News From the Refugee Trail: April Edition 

Summer is upon us in Greece and as the seas around the island warm, things show no signs of slowing down at the Hub or with Echo100Plus.

In the world of teaching, the last couple of weeks have produced some very significant shifts in the way that my schedule is laid out each week and the kind of work that I’m doing. As I’ve said in the past, a very large part of the work that I’m doing here in Greece is teaching English. A friend and I worked hard this winter to revamp the English program at the Hub and about a week and a half ago, she left. Her departure had been looming all winter, so we were able to fully prepare ourselves for how things would look without her, but now the shift has been made. I’m currently teaching three different levels of English across a four hour period. 

These last few weeks have been filled with hilarious moments (especially out of context). Our classrooms in our school have limited spacing. One room is capable of comfortably holding 12 students and the larger room is capable of comfortably holding 23 students. The second level English class, where students have advanced further than learning how to write the letters, but are not quite conversational yet,  has become quite popular in recent weeks. So much so, that the class has ballooned to as many as 30 students some days, which is simply not a doable number for the tiny classroom. Each table would be filled to the brim with students, extra chairs would be brought in to line the walls of the room, and people would be standing in the back of the room and outside. A few even stood at the windows, peering in at the board and writing with their notebooks and pencils on the window as if it were their desk. Trying to sort out the mess of who actually belonged in the class and who should be in a different level proved to be a consistent struggle from day to day, so a few other volunteers and I did the only logical thing we could think to do and created a second English Beginner class, expanding the amount of teaching I have to do each day, but not really expanding my workload too much since I can repeat the same lesson back-to-back. I’m hopeful that this cuts down on the congestion in the classroom during the morning. 

That being said, it’s really exciting as a teacher to watch so many students progressing and enjoying coming to class. They’re, for the most part, really on the ball, engaged, and interested in learning. I see them making strides everyday and I’m so excited to teach them each morning. I realized that having too many students in class is a really great problem to have. The diversity in the classes has even begun to increase again too, after a winter with the majority of students being single men from Palestine, many new students coming to classes are now from multiple different African countries and a couple of females have even started to attend classes. 

I’m currently writing this update from a ferry docked in Piraeus Port in Athens. This ship should start moving at any time now. I’ve just spent the last five days attending an epic 30th birthday party for one of the volunteers I got to know over my stint here in Leros. She frequents Leros, but is based in Athens. To celebrate the milestone in her life, she planned a birthday party in Athens. Since she’s from London, most of her friends flew in from the UK, but two of us volunteers ferried over from the island for the long-weekend to celebrate with her. Now that I’m back on the ferry, ready to head back to reality on Leros, I can’t help but feel like the weekend didn’t even happen. Did I just spend five days at one long, exclusive party? Did I go out to meal after meal and venue after venue with a group of 30 people dressed up and touring the hell out of this capital city? This couldn’t have been reality. But it was. For five days I pulled myself away from the refugee scene and lived in total denial. 

The sneaky thing about Athens is that it’s set up so tourists can slip in and see all of the ruins and sights of the city without ever running into the poverty and the refugee crisis, even though it’s everywhere and spread throughout the city streets. There are people begging in the metro stations, abandoned buildings have transformed into organized squats, there are tents pitched on the sidewalks near parks, and it all goes unnoticed by the people bringing the money into the country. I felt this first hand as the large group I was with for the weekend had reservations made at roof-top restaurants and tour guides preordered to show us around the Acropolis and museums. I felt, to say the least, weird. Other than the birthday girl, I only knew one other attendant of the party and she was sick the entire weekend and didn’t attend any of the events. So, I had to put my social foot forward and do my best to mingle with three dozen Brits. All in all, it went really well. The weekend was enjoyable. I ate entirely too much food and was completely, completely spoiled with all the extravagantness that comes with attending a party of that caliber. I did my best to just enjoy my time to the best of my ability. I figured it wasn’t an opportunity that would present itself very much in the future. Even still, I’m ready to head back to reality. I sat down to so many extravagant meals over the last five days, and each time, I was still full from the meal I had eaten prior. I’m looking forward to some days ahead of me filled with dark leafy greens, water, and maybe even a little fasting. 

