Stand Off

Sometimes things go really well throughout the day. You reach closing time and you realize that there weren’t too many problems throughout the day. This is rare, but it happens. Two days ago was not one of these days, but it’s funny to look back on now.

It’s amazing how comedic life can feel on this island, and the events that occur seem to be almost episodic. Two days ago, the episode involved three residents who weren’t keen on following some of the Hub rules, so we ended up in a bit of a predicament.

Our rules clearly state that, if you want to be transported to and from the Hub from the Hotspot, you need to attend class. We don’t drive our vans like a taxi, if you use our vehicles you need to come to class and then we will transport you back to the camp.

Two days ago, three men rode in the vans to the school, did not attend a class, and then tried to board the vans again and get a ride back to the camp. The driver of the van informed them that they had not attended class, so they would not be allowed to ride back to the camp. They didn’t like hearing this, so they climbed into the van and sat in the back row, refusing to move.

This is how we ended up in a good old fashioned stand off. As a teacher in the mornings, I don’t have to worry about driving until the afternoon shift begins, but since I had just finished teaching my last class, I watched the situation unfold from the classroom window. It seems that, whenever there is a problem, a group of men tend to just magically appear out of thin air and literally surround the situation. This is a little annoying because it becomes impossible to discretely solve small issues, but sometimes it’s encouraging because most of the men who circle-up are doing so in defense of the volunteers and the school.

This issue happens relatively frequently. People think that they can out smart our check-in system or they think that we’ll get soft and just drive them back to the camp. But we try not to do this, we try to keep the rules strict in an attempt to keep the system working. This particular situation was weird because usually when people refuse to get out of the van they back down within five minutes or so, but not this time. The stand off just stretched on and on and on. I watched as multiple volunteers made their way over to the van doors to try their luck at coaxing the three men out of the back seat. Then other residents tried as well, along with volunteers standing next to them to assert their authority. Translating didn’t work either, as none of the three men understand much English.

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Whenever there’s a problem, there’s always a crowd. I snapped this photo quickly from the classroom window simply because I had to document how STUPID the situation looked; men gathered around, a lineup of spectators watching from the ground. `

So, the drama continued to drag on. Eventually, although I suspected giving more attention to the situation would not work, I took a shot at trying to defuse it. I climbed into the middle seat of the van as everyone else dispersed and the four of us did our best to have an honest conversation. They speak just a little English and, at this point, I speak a little Arabic, so we pasted together a really messy, beautiful string of broken conversation. One of the men in particular is a very sweet guy, so I was really surprised that he was causing such a problem. I did my best to reason with him. He has come to my classes before and I think we have a good rapport with one another.

My attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, although I did manage to get one of them out of the van while the other two stayed put, and the one who got out with me was only stepping out to smoke a cigarette, then he got back in. Looking back on it, it’s pretty funny that he was respectful enough not to smoke in the van, but he wasn’t respectful enough of everyone else’s time. By sitting in the van, we were unable to use the van to transport people to and from the Hotspot, so they were really inconveniencing everyone’s day. Alas, we still made everything work, but the situation was all too dramatic.

While I was in the van, they kept telling me that they were going to sleep in the van, continuing their stand off throughout the night. I tried to imagine what this would look like in my head. It’s a 25 minute walk back to the Hotspot, why wouldn’t they just give it a rest and walk back in the sunshine? The answer? Pride.

Even though we don’t fully speak each other’s languages, it was perfectly communicated to me that they were sorry, they loved me and the people that work at the Hub, and they didn’t want to cause a problem; however, they weren’t moving. This, to me, meant simply that they were too prideful to admit they were in the wrong.

As soon as everyone stopped paying them any mind, they got bored, called a cab, and went back to the camp on their own accord. No harm done. They spent a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes waiting for us to cave in and drive them back to the camp. We didn’t give in. Rules are rules. What a stupid way to spend an afternoon.

