News From the Refugee Trail: January Edition

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The Echo team just before Christmas. 

Greetings family and friends,

As many of you know, I’m back in the European Union, doing another jaunt of volunteering for the majority of 2019. I left New York at the very end of October and, after a quick stop over in Africa to see an old friend, have firmly planted my feet on the European continent. I spent the first three months of 2018 living and working on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea and I’ve returned to this same island to continue the work that I started last year.

Returning to Leros has been a completely different experience than the first time I was here. For the short stint I was able to spend here the first time around, I was volunteering at a community center and school for refugees of the Leros “Hotspot” refugee camp. At the time, there were 300 residents in this camp, from all over the middle east and Africa. My main duties while here were to teach English, drive a shuttle to move the refugees the two miles or so between the camp and our center, and assisting with clothing and hygiene product sorting and distributions. It was a thrilling and eye-opening experience, especially since I had been looking to become involved with work involving refugees for some time. I learned a lot from my time on the island in those three months, but the main takeaways were all human related. I met some extraordinary people who were both volunteers and refugees. The volunteer experience is so unique here, with people coming and going all the time, that I met people from more than 20 countries in the span of my time here the first time, from all over Europe, Africa, Asia, and even as far as Australia.

This time around, I’ve secured myself a longer visa and am able to remain in Europe for one whole year. I’ve already been here for two and a half months, which is so hard for me to wrap my head around, so it’s high time for me to send out an update, which is what this is! Things on Leros didn’t seem to have changed too much when I returned in November. Volunteers were still coming and going and residents of the Hotspot were still attending English classes and playing football when we offered them the time and places to do so. Things were stable. Once Christmas rolled around and we closed the community center for two weeks to do some renovations, we thought we were being given the unique opportunity to reset things and prepare our school to jump into the new year with a fresh start. We repainted the whole building, did some minor reconstruction on the reception area of the building, and did our best to rework the schedule of classes to optimize the classroom space and make sure the maximum number of students who could be attending English classes were, in fact, learning English.

When we reopened after two weeks, everything that we had planned to kick off the new year in a big way completely fell into a thousand pieces. From the end of December to the beginning of January, the number of new refugees arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey skyrocketed, causing the population of the camp to swell to more than 1200 refugees, 400 more than its capacity. When refugees make the decision to illegally enter the EU by crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands on small (often non-seaworthy) dingy boats, they aim for particular islands, because the island that they land on determines which camp they’ll be transferred to. Leros, the island I’m on, is “known” for being one of the better camps. Two of the reasons for this is that the camp isn’t overcrowded, people don’t have to live in tents, they live in small “isoboxes”, which are by no means nice, but at least come with heat and a roof. The other reason Leros is known for being good? The Hub, the school I work at. So, over Christmas, hundreds and hundreds of new refugees poured into Leros, filling the camp and disrupting the way things work around here.

A year ago, the populations of people I was working with were Syrian and Iraqi mostly. A few people were from Afghanistan, Iran and a sprinkling of different countries from Africa, too. This time around, 80% of the refugees are from Palestine, with more arriving in Greece everyday. Coming from the United States, my knowledge of Palestine is constantly muted by the media, but from the stories I’ve heard from the men filling the halls and rooms of our school, some serious reevaluation needs to be done.

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The Hub and the ever important vans.

On the Monday after Christmas break, our school was completely overrun with new arrivals, with more than five hundred people checking into our small building over the course of one day. To put this into perspective, normally 500 people check into our school over the course of one week. There were points in the day, between classes as everyone was moving about, that you literally could not move through the school without having to shoulder past people. Our cozy little community center had turned into a complete madhouse, with only nine volunteers trying desperately to keep everything in order as the day progressed.

At the end of the first week, nothing had gone according to plan and we watched as things only continued to deteriorate in terms of sustainability. More and more people poured into the school, creating chaos, mostly, and more and more refugees continued to arrive on the island, overwhelming the camp. After a week, for the first time in the three years that the school has existed, we stopped registering new students, alleviating the burden of taking on more people, which felt terrible, but necessary.

