News From the Refugee Trail: October Edition

This issue of Refugee Trail is being written from the sweet comfort of the U.S. of A. I’ve been home for over two weeks now and it’s time to recap whatever the heck just happened over the month of October! We’ve just had our first snowfall, the first snow that I’ve seen since the “snow-pacolyse in January 2018, the last time I was not dodging the Northeast winter in Greece. I just got off of a video call with a number of my friends who are still stationed over in Leros, so I figured now was as good of a time as any to write.

To Close or Not to Close

October whizzed by like most of the other months in Greece did, but this time, I can see now that I wasn’t really viewing it as my last month. I was looking at it as a continuation of the months of August and September. Although I was always aware that my time in Greece would come to a close at the end of the month, and I was well aware of the date, it never felt like it was ending.

One of the most important things happening at the school in early October was the decision about whether or not to close the school to new registering students. We had been open for a month and, initially, thought this was an adequate amount of time for people to get themselves acquainted with the area of the city that we occupy and begin attending classes. Something that caught us off guard; however, was the large number of people that continued to come to the school each day, looking to begin classes.

If you’ll recall, initially, in August, I thought that I was going to be teaching the intermediate level English classes for the people who were juuuuust about ready to start taking the certification exams. September taught us very quickly that this wasn’t going to be doable at all, since most of the people walking through the door were looking for the very basics, the beginning language classes.

With the number of students looking to take Beginner English so high, I began teaching two beginner classes, allowing students the option of attending class at 10:30 or 11:30. Within a couple of weeks, both of these classes were full, but not overflowing. As October wore on, the number of students began to slowly decrease, which, based on what I’d seen in Leros and in Athens, was completely normal. By the time I was departing Greece, there were about 15 students in each class, for a total of 30 out of the 40 possible seats. The system was working well.

The perplexing nature of why people decide to stop coming to school never ceased to amaze me in all of my time with Echo. On the surface, you can’t help but think, “why would you stop coming to class if you don’t have anything else to do?” But, the reality is so much more than that. Athens presents different challenges than Leros, too. People are living city lives, with city problems. Given that they’re refugees, they’re also living “mainland” life, no longer confined to the Hotspots on the islands. The mainland gives them the option of waiting out the asylum procedure for years or making a run for it into Albania and through the Balkan route toward the rest of Europe. City life also presents more opportunities for work, different schooling options, and just a variety of challenges that don’t exist on slow, sparsely populated islands.

As a result of all of this, coupled with the overwhelming task of learning English in general, it was never unexpected to have students stop attending class. It never got easier though, and I always found myself questioning whether I had done something horribly wrong or failed to explain a grammar rule properly in the previous class to warrant the decline in attendees. That feeling of dread never went away throughout the year, “Oh crap, this must be my fault!” Of course, who’s to say that English wouldn’t chase them away no matter how it was presented to them?

We decided to close the school to new registrations in early October. When we did this, it was almost like all of the energy in the universe conspired against us, because new people kept showing up looking to register. The problem was, every time new people were entering the classes, the teacher either had to backtrack to help catch them up, or leave them to their over devices in hopes they’d be able to figure it out on their own. We closed the school out of respect for our regularly attending students.

As the month wore on, I continued to be tired. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I was tired, but there was something inside of me that was just really ready to be finished with the responsibility of teaching other people the English language. It had been 11 months at this point and nothing was going to change. I could exercise as much as I wanted to, sleep as much as I wanted to, and eat as healthy as I wanted to, and I was still just constantly worn down. This feeling would go away when I was in the classroom, which was a relief, but anything outside of the classroom–prepping for classes, answering emails, sorting out student issues–it was all driving my growing pattern of tiredness.

For Old Times Sake

As my time in Athens was nearing it’s end, I was doing my best to take in the city. This normally meant just getting around in the neighborhood and weaving my way through the old city streets, but it was also not uncommon for me to unexpectedly find myself on some random hill protruding out of the beige city, with an Acropolis view. I also did my best to snag as much time as possible with some of my friends who were (and still are) scattered around the city.

One evening, for example, my friend Basel and I wandered all the way from our neighborhood to the touristy part of town on foot. My perspective was somewhere between local and tourist. I was looking at the city from an impermanent point of view for the first time in a year. We bought expensive smoothies from a tourist spot and then weaved through the mid-October crowds. I could appreciate the aliveness of the city on a Saturday night. The contrast of what is going on between refugee and tourist in Greece is never lost on me, still. People come from all over the world to see the city of Athens, the ruins, the Acropolis, but they have no idea that, just a few streets over, people are experiencing the most tumultuous years of their lives, just trying to get by.

Another time, when I wiggled out of work a few hours early, I met up with my friend Ebrahim, and we took two trains and a lengthy walk to get to one of the closest beaches to the city of Athens. It being mid-October though, we were the only ones looking to get into the water. This was fine with both of us though, as we recognized that the season was indeed changing, but still tolerable for swimming, especially the water. Knowing I’d soon be back in the brisk Autumn air of New York state, and knowing winter was coming for Greece, we both liked the idea of getting into the blue waters of the Mediterranean for one last hurrah. Ebrahim, in particular, has been a very beautiful person to have in my life, and I had no concern about losing touch with him, but loved the idea of having an afternoon with him, nonetheless.