 

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News From the Refugee Trail: March Edition

I’ve been writing this edition of Refugee Trail in my mind for two weeks at this point, but I just keep scribbling down a few sentences and then putting it away. It’s now nearly mid-April and I haven’t sent out an update from all of the happenings in March. It hit me yesterday evening though, as I was thinking about how late I was on this post, that I don’t need to do a full breakdown of everything that happened over the course of 31 days. I was going to talk about the changes in the weather, some specific details about what’s been happening with the refugees and all of the goings on at school, but…I won’t.

Instead, I just want to babble for a little bit, because the entirety of this experience can be summed up in a few sentences, really.

I’m a veteran volunteer now on this island. I’ve been here for 5 months and have totaled 8 months with Echo since 2018 began. Dozens of volunteers have rotated in and out since my arrival and 5 of us have stuck around since before the Christmas holiday. Some of us are starting to feel the timeline. There are multiple benefits to this, but there are small negative things that we’re noticing too.

For example, one of my long-term comrades recently went away for the weekend, off of the island. When she came back, she said she realized she was talking in circles to the people around her. She just kept saying the same things over and over and over again. She needed to leave the island to get this perspective, but when she brought it back to me and told me this morning about what she had noticed, I couldn’t help but agree completely with her. Of course we talk about the same things over and over again, because we’re experiencing the same things over and over again. We see and deal with trauma everyday that is being brought directly to us by people who have fled war and torture and corruption and human greed. And, because we need our school/community center to operate correctly, we try to follow a certain number of rules and guidelines.

This takes up a lot of brain space and time. How do you create a safe, welcoming place for people who are dealing with past and current traumas and difficult situations while still trying to run a school? And that’s it. Our thoughts spin and spin in the same direction. We say the same things, we’re caught in the same routine and the same scenarios. Even still, just this morning, I was walking from my home to the school and experiencing the strange feeling of knowing how perfect the moment was, but not feeling the perfection. I love the work that I do everyday, the weather is perfect, the people I’m around are totally special, and this is a place I’ve worked hard to be able to call home for this period of time. The only hiccup is my bogged down thoughts, which leave me spinning in circles.

The asylum process is tedious and confusing, I still don’t understand why certain things happen and do not happen in reference to individual cases. This is the thing that looms over all of my students, so my lack of understanding is frustrating. I’ve watched people I interact with and love with everyday get deported, thrown in jail, refused basic human rights, get beaten by the police, get forced off of the island against their will, get forced to remain on the island against their will, and, perhaps worst of all, just generally suffer under the over-crowded conditions of the camp that they live in. My mind gets caught in this weird place between wanting to just hug everyone all of the time and seeing the great benefit to strictly following the rules and making sure the school stays in working order, because structure is good.

I realize after writing this that I don’t even know what I’m trying to say with this post. Maybe I just don’t feel the need to recap my month because everything seems to be spinning in the same direction that it always has been. I don’t know.

Until Next Time,

Matt

Just for kicks, here are the few paragraphs I was able to pull together for this “March Edition” before I ultimately gave up:

Winter has retreated and spring is in full swing here on the island, with temperature regularly between 14 and 17 degrees Celsius throughout the month. It’s also been considerably less rainy and the power hasn’t gone out half as much as it did in January. It’s a relief to be heading into better weather, not to mention the addition of Daylight Savings Time has made it so there is light in the sky as late as 8:00, which I’m really grateful for. With nicer whether; however, comes the fear that more boats will be making their way from Turkey to Greece as the seas are calmer and the chances of encountering environmental problems become slimmer. This means more people are risking there lives and this year has already proven to be a deadly one with many refugees drowning in the waters when they attempt the crossing.

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Police Brutality & a Convoy to the Border

I feel like a broken record sometimes, but some of the things I witness on this island are worth discussing over and over again as they turn around in my brain in the same manner.

Having lived here for so long, sometimes this place feels like a movie, something far more dramatic than actual life. The days go by like they do anywhere else and things start to feel normal, but when I’m able to grab some perspective, they’re…simply…not normal.

