News From the Refugee Trail: February Edition

With February coming to a close a few days ago, it’s time for me to sum up everything that has been happening in the world of the refugee community here on the island of Leros, Greece. After a crazy start to 2019 in January, February began to settle a bit, but the aftershocks of January are still apparent.

For those of you who have been keeping up with my blog regularly, this recap will be more of a review than anything else. But I appreciate you taking the time to read about what I’ve been experiencing.

Camp Tension

If you, in fact, have been keeping tabs on my blog, you’ll know that we have not had any new arrivals on Leros in nearly a month. This means that no boats that have been illegally crossing from Turkey to Greece have ended up on Leros, they’ve all ended up on other islands. This is lucky since the camp here on Leros is at capacity, but it’s so puzzling to me as there has never been a period of time of this length this winter where we haven’t seen a boat. Something fishy is going on over in Turkey, I think.

Despite no new arrivals in some time, we still continue to deal with the ramifications of the camp being so full. There are plenty of “residents” attending school each day, which means that our days are never boring, but the tension in the camp remains critical. In the past few weeks, there have been two riots inside the camp, locals growing frustrated with the refugees, and multiple people attempting to kill themselves. I’m uncertain if these suicide attempts are to gain attention in an effort to speed up the asylum process or if the conditions in the camp are driving people to this extreme point. The other day, in a very public display, two men climbed to the top of a building that overlooks the Hotspot and threatened to jump to their death. This was done for the entirety of the camp to see, including children. One of the residents showed me footage of the event, in which hundreds of people were positioned below the two men on the building, watching, as if it were some kind of sporting event. In the end, no one died, but we volunteers are left reminded about the dire situation many of the people we work with are dealing with everyday.

Something New

I’m not the best at identifying when something is impacting me in a negative way. I’m really, really good at letting things roll off of my back; however, sometimes I wonder if there is residual emotional “stuff” that gets left behind that I forget to unpack later on. And so, in an effort to curb this potential threat to my emotional and mental health, I’ve started a sharing circle for the long-term volunteers here. There are currently 5 of us that have been serving on this island for 100 days or more, so I thought it’d be a nice idea to circle up and discuss whatever is impacting us on a day-to-day basis. I read an article recently on the immense stress aid workers are under in the world, and realized that much of what I was reading was relevant to the volunteer experience here on Leros. So, I thought I’d take an hour each week and offer a platform for everyone.

The group met yesterday for the first time and, while definitely a little awkward, by the end of the hour, there were plenty of feelings and experiences being shared. The plan will be to meet each week at the end of one of our workdays. There isn’t much more to share at this point, it’s just something new that happened this month. Honestly, I wish I didn’t have to lead the group, because I’d be much happier just being a participant; however, I’d rather have the whole thing happening under my leadership than not at all.

A Visit From Home

My mom swung by Greece for 8 days this month. She came over with a small squad of friends and visited Leros for 3 days before going to Athens for the remainder of her trip. I traveled to Athens with her for the first three days and did my best to play tour guide for the visiting group of Americans. It was so nice to see Leros through fresh eyes again as we tooled around the island. This place is equipped with so much history from World War 2, exotic plants, a unique culture, and endless stories. The grind I find myself in on a daily basis keeps me from noticing everything, so the new perspectives were nice.

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My best friend and my best mom, all in the same photo.

In my time away from the island, I also traveled north to the city of Ioannina to visit one of my friends who was a resident of the camp on Leros when I was here in early 2018. Now, he has asylum in Greece and he works as an interpreter at one of the camps in the north. I took a six-hour bus ride up the coast of Greece to see him. His city is a picturesque little place with cobblestone streets, positioned between snow-covered mountain peaks and a large lake. I could hardly believe I was in Greece for the three nights that I was with him.

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The mountains and waters of Ioannina, Greece, with some goofball in the foreground.

In short, it was so so nice to see him after more than a year away from him. Catching a glimpse of his life, knowing that he is doing okay is a relief for me. I’m amazed by his positivity. He is the perfect reminder of the resiliency of the human spirit. “No need to let life get you down, even if you’re a refugee”. At least, this is the vibe he gives off. There’s always something positive to focus on.

Teaching

Being in the classroom continues to be one of the great joys of this experience for me. It’s completely unconventional teaching, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. With three teachers in the building at the moment, I have an underwhelming schedule with just one class in the morning at 10 and one at noon. This leaves me plenty of time to prepare the lessons, have critical social time with my students and other Hub-goers, and to be scheduled on other volunteer related tasks, like driving the shuttles between the school and the camp.

Taking on the task of teaching has been as exciting as it was last time I was here. Initially, in January when the school reopened after the holidays, I had no interest in teaching the two lowest level English classes, affectionately titled “ABC” and “Beginners”. The two classes are consistently brushed off by volunteers and the focus falls on the higher level classes where students have a decent understanding of the language and are able to learn more quickly. Too often, the ABC and Beginner classes are passed from short-term volunteer to short-term volunteer, meaning that the ‘teacher’ for the classes is changing every few weeks, which gives the students no consistency.

