Stark Contrast

Last month, I was having dinner at a friend’s house and was given a chilling reminder about where I am in the world.

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the confusion that exists within me due to the stark contrast between the beauty of the island I live on and the disturbing politics that play out before my eyes in the form of how refugees and asylum seekers are treated.

My friend invited an intimate group of people over to his home for the evening. I’ve been to his house a handful of times before and am always impressed with the vegetarian spreads that he and his wife put together. On this particular evening, there was a vegan among us, so most of the food was even accommodating of him, which is preferred for me anyway. Delicious vegan food is not readily accessible on Leros, so I felt like I was really being treated. There was a pasta dish, homemade bread, a variety of dips including humus, a couscous dish, and both a Greek salad and a legume salad. This was my first time being at their home during the summer months. While the place is cozy in the winter, because it’s summer, we were able to spend the evening on their terrace which overlooks the castle that sits on the hill in the next town over and the outline of lights on the horizon, the lights of Turkey, less than 15 miles away.

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Dinner commenced, we ate, they drank, I got some wine poured on my lap, I stubbed my toe to the point of bleeding. Overall, there were just little atrocities happening among the conversations about the Hub and the refugees and the situation in general on Leros. It was an evening among like-minded people, so the conversation was smart and positive. Then, in the middle of our posh meal, our spoiled glasses of coke and white wine, our view, my friend called out into the night and tossed his pointer finger into the air, indicating the horizon, “THAT’S A FLARE!”

We all turned to see what he was pointing at. Sure enough, a glowing red light was slinking its way down the night sky, vanishing after a few moments. I couldn’t stop staring at the darkness. I know that, often, a second flare can follow a first.

The contrast kills me. Here I was, enjoying a rather exclusive dinner, and then a flare sails across the sky. Farmakanisi, a small Greek island half the distance to Turkey from where I live, is the island that all of the refugee boats aim for if they want to end up on Leros and live in the camp that we have here. The flare was being shot up by a boat that was just arriving on that island and making their presence known. There’s nothing on that island. It’s just a rock in the middle of the sea. The people would likely have to wait until morning before any help arrived for them. I looked down at the glass in my hand and thought about what was going on just a few miles away, what that flare meant. It signified so much. It was simultaneously a cry for help and an invitation for celebration. The people landing on Farmakanisi had officially made it to Europe. They wouldn’t be caught by the Turkish Coast guard and returned to that unsafe country and thrown in jail. They clearly were not through their long endeavor, but they had successfully made it through one of the most difficult processes, especially since they likely paid thousands of dollars to a smuggler just to get them in the boat.

The cry for help though, the second part of what the flare meant, is what gets me. Here I was on a veranda, looking at the view, and just through the darkness, there were people crawling out of a tiny non-seaworthy vessel onto the wet rocks of this small chunk of land that just happens to be claimed by Greece, that just happens to be called “Europe”.

Sure enough, there were 33 new arrivals at the camp the next morning.

What is wrong with the world?

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 7 – “It’s ‘Mad Max’ Out There”

Today, on the sea, we learned how to recover people who are stranded on rocks and areas of land beside the sea. After my low day yesterday, I wasn’t looking forward in the least to getting back on the boat this morning, but I rebounded a little bit and was able to get my head back in the game more today. Rescuing people at sea is kind of the whole point of this course. The migrant crisis in the Aegean and the crisis in the Southern Mediterranean have fueled this course into existence. Unfortunately, rescuing people at sea is not easy, so there are many maneuvers to be taught. Trying to pick someone up who is stranded on a rock in the sea, which apparently happens a lot near the island of Lesvos when the refugee boats run aground, the rescue boat needs to be anchored to the bottom of the sea and then slowly letting out line while reversing up to the stranded casualties on the rocks. The conditions in the water today were not the best, with decent sized waves crashing ashore as I tried to navigate the boat, so each time a wave came, I’d have to coast on it and then rev the engine again, all while continuing to move backward toward the stranded casualty. I don’t think I was great at this particular scenario of the course, but I didn’t totally fail at it either. Doing anything with ropes and anchors isn’t fun in a boat, I’ve decided.

