Leros, the Life Metaphor

February is about to conclude. This seems odd to me because I feel like I’ve been on this tiny island in the Mediterranean for much longer than just six weeks. In this brief span of time, I’ve witnessed more than two dozen volunteers come and go. Some stayed for stretches of time, prior to my arrival, spanning three months while others have come and gone within less than two week periods. It’s all part of the journey here on Leros. It’s part of what makes working at the Hub special, but at the same time, it makes the experience seem like it has stretched on forever as I reflect on all of the different combinations of people who have been here over this handful of weeks.

Over the course of this shortest month of the year, I’ve felt like I couldn’t have packed more into these 28 days. The people I’ve met continue to amaze me, and the work I continue to have the privilege of doing has me excited to get out of bed in the morning. Whenever I fall into a job where I don’t fret about waking up in the morning, tired or not, I know that I’ve hit a sweet spot. In this case, I’m golden, having found myself in the position where hearing the alarm at 7:15 isn’t depressing, and my relationship with the “snooze” button is non-existent.

As March is about to begin, I find myself a little sad thinking about what’s to come. My time on Leros and in Greece will have to conclude. While all of my students are stuck here on this island due to immigration laws and the slow process of asylum requests, I’m not legally allowed to stay on this continent. They’re not legally allowed to leave. This is a bit strange to take note of and to process. If I wanted to stay, I couldn’t. I have 90 days on my tourist visa and then I have to vacate. If they wanted to leave, they couldn’t, unless they wanted to go back to the countries in which they fled.

The word that comes to mind to sum all of this up is: unfair. This is all just so unfair.

One evening last week, I was walking the road that my current housing is positioned on and found myself staring at the waves as they crashed against the stone wall a meter or two below where my feet stood. A feeling washed over me, as it were. I’ve lived in many places that have had similar feels to them, but there is something different about this place. It seems like the perfect metaphor for life, this island. People arrive, they stay for a bit, and they go. Some come for two weeks, some come for six months, but they all leave. I thought about this as the water seemed to just do its thing, crash against the shore. And that was it, it just kind of moved away again, back into itself.

Time does a funny thing here, as I mentioned before. But for these refugees, I’m sure it’s an entirely different tale. But, nevertheless, brevity seems to be a theme. We arrive, we blink, and we go. Just like in life. The interesting piece to this whole thing is how quickly I find my mind moving on from the wonderful people I meet here. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism, perhaps I can attribute this to the powerful meaning I experience everyday in the work that I have the privilege of doing here, or maybe I’ve just trained myself to detach in such a way so that I’m not constantly living in the past. Whatever it is, my head spins when I think about who I’ve encountered throughout my time here. It feels like I’ve lived many times over some days. And the people who were here before did their “thing” and now they are gone. And…sometimes I think of them. This is like life, right?

And here I sit. Six weeks in, still on this island, now with a whole new batch of people, and a growing array of friends that are spreading themselves around the world as I type.

On towards March!

 

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Two Dead Bodies and the Problem of the Season

Oversharing.

This is something that happens a little too frequently here on Leros. For my liking, yes, but also in terms of program rules.

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The whole island seemed to burst into yellow bloom last week.

As volunteers, we need to be careful about how close we become to the residents that we work with everyday. This is something that I will try to elaborate on more later as it is the background theme to almost everyday here on Leros for me (and probably everyone who comes here to volunteer). As a human being who thrives on connection, who values it beyond comparison, it feels the furthest from natural to attempt to distance myself from residents that I work with.

That being said, sometimes it’s unavoidable. For example, after class one day, probably two or three days into teaching, one of my students approached me as the others filed out of the room, and they handed me their phone. On the phone was a picture. This picture was of a dead body, face down in a pool of blood. As my eyes processed what I was looking at, he casually said, “sorry.” I was given no warning to what I was about to see. Then, he flipped past the photo and showed me a second picture, one of a man being pulled down the street by his feet by two soldiers. He also looked dead.

My student, from a troubled country in Africa, left his homeland because it was no longer safe for him. The two photos he had shown me were of his friends. He and I must both be under the same assumption that he would be killed if he were to return to his country. It’s stuff like this though, the unavoidable, that gets to me. I couldn’t have blocked this interaction if I tried. It was just going to happen. I had no say in the connection that was about to happen as the phone was handed to me. I now know part of his experience. A big part. And that’s that. Screw boundaries. But…still, boundaries. They exist for a reason. To protect them. To protect me. But, man, do those lines get blurry.