Yesterday evening, I felt a bit strange, so I decided to go for a jog up one of the more quiet roads of the island. As I started off, it began to rain. As I kept going, the rain increased, but I didn’t mind too much, I pressed on. Eventually it got to the point where I wanted to stop because I was getting a bit too drenched for my liking, so I stood under the only structure I could find around me, barely tucked under a small awning, out of the rain. It was dark where I was, but I could see some lights across the harbor. Just me and the rain and the sea. It was a nice moment to reset. No one knew where I was, but at the same time, no one was looking for me. It was really just me and the rain.

Looking out at the harbor, I thought about the ferry that would be arriving in a few hours. In all its glorious majesty, it would sail silently into the harbor, it’s glowing lights illuminating the blackness, giving a bit of hope to the waiting people on the docks. Hope, because a large number of residents of the Hotspot camp, many of whom have been students of mine these past months, were being moved to mainland Greece. This is their first time leaving the island since their arrival here. This is why this place can feel like a prison sometimes, so confining.

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Islands

The island is beautiful, but it’s contradicted by the difficulty of the people who are trapped here, waiting to hear when or if they’ll be able to move on with their lives.

For me, I selfishly think sometimes about how I feel stuck here, even though this is far from the truth. I’m not stuck by any means, the only thing that makes me feel stuck here is my heart. It is so dramatic that there’s really only one way out of here for the inhabitants of this island.

That being said, being able to reflect on what this island feels like is a luxury in itself.

In the refugee community, which I run on the outskirts of at this point, rumors have been flying in Greece about a “march on the borders” known as “Convoy of Hope”. It is an extensive and elaborate plan for thousands of refugees in Greece to march on the borders at the north of the country and to push their way overland with their eventual destination goal being Germany. The general idea is that if enough people join the caravan, that the countries will have no choice but to open their borders to the group. All of this is being organized off of the internet, more less, with people communicating in large groups on Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, and text message. The rumors and the stories are growing. Many of the people I interact with everyday on the island want to leave in hopes of joining the convoy.

As I said before, the only way to get off the island is the ferry, which is being carefully monitored during this unique time. Some of my students have been trying each night to leave to no avail. They purchase a ticket, they go to the port, and they’re stopped by the police. This is, of course, is difficult to hear about when they return to school the next day and tell me a bit about their ordeals, but I was especially taken aback when I saw one of my most soft spoken students limping into the classroom. When I asked him what had happened, another student translated for him, telling me that the police had beaten him when he tried to leave the island.

And that, my friend, is worth publishing on this blog, because police brutality should never be tolerated. This is Europe. And even if it wasn’t, this situation would be ridiculous.

The organization I’m working with, along with most other NGOs in Greece are not in support of the convoy, as it could lead to arrests, violence, delayed asylum cases, and potentially even death. I’m waiting with baited breath to see what happens next, but in the mean time, I’m thankful each time I see the students I adore showing up to class each morning, because so many of them seem to keep evaporating into thin air.

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A Little Hope, A Little Dismay

In the evenings these days, when I have the time, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly curious about things that are happening in the greater world beyond Leros. More nights than not this past week, I’ve fallen asleep to youtube videos and clips about Brexit, Nancy Pelosi, or the growing field of Democratic Candidates announcing their bid for the presidency of the United States. My brain almost instantly goes numb while listening to these topics; however, I’ve been feeling the need to stay informed for some reason, despite the small life I am living on this island. Politics matter here, too.

Today was, yet again, a Greek holiday and so the Hub was closed and I had the day to my disposal. I went for a hike with two of my local friends up a long winding dirt road that ends at the edge of the island at a lighthouse that overlooks the harbor. We sat out there for an hour or so in the shade and admired the shimmering sunshine on the perfect blue water of the Mediterranean. The sea is a nice reminder of how small we all are. My cheeks are a bit sun kissed now, a nice reminder of the encroaching summer months.

