Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 7 – “It’s ‘Mad Max’ Out There”

Today, on the sea, we learned how to recover people who are stranded on rocks and areas of land beside the sea. After my low day yesterday, I wasn’t looking forward in the least to getting back on the boat this morning, but I rebounded a little bit and was able to get my head back in the game more today. Rescuing people at sea is kind of the whole point of this course. The migrant crisis in the Aegean and the crisis in the Southern Mediterranean have fueled this course into existence. Unfortunately, rescuing people at sea is not easy, so there are many maneuvers to be taught. Trying to pick someone up who is stranded on a rock in the sea, which apparently happens a lot near the island of Lesvos when the refugee boats run aground, the rescue boat needs to be anchored to the bottom of the sea and then slowly letting out line while reversing up to the stranded casualties on the rocks. The conditions in the water today were not the best, with decent sized waves crashing ashore as I tried to navigate the boat, so each time a wave came, I’d have to coast on it and then rev the engine again, all while continuing to move backward toward the stranded casualty. I don’t think I was great at this particular scenario of the course, but I didn’t totally fail at it either. Doing anything with ropes and anchors isn’t fun in a boat, I’ve decided.

While on the water, we also practiced our landings about ten different times. This is how you get the boat to the shore, disembark the crew, and get the vessel safely onto a trolley and up the slipway without any huge issue. Each of the people in our boat practiced this twice, so we did it a total of eight times. Landing requires coming into the slipway very fast, quickly killing the engine, and then everyone jumping out of the boat all in one motion while hanging onto its sides and directing it onto the trolley waiting on standby. It’s all one giant motion, and quite annoying after ten different tries. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to write about what it’s like to actually get into these boats. The sea often isn’t cooperating, so the waves have the boats bobbing wildly in front of us, and when the Helm (driver) yells “crew in!”, we have to get ourselves into the boat, which usually involves jumping as high as you can, throwing yourself forward, and clinging to anything you can find while heaving yourself in. It’s fun, but doing it ten times in a row is exhausting, not to mention that there really is no dignified way to go about it. We all flop around like fish getting yanked in from the sea with nets. It’s not pretty.

In the afternoon, I was so relieved to be done with the sea for the day. I felt like I still needed some time to fully get my head back in the game. Unfortunately, once we were out of our stinky wetsuits, we had only an hour for lunch before having to return and slip them back on again as our afternoon session began with “Sea Survival Training” in the pool.

I’m not sure how much I maintained about how to survive at sea other than that your life jacket is your friend, keep the survival kit with you, and read all of the directions. We were trained as if we were on a boat that was sinking and we had all the necessary means to survive on the sinking boat with us. In the pool was an inflatable raft with a roof, so it looked like a tent. Even in a pool, it was most unpleasant to sit in this tent as there was no air circulation and the bobbing of the water was a bit much.

The afternoon involved a lot of bobbing around in the pool and jumping onto floating objects. For the most part, it was really fun, but still the water was too cold, so it wasn’t something anyone wanted to be a part of for hours and hours. I continue to be amazed at how wholistic this course is. We’ve just had classes and briefings on so many different things.

One of the instructors said, “It’s ‘Mad Max’ out there”, in reference to being on the seas. This isn’t a comment made because of the rough waters. It’s a comment made because of people. Laws are literally changing these days to work against migrants who are risking their lives at sea on non-seaworthy vessels in attempts at new lives, futures. The fact of the matter is, if you put out a distress call, depending on who you are and who the people near by are, you may not be rescued. And that is 2019.

When the classes were finished and dinner was done, some of the instructors volunteered an hour of their evening to review some casualty care scenarios with us on the castle lawn. I did not feel the need to do anymore reviewing, but I went to the lawn nevertheless, just to get a little more individual attention and to prove to myself and the instructors that I was committed. The evening turned into a grand, goofy time as my classmates and I got to switch back and forth playing the patients and the first responders. It’s amazing how quickly people can bond, get to know one another, and execute new tasks.

We will be assessed tomorrow. First thing in the morning, I’ll be dropped into a scenario like I have been over the last week, and I’ll be graded on everything I do. 60% is a passing grade. I’m not too worried.

Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 6 – “That’s Show Business”

Navigation and Engine Repair. Two things I know nothing about; two things that instructors tried to teach me about today.

