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

About mattylife

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