More on this in the very near future…

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Language is Not a Barrier

Working around such incredible people is inspiring. It also makes me want to be a better person and do more with my life. I’m realizing, as I grow older, that if I don’t set out to do the things that I feel as though I’ll eventually get to, they may never happen at all. And so, I’m trying to be better about starting things that I’ve always wanted to do.

With volunteers arriving on Leros from all different places around the world, our shared language is English. This is fortunate for me, and being a native English speaker, I’m in the minority, but every volunteer here speaks perfect English along with one or two or even three other languages. So far, the volunteers that have cycled in and out have come from Sweden, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Mozambique, and Trinidad. The only other volunteers that don’t speak more than one language are those from the UK and Australia. It’s like the English speaking countries want it to be this way!

Since teaching the residents (refugees) is one of Echo 100 Plus’ main objectives, language classes are offered five days a week, all throughout the day. English is the most popular, attended by the most students because it’s likely the most useful. It takes place multiple times a day at different levels. We offer everything from “ABC English” which teaches the alphabet and basic words, right up through a series of classes titled A1, A2, B1, B2, and C1, each increasing in difficulty, allowing students to divide up into appropriate reading and writing levels. I’m currently teaching Beginner English, a class that exists for those who have progressed passed just learning the basics, but who aren’t yet ready for the more advanced courses.

Along with the multitude of English classes, the Hub also offers French, German, Italian, and Dutch, depending on which teachers are around. Along with language courses, computer, sewing, cooking, coding, fitness, basketball, football (soccer), music, art, pottery, and theatre are also offered. In order to make myself feel like a more adequate human being, I’ve plopped myself down in the French class and have been doing my best to drum up whatever is left in my brain from high school. It’s been fun. It’s also been interesting (and a little depressing) to see how useless learning a second language was in middle and high school.

That being said, it’s a really unique experience to sit in a tiny classroom with two or three other students and learn from a teacher from France. There’s a delightful French couple on this island who winter here for half of the year. The woman was recruited by a friend to volunteer some time at the Hub teaching French. Another volunteer, from the UK, attends class with me along with two more advanced language residents. It’s been such an adventure to sit down with people from different backgrounds and have this shared experience. Due to limited spacing, our desks are close together and our teacher is only a few feet in front of us. This helps us bond, especially as we all set out with the same goal in mind and then face the same struggles. Coming from three different continents and four different countries, we each have our own issues when it comes to accents and pronunciations. I think it’s just as fun for the residents to be in class with volunteers as it is for us. And I know for certain that our teacher loves seeing us progress. She’s never taught a language before so we’re her guinea pigs. It’s just so cool. I can’t get over that I’m learning French on a Greek island with an English girl and two men from Iraq and Iran. In an effort to help us learn faster, our instructor has even invited us over to her flat the last two Saturdays for extra lessons.

I won’t become fluent anytime soon, but it’s still fun to be experiencing some forward motion. This whole experience is one big language experiment to me. We’re in Greece, so there’s Greek being spoken everywhere, but English is the common thread, spoken by most of the people I interact with each day, but at different levels. So, I adjust how I speak based on who’s around me. With some of the Arabic and Farsi speakers, I speak very slowly and only use single words. With others, I speak in simple sentences, sometimes moving words around so they make more sense. I often catch myself speaking too slowly and simply for some of the more advanced speakers, and I quickly try to speak in a more respectable way. I teach English very slowly, but try to talk normally so my students understand how sentences should be put together. Arabic, Farsi, and French are the most spoken languages by the residents. It’s so curious to be around so many languages that don’t mean ANYTHING to me. Farsi and Arabic in particular are just gobbley-gook. My failure to mimic words in Arabic that some of the residents have tried to teach me has been the butt of many jokes. Writing in Arabic is also particularly curious. They write from right to left in this language and when spelled out, my name is basically a smiley face followed by a squiggle. It’s fascinating.

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Some of the signage that gets posted outside of the Hub in multiple different languages, so most of the residents we serve are able to determine when their classes are scheduled for the week. 

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Here’s a close up of the English schedule. I don’t know why it was so difficult to get a decent photo of this, but this  is what a schedule looks like. I teach Beginner English every Monday-Thursday from 10:30 to 11:30.

It’s been kind of fun to have a few French speakers in my class as well. A few students of mine are from Guinea and the DRC, so I’m able to practice a little of my French as I’m attempting to teach them English.  The men seem to appreciate whenever I toss out a phrase I know or a couple of words, but the one French speaking woman always just laughs at me. I get it–I’d laugh at me too.

So, at the end of the day, as I hear around ten different languages throughout the duration, the experience here feels really international. And, even though I’m not absorbing any of what is being said, it’s still incredible to dial in and listen to how similarly different all of our ways of communicating as human beings are.