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One of the residents (more importantly, one of my friends) recently moved out of the Hotspot and began renting his own flat just outside of town. He sent me this picture from his veranda to show me the view he has to enjoy everyday. He overlooks the entirety of the town and has a sea view along with a panoramic view of Leros’ mountains. Ironically, his home has a view so expansive that he can see the Hotspot where he used to live on the other side of the water, especially in the night hours when the lights are on in the camp. He can literally look down upon the place he dreaded living in for months. Fortunately, he says the tranquility of being outside of town is benefitting his mental state and the clear night skies are keeping him happy when the stars are out.

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While setting out for today’s hike, I passed by the rare sight of the ferry in the harbor during the daylight hours (it normally arrives and departs at night). Due to weather, the ship was delayed the previous day, so I got the opportunity to snap this picture of it as it headed out to sea. Unfortunately, I found out too late that my friend was on this ship, being transferred to a prison on a different island. This is the same friend who I’ve written about in previous posts, one who I visited in Leros’ jail two times. Last week was the last time I was able to go and see him, I thought things were looking up for him, that he would be able to reapply for asylum and be allowed to stick around, but I heard the news this morning that he was taken away in handcuffs and has been transported to a different island. One of my fellow volunteers heard speculation that too many people were in support of him and trying to help him out that he ended up getting transferred to avoid him getting any assistance. This breaks my heart to think about, but it makes sense. There is no direct ferry from Leros to the island that they sent him to. I can’t go and visit him. He’s just gone.

And that’s the end of this long weekend. School resumes tomorrow and I will officially be graduating more than 20 of my students from the lowest level English class up to the next level. I’m excited to see how things go for them as they transition to this higher level. If things go well, I think it will be one of my more proud teacher moments since arriving on this island.

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Greek Gods and a Racist

There seem to be no less than a hundred holidays in Greece throughout the year, but March is perhaps the most holiday-filled. There were two holidays last week, one of which was in celebration of a multiple islands off the coast of Turkey coming back into the possession of Greece many decades ago. To commemorate this occasion, the local Greeks of Leros celebrate with a parade, which somewhat resembles Halloween in the United States. Each group in the parade dressed up in different costumes and then paraded down the streets of Lakki.

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Team Echo.

Our coordinators decided we should be part of the parade and dress as Greek Gods. I found this comical since none of us are actually from Greece, but I think that was the whole point. So, in the middle of the afternoon on Sunday, the entire group of volunteers and a few dozen residents of the camp dressed in white and spray painted some leaves gold to make into crowns for our heads. When it was all said and done, I think we looked pretty ridiculous–which was perfect. None of us resembled Gods, in my opinion, but we did all at least match.

 

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Me and Mohammed in Greek God attire. 

It took a number of hours to prepare everyone’s costumes and to dress our van up for the occasion. I think getting ready for the event was the best part, that’s when everyone was having the most fun. When it came time for the parade itself, we had to wait over an hour before processing down the main street of Lakki. I attribute the holdup to the Greek culture, nothing ever “needs” to begin on time. But the day was perfect. The sun was out and the temperature was right where it needed to be for a stroll outdoors in strange attire.

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Waiting for our turn in the parade.

Our spot in the parade was between a group of women dressed up like flamingoes and a truck full of men sitting in the back of the pickup, dressed like they were going to rob a bank with masks over their faces and plastic guns in their hands. The local elementary school had all of its students dressed up like the different countries of the world. This meant there were a bunch of little tikes running around with giant pieces of paper draped over their shoulders with little sketches of maps on them.

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The Echo van, all decked out in Greek God garb. 

I think the entire celebration lasted a few hours, but by the time the parade wrapped up we had been preparing for so long that we basically just dispersed and called it a day.

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The only hiccup we experienced throughout the day was in the middle of the parade when an on-looker shouted something at our group as we walked by. We made no effort to hide who we were. We were clearly a group of international volunteers and refugees from all over the world. We were not locals. One of the volunteers, who happens to be Greek, overheard one of the spectators shouting something rude at us. I watched as she pulled herself out of the parade and confronted the person in the crowd. When I caught back up with her later, she was upset, but she didn’t give me any specifics on what she had said to them or what they had said to her. I already knew the entire story though, just by looking at her face as she stepped out of the parade and feeling her reaction afterwards.

