News From the Refugee Trail: June Edition

Here I am with my first chance to write about the month of June, already a week deep into the month of July. Looking back on it, June was yet another rollercoaster month over here in Europe on the refugee trail, but at this point, what else could you expect?

Summer is in full force now as I sit on the ferry from Athens to Leros and keep having to wipe the sweat off of my wrists in order to not drown my laptop in moisture. Greece is boasting a humid, ninety degree summer for the weeks ahead and, while tolerable, isn’t my favorite kind of weather. The temperature in the classrooms has been slowly climbing as well, and the volunteers and staff at the Hub have done our best to not use the air conditioning in the month of June. Energy is expensive for both the planet and the pocketbook, after all.

In terms of the students I’ve been teaching, many of them continue to make major progress in their levels of English, which makes me very proud. This isn’t even something I necessarily noticed on my own, but one of the teachers who used to teach at the Hub returned for a weekend and pointed out specific students who have clearly made progress. This was interesting for me to hear as the person who has stayed for so long and is no longer capable to recognizing how a student is progressing. I’m sure if I stepped away for a few months, I’d see the difference and the strides people are making. That being said, as always, I’m still having a ball being in the classroom.

Throughout the month, our number of attendees continued to steadily increase, resulting in the school having more than 1,100 check-ins for classes in any given week. Feeling overwhelmed once again, we opted to close registration for the school, not allowing any new students for an undetermined amount of time. We’ll have our first open registration again this coming Wednesday, after more than a month with our doors closed to new students. It’s sad and it sounds harsh to not allow new people to attend school, but the fact of the matter is, they would hear us telling them “NO, classes are full” more often than not, and they already hear the word “no” far too frequently for our liking. We figure those who are really dedicated to the idea of school and classes and learning and progressing will show up in full force as soon as we are open again.

Volunteers

The revolving door of volunteers has continued, with many of the “summer crew” showing up in the most recent weeks. This has meant that many of the people who have been on the island for significant lengths of time have been bowing out. For the most part, the turnover has been really nice, with fresh energy coming in and new ideas being brought into the Hub. Unfortunately, it also meant the conclusion of the work of two of the people who have been on this island the longest with me, here since before I arrived. They were coordinators of all of the volunteers and were total badasses for the project, reshaping so many pieces of the project that desperately needed a facelift. They were also my best volunteer friends on the island. It was difficult to say goodbye to them.

With summer now in full swing, and a new team in place, I feel like the old man on campus. This feeling won’t last long as I too will be moving on, but I’m acknowledging the feeling nonetheless. I was only with the new team for about a week before I took off for a pre-planned two week stint away from the island. I wasn’t taking a holiday though, which most people have been calling it.

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Atlantic Pacific

Initially, when I knew I was coming back to Europe for a whole year, my plan was to move around a lot. Other than that, the only other thing I knew that I wanted to do was attend a two week course in Wales, UK with an organization called Atlantic Pacific. This amazing organization provides “Lifeboats Where There Are None” to areas of the world at risk of flooding and hurricanes that may need to deploy maritime assistance at a moments notice. They currently have operations underway in Japan and Mozambique with their project called “Lifeboat in a Box” in which they literally send in a shipping container to a location, filled with a working rescue dingy and a work room to hold and prepare the craft. These containers are then placed in the at-risk areas where they can be easily accessed and used to assist with water related disasters. The locals are given trainings before hand about how to use them, kind of like volunteer firefighters and ambulance personnel.

Other than this, the organization also runs a “Summer School” once a year for two weeks where they teach people first-aid and how to launch and use lifeboats at sea to rescue people in distress. This is the course I attended for the last two weeks. I applied for a spot back in March and was accepted and have had the trip in the back of my mind ever since.

This is why I’m on the ferry right now, headed home to Leros after two weeks away. Like I said before, with the exit of our long-term coordinators on Leros, this wasn’t the optimal time for me to leave the island, but there was nothing I could do about the bad luck. This was something that I felt like I had to do, and I’ve had it in the back of my mind for almost an entire year.

I was able to write a blog post each day, though they were really lacking in detail, this gave me the chance to quickly debrief each day because otherwise, by the end of the week, it would have felt like one giant day, not an entire course. They can all be read at AutoPilotNoMore.com.