While on the water, we also practiced our landings about ten different times. This is how you get the boat to the shore, disembark the crew, and get the vessel safely onto a trolley and up the slipway without any huge issue. Each of the people in our boat practiced this twice, so we did it a total of eight times. Landing requires coming into the slipway very fast, quickly killing the engine, and then everyone jumping out of the boat all in one motion while hanging onto its sides and directing it onto the trolley waiting on standby. It’s all one giant motion, and quite annoying after ten different tries. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to write about what it’s like to actually get into these boats. The sea often isn’t cooperating, so the waves have the boats bobbing wildly in front of us, and when the Helm (driver) yells “crew in!”, we have to get ourselves into the boat, which usually involves jumping as high as you can, throwing yourself forward, and clinging to anything you can find while heaving yourself in. It’s fun, but doing it ten times in a row is exhausting, not to mention that there really is no dignified way to go about it. We all flop around like fish getting yanked in from the sea with nets. It’s not pretty.

In the afternoon, I was so relieved to be done with the sea for the day. I felt like I still needed some time to fully get my head back in the game. Unfortunately, once we were out of our stinky wetsuits, we had only an hour for lunch before having to return and slip them back on again as our afternoon session began with “Sea Survival Training” in the pool.

I’m not sure how much I maintained about how to survive at sea other than that your life jacket is your friend, keep the survival kit with you, and read all of the directions. We were trained as if we were on a boat that was sinking and we had all the necessary means to survive on the sinking boat with us. In the pool was an inflatable raft with a roof, so it looked like a tent. Even in a pool, it was most unpleasant to sit in this tent as there was no air circulation and the bobbing of the water was a bit much.

The afternoon involved a lot of bobbing around in the pool and jumping onto floating objects. For the most part, it was really fun, but still the water was too cold, so it wasn’t something anyone wanted to be a part of for hours and hours. I continue to be amazed at how wholistic this course is. We’ve just had classes and briefings on so many different things.

One of the instructors said, “It’s ‘Mad Max’ out there”, in reference to being on the seas. This isn’t a comment made because of the rough waters. It’s a comment made because of people. Laws are literally changing these days to work against migrants who are risking their lives at sea on non-seaworthy vessels in attempts at new lives, futures. The fact of the matter is, if you put out a distress call, depending on who you are and who the people near by are, you may not be rescued. And that is 2019.

When the classes were finished and dinner was done, some of the instructors volunteered an hour of their evening to review some casualty care scenarios with us on the castle lawn. I did not feel the need to do anymore reviewing, but I went to the lawn nevertheless, just to get a little more individual attention and to prove to myself and the instructors that I was committed. The evening turned into a grand, goofy time as my classmates and I got to switch back and forth playing the patients and the first responders. It’s amazing how quickly people can bond, get to know one another, and execute new tasks.

We will be assessed tomorrow. First thing in the morning, I’ll be dropped into a scenario like I have been over the last week, and I’ll be graded on everything I do. 60% is a passing grade. I’m not too worried.

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 8 – “We Take Beginners and We Make Them Do the Most Difficult Things at Sea”

Things were thrown into perspective a bit more for me out on the sea this afternoon when one of the instructors told me that the maneuver we were about to do is one of the most difficult things you can do at sea. And here we are, a whole lot of beginners, who’ve just garnered an understanding of the water.

Today’s maneuver was transferring people from one boat to another while both boats were still in motion. This involved the first boat maintaining a course and a constant speed while the second boat comes up beside it, matches its speed, and then cuts over into the other boat, literally making contact with it and then turning slightly into it in order to create friction between the two boats. It’s incredibly insane to think about now that its over, but this afternoon, we did this over and over again, ramming our boat into another moving boat and creating the opportunity for people to move from one boat to the other. Even in the crashing waves and even at high speeds, we were able to figure this out.