 

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Clothing Distribution

My first week here was not a regular week. I didn’t recognize this of course, but every week since has differed from the first. In the first week, we were “doing” distribution. Echo, the organization I’m working with, collects clothing donations for residents at the Hotspot. We currently have a separate location for storing donations, a garage we rent from a local on the other side of the island. It was here that I spent my first days with the other volunteers, prepping a coat, hat and scarf distribution for women and children, and then, actually doing it.  The week involved monitoring mothers and their kids as they made their way thought the racks we had on display and then making certain that everyone checked out with the correct number of items.

The entire distribution took three days. Since we are responsible for moving residents from the Hotspot to the Hub or to storage, our two vans can only carry 8 passengers at a time, slowing down the process significantly. One by one, the vans would make the 15-minute journey across the island and the families would unload and begin their searches for durable winter clothing.

Although it’s the middle of the coldest months of the year here on Leros, January and February seem to be running rather mild. This seems to be the case since coats weren’t distributed earlier in the season. Nevertheless, with many refugees coming from desert and equatorial countries, even a Greek winter feels cool. Although nothing about this situation is ideal, I was happy to see that things weren’t falling apart at the seems. Leros’ camp is actually relatively decent, all things considered. I ventured over here thinking I’d be schlepping through mud in the camp during increasingly bad weather. For this reason, I brought only clothing that I’m happy to dispose of come April. I guess, really, now I just feel under-dressed most of the time.

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A new shipment of clothing donations have arrived. A grateful addition to our storage as we continue to distribute clothing and shoes. With consistent new arrivals, any donation is always welcomed. 

For the most part, I think the people who passed through our distribution were happy to have new coats. Understandably, not everyone was elated; however, it’s still something. It must be so very difficult to transition from a life of supporting yourself and being able to go shopping to having to sift through donations with multiple other refugees.

With a new set of donations arriving last week, a shoe distribution is coming up next–just a week away!

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The Hotspot

The two most crucial places here on the island of Leros for the duration of my time here both start with the letter “H”. The “Hub” and the “Hotspot” will be two names that surface frequently in any blog posts that I produce in the coming weeks. The Hub is the building that the organization/non-profit that I’m working for operates out of. This is where people, refugees and volunteers, gather for classes and activities. It’s the center for just about everything we do. It has multiple classrooms, a garden, a yard, and a kitchen. The Hotspot? Well…

When the Syrian refugee crisis first started, I think things here on the island of Leros were more dire than they are now. The videos that I saw on the internet that made my heart stir were of people desperately making their way across dangerous waters in little boats in hopes of finding safety in Europe. This particular time is mostly over. Boats still arrive, there are still smugglers and people still pay extraordinary amounts of money to get to this island, but there aren’t boats arriving daily. The refugee camp still exists, but it’s a little different now.

The camp is referred to as “the Hotspot.” Why is it called this? I’ll have to get back to you on that, no one seems to know exactly why this wording is used. Somehow, however, it  differs from an actual refugee camp. It’s something put into place by the Greek government after pressure from the European Union. Greece has suffered an extensive amount of the strain brought on by the large flow of migrants to the EU due to it’s proximity to Turkey and the fact that small boats can make their way from Turkey to Greek islands with relative ease.

The Hotspot is horrible. It’s illegal for me to take pictures of it, which should emphasize how despicable it is. There’s a great article about it written here, and although you may not feel inclined to click this link, I’d encourage you to, because it accurately describes the place where people I interact with daily spend the bulk of their time: A Badly Run Prison. 

It’s a place I have to visit almost everyday. I drive our van up to the gates, park, and wait for the residents to come out and climb in so I can take them to the Hub. It’s a prison. The entire outside of the camp is surrounded by a fence with coils of barbed wire on top, and the inside is divided into sections, also separated with barbed wire, keeping certain nationalities apart. I’m told that the barbed wire and fencing is protection for the residents, rather than a cage to hold them in. That being said, residents are allowed to come and go as they please. They are, after all, on an island, and are unlikely to make it anywhere too distant. Not to mention if they were caught trying to escape, they would jeopardize their chances for asylum. They’re safe here, for now. It’s temporary, but when it rains, they have a roof over their head, and when they’re hungry, they have food. It’s just that the spaces that protect them from the rain are tiny and the food that they are served is…terrible.

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This photo is borrowed from the blog “On the Refugee Trail”. I do not own it. It is, technically, not allowed to take photos at this point in time, 7 February 2018.