The day was fun. It pulled many of the residents away from the dire conditions of the camp for a while. It’s too bad that someone was rude to us, but no one was impacted by it since no one understands Greek and there were many cheers from the crowd to overpower the racism. But, this is the reality, nonetheless.

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Sunset Prison Sentence

People tend to disappear on this island. They’re here one day and gone the next. Sometimes it’s because they’ve quietly boarded the ferry the evening before and sometimes it’s because they’ve been taken to prison. With volunteers and locals, it’s different, obviously. But for the refugees, if you can’t locate someone that you’re used to seeing, it could be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they’ve snuck onto the ferry and are illegally making their way to Athens, sometimes they’ve been granted asylum and their travel restrictions have been lifted so they leave the island right away, and sometimes, most horribly, they’ve been arrested.

Arrests are a unique thing on this island. There is no prison here, just a holding cell at the police station on the other side of the island. The closest prison is on the island of Kos, which is a few hours away by ferry. So, a lot of time when someone seems to vanish, they’re just being held in a cell on the other side of the island. In my first three month stint on Leros, I wasn’t aware of anyone being put in the jail, but when I left, some of the people I knew the best were arrested and I didn’t hear from them for the duration of their time there. One friend spent more than a month in the jail before he was released.

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This time around, it’s one of the residence who happily greets me every time I see him, who hugs me whenever he can, who has been thrown in jail.

The question: WHY?

The answer: I don’t know. I just really, really do not know.

In an effort to get asylum in Greece, many refugees go through the entire process, often for more than a year. Their cases are accepted or denied, they can get lawyers and appeal their decisions, etc. The process really seems to stretch on and on, but there almost always seems to be something else that can be done other than getting deported back to their home country or to Turkey. Things happen, but the system is so slow that the effect of the cause tends to take time. So, even if someone’s case is over and they need to be deported, the slow Greek system may not actually have them sent back to their country for a month or two after the decision is made. This is partly why things can appear to happen so suddenly.

So, my buddy is in jail right now. He might need to be transferred to Kos at some point, but for now he’s still on Leros. I went to visit him yesterday. I was told the visiting hours were from 6 to 7, so I went to the store, bought some food, and headed over to the other side of the island. Fortunately, I was able to borrow one of the vehicles I have for work, otherwise I would have had to make the walk over which would have taken about an hour or so. When I parked the car next to the marina, the sunset was bursting in golden rays. The entire island seemed to be glowing, with the sun bouncing off of the white buildings of the hilly town and the mountain behind me. I’m again reminded that the stark beauty of this island means nothing when it comes to the secrets this place can hold. I quickly snapped a photo with my phone out of irony as I climbed from the car. This place is utterly stunning, but haunting as well, as I made my way to the police station to see my captive friend.

When I arrived with another volunteer, it was about 5 minutes after 6:00. The police at the station seemed surprised to see us. When I said we were there to visit our friend, they looked at me confused but complied. One of the officers said that he would only allow one of us to go see him, so I took the bag of things I had purchased for him at the store and then followed the man out of the office and into a dark hallway. At the end of the hall, there was an old fashioned metal door, which looked exactly how every jail cell in the movies looks, only dingier and scarier. There was hardly any light. The officer painted to the bars and said flatly, “call him.”

Confused, I looked through the metal bars and called out my friends name, but, so not to let the officer be aware of what I was saying, I called out a few words in Farsi. I thought by doing this, I’d be taking a little of the power from the police officer. I heard my words echo off of the bare walls of the cell I was calling into. A moment of nothing, then my friend appeared around the corner. He was dressed how he always is, in his jeans and a jacket, with a lit cigarette in hand.

