Poem: Waiting


There’s magic in it. The space between you and me. I like to call that “God” but I know you hate that word. Perhaps “Allah”, a decade ago.

It’s just a matter of air now, how much fits between us.

Freezing the moment, makes it sound bitter, cold, but frozen is desirable, it’s perfect.

If I could write a list, of all the things I’d like to do with you, the list would weave itself into poetry, and I’d have volumes of abundance, lining my empty bookshelves.

And the words would fall away. Because we’re both big enough to know that language has no place here. That long English A’s and E’s can collide in your ears the same way I choke on any Arabic sound beneath my teeth. And yet I feel like I meet you on the center of the page as Latin letters collide from the left with the Arabic from the right.

The story of you is the untethered wild horse, returning to it’s expected.

You are the return to the expected after a release from your captures.

20190314_180229Did you arrive, Habibi?

I’ve been waiting for you.

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…


News From the Refugee Trail: August Edition

This issue of Refugee Trail is being reviewed in late December. I started to write this post at the conclusion of the month of August, but it never saw the light of day. I thought I’d share what I had written now, although it is incomplete. Here’s what my four-month-younger-self was thinking about at the conclusion of that summer month:

I’m taking a gigantic, sweeping look at the last nine months and smiling ear to ear as I think about what my life was and all of the things and people that I was so fortunate to encounter. My time on Leros has finished, and August proved to be a very fulfilling (and full) month.

As the month commenced, I found myself in the middle of the transition period that I was hoping for. A new teacher arrived about a week before my scheduled departure, which gave me ample time to train her up on how the school works and how to manage a classroom at the Hub (which can be very different than basically any other school…in the world). She sat in on some of my classes and then I sat in on her classes as we swapped over from me instructing the classes to her instructing them. It wasn’t as sad to let go as I thought it would be. Although I care about each of my students, so many had come and gone in my time on the island, so it wasn’t as if I was handing over 23 of my babies that I had watched learn and grow for the better part of a year. A few were with me the whole time, but being as weathered as I was, it was a relief to see that I was leaving the classes in very capable hands.

My final days on the island are a blur to me now, but they were filled with meaning and I slowly closed down my life over the course of the final weeks I was there after returning from the UK. I didn’t feel rushed or irritated with the idea of having to wrap up a life, pack an apartment, prepare for transition, or anything like that.

When I left Leros on August 14, I flew to Vienna to meet up with a friend/former volunteer. We drove down to Bosnia to be with a second friend of ours and we spent a few days there before returning to Vienna. I then returned to Greece, arriving in Athens and setting up home in the neighborhood of Kipseli where I worked and lived for the remainder of the month and beyond. The majority of my time there, in August, was spent cleaning up the building that would eventually become the school I was teaching in.

More on these August stories to come…

You Will Never Walk Alone

We come and we go, like waves washing up onto the shores of this island. The volunteers, the refugees, everyone. No one stays on Leros forever. Most people don’t even stay for a sizable amount of time. We come and we go.


When I arrived on Leros in November, a new tradition was just put into place. Each time a volunteer or resident was going to be leaving the island, they were to paint their hand and stick their handprint on a designated wall in the back of the school. The idea was simple, but nice. It was a small ritual. This place tends to tug on your heartstrings, and it’s so difficult to leave because of all of the memories one makes, so sticking your handprint on the wall is the perfect way to leave a bit of yourself behind.

My favorite part of the idea was that, each person who comes into the Hub brings a piece of themselves and gets to leave it behind. As we work and learn and explore and get to know one another, part of us is left behind in the building. The handprints are tangible proof of that. I was there on the day that the first handprint was made on the wall, when the first volunteer was ready to depart. Being that the wall is so massive, it seemed silly at first to watch him squirting paint onto his palm and then smearing it around with a brush. His hand looked so random on such a large white wall. But, time took care of that. Slowly but surely, each volunteer and resident (that remembered) commemorated their goodbyes and their time on the island with the Hub by picking out a color, stamping their print on the wall, and then writing their name and exit date next to the wet paint.

As the weeks and months wore on, the wall filled up, and people started getting creative, writing little messages and inside jokes next to their hands. One person even did a print of their foot instead of their hand. The next thing I knew, the wall was nearly filled and I could stroll by it as if it were a timeline of my time on the island. It’s amazing how many people have passed through the halls of the building, how as volunteers, we really stand on each other’s shoulders in succession of one another. We build from what the people before us have done.

100 handprints.