Disappearing Acts 

One of the more heartbreaking things about being on Leros for so long now is something I have failed to discuss in the past, but I’ll take the time to say now. As volunteers, being so focused on work, it’s all too easy to eat quickly and not exercise enough while we’re here. This leads to weight gain. But for the refugees, the opposite tends to happen. Due to the amount of stress they’re under, many of them shed pounds like crazy. Watching them lose weight week by week, month by month is a terrifying ordeal. It’s like watching people melt away in front of your eyes. You meet them and they weigh in at 70 kilos. The next thing you know, they’re 58 kilos. Their bodies deteriorate as if they’re contestants on that reality show “The Biggest Loser.” It’s so difficult to watch. Initially, I assumed that the weight loss was just due to the horrendous food being served to them in the camp, but I soon realized this wasn’t the only problem. It is true that the food being provided to them three times a day for free is terrible, resulting in many of them opting not to consume the meals, but it’s not uncommon for refugees to have some kind of financial support from back in their home countries by loved ones. This gives them the financial ability to do a little food shopping and substitute for the poor meals being provided to them. So why are they losing weight if they are eating? Stress. I did some asking around first, and then a little google-ing, and it turns out, while many people’s bodies react to stress by gaining weight, others lose weight. This is the case with so many of the people I interact with on a daily basis. Their minds and bodies and hearts and souls are under so much pressure, are so confused, so caught up in the turmoil of the unknown and filled with fear, that they begin to melt away. 

While in Athens on this trip, I visited one friend who I’ve known now for a year and a half. His frame was small to begin with, but he has been disintegrating little by little since I met him. After not seeing him for two months, meeting up with him was bittersweet. Nice to see him, but difficult to look at him. Hugging him was like trying to hug a rib cage. I had almost nothing to wrap my arms around and there were more pointy, hard pieces to his body than soft places to embrace. He’d lost 3 more kilos since the last time I saw him. I went to his apartment to meet him. He cooked lunch for us and I watched him as he chopped green beans and boiled rice. My friend is going to disappear. 

Another friend of mine back on Leros explained his weight loss to me because he has a disorder that requires medication to help him keep weight on his body. He doesn’t receive adequate medical care as a refugee. No medication. He loses weight. Hearing him talk about his body is so sad to hear too. He’s all too aware of what is happening to him. “It’s just skin attached to bones with some hair. That’s it.” This is just one instance, so many others are falling victim to similar stories. One guy told me about how he was toweling off his body after a shower and realized that a pool of water had collected on his shoulder in a newly created divot in his skin formed by reaching a new state of thinness.

Our bodies may feel full sometimes, but that doesn’t mean anything if we’re not nourished. The same goes for our souls.

Boats

The boats will continue to flood Greece this summer from Turkey. Refugees desperately fleeing their no-longer-habitable cities and countries will continue to make their way to Turkey and then pay extraordinary amounts of money to gross the Aegean waters to the Greek islands in an attempt to start new lives. The winter season had proven to be a slower time for boat arrivals, even coming to a complete stop in years past. This year; however, the boats arrived all winter long. And now, with the better weather arriving, the boats will keep coming. The only thing stopping every boat that sets off from Turkey from reaching Greece is the Turkish Coast Guard. With tourist season on the horizon, the waters are being patrolled more closely, making it more difficult for boats to make the journey without getting caught. As I’ve said before in blog posts, this is a double-edged sword. While there is relief in knowing that not every person who tries to cross the waters is going to be coming to my already-full classrooms, it’s difficult to read about boats getting caught. It’s not just that the Turkish Coast Guard intercepts the little boats and then drops them back off on the shores of Turkey. The Coast Guard Catches them and arrests them, bringing them to prisons…in Turkey. All of them, men, women, and children. Their journeys abruptly end in this moment. They could have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, paid thousands of dollars to a smuggler, and then gotten to within shouting distance of their goal, all just to be arrested. No one really wins in any of the scenarios on the table. Everyone is a loser. 

Hiking

My time in Greece continues to remain uncertain. I’ve been taking this experience one month at a time and continue to find myself standing firm on Leros. I don’t know what is ahead for me, but I remain open to the idea of moving around. I’m also open to continuing to hang out in Greece. Leros is plentiful when it comes to hiking and, when I have time, I’ve been able to get out more and venture around. I’m back to my old habits of jumping over goat fences scrambling up rocks on the tops of mountains and in random farm fields. Even though the island is so small, I always seem to be able to find different angles to look at it from when I reach new peaks. Two weeks ago, I found a pristine private beach. The next week, I hiked down to see if it was just as glorious close up as it was from far away. It was. The water was still far too cold to swim in, but the beach was unreal. There’s always more to see.

So, I’ll just be teaching for the next few weeks and will see what happens from there. 