How is one suppose to develop any sort of grasp for how a boat engine works or how to navigate the worlds waters in an hour and a half? I think the answer is that they cannot; however, introducing ideas to us is the basic idea here, I think.

Our instructors here are brilliant. They’re volunteers and they’re passionate, but they teach like professionals and they recognize that everyone has different levels of understanding of all of this stuff. I did my best to keep myself focused on what was being taught, but these particular subject areas are not fortes of mine and I walked away only having learned that I have more to learn.

In the afternoon, my group was back on the water for our fourth session of seagoing. This proved to be my lowest day so far. I just really wasn’t “feeling” getting back into the boat. Prior to launch, some of the instructors showed us on land how to tow disabled boats at sea. This is something we may actually encounter when trying to assist refugees–disabled boats. The demonstration on the land was fine, but once we were on the water it was quite confusing. There are so many different places you have to tie ropes to. Some places need to hold tension and other places simply need to direct the boat.

During our actual execution process on the water, the “disabled boat” needs to be tied to the rescue boat. This requires the rescue boat to hover near the other boat for a long time while the ropes are getting sorted and passed from one boat to the other and then back again. While idling, the engine fumes really engulfed the surrounding air and the waves kept coming in hard. Each time the boat bobbed and each time I took in a breath, I felt a bit queasy, making it much more difficult to focus on the task at hand.

By the time it was all said and done, I was so relieved to be getting onto dry land and for the session to just be over. I really feel like I fell out of the rhythm this afternoon.

For our evening lecture, a lawyer from Bristol came to present “Seeking Asylum in the UK” to us. A fascinating talk with plenty of time for questions. It’s nice to have more information about where the people we would be plucking out of the waters would actually be going and experiencing once they’re on dry land in Europe.

My biggest takeaway is that the United Kingdom seems to be about as messed up as the rest of Europe. They don’t want to help the asylum seekers. In fact, they try to discourage and deter them.

 

Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 5 – “Two Weeks of Actual Humanity”

I come here for two weeks of sanity every year to be around like-minded people, to be around actual people with empathy. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make every year, coming here.

Day 5 has wrapped and I’m happy to say I’ve officially cleared the halfway mark of this course!

The intensity continues, but we have the evening off from lecture, so we only had to be “on” from 8:45 until 5:00 today. This is why I now find myself sitting in the evening glow of this early Welsh summer day instead of trying to pound out an update in my bed before directly falling asleep.

I was sea-going this morning at 8:45 once again and, unlike the last two days, the sea was really calm this morning. Of the six boats, there were only five instructors so, once again, my little team of two was overlooked and not assigned an instructor by accident for our daily morning check-in. I’m trying not to take it personally. After that was sorted, my partner and I prepped the boat, making sure we had all of the essential equipment we would be needing was strapped down to the hull and gave the engine a practice try. We then lowered all of the boats to the sea as we do each day and were off for another morning of boating on the Bristol Channel.

Today, we learned how to rescue a “man overboard”, how to direct the boat in reverse, how to idle next to another boat in an effort to gain information, and how to do figure-eight patterns. When it comes to maneuvering the boats, I feel like I’ve got a decent handle on it. I’m not bad at getting the boat to specific spots quickly, and I’m pretty decent at scooping people up when they fall overboard. Trying to make the boat go in reverse proved to be the most difficult task of the day for me, but I’ll keep working on it.

Each day, as all of these other misfits and I slip into our wetsuits and throw on our bright yellow helmets and vests, I can’t help but think ahead to what doors these two weeks here may open for us and what they will actually bring forth in our lives. We’re doing practice scenarios for rescuing people in distress at sea. This means that, indeed, we may one day actually have to save drowning people from the water. At the very least, we’ll be trained to do so.

Even after nearly a week of being here, I still find myself uneasy. Floating out on the Channel, glancing around at the other five boats speeding around in the waves, I feel out of place. This isn’t my comfort zone, and my body is consistently reminding me of that with this odd feeling in my gut that won’t go away until l’m off of this campus. That being said, how long can one last outside of their comfort zone? How much discomfort is too much? These are important questions to consider before people should be thrown into refugee camps for undetermined lengths of time.

This afternoon, we had two short sessions. The first focused on how to use a radio, which was self explanatory and boring, as the instructor pointed out himself. The gist is, you say as little as you can when you have to talk on the radio and really, you should not talk on the radio unless you absolutely have to. The second session was focused on using Psychological First Aid, meaning how you interact with people initially who are experiencing or have experienced a traumatic situation. The session lasted a bit over an hour but could probably have been taught for ten or twenty. There is always so much to cover when it comes to mental health. For the most part though, refugees receive NO psychological assistance throughout their tumultuous journeys, and neither do the volunteers who come over to do this difficult work.