By the time it was my turn to put the memory of myself on the wall, there were more than 100 handprints stretching from one side of the wall to the other, with yet-to-be-filled spaces running along the top and bottom of the wall. With all of the months that had passed, two of my friends had come to volunteer for a month and left their handprints, and two of my favorite students had departed in May and sneakily left the messages, “I heart Matt” and “I love you Matt” next to their handprints. I couldn’t help myself, but snap photos of these:

The handprints of Bob and Sue, two of my friends from New York who journeyed over to Greece to volunteer with Echo in June.

One of the most exciting things about working at the Hub for me this time around was working with one student in particular. He first arrived to the Hub in March and progressed through the “ABC”, “Beginners”, and A1 classes over the course of two months. By early July, he was attending B1 classes, the intermediate classes for students who can speak conversational English. Watching him learn and grow was one of the most rewarding parts of teaching. He worked his tail off, and the results were evident. Given my attachment to him, and the fact that he was leaving the island just a few days after me, we opted to do our handprints together.

One of my most promising students and I were set to leave around the same time, so we decided to do our handprints together.
I liked the idea of putting my handprint up high so no one would be tempted to write on or around it.
He wanted our fingerprints to overlap with one another.

And that’s all folks! The writing is on the wall, so to speak. I scribbled down my dates next to my name, which I wrote in Arabic. Both times I was on Leros: 16 January to 25 March 2018 and 17 November to 14 August 2019. The time felt significant to me. And, really, I’m not sure if I’ll ever return. Time will tell.

On their way into Europe, as they outrun the horrors of their homeland in search and in hope of a better life, residents often do not realize how long they’ll be on Leros. I hope, for them, the Hub is just a little bit of a saving grace, one they can leave their mark on.

I Love Cheap Thrills

Come on, come on, turn the radio on. It’s Friday night and it won’t be long.

When leaving the Hub most days, I know that it won’t just take me the five perceived minutes that it should for me to make it back to my flat. In fact, most days, I count on experiencing a couple of detours. There are too many people on the streets from the Hub to my home that I can run into, and almost all of them want at least a few minutes of conversation. This can be tiring, but mostly, it’s just amazing.

Gotta do my hair, put my make-up on. It’s Friday night and it won’t be long till I hit the dance floor.

On one particular evening in July, I was flagged down just down the street from the Hub by one of our neighbors, a sweet man from Palestine who was living with his young children and family in special housing outside of the refugee camp. He called out to me from in front of his house urgently. “Matt, Matt, Matt, I need your help!”

Baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight! 

I shuffled over to him, immediately being asked if I was interested in having any tea. I declined, having to follow a specific Code of Conduct implemented by my employer. He brought me over to a table in front of his house and sat my down in front of a notebook. “I’ve been trying to figure this out for weeks,” he says hurriedly, “and then my daughter said, ‘ASK MATT’ so I need your help.”

I don’t need no money. 

He positions the notebook and a pen in front of me on the table and then takes out his phone. “I’ve been trying to figure out what the words are in this song for so long. It’s just so beautiful and I have to know!” He begins to play a song on his phone. It’s “Cheap Thrills” by Sia, a song released three years ago about…going dancing. I can’t help but crack a huge smile as the words of this familiar pop song ring out around us. He thinks this song is beautiful. He wants to know more about it, to understand it. Without wasting another moment, I go to work, writing each of the words down as I go.

La, la, la, la, la, la, la (I love cheap thrills)

I’m not sure if my companion was aware that I had, indeed, heard this particular song before, but I didn’t care either way. Watching him grin from ear to ear as I carved out each word onto the paper made the whole situation worth it. And I got such a laugh later on when I stopped to think about the situation: Sitting in front of refugee housing, trying to write out Sia lyrics to sound more poetic than they actual are.

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that can bring everyone a little bit of joy, all in different ways.


News From the Refugee Trail: July Edition

I’m in the home stretch, as of this writing. In a few days, I’ll be departing Leros and moving on with my time in Europe and “on the refugee trail”.

July has proven to be, yet again, another interesting month, filled with milestones and new experiences. The month began with my final three days of the course I was taking in Wales, UK where I was learning about how to launch lifeboats and rescue people who are in trouble both on land and at sea. I wrote briefly about each day of the course here on this blog, feel free to click back through the entries to get a little more detail about what I was actually doing.