Easter

Greece has more holidays than any other country I’ve ever spent significant time in. It seems like every month is peppered with extra days to skip work. I don’t really like this. The holidays don’t mean anything to me, there’s no emotions or sentimentality attached to any of them. They’re just random days off that throw off the school schedule and leave me trying to find something meaningful to do when I’d rather be teaching. Easter was corky this year too, just like all of the other holidays. The Greeks celebrate Orthodox Easter, so it occurs one week later than “other” Easter. There’s a reason for this, I just never looked into why because I didn’t care enough to. But here we are at the end of the month and Easter Monday was yesterday, right at the very end of the month. The ferry is packed full of people, understandably. I think a lot of Greeks are from Athens and work on the islands, so they’re all headed back to work now. Even though it’s the middle of the night, there’s a rowdy energy in the air and this ship is ridiculously full of people. I’ll have to awkwardly plop my head down on my backpack in an attempt to sleep for an hour or two at some point. This is the overnight ferry ride to Leros after all though, so I won’t expect any magic. The ship will leave the port at midnight and arrive in Leros at nine in the morning, just in time for me to disembark and head right to school where I’ll teach three classes in a row. I’ll sleep again at some point. 

On a larger scale, things in the refugee world got off to an interesting start this month. There was a march planned by many of the refugees on mainland Greece, specifically in Thessoliniki. A plan was hatched to march on the borders of Macedonia and Albania to the north of Greece. The idea being that if enough refugees went to the borders and demanded to be let through, the police and border guards would have to comply. This idea spread like wildfire and was very public, all over social media. Many of the refugees I work with on the island kept trying to sneak onto the ferry and escape to the mainland so they could join the march. The number of police guarding the port during the first week of the month increased significantly. The march ended up happening as planned, but I don’t think as many people as the group was hoping ended up showing up. Some teargas was used, as expected, but things fizzled out and police even brought buses to bring the refugees back to their respective camps. The whole idea of the march was hatched out of frustration for the slow asylum process in Greece (and the European Union in general).

 

Maybe I’ll turn 30 someday, too.

That will do it for the month of April. Thanks for taking the time to read through this brief description of some of the little things happening  in this corner of the world.

All the best,

Matthew

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Who’s Pregnant?

Once in a while, when new arrivals have come to the island, we’ll get a call from the Hotspot asking us to transfer some of them from the Hotspot to private accommodations within town. This is usually something reserved for women, children, and vulnerable people. In an effort to keep them safe, when they arrive on the island, they register at the Hotspot, but then they are moved to other buildings in town. One large building, in particular, is where most of the women and children stay. 

Since I’m usually teaching, I rarely have to make any of these sporadic drives to transfer people, but last week I was asked to go and pickup a group of women who had just arrived from Congo. There were a couple of things that struck me about this unique situation I found myself in. As I brought the van around to the Hotspot and parked it on the side of the road, a police officer actually greeted me and treated me kindly for the first time that I can remember. It must be because he knew I was doing him a favor. The other thing that was curious, was when I stepped out of the van and opened the trunk to prepare for any extra luggage, the women came out of the Hotspot speaking French and a surprising amount of my high school French instantly came back to me. Enough so, in fact, that I had to alert them rather quickly that I didn’t understand much French, as they started to speak very quickly and elaborately to me. I helped them with some of their possessions. There were 6 of them in total, 5 women and one young girl. I was alarmed at how heavy each of their packs were. One in particular didn’t make any sense to me at all. How could one individual carry something as heavy as this!? 

Unlike with many of the female refugees from the Middle East, these Congolese women were chatter boxes the entire drive from the Hotspot back into Lakki. I’m not sure what they were talking about, obviously, but I felt like I could pick up some hints of relief in their voices. I could only imagine that their journeys must have been long given the location of their country in Africa. As I drove, I hoped they knew that they were just being briefly moved to new housing. Sometimes the communication is poor, and I didn’t want them thinking they were in for a long ride in this van with me.

As we pulled up to their new housing, I helped them out of the van and up the steps of the building. I took one of the bags and slung it over my shoulder and took a second bag in my hands. As we moved up the steps and into the building, we had to stop as the woman in charge sorted which women were suppose to go where. After just ten seconds, the weight of the bag on my shoulder was so painful that I had to put the second strap over my second shoulder. The employees of the building kept asking me if any of the women were pregnant. I just kept shrugging. I hadn’t been given that information and I wasn’t about to start asking complete strangers if they were pregnant or not.

When everyone was sorted, I escorted the one woman we found out was pregnant down a long hall and into a large concrete room with multiple bunk beds. I dropped the bag down on the bed for her, both my shoulders now in excruciating pain. I bid her farewell and exited the room and building, heading back to the Hub to resume my usual daily duties. The literal weight of that backpack stayed on my mind for the next few minutes. That small, pregnant woman from Congo was resilient and strong and courageous and a whole bunch of other adjectives I wish I could outwardly see more of in myself. Another friendly reminder that refugees come from all different walks of life and are all different types of people.

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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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