Before getting on the water, we also learned how to do a couple of different search patterns. If someone is lost at sea, there are multiple different ways to search for them in order to expand your chances of finding the needle in the haystack. Unfortunately, having to focus so much on our first task of transferring people from one boat to another, we didn’t get to do any search patterns, so I’ve promptly forgotten them all, having not had the chance to cement them in my brain by seeing them demonstrated.

This morning, the day began by being tested on our casualty care response. I was the first participant to go, quickly volunteering in an effort to just get it over with.I did okay, but not as well as I would have liked. Oh well, I’m not worried. We then had a brief one-hour session on boat repair and learned how to patch a whole with fiberglass in the bottom of a boat. I wasn’t super interested in this as I don’t see how this will benefit my existence in the years ahead, but you never know. How did I get here? What am I learning!?

Unlike a couple of other nights this week, we did not have the evening off today. In fact, the evening was very much ON as we were called to a stretcher presentation and ended up doing relay races with our teammates strapped into the stretchers. Terrifying and fun. My group finished last in all three challenges we did. This is about how well I feel I’ve been doing over all. (Joking).

I’m so glad this course is wrapping up, but so grateful for all that it has offered me.

 

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 6 – “That’s Show Business”

Navigation and Engine Repair. Two things I know nothing about; two things that instructors tried to teach me about today.

How is one suppose to develop any sort of grasp for how a boat engine works or how to navigate the worlds waters in an hour and a half? I think the answer is that they cannot; however, introducing ideas to us is the basic idea here, I think.

Our instructors here are brilliant. They’re volunteers and they’re passionate, but they teach like professionals and they recognize that everyone has different levels of understanding of all of this stuff. I did my best to keep myself focused on what was being taught, but these particular subject areas are not fortes of mine and I walked away only having learned that I have more to learn.

In the afternoon, my group was back on the water for our fourth session of seagoing. This proved to be my lowest day so far. I just really wasn’t “feeling” getting back into the boat. Prior to launch, some of the instructors showed us on land how to tow disabled boats at sea. This is something we may actually encounter when trying to assist refugees–disabled boats. The demonstration on the land was fine, but once we were on the water it was quite confusing. There are so many different places you have to tie ropes to. Some places need to hold tension and other places simply need to direct the boat.

During our actual execution process on the water, the “disabled boat” needs to be tied to the rescue boat. This requires the rescue boat to hover near the other boat for a long time while the ropes are getting sorted and passed from one boat to the other and then back again. While idling, the engine fumes really engulfed the surrounding air and the waves kept coming in hard. Each time the boat bobbed and each time I took in a breath, I felt a bit queasy, making it much more difficult to focus on the task at hand.

By the time it was all said and done, I was so relieved to be getting onto dry land and for the session to just be over. I really feel like I fell out of the rhythm this afternoon.

For our evening lecture, a lawyer from Bristol came to present “Seeking Asylum in the UK” to us. A fascinating talk with plenty of time for questions. It’s nice to have more information about where the people we would be plucking out of the waters would actually be going and experiencing once they’re on dry land in Europe.

My biggest takeaway is that the United Kingdom seems to be about as messed up as the rest of Europe. They don’t want to help the asylum seekers. In fact, they try to discourage and deter them.

 

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 5 – “Two Weeks of Actual Humanity”

I come here for two weeks of sanity every year to be around like-minded people, to be around actual people with empathy. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make every year, coming here.

Day 5 has wrapped and I’m happy to say I’ve officially cleared the halfway mark of this course!

The intensity continues, but we have the evening off from lecture, so we only had to be “on” from 8:45 until 5:00 today. This is why I now find myself sitting in the evening glow of this early Welsh summer day instead of trying to pound out an update in my bed before directly falling asleep.

