News From the Refugee Trail: May Edition

With May coming to a close, I’ve now wrapped up my seventh month on the island of Leros. The experience continues to be an adventure, and as each month is added to
“the books”, I’m reminded of how the experience is constantly changing based on the length of time that I’ve been here.

As of this writing, there are volunteers that have been here for 9 months, 7 months, 4 months, one month, two weeks, and one day. We’re a raggedy bunch of humans that have thrown the rule book of life out, be it for a year or just a few weeks. Each of us is having our own individual experience, and each of us is learning different pieces of what it means to be a volunteer with refugees on a Greek island off the coast of Turkey.

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Teaching

I hopelessly get sucked into the idea of time each time I write one of these updates because it means another 30 days has gone by and it’s time to recap everything that has been happening in my life. This past month has brought a small amount of clarity about what my future is looking like. The entire time I’ve been on this island, I’ve been uncertain of my departure date. My goal has simply been to remain a consistent presence in the classroom for my students. I think I’ve done that at this point, and now, my focus has turned more toward figuring out how to maintain what I’ve put into place. Who can take over for me? 

I’ve really enjoyed being a consistent presence in the classroom because I’ve gotten to experience watching my students progress, and in some cases consistently progress, in their language skills. I’ve had some students go from not knowing how to write the letters to being able to complete and read full sentences with complete understanding. It’s honestly just fun to be a part of, and so rewarding.

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At the end of the month, for the second time since January, I moved the majority of the students in my classes up a level. This is no easy task because it requires everyone recognizing that they’ve completed their current course and they need to move to the next class, which begins at a different time of the day, but after a little bit of struggling, everything eventually settles. A lot of students resist because they’re not confident in their English abilities to move to a higher level, but even these students end of getting sorted eventually. The hunch that the other teachers and I have had is that when students feel comfortable in certain classes, they don’t want to move on to another class, even if it’s for their benefit because having mastered a class level gives them comfort and consistency in a way that is significantly lacking in other areas of their lives.

A  new volunteer will be arriving in early August who has plenty of teaching experience and will remain in Leros for five months. At this point, she seems like she perfectly fits the bill for someone to hand over all of these past months of work to. My main fear has been leaving and no one being able to pick up where I’ve left off, so I’m excited for the prospect of passing things on to her.

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Numbers

As I’ve written about in previous posts, the number of refugees on the island remains alarmingly high, with more than 1200 people occupying the Hotspot camp and other local accommodations. I keep reminding myself that working at the Hub is providing a fraction of these people the chance to decompress from the stress of the camp each day. Even if they just come for one class, they have the option of thinking about something other than their asylum cases for a small amount of time. I’ll be curious to see what happens as the summer progresses and the weather remains nice, making it easier for boats to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey.

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Ramadan

The month of May was dominated widely by the month-long holiday of Ramadan, in which practicing Muslims are required to fast from sun up until sun down each day. This changed the tone in our school drastically as a number of students stopped attending classes in order to conserve their energy and another large group of students still attended classes but with much less enthusiasm. So many of them had glazed looks over their faces by the time I was a few minutes into the lessons. A couple even put their heads down on the tables in total surrender. No problem on my end, I’m just fascinated to be around such disciplined people. As a teacher, I did my best to be respectful of the fasting. I made sure never to eat around my students, but on more than one occasion, I would slip out of the classroom to take a sip of water out of sight of their eyes.

I admire all of them for staying so committed to their religion, especially since they’re outside of their home countries. Ramadan is celebrated in an effort to purify the body and increase God consciousness. This is done through complete abstention of food, drink, smoking, sex, and any other “sinful” acts that may distract from the rewards of fasting. I admire my students very much each day, but especially this past month.

I’m looking forward to things going back to normal in June, however. I prefer to drink my coffee whenever I please and to not have to turn my back as to not make people uncomfortable as I sip.

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Sea and Mountains

Summer is in full swing at this point. I’m afraid the temperature on the island will only continue to rise, but for now the season is downright lovely. The air isn’t too hot and the sun seems to just about always be shining. The temperature of the sea is now completely perfect as well. I’ve found myself on many occasions making my way to the beaches of Leros. Sometimes this happens after a long hike, making the cool water my reward, and sometimes I lazily get myself to the closest beach just for the fun of it.

As time progresses, I think I’m in for a relatively hot summer, but for now, things are just about perfect here in paradise, at least in terms of the weather.

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Pride

Annnnnd finally, with the conclusion of May, Pride Month is about to begin. This is something I’ll be more quietly celebrating this year as there is hardly any opportunity to discuss being gay in the field of work I currently find myself in. It’s a little depressing to think about, but I know that my presence here matters one way or another. I’m sending all of my rainbow vibes into the universe this month, encouraging those individuals still searching for their voices to know that they are loved, recognized, and supported.

Until Next Time

This brings us to the end of another Refugee Trail Update. As of my next writing, I’ll be on a two week trip to the United Kingdom where I’ll be experiencing the country of Wales for the first time while taking a training at a University. I’ll be sure to give you the scoop in one month’s time, but I’m very much looking forward to stepping out of Greece for the first time since 2018 later this month.

For now, all the best,

Matthew

About mattylife

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