Basically, from the first day arriving in Wales, I knew that I was out of my element. The first thing I noticed was that there seemed to be more instructors than participants, which actually turned out to almost be true! The participants were all dressed in navy blue and the instructors were wearing blood red shirts—fitting since most of them were medical personnel. It eventually made sense why we had so many instructors. THey’re all volunteers, no one is paid to come to the school for the two weeks, so the organization doesn’t take a financial hit because of them. Also, all of the volunteers gave us, the participants, the chance to actually afford the course. This was evident by the low cost considering our accommodation and food was all provided for us right along side this intensive course. One of the other participants pointed out to me that for the cost of the course, you couldn’t even feed and house yourself for that in “the real world” and we were getting this intensive course along side of it! That made me feel better whenever I was struggling.

And, indeed, I struggled. When the group of 35 participants and 30+ instructors met on the first evening and everyone went around the room and introduced themselves, I really felt like I was out of place. So many people had already volunteered with rescue operations and far more than half of the group had experience on ambulances, but I knew this was something I could be walking into, so I was ready to put my head down and “play the game”. That ended up being what I had to do. The course was 11 intense days of CPR and first aid training, casualty care, boat launching and maintenance, search and rescue operations and scenarios, and multiple lectures. I had to keep my head down and focus the entire time, there was no opportunity for day dreaming or getting distracted. I knew that as soon as my eye came off of the ball, I’d fall out of line and wouldn’t be able to recover. So, I stayed focused. I challenged my brain to stay super-charged all day long and to remain a sponge. When a lot of the participants were up till 4 in the morning drinking, I’d go to bed by 10 or 11 in an effort to prepare for the next day. There was no room for distractions.

In the end, my strategy paid off as I passed the overall course as well as all three individual assessment. I also walked away with a handful of cool new friends. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to know everyone on an intimate level, but those I did were really interesting, quality people. Everyone has their heart in the right place when they do things like this course. One interesting piece to the whole endeavor was that I’ve grown so used to working with people who are on one side of this issue. I’m with the refugees after they’ve already arrived in Europe. But this whole crop of people in Wales are used to being there to actually rescue the people from the water and to get them to shore. They’re literally saving lives that would otherwise literally he lost at sea. Often people on the boats from Africa and Turkey are not recovered when their boats go down. This was a whole different breed of people, but with the same hearts. A number of them even had conversations with me about which end of the operation is more difficult. Interesting to think about it this way, is it more difficult to pull people from their watery graves or is it more difficult to help them integrate into a society that doesn’t want them? I’ve come to no conclusion on my end.

The course, while intense, was really wholistic. We would learn about CPR in the morning and then how to patch a boat in the afternoon and then in the evening listen to a lecture about PTSD in refugees. Or, we’d learn about how to treat a trauma wound before learning how to rescue someone stranded on a rock in the middle of water and then close out the day by learning about what it’s like to apply for asylum in the United Kingdom. There was so, so much packed into these 11 days, and then each moment that wasn’t already laid for us, we’d try to review some of the things we’d learned or get caught up in conversation about some of the things everyone has been doing over the past four years of the crisis. Every minute was a learning opportunity. In two different instances throughout the week, we were given two surprise scenarios in which we had to try to rescue casualties and perform first aid on them. There really was no time to rest because you never knew when something was going to jump out at you.

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The Future

Now, I’m on the ferry heading back to Leros after my two weeks stint in the UK. When Atlantic Pacific’s Summer School concluded, I went to London for two nights to visit some friends who used to volunteer with me on Leros. It just happened to be London Pride weekend, so we got a taste of the gay scene in London in the form of the pride parade. It was refreshing to be reminded of how some places in the world are not just accepting, but celebrating diversity. This, sadly, while Brexit continues to loom in a country not too far behind the United States in all its present day political complexities. From London, I returned to Athens, where I’ve just concluded a meeting with one of the founders of the Hub in Leros. I’m committing to a second project with the organization, heading to Athens in August to assist in the beginners of their English program. I’ll hang up my teacher hat on Leros and fly over to Athens and start all over again. I’m excited to remain involved and to begin a new adventure.

As I mentioned before, my time on Leros is now limited. I’ll only be returning to this island that has been home for so long for a single month more. I think this is just the right amount of time to say goodbye though. I won’t have to do too much reintegration. I can just jump back into the classroom and enjoy my students and the people I’ve grown to love in my time there. I’ll only have to be the senior volunteer for a little while longer, then I’ll be the newbie again, but this time in Athens.

So, I suppose, that’s the month of June. Too many students, too few coordinators, a two-week long course, and a plan for the future! Onwards and upwards…

About mattylife

"And no one is a stranger...for long."
This entry was posted in Greece, Refugee Trail, Spirit & Light, Western Europe. Bookmark the permalink.

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