I was sea-going this morning at 8:45 once again and, unlike the last two days, the sea was really calm this morning. Of the six boats, there were only five instructors so, once again, my little team of two was overlooked and not assigned an instructor by accident for our daily morning check-in. I’m trying not to take it personally. After that was sorted, my partner and I prepped the boat, making sure we had all of the essential equipment we would be needing was strapped down to the hull and gave the engine a practice try. We then lowered all of the boats to the sea as we do each day and were off for another morning of boating on the Bristol Channel.

Today, we learned how to rescue a “man overboard”, how to direct the boat in reverse, how to idle next to another boat in an effort to gain information, and how to do figure-eight patterns. When it comes to maneuvering the boats, I feel like I’ve got a decent handle on it. I’m not bad at getting the boat to specific spots quickly, and I’m pretty decent at scooping people up when they fall overboard. Trying to make the boat go in reverse proved to be the most difficult task of the day for me, but I’ll keep working on it.

Each day, as all of these other misfits and I slip into our wetsuits and throw on our bright yellow helmets and vests, I can’t help but think ahead to what doors these two weeks here may open for us and what they will actually bring forth in our lives. We’re doing practice scenarios for rescuing people in distress at sea. This means that, indeed, we may one day actually have to save drowning people from the water. At the very least, we’ll be trained to do so.

Even after nearly a week of being here, I still find myself uneasy. Floating out on the Channel, glancing around at the other five boats speeding around in the waves, I feel out of place. This isn’t my comfort zone, and my body is consistently reminding me of that with this odd feeling in my gut that won’t go away until l’m off of this campus. That being said, how long can one last outside of their comfort zone? How much discomfort is too much? These are important questions to consider before people should be thrown into refugee camps for undetermined lengths of time.

This afternoon, we had two short sessions. The first focused on how to use a radio, which was self explanatory and boring, as the instructor pointed out himself. The gist is, you say as little as you can when you have to talk on the radio and really, you should not talk on the radio unless you absolutely have to. The second session was focused on using Psychological First Aid, meaning how you interact with people initially who are experiencing or have experienced a traumatic situation. The session lasted a bit over an hour but could probably have been taught for ten or twenty. There is always so much to cover when it comes to mental health. For the most part though, refugees receive NO psychological assistance throughout their tumultuous journeys, and neither do the volunteers who come over to do this difficult work.

Halfway through. Still in the game.

Although operating on a ridiculously full schedule, my heart is still back on Leros. I’m mentally checked-in here, but my heart is on that island. It’s been a really sad realization knowing that my time there will end, and all the ooey gooey-ness I’m feeling in my heart for the place right now while away from it will increase ten-fold when I actually leave for good. Tough to think about, but it’s a familiar story for me at this point, one I’ve both heard and told before.

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 4 – “Worth it for One”

This morning, I participated in yet another round of casualty scenarios with a few other members of my team. This time around, I got to play a man having a stroke and assist keeping a girl in epileptic shock stable until help arrived. I’m slowly growing more confident in my ability to identify what is wrong with pretend patients and then follow protocol for helping them and keeping them safe. I love how this stuff is just getting drilled into our brains each day.

One of the best parts of these trainings is that they take place outside. Right now, Europe is bracing for a heatwave, but things here in Wales are sunny, blue skies, and maybe 75 degrees with a nice wind off of the Bristol Channel. I’m loving this UK summer! That being said, when the afternoon rolled around and it was time to have another session out on the sea, the winds were too rough, so we didn’t launch the boats. However, the instructors were keen on getting us used to rough seas, so they had us swim off of the slipway into the open water and then circle up as a group and all float together with the current. I thought it was kind of fun, but the initial impact of getting smacked with frigid Welsh waves is really jarring. Even with a wetsuit on, this water is cold!