When the course concluded, I spent two nights in London with one of my friends from Leros who had departed the island back in April. It was so great to catch up with her and to see a small piece of London for the first time. Having spent the previous two weeks in Wales and having experienced Edinburgh last year on my way home from Europe, I felt like catching a glimpse of England would be a good idea. Having just gotten out of my course, and knowing where I was headed back to, it was a unique time to be in a massive city, but I enjoyed my time there. It happened to be Pride weekend as well, despite it being July, so my friends and I were able to head down to the parade and experience all of the flamboyant rainbow sassiness over the weekend I was there.

Seeing happy, proud, colorful, excited queer people was such a relief to me. This experience of working with people mostly from the middle east for the last nine months has put me in the position where I’ve had to stifle certain areas of my life again and it was nice to be reminded of what healthy LGBTQ people are like. Even still, my mind was not far from all of my friends and students on Leros. And the refugee crisis has spread all over Europe, including into the UK. I thought about what some of them would think about the openness and honor that everyone was presenting in the city and in the streets. Worlds will collide, and cultures will blend. This is destined to happen.

Upon my return to Leros, I was overwhelmed with the number of hugs, smiles, and kind words I was met with. Having been away for two weeks, I think many of the residents were beginning to believe they would not see me again, even though I told them that I would return. Two weeks on Leros feels like two months in “real life”. My ego loved returning to the classroom and feeling loved and needed. From that moment forward, I’ve been drinking in every little moment, treasuring each person and each interaction. I also kept my eyes open all month for the uniqueness and perfection that exists on Leros. The architecture, nature, streets, locals, tourists, refugees, all of it has been amplified by my forthcoming nostalgia. July has been a very “woke” month for me, very present.

One final Beach Clean activity with my pal.

With my departure looming, I’ve been paying more mind to how I spend each minute of each day. In the winter, when this experience seemed like it would go on forever and I needed to make sure I was protecting my energy in an effort to avoid burnout, I would often leave the Hub when my shift was over. This has not been the case for the month of July as I’ve stayed around the Hub well into the evening hours almost everyday.

There are just so many magical things that happen around the Hub each day that I wanted to spend more time absorbing. Even just sitting on the coach in the library and being around as volunteers and residents mosey through or sit down and swap stories with one another is so nice to witness. The Hub is a place where people’s energy has permission to shift and the lightness we as volunteers get to see from the residents is beautiful.

I also enjoyed spending time with some of the guys playing paddleball and volleyball, a luxury I didn’t get too much time to encounter during the winter months while I was teaching so much. It’s nice to just have fun with people. When you’re trying to teach English, people have a certain mentality and attitude about them. But while playing sports, the intensity melts away and the language barriers go down a bit. Unless, of course, it’s a competitive sport like football, then sometimes the intensity is amplified and fights break out. But that’s beside the point!

The final team on the ground in Leros that I’ll be working with.

For the last few weekends, I’ve gone on some epic hikes to the other side of the island and done my best to get into the sea as much as possible. When I move to Athens next month, there will be a sea nearby, but it won’t be accessible daily and it won’t be all mine, I’ll have to share it with both locals and tourists. And so, I’ve taken the opportunity to hop around mountain tops and dive into pieces of the Aegean that other people just don’t seem to know about. July has been the most fruitful month of the nine that I’ve been here when it comes to connecting with both the people and the nature around me.

The number of refugees on this island and all of the Aegean islands continues to grow at an alarming pace. We’ve continued to hit record numbers each week and this month has been no different. The camp is now at double it’s capacity and 88 human beings are officially homeless as there is no room for them within the fences of the camp. Things are about to get very grim around here if a tent village begins to pop up because people have no other options. This has been the disastrous case on many other islands for years. I’ve already witnessed families sleeping on the streets of Lakki and found makeshift sleeping areas of blankets in small nooks on the sides of buildings. People who are arriving now are allowed to register at the camp, and can partake in the meals being provided to the camp, as well as the toilet and shower facilities, but they are not being given housing. This doesn’t come across as entirely atrocious as it hasn’t rained in two months and the weather is warm and comfortable throughout the days and nights, but summer in Leros will not last forever. The refugee crisis desperately needs more eyes on it, and more brains in the mix to help put more appropriate solutions together.

I’ll be on my way to Athens in two weeks. Until then, I’ll be taking in my last moments in this beautiful, unique corner of the Mediterranean.

Stark Contrast

Last month, I was having dinner at a friend’s house and was given a chilling reminder about where I am in the world.

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the confusion that exists within me due to the stark contrast between the beauty of the island I live on and the disturbing politics that play out before my eyes in the form of how refugees and asylum seekers are treated.

