“I didn’t expect to spend the day nursing a starfish.”

I’ve got a little catching up to do. A few weeks ago, I tried to put out a final post before taking two weeks off to work on a separate project here in Greece, but I didn’t manage to get my thoughts sorted in time, and so there have been an obvious lack of entries for this month.

Like every blogger before though, I’ll persist. Let’s just pick up from today instead of trying to recap all of the days that have already unfolded.

I’m checking in with you on the shortest day of the year. It appears to be a fitting time to try something new, like getting back into regular blog posts. The moon is full outside of my window as I write this and it’s illuminating the entire bay that exists directly off of my veranda. I have to keep stopping myself from walking out into the cool night air and gawking at the deep blue of the scenery. The goat bells are poetically ringing in the distant hills again too, for effect. I can’t believe I live here.

As of last night, the community center and school that I work at is officially closed for the holidays. For 16 days, our doors will be shut. This seems like a peculiar time to be on this island volunteering with our regular routine now completely dismantled, but I think it’s a good time to do some resetting. When I arrived a little over a month ago now, the team I was working with was huge, 14 people. Almost every one of those people has now boarded either a plane or a ferry and are now safely snug in their respective countries, home for the holidays. Two days ago, I took the final large group of volunteers to the port at 11pm where they boarded the ferry for Athens. Now, it’s just me and a handful of other people who are waiting out the holiday season here on Leros. There are a few new volunteers who are here short-term, who seem to have dropped by specifically for the holiday season. I’m not sure why, but it’s nice to have extra faces around.

For the next two weeks, there will still be plenty to do. This interim time will be used to prepare for some educational revamping at the center as well as some much needed cleaning and painting of the facility. We’re also offering a football camp for two weeks so that the residents of Hotspot have something to do for the two weeks that we’re closed. Very few of them will be celebrating the upcoming holiday as they come from muslim-majority countries.

Today, for the first day of break (and, it being a Saturday, our only regularly scheduled day off) one of the other volunteers and I walked to town for a coffee and then sat near the water’s edge in town and looked out over the harbor. We sat lazily in the sun for quite some time, catching up about all of the goings on around the refugee camp and the community center where we work. There always seems to be something to catch the other person up on as there are so many people doing so many different things throughout the entire day. Last night, there was even activity at two in the morning happening that I needed to be caught up on. There is truly never a dull moment on this island. Even if there were dull moments, they would be filled with the stories of all of the other moments that are, in fact, not dull.

Sitting in as public of a spot as we were by the water, there were dozens of residents from the Hotspot walking by us and waving as they went. It’s easy to feel popular when you work at one of the most welcoming places for refugees on the entire island. A few of them even ventured off of the road over to us to say hello and see what we were doing. One of them brought us a rock and placed it down in front of us, revealing that there was a medium-sized red starfish on it. With his limited English, he just said, “sea star” a few times and then walked away. We kind of glanced at each other, wondering if we should put the poor thing back into the sea or if the man would come back for it–we weren’t entirely convinced it wasn’t supposed to be his lunch.

And so, we kept talking and sitting in the sun, our legs hanging lazily over the edge of some rocks, dangling over the water. Every so often, one of us would unscrew the cap to our water bottle and we’d pour some water over our little sea friend. The irony of the two of us both being vegetarians wasn’t lost on us. We knew we had to keep the little guy alive.

As the day went on, we were alerted via our phones of more than fifty “new arrivals” that would be transported to Leros soon. Every time a boat of refugees illegally crosses the water from Turkey to a Farmakinisi (an uninhabited Greek island close to the Turkish coastline) they get out on the rocky island and call the police. The police then come to collect them and bring them to Leros, where they’ll stay at the Hotspot for an undetermined amount of time.

Despite being given the “heads up” that people were being transported to Leros, we had heard that the boat that usually picks up refugees was broken, so we weren’t sure how they’d be getting to Leros. My friend pointed out that she was relieved that it was a sunny day, because the boat had arrived to the island in the middle of the night, and since Farmakinisi isn’t habited, they would have been left exposed to the elements. Sure enough, after having sat long enough, a boat emerged at the opening of the port and we watched as it grew in size, coming closer to us. When it wasn’t too far off, we could make out the dozens of heads positioned along the front of the bow and along the stern. The Hellenic Coast Guard had collected the 53 people and had brought them into the Port of Lakki.

It’s one thing to work with refugees everyday, it’s another thing to literally watch them sail in from their insane escape-to-freedom-journeys which are essentially concluding as they land on the shores of Leros. From a distance, seeing them all silhouetted against the backdrop that is my current home, the stony hillsides and the Italian architecture of town, the boat looked like any other boat in the harbor, just gliding easily along the water toward one of the docks. When it got to shore, my friend and I walked over to where they docked. Since the area was all public space, we figured we wouldn’t get in trouble for being there.

By the time we were close enough to see what was happening, we saw that the people had been divided into two groups, families on one side and single men on the other side. They were all instructed to sit in rows on the ground, on the concrete. They looked like criminals, which I suppose, they technically are. Their crime? Entering Greece illegally. This is a moment where I have to take a step back and imagine myself from an outside perspective. What would a new born, a brand new human who hasn’t been instructed about the world yet, what would they think of this, committing a crime in an attempt to stay alive?

Police were surrounding the wet refugees, just casually standing around them, as they were waiting for a bus to arrive to pick the group up. I walked by casually with my friend. Everything about the situation has been integrated into normal life here on Leros. There were other people strolling by, cars passing. There were even other refugees walking by while pushing their babies in strollers. I’m not sure if walking by new-arrivals is re-traumatizing for those who live here or confusing for those who have just arrived.

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I caught some sun rays shining through the clouds, dropped against the neighboring island of Kalimnos one morning on my walk to work. 

That’s my little update for today. There truly is never a dull moment in this work that I’m doing. The thing that continually blows my mind about this whole experience is that things that should seem so abnormal, so mind-blowingly disturbing, roll right off of my back. I don’t think twice about refugees rolling in after a tumultuous journey out of war.

About mattylife

"And no one is a stranger...for long."
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