The above photos shows how cramped this living situation is. The small living structures are referred to as “containers”, which is short for “people containers.” If you take a second to think about these two words together, it should make you a little uneasy. Some of the residents that I teach and interact with each day say that they share their tiny containers with up to ten other people. Their beds are slammed up against each other and there isn’t any breathing room. From what I can see through the fence, there isn’t anything home-y about the Hotspot. The containers are drab, there is no vegetation to speak of, and everything is close together, making the living situation nearly impossible for generating anything resembling hope.  Food is served out of a container in the front of the camp. The residents line up for their food after announcements are made over the loud speaker system.

To add salt to the wound, the land that the Hotspot sits on are the remnants of an old asylum where mentally ill people were sent throughout much of the 1900’s. This haunting place was once referred to as “Europe’s dirty secret”, because the patients were treated so poorly. Now, the structure that once housed these abused people, overlooks the small structures that the refugees wait in. It’s not lost on me that an old asylum overlooks a group of people who are looking for asylum. How…ironic?

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Some of the Hotspots in Italy and Greece. Leros, located a few kilometers from Turkey, has one of the highest capacities of all the camps.

The Hotspot is containers and barbed wire. It’s a holding area and it’s a temporarily safe place. It’s a place where hope likely expires, but also lingers in the air just long enough with every new batch of refugees who arrive. I’ve heard time and time again that the Leros Hotspot is the Ritz compared to many other camps and hotspots throughout Greece.

The Hub exists as a place of refuge from the otherwise distressing aspects of life on Leros in the Hotspot. I look at the Hub like a place to stave off boredom. Residents can learn a new language, come to computer or cooking classes, or get involved in soccer, basketball, or fitness courses. There’s always something going on and there is often something new happening too, being run by new volunteers. Even if it isn’t particularly special, like just another regular day in English class, it’s still something to shake up the monotony of the nothing that is the Hotspot. And hey, if a refugee picks up a little English or French while they’re waiting to hear if they’ll be moving on to Athens in the coming weeks, this could be something beneficial to them not just in the future but, really, right away.

 

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“People Were Dying In the Same Waters That We Swim In”

People were dying in the same waters that we swim in, so it was time to do something. We were certain the situation would only last for two months or so, then the war would be over or Europe would have taken over the situation. Here we are two and a half years later. -Echo 100 Plus Founder

It was 2015 when I first saw the videos of volunteers jumping into the choppy waters of the Mediterranean as the over-packed dingy boats filled with Syrian refugees outrunning the war crashed ashore on the Greek Islands. I instantly wanted to be a part of what was going on. I wanted to drop my life and book the first plane ticket to Greece. Granted, at the time, I didn’t have too much going on in my life. I was a few weeks removed from my year of existence in Guyana and was anxious to find meaning in life again. But that period of time didn’t end up being the right time for me. Despite scouring the internet for available organizations who would be willing to take me, I came up empty handed each time I put my search engine skills to the test in the fall of 2015. I suppose it just wasn’t the time for me to be in Greece.

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A photo taken before heading to a march voicing support for bringing more Syrian refugees to the United States in the fall of 2015.

This past fall, two years since I first set out to become more directly involved in what was happening, I found myself all of a sudden with the phone number of an individual who had volunteered with an organization on one of the many islands that the refugees were landing on. After a quick briefing from her, I was put in touch with the founder of the organization, Echo 100 Plus, and I soon found myself interviewing to become a team member on the ground in Greece. The next thing I knew, plans came together for me to turn Greece into my temporary home and a place of work for the better part of this winter.

It’s now the end of January. I’m nearly three weeks in to my Greek adventure, and I’m not overly hesitant to say that, at the time of this writing, I could very well have some of the best weeks of my life ahead of me. I’m elated to be where I am in the world right now. I feel like my soul is on fire all over again. This has to do with a number of different things, but for the most part, being able to experience meaningful work while simultaneously connecting with volunteers and refugees from all over the world is enough to get me out of bed in the morning. The fact that I’ve cashed in the three most wintery months in New York for a mild Greek Island winter is also not wasted on me.

As I flew from Miami to Athens, I honestly didn’t have any idea what was ahead of me. I planned out such a minute amount of this excursion that I really should have been a little uneasy. For some reason; however, I felt fine, which I think I can attribute to one of two things; I either had the overwhelming sense that this experience could only be positive, or, I’ve done this sort of thing so many times that I fully recognize that there’s no point in developing useless expectations in my head. Nevertheless, as I made the trans-Atlantic journey, I thought nothing about what it would be like to arrive at my final destination. My thoughts were merely focused on getting to Athens and checking into my Airbnb, which I had set up for myself for three days, giving me the chance to stave off jet lag and mentally prepare for a new adventure.