My friend invited an intimate group of people over to his home for the evening. I’ve been to his house a handful of times before and am always impressed with the vegetarian spreads that he and his wife put together. On this particular evening, there was a vegan among us, so most of the food was even accommodating of him, which is preferred for me anyway. Delicious vegan food is not readily accessible on Leros, so I felt like I was really being treated. There was a pasta dish, homemade bread, a variety of dips including humus, a couscous dish, and both a Greek salad and a legume salad. This was my first time being at their home during the summer months. While the place is cozy in the winter, because it’s summer, we were able to spend the evening on their terrace which overlooks the castle that sits on the hill in the next town over and the outline of lights on the horizon, the lights of Turkey, less than 15 miles away.


Dinner commenced, we ate, they drank, I got some wine poured on my lap, I stubbed my toe to the point of bleeding. Overall, there were just little atrocities happening among the conversations about the Hub and the refugees and the situation in general on Leros. It was an evening among like-minded people, so the conversation was smart and positive. Then, in the middle of our posh meal, our spoiled glasses of coke and white wine, our view, my friend called out into the night and tossed his pointer finger into the air, indicating the horizon, “THAT’S A FLARE!”

We all turned to see what he was pointing at. Sure enough, a glowing red light was slinking its way down the night sky, vanishing after a few moments. I couldn’t stop staring at the darkness. I know that, often, a second flare can follow a first.

The contrast kills me. Here I was, enjoying a rather exclusive dinner, and then a flare sails across the sky. Farmakanisi, a small Greek island half the distance to Turkey from where I live, is the island that all of the refugee boats aim for if they want to end up on Leros and live in the camp that we have here. The flare was being shot up by a boat that was just arriving on that island and making their presence known. There’s nothing on that island. It’s just a rock in the middle of the sea. The people would likely have to wait until morning before any help arrived for them. I looked down at the glass in my hand and thought about what was going on just a few miles away, what that flare meant. It signified so much. It was simultaneously a cry for help and an invitation for celebration. The people landing on Farmakanisi had officially made it to Europe. They wouldn’t be caught by the Turkish Coast guard and returned to that unsafe country and thrown in jail. They clearly were not through their long endeavor, but they had successfully made it through one of the most difficult processes, especially since they likely paid thousands of dollars to a smuggler just to get them in the boat.

The cry for help though, the second part of what the flare meant, is what gets me. Here I was on a veranda, looking at the view, and just through the darkness, there were people crawling out of a tiny non-seaworthy vessel onto the wet rocks of this small chunk of land that just happens to be claimed by Greece, that just happens to be called “Europe”.

Sure enough, there were 33 new arrivals at the camp the next morning.

What is wrong with the world?

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.


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.


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.


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…

Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 9 – “Always Had a Smile On”

The. Course. Is. Over!

About three or four days ago I actually doubted whether or not I would make it. I felt like I wasn’t good at assessing casualties, I couldn’t tie knots correctly, there was no way I was going to remember how to tow a boat properly, and I always seemed to panic in triage situations. In between sessions, I would sit on my bed for the few minutes that were allotted to me and I would pander how many more times I’d have to get into my wetsuit, how many more potential knots I’d have to tie, how many more presentations would be put in front of me in an effort to cram more information into my brain.

But here I am, on the other side of it. It’s done. And the certificates are in my hands. The course is complete and, perhaps, I’m a little wiser because of it.

The instructors informed us this week that for today, our final day of seagoing, we would be having a review day, a chance to redo any of the maneuvers and lessons we had learned over the week if there was something we weren’t sure about. This turned out to be a massive lie as we all arrived from breakfast, ready to suit up and spend our last day at sea only to walk into yet another mock scenario. On the slipway, there was a massive white board with a message written on it. The scenario was that there had been a boat crash and multiple people were lost at sea. We had three boats to rescue them. Having failed miserably a week ago when given a surprise triage situation, we did our best to delegate who would do what and to better prepare ourselves for the situation.

Almost everyone ran to get into their wetsuits, but one woman and I ran to the sea instead to see if we could see any casualties from shore. As we ran up the steps, we saw a radio and a map that had been left for us to assist with the rescue. There was also a pair of binoculars on the table, which I grabbed and began scanning the horizon with. After quite some time, I was able to find two boats bobbing in the water, miles from shore. Unfortunately, at this point, we had already scrambled to launch two of our three boats and they were headed in the wrong direction. The third boat went in the right direction, but they didn’t get to the casualties anywhere near as quickly as they could have if our communication was better.