Halfway through. Still in the game.

Although operating on a ridiculously full schedule, my heart is still back on Leros. I’m mentally checked-in here, but my heart is on that island. It’s been a really sad realization knowing that my time there will end, and all the ooey gooey-ness I’m feeling in my heart for the place right now while away from it will increase ten-fold when I actually leave for good. Tough to think about, but it’s a familiar story for me at this point, one I’ve both heard and told before.

Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 4 – “Worth it for One”

This morning, I participated in yet another round of casualty scenarios with a few other members of my team. This time around, I got to play a man having a stroke and assist keeping a girl in epileptic shock stable until help arrived. I’m slowly growing more confident in my ability to identify what is wrong with pretend patients and then follow protocol for helping them and keeping them safe. I love how this stuff is just getting drilled into our brains each day.

One of the best parts of these trainings is that they take place outside. Right now, Europe is bracing for a heatwave, but things here in Wales are sunny, blue skies, and maybe 75 degrees with a nice wind off of the Bristol Channel. I’m loving this UK summer! That being said, when the afternoon rolled around and it was time to have another session out on the sea, the winds were too rough, so we didn’t launch the boats. However, the instructors were keen on getting us used to rough seas, so they had us swim off of the slipway into the open water and then circle up as a group and all float together with the current. I thought it was kind of fun, but the initial impact of getting smacked with frigid Welsh waves is really jarring. Even with a wetsuit on, this water is cold!

Being one of only two Americans in this group, once in a while I’ll miss something one of the instructors or other participants is saying because of their accents mixed with the volume of the sea or some other natural noise occurrence. I missed the instruction to swim out to sea, so I was caught off guard as everyone started jumping into the waves. That being said, even with a slow start, I still kept up with most of the group. This is a bit of a goal of mine as well. Whether it’s in the sea or on the land doing casualty care, I just want to make sure I remain with the majority for my time here. I refuse to fall behind or become one of the people running in the back of the pack.

After our dip in the sea, we took a lifeboat into the outdoor pool on campus and practiced capsizing drills. What would happen if your boat flipped and you were suddenly bobbing alone in the sea? Once again, we were split into groups of three but my group only had two. We were the leftovers again. I’m starting to find this comical. Unfortunately, my partner was very nervous about this particular scenario, so, as we fell off of the boat and had to fight to climb onto it’s flipped hull, her nerves were getting the best of her. I helped pull her up and then, together, we flipped our boat back over by falling backward into the pool while using a rope to yank the boat back over with our momentum. It was a bit unnerving given the heightened emotions in the water, but we got through it. None of these exercises are easy.

This evening, we had a lecture about the history of Atlantic Pacific and where it hopes to go in the future as an organization, including some plans it has in place. Fascinating stuff, and an wonderful to hear about how this organization came into being and where it plans to go. I’m honored to have been selected to be a part of it.

Earlier today, we also had a talk about Sea Watch, an NGO that operates in the Mediterranean doing search and rescue missions with planes and ships. That is a whole different, sad tale though.

Still not getting enough sleep each day. Grateful for coffee at this point.

Peace.

Fun fact: Atlantic Pacific initially set out with the goal of saving one life. There slogan was, “worth it for one”, meaning that if all of their trainings and efforts resulted in one life saved, it’d be worth it. To date, five years on, their estimates are that their trained crew have saved thousands of lives.

Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 3 – “The Deep End”

“We’re gonna throw you in the deep end,” said one of the instuctures yesterday in reference to what we would be doing today.

Today was likely one of the more anticipated days for the majority of the people here taking this course. It was our first day “seagoing”, the first time we got into the boats and got into the water. Prior to this, it’s all been medical stuff.

Directly after breakfast this morning, the team was divided into four groups and two of the groups were sent to the water first. We suited up into our wetsuits and helmets, and then were introduced to the many different lifeboats that exist at this school for training purposes. We were divided up into the boats. Each boat had three students, except for mine. I thought I drew the short end of the stick by only having two people in my boat, but it turns out I’ll just get more individual attention, so it’ll work in my favor over the course of the week.