After three days in Athens, more than adjusted to the time change, I meandered in the late afternoon down to the marina and boarded the ferry at the port of Piraues, one of the largest ports in the world, just south of the Greek capital city. At 7:00 in the evening, the ferry left port and I found myself a spot to cozy up in for the eight and a half hour ride. Being that it was the middle of the night, and being that it was January, there wasn’t much incentive to sit on the deck, so I moreless just waited out the experience. The ship was ridiculously large and far and away the nicest piece of sailing equipment I’ve ever found myself on. After a sleepless night and three stops at other islands, we docked in Leros, an island just a few miles off of the coast of Turkey, the place I would be calling home for nearly three months.

Since arriving on Leros, my life has, as I said before, become much more exciting. I work directly with refugees six days a week. I teach English to people who are hungry for education every Monday through Thursday, and I tutor those who want to get ahead on Fridays. I also work the reception desk at our center for education and activities and drive one of our two shuttles which exist to help move people out of the camp and to our center more easily and in a more timely manner. For fun, I’m also involved in less formal classes that are offered each week, such as football and theater. We also offer less official weekly events that are meant to be more social, like “Cafe Chats”, two hours set aside each week for conversation between volunteers and residents geared specifically toward improving the English of the residents. There’s also time set aside each week to gather at a local coffee shop and play chess and backgammon, which has been a highlight over my first few weeks here. For fun, we also plan special events that help to break up the routine. Last week, for example, over forty volunteers and residents took part in a night hike, illuminated by the blue/super moon that seemed to have everyone around the world in a tizzy.

While my time here has been brief, not even totaling three weeks yet, I’m already well aware of how quickly the rest of my time will go. This is something that is not wasted on me, however. I know that special places filled with special people are not to be taken for granted. Plus, all of the best opportunities seem to fly by, don’t they?

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The current team in Leros–a group of constantly changing volunteers. In my first three weeks, nearly every volunteer has been replaced with someone new. This keeps things consistently fresh.

To be honest, each day here has been both a strong standalone story and an intricate piece to the puzzle that will make up this entire whirlwind experience. I’ve been writing short blog entries in my mind from time to time, knowing that I would love to be fully capturing this whole adventure. Only time will tell how dedicated I am to sharing this time period with the world wide web, but until then, I knew I at least wanted to spew a little bit of information onto this page as I’ve just done.

Peace!

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Twisted Freaky Fruitcake

You’re a Twisted Freaky Fruitcake.

Yup, you sure are.

Are we not all just a bunch of weirdos sliding around on this organic rock that’s orbiting aimlessly around a star?

I say we embrace the weird. I’ve always felt like things were easier when we did anyway.

Instructions: Make a list of all of the things you don’t like about yourself.

This may be the most simple assignment you’ve ever been given, right? As a human being, you can probably stand in front of a mirror and recognize a dozen flaws about yourself without even batting an eye…

a little grey hair poking through,

a wrinkle you hadn’t noticed before,

the dark circles under your eyes,

the yellowing of your teeth,

the way your hair doesn’t fall just-so over your face.

And that’s just the physical stuff that surfaces at a glance. Then take into account all of the other stuff about yourself.

You never keep promises to yourself,

the people in your life aren’t who you need them to be,

there’s never enough money,

you’re always exhausted,

etc.

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This list of things (be it in the dozens or hundreds or thousands) isn’t true.

Well, it may be true. But, it may also be false. In fact, if even one thing on this list is false then, really, the whole thing is false. That’s just basic math, right? If I say I have a hundred red apples, but one of them is green, then it’s not true that all of my apples are red. Some of the things on our lists aren’t even steadfast. A wrinkle isn’t a bad thing unless we allow it to be. Some people may see a wrinkle as a battle scar, a mark of a warrior. Some people may see it as lucky for having lived to the point where they get to have wrinkles. Others may enjoy the realness that comes from a face that has weathered the world a little. And so, there you have it, there’s no way to prove that your wrinkles are a negative thing, and therefore, there goes your whole theory about your list. It’s false. And it all goes down together, just like a sinking ship. It’s all false.

The key here is to make a list of all of this crap, glance over it once, acknowledge it for what it is and then metaphorically set it all on fire. Let it go. The trick is to not treat the list as the truth.

Love the Twisted Freaky Fruitcake inside of you by not treating the list like the truth, because it isn’t. The list is everything that doesn’t serve your inner T.F.F.

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We are the full spectrum of light and death, remember to acknowledge all of the light parts.

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