As I frequently have to visit the Hotspot camp for my work, I’ve watched the place deteriorate before my eyes with the added pressure of 400 extra people than the camp is supposed to be able to hold. Makeshift tents have been pitched within the fencing of the camp, taking away any of the free space that used to exist for kids to kick footballs around in, or for people to line up together to wait in line for their meals. The director of the camp recently announced that if another one or two boats arrives (which they will), then they will have no choice but to tell the new arrivals that there is no room for them in the camp and they will have to find their own accommodations. This, I can tell you, will be disastrous. Of the five Hotspots on the Greek Islands, two of them are already notorious for their deplorable and inhumane living conditions. Both the island of Lesvos and the island of Samos are overcrowded and have thousands of refugees living in tents or nowhere at all. In so many ways, the European Union is failing these groups of people. With the camp here in Leros now over capacity, telling new arrivals that there is no place for them will cause a growing amount of tension between the refugees and the locals on the islands. The people will have to start pitching tents and looking for other places to stay, which could easily amount to inhumane conditions which rival the other two islands which have articles written about them on a weekly basis about their despicable conditions.

But this is all still to come. A few more boats still need to arrive before the first refugees are rejected and told they have no place to sleep. In the mean time, classes at the Hub continue as usual. My random and scattered career in the field of Education now continues for a fourth year, this time teaching adults English as a second language. With so many people from different backgrounds on the island now, I’m able to offer all different levels of English, starting with simply teaching the alphabet, all the way up to writing essays and reading more in-depth texts. It’s been rewarding to be needed in a teaching capacity for the last few months as there haven’t been other volunteers with educational backgrounds. Just like when I was here in March, it’s so rewarding to teach adults. They show up wanting to learn, and I don’t have to fight them everyday to pay attention or to care about the material, they motivate themselves.

Day to Day

Each day on Leros feels like a week. It’s a peculiar place, this island, in the middle of the Aegean Sea. It’s as if everything within the confines of this small piece of land is “real life” and everything off of this piece of land is imaginary. With so many people coming here to volunteer, there is a constant stream of humans coming and going. This means that we often have to take people to the airport or to the port to see them off on a ferry in the evenings. As odd as it sounds, the moment they leave the island, it’s as if they never existed. It feels as if I’ve dreamed them up sometimes after they’ve been gone for just a day or two. For this odd reason, it’s easy to feel present here. It’s as if life slows down when you’re on this island.

Most mornings, depending on if the weather is cooperating or not, I pull my bones out of bed with the rising sun and walk to work, which takes about 50 minutes. I live on the far south end of the island and my work is located in Lakki, the main town on Leros which is centrally located next to Europe’s most strategically placed deep water port. The walk to work is on the single road that runs the length of the island, and I wind through both farm country and little groups of houses as I go. The island is usually bustling with life as people zip by on their scooters to get to work or to drop their kids off at school. There’s also always a plethora of wildlife about, with goat bells ringing in the distant hills and the occasional donkey or dog milling about. By the time I’m halfway to town, my route runs into the road that leads to Hotspot, so I’m often greeting refugee after refugee in the morning as I pass them on the side of the road.

When I make it into town, I stop at a small coffee shop that has my order memorized and then I usually make my way over to the school just as 9:00 is rolling around. We have a team meeting and then I proceed to teach English classes at 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, and 2:30. On days when an extra teacher is on hand, I often drive one of our vans to the Hotspot to pick refugees up and bring them to school. This is a terribly stressful part of the job though, so, at this point, I prefer not to do it. I can explain more about that later.

As simple as what we do at the Hub seems, there really is never much down time, and our workdays often stretch from 9am until 7 or 8 in the evening. This can get a little draining, but the work is always rewarding, which keeps me coming back. In my free time, I like to hangout at a local music cafe where one of my best friends on the island works. He and I often make fun of each other and play chess together when the place isn’t too busy, he also likes to talk my ear off about everything related to tennis since he’s a super fan and he’s never really had anyone to talk to tennis about before. I thought I was a tennis fan until I met him, now I realize some people are true tennis fans, I just find it entertaining. He and I were born two days apart and he found this so amusing that I think it sped up our friendship. He’s from Cyprus but lives here permanently with his wife and five-year-old son. His son is a pretty good friend of mine too..

I also like to spend my free time with my friend Basel, who was a refugee the last time I was here and has now been granted asylum in Greece and is an interpreter at the very camp he used to live at. He painted a number of pieces of artwork that I sold at my job this summer in New York, so the two of us were in consistent touch all summer as we coordinated his art show. It’s been so nice to be back in his presence and not have to speak with him via email and Facebook anymore.

To close out this message, I’m enjoying where I am in the world. It’s nice to wake up every morning and have a shot at making a difference. I’m not currently chasing the almighty dollar or digging into some rut in which I’m working to pay bills or student loans. Life is, actually, rather simple. I live on a magnificent Greek island that just happens to be shouldering some major responsibility right now, which I’m glad to be a part of.

Cheers, love,

Matty

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The Echo team in early January.

About mattylife

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