My partner and I both have zero experience with rescuing people at sea. In fact, neither of us really have boat experience. She’s been on sailboats before, but nothing with a motor. As we were told about the boat we were about to be cruising across the open sea in, I did my best to, once again, have my brain on hyper drive. I just didn’t want to miss anything about what was going on in front of me. I paid very close attention. One by one, we brought the boats down the long slipway as a team, lowering them slowly on tethered ropes. When we reached the sea, we guided the boats into the waves and fought our ways onto the vessels when prompted by the instructor. The next thing we knew, we were off, crashing our way through the notoriously choppy Welsh waters.

As we picked up speed, and I found myself clinging to the ropes on the boat, unaware of how stable my seating was, I just thought, “screw you, comfort zone.”

I’ll be seagoing each day for the next week, so I’ll do my best to write in more detail at a later point about what it’s like to be on the water. I did get a chance to drive the boat today though, which was cool.

After lunch, my group and I had a three hour session on tying knots and throwing ropes and line and then did yet another scenario with Casualty Care. I was in the role of “first arrival” on the scene and had to patch up someone’s head. The instructors said I did better than anyone else in the same scenario for the day. I found this rather unbelievable, but maybe I’m retaining some information!

After dinner, we were given two lectures. The first was about the disastrous situation in the Southern Mediterranean Sea and all of the people dying there due to horrendous European Union bureaucracy, and the second was about recognizing the signs of and coping with PTSD. It was a long day, but I’m so grateful for all of this information being thrown at me.

To bed.

Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 2 – “Trial By Fire”

Another day of the crazy course has come to a close, but in so many ways we’re just getting started. It’s Wednesday, but I have to spend a long time thinking about what day it could possibly be before I find myself landing on an answer. Though I’ve only been here for 48 hours, my world has shrunk down to just a handful of buildings, a small strip of land, and a few dozen people. Every so often, my phone rings, reminding me of the life I’ve built and have waiting for me back in Greece, but that’s on the back burner right now, certainly.

This morning, I shuffled over to the castle for breakfast again and then joined my cohort in the lecture hall for our second day of “Casualty Care.” Today, our talk was focused on stabilizing patients, burns, infections, illnesses, drowning, sea-sickness, sun stroke, and hypothermia. All of these little lessons we’re having thrown at us are being presented in such a way that, if we were to encounter them in real life, we have the tools to quickly assess what’s going on and respond accordingly. All of us here have experience working with refugees, so the course is specifically designed to cater to what could be happening in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

In between our lectures, we had the opportunity to run some scenarios for dressing wounds, placing splints and moving patients on stretchers. None of this is overly difficult to do, until you realize just how much brain space has been taken up by two full days of medical lectures on topics you know nothing about. I’m so out of my element here, but I still refuse to fall out of the race.

In the evening, after dinner, we were rounded up once again to attend a lecture about Tsunamis. This felt a little odd to me, but it was totally fascinating. The engineer presenting the information for us had a clear passion for the material and it was fun to get a glimpse inside of his brain. While tsunamis didn’t strike me as totally relevant to what we’re doing, it turns out that this organization provided lifeboats to people in Japan after the Tsunami in 2011. The boats were used to rescue people once the water came ashore. I suppose I should just brace myself for a week of unique lectures. My takeaway from this lecture: Tsunamis are scary, and if you see the sea retreating, it means you’ve got five minutes to high tail it out of there before the big wave comes ashore.

At the conclusion of the evening, we were told that we had completed our Casualty Care portion of the course for the next few days. This was a lie though, because as we made our way down to the locker room to get fitted for our wetsuits for tomorrow, we were encountered with a surprise triage scenario.

There, scattered in front of us on the rocks and the slipway next to the sea were FIFTY-NINE actors, all sprawled out on the ground and screaming and running around, creating a mass casualty situation for us to run into and triage. It was completely overwhelming. There were three drones flying overhead, recording what we were doing. It was total chaos. All of a sudden, everything I had learned over the last two days flew out of my brain, along with everyone else around me.

Even though it’s so clearly fake, it’s incredibly overwhelming to witness dozens of people all fighting for your attention, and for you to assist them. I was so thankful when the scenario ended, because I was completely lost the entire time it was happening. The instructors rounded us up when it was over and debriefed with us. They told us we had done a good job even though we had done horribly. We’re all a bunch of amateurs with two days of experience. It’s not exactly fair to expect us to be able to sort out 59 hurt people. But, at the very least, it was the end to another exciting day.

