never in a hurry to dry. And with so many people in the camp, leaving your clothing unmonitored can result in their disappearance, as my friend had learned the hard way.

He told me that he had brought his wet clothes to school because if he hung them up at the Hotspot, he would have to spend the entire day watching the clothes dry. He’s done this before, many times. He’s lost his clothing before because he didn’t stay with it while it was drying.

This sounded absolutely ludicrous to me, but then again, it also seems right in line with the refugee experience.

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Even for me, laundry is a hassle. There is a washing machine in my flat, but there isn’t a drier. Obviously, I like this because it is environmentally friendly, but it does drastically increase the amount of time that it takes for clothing to dry. A drier may take an hour, but having to put clothing on the line takes an extraordinary amount of time. The scenery from my apartment is phenomenal, a picturesque view of a sparkling blue bay, accented by a neighboring island and stoney brown outcroppings atop an adjacent hill. There is a constant (wet) sea breeze blowing in from the bay on my terrace where I hang my clothes. The wind constantly keeps things moving, but the moisture in the air doesn’t let anything dry. The breeze is so strong; however, that clothing is constantly ripped from the line and goes plummeting into the bushes and trees two floors below. I’ve, more than once, gone picking through the vegetation to recover table clothes, towels, shirts, and sheets.

At the end of the day, returning from work, after twelve or more hours in the sun and blowing in the wind, the clothes are never dry. So, often, we volunteers move the clothing inside and put it on or near our radiators. This works a little bit better for drying things out, but it never works perfectly and then moisture gets trapped inside, which creates new issues. Alas, I have no problems compared to those who live in the camp. My clothing is still in my possession when I return home at the end of the day.

Bring your clothing to the Hub anytime, my friend, I’ll watch ’em for ya.

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300 Single Men

Our tiny volunteer team is beginning to wear down ever so slightly during this hectic week, but we’re powering through! Three new volunteers will arrive tomorrow morning on the flight from Athens and we’ll be reinvigorated by our first set of newbies since the new year has begun.

With the Hotspot beyond capacity at the moment, a few changes have begun to occur on the island. With the onslaught of new arrivals in the recent days, the numbers are starting to shake out and we, as an NGO, have been given more information. The vast majority of the people who have arrived on Leros are single men from Palestine. The numbers are so skewed, in fact, that the tone of the Hotspot, the Hub, and even the island seems to be shifting. With the tiny “people containers” packed full with sometimes twice as many people as capacity, a giant tent has been set up for the people who cannot fit into containers to sleep in within the Hotspot. As it stands now, there are no beds in this tent, so the refugees are simply sleeping on the concrete.

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“People containers” or “iso-boxes”, little structures built for four people, often filled with 12 or more.

Another bit of information that passed our way was that “99% of the refugees are refusing clothing donations.” So, we’ve been instructed to hold off on giving out new clothing until further notice. Most of the Palestinian men have more money than the average refugee and they are not interested in second-hand clothes, or so I’ve heard. Refugees who are arriving on the island wet are still being given clothes, this won’t change since it’s essential to keeping people alive.

Just north of us, on the island of Lesvos where the crossing between Turkey and Greece is small, the overcrowding in the camp has led to deplorable conditions. A man froze to death yesterday. Reports are showing the high amounts of people making the crossings in these winter months are emphasizing just how dire the situations are in the countries these people are fleeing. Usually the number of new arrivals are very low during the colder months. The people who end up getting wet while crossing the waters need to be rescued quickly to avoid hypothermia.

On the volunteer side of things, we’ve been overwhelmed at work but also struggling with our living conditions at home. The Aegean Sea may be beautiful and especially welcoming to look at from our terraces in the morning, but the salt water in the air keeps everything just a little bit damp, so mold has been growing in our bedrooms. This was troubling, but returning home from work yesterday evening to discover all of our heating units were not working was especially worrisome. Although we are not sleeping in a giant tent like the refugees, it was still a chilly evening huddled under multiple blankets last night.

While the mold situation is being dealt with, our organization has put us up in a hotel in town. I’ve already decided that this will be the only night I spend here. I can handle living in a cold room with blankets while the refugees are out in the cool night air. I don’t need a hotel to rescue me every time I get a little uncomfortable. That being said, I’m writing this post from the comfort of my heated hotel room, in a clean bed, just having showered with fresh (non-salt!) water for the first time in weeks. I’m grateful, but I’m also wondering how many other people I could fit into this room with my roommate and I…

The tone of Leros has certainly shifted now with the arrival of so many new men. I find myself walking around town and getting called after a bit more now than before. All of these new people do not know how things work around here just yet, so it’s taking some getting used to. They see me, I’m sure, as just another confusing white guy, but hopefully one of these days they’ll realize I’m just here to help them and love them the best I can. We’ll see what time has in store for us.

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One Degree From Palestine

Palestine

When I was in Leros in March, I don’t recall meeting anyone from Palestine. Now, there seem to be more Palestinians arriving than any other ethnicity. It’s interesting to speak with these individuals once they arrive at the Hub. If  we track their timelines, they seem to all have left their homeland about a month prior to their arrival. They travel to Turkey, and then make their way over on boats to the Greek islands. By the time they reach us, a month has passed. This is just what I’ve encountered, obviously these are not hard facts.

As I posted in my last entry, there has been a large increase in new arrivals on this island. Many of these people are from Palestine. Our school has had a boom in the number of students attending, which is directly related to the conflict in Palestine. The idea of being only one degree removed from this conflict is oddly exhilarating. As conflict increases, the more crowded my classes get, possibly exactly one month later.

Yemen

Less than a week ago, I was driving to work with another volunteer and she brought up the country of Yemen. We were both aware of the on going conflict/famine in Yemen, but we had never met a refugee that was from this country. It seemed peculiar to us, but once we looked more closely at a map, we could see the problem.

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Yemen, as positioned south of Saudi Arabia.

The conflict in Yemen is caused by Saudi Arabia. There isn’t a direct route out of Yemen without going through Saudi Arabia, especially in the direction of Greece.

Yesterday; however, I had an advanced English speaker sit down in one of my classes, tell me his name, and claimed to be from Yemen. Boom. I don’t know how this happened, but I look forward to hearing more from him in the days to come, if he’ll share with me.

Cameroon

The people from Cameroon were here on Leros during my first “go” here. There were also people from Burundi, Guinea, and Congo. There was a healthy population of people from Africa here. Now, they’ve all gone except for one. He was in my Beginner English class for the entirety of the three months I was on this island last time. He’s young, not yet twenty, and I was saddened to see that he was still here upon my return. I saw him first on the side of the road, walking to town from the Hotspot. When I had a chance to catch up with him, his English hadn’t improved drastically, but he was a bit more conversational than the last time I had seen him. He doesn’t know why he is still here and the rest of his friends have been allowed to move on. He’s a victim of the system, confused, uncertain about what his fate will be and why he’s been left behind. It’s strange to have my two experiences linked by someone being screwed over by the asylum system.

 

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