Being one of only two Americans in this group, once in a while I’ll miss something one of the instructors or other participants is saying because of their accents mixed with the volume of the sea or some other natural noise occurrence. I missed the instruction to swim out to sea, so I was caught off guard as everyone started jumping into the waves. That being said, even with a slow start, I still kept up with most of the group. This is a bit of a goal of mine as well. Whether it’s in the sea or on the land doing casualty care, I just want to make sure I remain with the majority for my time here. I refuse to fall behind or become one of the people running in the back of the pack.

After our dip in the sea, we took a lifeboat into the outdoor pool on campus and practiced capsizing drills. What would happen if your boat flipped and you were suddenly bobbing alone in the sea? Once again, we were split into groups of three but my group only had two. We were the leftovers again. I’m starting to find this comical. Unfortunately, my partner was very nervous about this particular scenario, so, as we fell off of the boat and had to fight to climb onto it’s flipped hull, her nerves were getting the best of her. I helped pull her up and then, together, we flipped our boat back over by falling backward into the pool while using a rope to yank the boat back over with our momentum. It was a bit unnerving given the heightened emotions in the water, but we got through it. None of these exercises are easy.

This evening, we had a lecture about the history of Atlantic Pacific and where it hopes to go in the future as an organization, including some plans it has in place. Fascinating stuff, and an wonderful to hear about how this organization came into being and where it plans to go. I’m honored to have been selected to be a part of it.

Earlier today, we also had a talk about Sea Watch, an NGO that operates in the Mediterranean doing search and rescue missions with planes and ships. That is a whole different, sad tale though.

Still not getting enough sleep each day. Grateful for coffee at this point.

Peace.

Fun fact: Atlantic Pacific initially set out with the goal of saving one life. There slogan was, “worth it for one”, meaning that if all of their trainings and efforts resulted in one life saved, it’d be worth it. To date, five years on, their estimates are that their trained crew have saved thousands of lives.

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 3 – “The Deep End”

“We’re gonna throw you in the deep end,” said one of the instuctures yesterday in reference to what we would be doing today.

Today was likely one of the more anticipated days for the majority of the people here taking this course. It was our first day “seagoing”, the first time we got into the boats and got into the water. Prior to this, it’s all been medical stuff.

Directly after breakfast this morning, the team was divided into four groups and two of the groups were sent to the water first. We suited up into our wetsuits and helmets, and then were introduced to the many different lifeboats that exist at this school for training purposes. We were divided up into the boats. Each boat had three students, except for mine. I thought I drew the short end of the stick by only having two people in my boat, but it turns out I’ll just get more individual attention, so it’ll work in my favor over the course of the week.

My partner and I both have zero experience with rescuing people at sea. In fact, neither of us really have boat experience. She’s been on sailboats before, but nothing with a motor. As we were told about the boat we were about to be cruising across the open sea in, I did my best to, once again, have my brain on hyper drive. I just didn’t want to miss anything about what was going on in front of me. I paid very close attention. One by one, we brought the boats down the long slipway as a team, lowering them slowly on tethered ropes. When we reached the sea, we guided the boats into the waves and fought our ways onto the vessels when prompted by the instructor. The next thing we knew, we were off, crashing our way through the notoriously choppy Welsh waters.

As we picked up speed, and I found myself clinging to the ropes on the boat, unaware of how stable my seating was, I just thought, “screw you, comfort zone.”

I’ll be seagoing each day for the next week, so I’ll do my best to write in more detail at a later point about what it’s like to be on the water. I did get a chance to drive the boat today though, which was cool.

After lunch, my group and I had a three hour session on tying knots and throwing ropes and line and then did yet another scenario with Casualty Care. I was in the role of “first arrival” on the scene and had to patch up someone’s head. The instructors said I did better than anyone else in the same scenario for the day. I found this rather unbelievable, but maybe I’m retaining some information!

After dinner, we were given two lectures. The first was about the disastrous situation in the Southern Mediterranean Sea and all of the people dying there due to horrendous European Union bureaucracy, and the second was about recognizing the signs of and coping with PTSD. It was a long day, but I’m so grateful for all of this information being thrown at me.

To bed.

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