I’m hanging in there! I’m waaaaaaaay outside of my comfort zone here, but I’m still alive.

Before breaking this evening, we were all fitted for our wetsuits and we will have our first go on the boats in the sea starting tomorrow morning.

Cheers!

Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 1

I’m off of my rock in the Aegean and sitting in the country of Wales in the United Kingdom. It’s nearly 10pm and overcast, with a bit of gray mist hanging in the air and despite the clouds, the daylight will persist for another hour or so. The birds sound different here, and the temperature is a welcomed relief from what I was experiencing in Greece. I was never bothered by the heat and humidity of Leros, but coming to Great Britain now in late June, I’m reminded of just how wonderful cooler temperatures and cloudy days are. Greece is all sun and heat these days.

I’m at Atlantic College on the southern coast of Wales taking a two week intensive course on learning how to launch lifeboats and perform CPR and other minor medical procedures.

When I initially came over to Europe, I figured over the course of the year I would go to many different places. I thought I’d hang out on Leros for some time and then bop around to other camps in Greece. I figured I’d work on the shores and help bring in boats of newly arriving refugees and when I had my fill of that, I’d travel to the mainland and perhaps hop over into Serbia or France to see the conditions of camps in those areas. I also had the idea of coming over to the UK and taking this course, but it was really only in the back of my mind.

All of a sudden, it was March and I was still on Leros. I had been continually and consciously extending my stay over and over again, each time recognizing how rewarding it felt to fall deeper and deeper into a community of people. But when the application deadline for this course was looming, I knew it was something I didn’t want to pass up. Certainly, I’m out of my element here, having taught English to refugees for nearly a year now, but the whole “refugee experience” for a volunteer can be more comprehensive than what is happening literally on the ground. Refugees come over from Turkey to Greece on boats or through the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy and Spain, and more often than not, they need assistance.

I thought by taking this course I’d be furthering my understanding of the overall story being told in this corner of the world.

Having arrived yesterday, I’m just getting a feel for how things will be around here, but so far, I can see myself learning a lot. The people I’m taking this course with all seem to be intertwined through the volunteer work that they’ve done in the Mediterranean and on the island of Lesvos. As everyone was introducing themselves yesterday evening, I was one of only two people in the group of thirty that named a different Greek island as the place that they’ve been based in. I found this curious, but it makes sense, Lesvos has always had the highest number of refugees, by far. I feel like a bit of an odd ball, having not been involved with rescue operations like so many of these people seem to have been, but at the same time, it’s good to open the horizons a bit more and see a different crop of people with the same hearts.

Today, for Day 1, we spent 9 hours learning how to triage trauma situations. Sitting down at 9:00, knowing that I was stepping into my first day of intensive classes, I really wanted to stay focused. It’s too easy to let time zone changes and intense social situations take control. I’m also using these brief few days to practice getting back into the headspace of school. I want to be here. I really want to learn all of this information that is not usually my speed. I want to learn medical mumbo jumbo and all of this crap about putting boats into the water. Why not try something new? But, on that note, this is why I have to pay such close attention.

I felt my brain trying to drift at one point today and immediately forced myself back into the moment. Everything the instructor is teaching us is fascinating, I just need to remind myself of this every so often since it’s not usually information I’m intrigued by.

The first two sessions of lectures were interesting, but then we actually got to practice CPR and triage scenarios for the third part of the day. This helped stimulate my brain a bit more and likely assisted in cementing some of the lessons into my memory.

The two weeks ahead are setup to be intense. There isn’t much downtime at all. But this is why I’m going to try to stay so focused, because I want to absorb it all!

I’ll try to keep the updates coming.

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The dining hall of this campus we’re on is an actual castle from the 1100’s.

Two Car Crashes

We, the volunteers, experienced a relatively trying week at the Hub the week before last. It all came to a head on Wednesday when we just didn’t seem to be able to catch a break. One of the two vans that are critical to our general operation was broken and in the repair shop, so we rented a 6-seater van to help counter the problem of being down a vehicle. This was helpful, of course, but the van we usually use has 8 seats, so we weren’t operating at full capacity with the rental.

The number of seats in the rental van quickly proved to be the least of our problems though. During our lunch break, the one sliver of time when we don’t have to drive back and forth between the camp and the Hub, one of the volunteers crashed the rental van into the side of our other van, putting both of them out of commission for the afternoon. This was annoying. Not catastrophic, but annoying. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to rent a van again from that company, but still, no one was hurt.