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Teaching A2, an intermediate level English class. 

Another volunteer who has been here for a long time as well has similar teaching experience to me, which puts us in the unique position of being able to head a classroom more easily than your average Joe. The two of us had a discussion and decided to divide the lower-level classes. I’ve been teaching ABC consistently over the last eight weeks and she’s been teaching Beginners. Together, we’ve been able to focus heavily on the students who arrive on the island with little knowledge of the language. It’s been a real challenge, but I’m having fun. Everyday, I walk into the classroom with this rockstar attitude that, indeed, I am the best person for the job. It’s just something I tell myself to psych myself up for repeating the different sounds the letters make over and over and over and over and over again. But, if something sticks, even for just one person, they could be on their way to learning this language, and then, I can pass them on to the other teacher at the beginner level so she can run with them for a little while as well.

For now, our system is working. I’m so excited to see where the students are by the time I leave this island.

Other Volunteers

I’ve not put nearly enough effort into connecting with the volunteers who continue to rotate in and out of this island. It’s exhausting to have to get to know people time and time again just for them to leave after a few weeks, but in general, I wish I didn’t feel this way. The amount of time someone sticks around dictates nothing when it comes to what kind of a bond you can form. Nevertheless, I wish I was handling the situation differently. I continue to spend the majority of my time with people who I knew from my first stint here. I’m renting an apartment in Lakki, the main town on the island, and my best friend here lives across the hall from me. I’m also now just a five-minute walk away from the music cafe where my other best friend works. I find myself spending almost every evening there with him and whichever other local guys are around for the evening. Hanging with the same group of guys at the same establishment every evening feels a little bit like a 90’s sitcom, but I love it.

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The sun heading down one of the many hills of Leros.

Weather

I recall one year ago being on this island as the entire place burst into yellow bloom in late-February. This year is no different. With winter on it’s way out, the island is slowly beginning to warm and the amount of wind and rain storms has dramatically decreased since January. It’s a relief. Along with the improving weather, yellow wildflowers have sprung from the ground and, it seems, they’ll grow anywhere there’s just a small patch of dirt. Climbing to the top of even the smallest hill, you can see the sea of yellow everywhere. Pictures don’t do it justice, but here you go:

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Leros’ annual yellow flower take over.

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Bursting into yellow.

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Yellow bloom.

In just a short amount of time, the weather will be warm enough for swimming and Leros will become a tourist destination instead of just a rock protruding out of the Mediterranean with a few thousand Greeks on it. Even still, while the warmer weather is exciting to look forward to, winter here is nothing to wish away. It was 60 degrees and sunny today. I’m fine with it.

Hiking

One of my friends will be leaving Leros tomorrow after a three month stint here. He and I went on a long, rather epic hike around the island this afternoon and into the evening. Part of the hike entailed staying on trails, but other parts were more random and we found ourselves climbing over goat fences and meandering up the yellow flower hills. At the highest point in the hike, we ended up at a monastery, a fairly well known location on Leros, open everyday between 3 and 4. We had no interest in going inside, despite arriving there at exactly 3pm, so we sat outside of it and listened to the sounds of the waves down below. Having lived on this island for six months now in total, it was nice to find a new spot to sit, to soak up a new view.

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After the monastery, we headed down the north side of the island and walked through a few neighborhoods that I’ve never been to before and, likely, do not get visitors very often. The dogs and chickens of the neighborhood seemed very confused by our presence. I love the geography of Leros. With so many bays, the island seems to just unfold on it self in layers, so just as you think you’ve seen it all, there’s another outcropping of land that’s just asking to be explored. Today, I got a little more exploring of this place done.

Being that Saturday is the only day I have off each week, I love being able to get around and gulp in some fresh air during the day. This is critical for breaking up the emotionally draining weeks that otherwise would run directly into each other.

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Public Service Announcement 

This is your friendly reminder for the majority of readers of this blog, who happen to be from America, that in this country we are not given all of the facts when it comes to the Israel/Palestine “conflict”. I would advise all of you to dig around on the internet and educate yourselves about this endless conflict. Too often, as Americans, we’re taught that it is un-American to be anything other than fully supportive of Israel. But, the fact of the matter is, there are two sides to this story. And, being here among 80% Palestinian refugees, I’m hearing and seeing first hand the ramifications of what is happening in that area of the Middle East. We would all do better to stay informed about what is going on in the world, especially if an issue being thrown at us seems to be one-sided. If an issue does feel one-sided, it probably isn’t.

Until Next Time

And that’s all I have for you for February. I continue to feel fulfilled in the work that I’m doing here and feel so fortunate to be here among such incredible people from all walks of life from all over the world. Thank you for taking the time to read this edition and I’ll send another one your way in a month.

Best,

Matthew

 

About mattylife

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