And so commenced a two-hour scenario in which we were trying to orchestrate this rescue. There were only a few of us left on shore as most of the team opted to get into the boats. This wasn’t well thought out. Most people wanted to be heroic and be in the boats that were scooping people out of the sea, but we really could have used more help on land, especially as casualties were beginning to be delivered to us and we had to pull the boats in and take care of the hurt people. This was the coolest part of the whole ordeal. We were rescuing people at sea and assisting them by using what we’d learned from all of our casualty care courses throughout the week.

Feeling overwhelmed, a boat came in and dropped off our second casualty who a few others and I helped from the boat and brought onto the land. Spread really thin at this point, as one person had to be “Beach Master” and wait in the water, two people were on the radio, and one person was helping the casualties, I noticed ten of our instructors behind me climbing out of the woods. Right away, I knew that they were going to become part of the scenario. And they did. We got the radio call five seconds later telling us that there had been multiple stabbings on a boat and the casualties had washed ashore. There were only two of us able to even go over to this mob of hurt people, and the boats were coming in for landing at the same time, requiring assistance in order to get them to shore.

Prior to the second round of casualties erupting onto the scene after an hour of getting people from the sea to shore safely, one of my colleagues had said to me, “I’m just waiting for the whistle to blow” signaling that the scenario would be over. But it stretched on for hours. And we didn’t do the best job “rescuing” all of the hurt people on shore.

In the afternoon, we took our written exam, which was 40 multiple choice questions about everything we’d learned about casualty care over the past 10 days. It wasn’t anything overly difficult, but I definitely had to focus on what I was doing and ended up using the entirety of the hour allotted to us. As soon as our exam was over, we were tossed into one final lecture about assisting in giving birth. I could hardly believe that after our grueling morning and our exam that we were actually being expected to sit through yet another lecture, but of course, it proved to be interesting and I learned a few things about babies that rush to come into this world. My takeaway was that I think I’d rather not be around unexpectedly for the birth of a baby.

When that final lecture finished, I could hardly believe that the course was over.

In the evening, we did not have dinner scheduled as usual, but rather there was a farewell barbecue. Our certificates were handed out and everyone enjoyed their final evening of mingling with like-minded people. I realized that I hadn’t gotten to know everyone as much as I would have liked, but I also knew that this would have come at the expense of getting an adequate amount of sleep and being able to fully focus on the course. When my name was called to collect my certificate, the man announcing my name said something along the lines of, “he always had a smile on during this course” which sounded like a steaming pile of bullshit to me. I think he was just trying to come up with something unique to say as he had already called twenty or thirty names before me.  I certainly did not feel like I had a smile on at all for this course.

Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 8 – “We Take Beginners and We Make Them Do the Most Difficult Things at Sea”

Things were thrown into perspective a bit more for me out on the sea this afternoon when one of the instructors told me that the maneuver we were about to do is one of the most difficult things you can do at sea. And here we are, a whole lot of beginners, who’ve just garnered an understanding of the water.

Today’s maneuver was transferring people from one boat to another while both boats were still in motion. This involved the first boat maintaining a course and a constant speed while the second boat comes up beside it, matches its speed, and then cuts over into the other boat, literally making contact with it and then turning slightly into it in order to create friction between the two boats. It’s incredibly insane to think about now that its over, but this afternoon, we did this over and over again, ramming our boat into another moving boat and creating the opportunity for people to move from one boat to the other. Even in the crashing waves and even at high speeds, we were able to figure this out.

Before getting on the water, we also learned how to do a couple of different search patterns. If someone is lost at sea, there are multiple different ways to search for them in order to expand your chances of finding the needle in the haystack. Unfortunately, having to focus so much on our first task of transferring people from one boat to another, we didn’t get to do any search patterns, so I’ve promptly forgotten them all, having not had the chance to cement them in my brain by seeing them demonstrated.

This morning, the day began by being tested on our casualty care response. I was the first participant to go, quickly volunteering in an effort to just get it over with.I did okay, but not as well as I would have liked. Oh well, I’m not worried. We then had a brief one-hour session on boat repair and learned how to patch a whole with fiberglass in the bottom of a boat. I wasn’t super interested in this as I don’t see how this will benefit my existence in the years ahead, but you never know. How did I get here? What am I learning!?

Unlike a couple of other nights this week, we did not have the evening off today. In fact, the evening was very much ON as we were called to a stretcher presentation and ended up doing relay races with our teammates strapped into the stretchers. Terrifying and fun. My group finished last in all three challenges we did. This is about how well I feel I’ve been doing over all. (Joking).

I’m so glad this course is wrapping up, but so grateful for all that it has offered me.