I flew out of Greece on a Friday. The week prior, I was starting to plan how to hand over my classes to my successor. Part of my plan quickly became trying to figure out a way to return to Leros one last time before flying back to the U.S. for an indefinite amount of time. When I left in August, I had no intention of returning to the island, but someone randomly asked me if I planned to return one evening and then I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I really wanted to go back and put a pretty little red bow on the whole experience. So, I did. I handed my classes over two days early, scribbling out lesson plans and rules of the classroom to my replacement, and then I ran for the port on Friday evening, boarding the overnight ferry once again for yet another teleport-ish, magical ride to the island of Leros, crammed over there in the Aegean Sea nearby Turkey.

Read about my stint in Leros here.

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When I returned from Leros, the ship docked, I boarded the metro, bought a coffee, and walked directly to work. No sleep. Well, not really. I returned to the classroom for two more short days. My students were happy to see me, which is always a lot of fun to get a load of their faces as they walk into the room to see that I’ve returned, and I was able to begin the letting go process. Although, again, I’ll admit that things were different for me in Athens than they were in Leros. It was so much easier to connect with people on a heart level in Leros because, after class, they’d hang around, they’d mingle and ask questions, they’d play chess with you or volleyball. Leros was more community minded. In Athens, despite having numerous activities available, people tended to be more in the mindset of going to school and then leaving to return to their lives, or, perhaps, to study.

There were a few students, especially regulars who I was really enjoying having in class. There was one girl from Congo who would always laugh at me when I tried to speak in French. She was so good at English in class but then refused to speak English outside of class, opting to speak to the English-speaking volunteers and receptionists in French. I made a point of telling her that I wasn’t going to let anyone speak French to her anymore, just so she would have to practice. In my Intermediate English class, there were two guys in their mid-20’s who I loved to joke around with. One of them was almost consistently high, but he still didn’t mind when I picked on him. His friend usually came to class sober and paid a little more attention than his counterpart, but I knew that they both enjoyed when I picked on them or used them as examples to describe new vocabulary words. “Beard. Beautiful. This is a beautiful beard,” and I would obnoxiously gesture to one of their faces, poking fun. Those are the students I will miss, the ones who were striving to better themselves, and fighting through the curriculum, even when it was frustrating.

There were also many students that did not have too much of an impact on me. These were the usual cases of people who were too good for the level of English that they were attending, but didn’t want to challenge themselves and move up to a new level. I also was never a fan of those who called out in class or who never did their homework, despite my long explanations as to why homework was good for bridging the time in between classes. I won’t miss having to be that teacher.

Two days flew by. The next thing I knew, I was in the living room of my flat with my roommate, stuffing clothing into my backpack and making a pile of clothing that I was planning on “retiring” in Greece. I thought it would take me about ten minutes to pack, but being distracted by a number of different things, it took a few hours. By the time I was off to bed, there were only a few hours left to sleep before I had to head to the metro and off to the airport.

Between my classes on my final day of work, my co-workers made a surprise lunch for me and had a video made of my time with Echo, a slideshow consisting of photos and video clips. It was odd to be in the middle of a work day and then suddenly watching memories of the last year, but it was touching nonetheless. There were a few people around me who had seen me through a good chunk of the journey, but for the most part, the people appearing on the screen had all come and gone over time, volunteers and residents alike.

My final two classes of the day were completely normal. Nothing felt special about them, which I really liked. I was glad to end on an average note. The “A2” level class that I was teaching was particularly “normal” as they were desperate for me to do some grammar review with them. Having been out for the other two classes of the week while I was on Leros, the substitute teaching took note of the fact that some of the students had horrific grammar. So, I capped off my year of teaching English in Greece by trying to hammer some grammar into the brains of my unsuspecting students. The thing about grammar, is that it is so important, but everyone is always bored to tears learning it.

A couple of students snapped photos with me on their way out the door. And other than a quick conversation with my colleague who was sitting in the back of the class, ready to take over teaching on Monday, I more or less followed them out the door. I didn’t need to dilly dally in the school and get all nostalgic about what had just concluded.

For the evening, once the final classes had wrapped up and the school was closed, some of my closest friends, and all of my current co-workers came out for a goodbye dinner for me on one of the promenades a few minutes from our house. This particular location was selected so that we could sit outside and because they have delicious mushrooms, so naturally when we arrived, they had made our reservation for inside and they were out of mushrooms for the evening.

After a few hours and a few kind words from the founders around me at the dinner table, I said my goodbyes and my flatmate and I slowly walked toward home along with three of our friends who all live near to where we do. It was surreal knowing that that was the last time I’d be walking down the streets of Athens for a while. And it was especially surreal to be doing it with a group of people that had split their time with me over the course of the past year between Leros and Athens. Each of those people had had some serious ups and downs over the course of the year that involved both Athens and our little home of Leros. Each of them still had lives to live in this city when the sun came up in the morning, but my part of the story was over.

We eventually diverged from everyone and I slipped back into the Hub to get something that I had left behind before going to dinner. I was grateful in that moment, wandering around the darkened school with my flashlight, that the story was ready to continue without me. I’d had this big thought before while on Leros. No one should want to be irreplaceable. Sure, it’s a nice thought to feel like you’re needed and to feel like you’re adequate, but as a volunteer, and as a teacher, I’m much more interested in knowing that someone is capable of picking up where I left off, of taking the baton and running with it. These were my final thoughts as I looked over my shoulder at the darkened school behind me as I closed the door and stepped out into the street. The place was just an empty building two months ago and now, it was a school. A place where learning was taking place everyday and people were working, fighting to advance themselves. It was beautiful, and…it still is.

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A Greek sunset, to end the journey.

About mattylife

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