Then, maybe thirty minutes later, there was a second accident. This time, thankfully, it didn’t involve any of the staff or volunteers that work at the Hub. It did; however, happen directly in front of the Hub. All of a sudden, a crowd of people were gathering and the next thing I knew, ambulances were arriving to the scene. I walked over to see what the fuss was about and saw a man lying in the road, his motorbike wrecked into pieces, scattered along the asphalt, a car stopped just in front of him. He had peed himself and there was blood all over him. From where I stood, he didn’t appear to be moving, I literally thought I was looking at a man who had just been killed.

An hour later, we opted to close the school. It just didn’t feel like too much was going our way for the way, things felt a bit cursed. We called a local friend of hours, and she used the one working van to transport the remaining refugees at the Hub back the Hotspot. It was a tough call, cancelling all of our afternoon classes and activities, but it felt necessary. It just didn’t feel like luck was on our side for the day. As a (generally) tired volunteer, I welcomed the unprecedented act of closing early. Yes, it’s terrible for the residents, who have to go back to the camp hours before they would like to, but we work ten hours or more each day, six days a week, in an effort to create an environment with stimulating activities and classes. Once in a while, it’s nice for the volunteers to say, “hey, we need a minute, let’s take a breath.”

And so we did. We locked the door and we all went into the library of the Hub and just talked about everything that had been happening for us over the last few days. It was really, really refreshing to take a moment for ourselves, something we rarely do.

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I snapped this photo quickly to send to my coordinator so she could see what we were dealing with in front of the school after the second accident. This is as most of the on-lookers were walking away, after the ambulance had arrived. The overall mood in this photo was very low.

The man who was hit by the motorcycle did not die. He spent two days in the hospital and then went home. With the one van still in the garage, we opted to not drive the lone van for the reminder of the time the second van was out of commission. Driving one van is a ridiculous endeavor, with the flow of people never seeming complete. And so, we stayed open, but only for those students who had the energy, drive, determination, and ability to walk to school. My English classes suffered greatly, but for only four days, I felt like it was alright.

Both vans are now back on the road, new scratches and all.

To Two of the Greats

I’m taking a moment on my blog to mention two people who have impacted my time in Greece in a way that few others have.

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Habibis

Since my arrival on the ground in Leros in the middle of November, volunteers have come and gone, but two have stuck it out and been around for the entirety of my time on the ground. This past weekend, they left. Their departure was unexpected and fast, but I did get the chance to say goodbye, which I’m really grateful for.

In the last seven months, this amazing couple has revolutionized the way that we do things at the Hub. Under their leadership, we made so many strides in making the building and operations that we undergo each day better. In January, when we were hit with a record number of people interested in attending the school, their leadership helped keep the school running and, in time, made it possible for things to run so smoothly that we were able to operate normally, unaffected by the growing number of refugees on the island.

As the months wore on this winter and spring, the number of refugees attending classes and activities only continued to rise, but with a strong team of people and strong leadership, I never even noticed how busy we were, because I was rarely overwhelmed.

On Saturday, I received word that these two people would be leaving the project and moving on to something else. I was saddened by this, a bit shocked, and very worried, as I couldn’t comprehend what the Hub would look like without them. I went out to dinner with them on Saturday evening and then drove them to the port Sunday morning where they boarded the ferry to take them east. And that was that. Within less than 24 hours, my two consistent pillars throughout this whole experience were gone.

I truly loved working with them. They were imaginative, strong-willed, capable, tenacious, and so kind hearted. They came into this project and they whole-heartedly gave it their all. And, at the same time, they became my friends, and I really loved spending time with them outside of the work environment as well as while on the front lines of this refugee crisis.

“Friends come and go, like waves in the ocean. But a select few are like an octopus, stuck to your face.”

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This post is to bid farewell to a great pair of people. Like everything else in life, things change, people go, but that’s no reason not to enjoy them while you have them around.

Having been gone for a week now, I realize that the Hub can operate without them. It isn’t the same, but things are still working. It’s a sobering reminder about how all of us are replaceable. This is not a bad thing though. I would much rather be replaceable in this environment than irreplaceable, being the only person capable of filling a role is just terrifying to think about.

Life really is a series of “hellos” and “goodbyes”.

And so it is.

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