News From the Refugee Trail: September Edition

This issue of Refugee Trail is being written in early November, being pieced together by notes I made throughout the month of September and bits my brain remembers now that another month and a half have eclipsed the events of this edition. It’s an interesting place to start, however, talking about what it’s like to recap experiences every four weeks or so. When I lived in Guyana back in 2014/2015, at the end of each month, I faithfully dropped issues of “GuyaNEWS”, my monthly recaps of what I had been up to over the course of the previous month. It was something that I was really on top of, as I found it kind of fun to map out the goings on of my time in that country. But there’s something to be said about age, and having a clear timeline. When I moved to Guyana, I was five years younger than I am now and I knew that I would be living there for one year. With Greece, I had no idea how long I’d actually ride out my visa. For some reason, this made it increasingly harder to pump out blog entries, especially these giant ones where I pressure myself to think back over the entire month. Anyway, this is my excuse as to why this post isn’t seeing the light of day until mid-Nomember and I’m going out of my way to slap a back date on it, making it look as if it was published on time.

Here we go with September:


The opening crew and staff of the Hub Athens.

With August behind us, The Hub Athens was actually starting to come together a little bit. We had completed assembling a handful of rooms; the reception area and a lounge area came together first, making the place actually start to look like it may become something more than a dingy old building that hadn’t been used in years. Our date for opening was set, too, finally. After months of the date being moved later and later, a date was set once again and, this time, we stuck with it. On Thursday and Friday, September 5th and 6th, we opened our doors for registrations, with classes due to begin the following Monday.

Cue the circus.

On Wednesday, one day before we opened, I had to have surgery on my mouth. This wasn’t a huge deal, but it did leave me with stitches in the front of my mouth, gushing blood every time I moved too quickly, and holding an ice pack over my face whenever I wasn’t speaking. The “recovery” time, I was told, was suppose to be 24 hours, but I only had 18 hours at the conclusion of the surgery before I had to start giving multiple presentations to the students coming into our school for the first time. Nevertheless, I insisted on having the surgery and I pressed on.

Finally opening our doors was a relief. A few days beforehand, our order of new tables and chairs arrived and we were able to fill the classrooms to the brim with the items that turned the whole place from a tidy, clean looking haunted mansion, into a straight up school. The Hub manager and I were both relieved to see that we had not messed up the order, because, as it was up to us to place the order, the best thing we could do to estimate how many desks to get was to eyeball each classroom and use each other’s arm spans to measure the distances between desks. Basically, we were two adults in an empty room twirling around counting our body lengths as we went. Anyway, the desks and chairs arrived, they fit into the classrooms nicely, and all of a sudden our school was ready.

I have to say, even though it was only two weeks of setup, I desperately missed having actual students within the walls of a school. There’s something magically peaceful about overlooking a bunch of empty desks and chairs in a classroom. I’ve always appreciated an empty classroom, but the only reason it’s peaceful and something to be appreciated is because there needs to be people to occupy the seats at some point. So, I was more than ready to open our doors. An empty desk and chair signify so much hope to me, because so much can happen in a place of learning.

Registrations came and went on Thursday and Friday. We had no idea what to expect. We weren’t sure if we were just going to be ping-pong balls bouncing around inside of our great big empty school or if we’d be swamped with new arrivals and have people waiting in lines out the door. In the end, neither of those things happened. We just had a steady flow of people showing up, registering, and then sitting down to take their placement exams.

In Leros, back in January when we were flooded with new arrivals, we instituted a “Welcome Class” where students would register with the school and then sit down to learn about the school. One other teacher and I were in charge of this brief presentation in which we talked about the rules of the school, what was expected of our students, how our schedules worked, and how to go about properly using our vans. It was a simple yet effective idea that revolutionized how we took in new people at the Hub. Due to its success, we decided to do this same class at the Hub in Athens.

And so, for our opening two days, once our new students were registered, they’d gather in the classroom with me and I’d give them the lowdown about how our school works and what they could expect from us. I did about half a dozen of these presentations while recovery from surgery, icing my lip in between things I was saying to the new students. Unlike on Leros, I didn’t need a translator for most of the sessions because people were able to understand the English I was speaking, even if they couldn’t speak it themselves. I thought this was an interesting difference between the two locations. The only sense I could make of this was that, in general, people in Athens were probably more readily exposed to English and/or individuals on the mainland had more likely been in Greece longer, thus giving them the chance to pick up more language skills.

Looking back on it, I still can’t believe I managed to make it through those first two days, icing my lip in between giving out directions and trying to put on a happy face for our new students. The next week, as is not uncommon after surgery, I developed a relatively significant cold, which had me blowing my nose between every other sentence I was saying to my classes. On day one, in my first class, while trying to teach Arabic speakers the English alphabet, I felt sick enough to want to call off my first few classes. Of course, this didn’t happen, so I just pressed on and looked back comically on the first two weeks the school was open as the time that I had either an ice pack or a tissue smashed on my face every few minutes.

Weekends throughout September were an interesting thing for me. I felt permanently exhausted on every level, so I was always torn about what I should do. I kept up a very regular jogging routine, so even when it was already dark out and the park near our house was likely filled with all of the drug deals I should be avoiding, I would go out running. This, honestly, probably kept me more energized than anything else, but it made me sleep more restful, too. Physically, I was struggling with the lack of light in my bedroom. The space I occupied for my two months in Athens had one small window which was never in any direct sunlight, so I would often wake up and think that it was still the middle of the night. The way both the flat and the school were positioned, tucked in the depths of the city streets, I never felt like I was getting any vitamin D–probably because my skin was never getting any direct sunlight. I also couldn’t exactly put my finger on anything, but I think I was emotionally exhausted as well as I tried to navigate the emotions of leaving Leros behind and starting up another round of emotional work in Athens.

I was mentally tired, too, which was indicated by my general lack of desire to hop into the classroom each morning, despite still having a love for teaching once I was in the rhythm of the class. My general attitude toward two more months of teaching was a little more “blah” then the first nine months, but once I was back in the rhythm of things, once I saw that my being in my element was beneficial to my students, I liked where I was again.

With the conclusion of September, I found myself spiraling into October, my final month in Europe, for this stretch of time…


About mattylife

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