The police officer rifled through the bag I brought as I greeted my friend at the gate. You’re not suppose to touch the prisoners, but I did anyway. I’m used to hugging him whenever I see him, so touching his hand through the bars seemed like nothing. Item by item, the officer passed everything I brought through the bars to my friend. Some peanuts for protein, some dried fruit for vitamins, a can of Coke for comfort because it was still cold, and some potato chips for a snack. 5 sudoku books, something I thought would be useful in keeping his brain active while sitting in the endless boredom, but the pen I brought was not allowed. I hoped I had my basis covered. Other visitors had told me that they had already brought him snacks and hygiene products, because the cell is notorious for its lack-of-care. Prisoners get put in the cell and ignored, they aren’t given items to bathe themselves or fed three times a day.

When the officer was finished handing everything through the bars, he took a single step back and said, “you have one minute.” He hovered over my shoulder the entire time, so I was actually happy to only have one minute because I realized I didn’t have anything to say to my friend if someone else was going to be eavesdropping on the conversation the entire time. Had we been alone, I would have been fine to continue speaking, but not while being watched so closely. It seemed, that after two days in the jail cell, my friend seemed to be doing fine, but it was obvious that the situation could quickly become mentally dire. I hope his lawyer figures something out for him soon.

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Now I’ve seen one more piece of this experience. Now I know a little bit more of the story. Slowly, slowly this whole tale is told.

Babe, you’re glowing gold, but I can see you’ve got a secret.

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“You Are Nothing”

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This is me, prepping for a driving shift while glancing at a phone that isn’t mine. 

One of the refugees recently moved out of the Hotspot camp and into his own flat in town. His card was “opened”, meaning that his documentation was allowing him to travel to mainland Greece. He was due to be transferred by the authorities to a different camp on the Greek mainland, but since he has been on Leros for so many months, he wanted to remain here. He has become comfortable in this little community, he knows some of the locals, he frequents the Hub and has become a friend of many of us volunteers, and the residents at Hotspot know him. So, he has community here. Why would he want to leave just to have to wait for asylum in a new spot in Greece?

By taking a flat, he’s removed himself from the difficulties of living in the camp, and also granted himself the opportunity to remain on Leros without any issue. Unfortunately, it’s not like all of the problems that a refugee encounters each day simply go away just because they’ve found themselves a home. For example, when moving into his home, the place didn’t have any Wifi, so he and his landlord went to the local phone store to arrange a hookup for him. When the clerk asked him for his tax number, he didn’t have one, since he isn’t a resident of Greece. His landlord, standing beside him, laughed at him and told him, “see, you are nothing” and preceded to give the clerk his tax number to arrange for the internet to be setup.

The situation was clearly awkward, especially since it was taking place publicly, but my friend, fortunately, had the drive and persistence to standup for himself. It ended with his landlord trying to tell him that he was making a joke, but he stood his ground, making sure that the man understood that jokes like that hit way too close to home and aren’t amusing. I was both proud and saddened to hear about how the situation had gone down.

This man, this sweet sweet friend of mine, has truly mastered empathy and compassion. When I saw him for the first time after his first night in his new home, his first night away from the crowded, noisy, smelly Hotspot, he said that he was only able to sleep a few hours, because he couldn’t get all of the people in the camp out of his mind, knowing that they were still in the same situation he had just been in for many months…

Sometimes, okay, most of the time, when I think about humanity, I think about how sterile we’ve become. In general, as a species, I think technology has put us on the fast track to disaster. We’re not there yet, but we’re heading there. We spend way too much time on our phones, glancing at text messages, reading e-mails, and getting distracted by the constant beeping and buzzing of our devices.

This is why moments like this strike such an unusual, unexpected chord in me when they happen. This man, who has just pulled himself away from an amount of agony that no human being should ever have to consistently endure, is only thinking about other people as he walks away. To put this in perspective, I would imagine myself running away from the situation, arms thrown high up into the air, in glee. This kind of thing, the way my friend reacted to his exit, makes me have to take a deep breath for a moment while my brain recalibrates what I’m feeling. How unique to hear about someone truly putting others before himself, losing sleep in his ocean of empathy for his fellow humans.

I want to be more like this guy.

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