The Simplicity of Driving

Many days, after I’ve finished teaching English, I become a driver. I just kind of morph into something new. I like this. As volunteers, we do a variety of different things. But my favorite combination of tasks is teaching English in the morning and then driving in the afternoon.

After being in the classroom, even just for an hour, my brain is more than ready to do something a little less intense. The process of driving one of our two vans isn’t a cakewalk since they are so large and the streets of Leros are so narrow and windy; however, it’s just the right amount of activity to keep myself entertained. When driving, we have to monitor who is getting in and out of the vans. This is easier in theory than in reality. Many of the residents like to take advantage of the fact that we have two vehicles regularly making the trip from the Hotspot to town where the Hub is. I don’t blame them, I would to. However, we have to emphasize time and time again that we are not a taxi service. We exist to shuttle students to their classes, not as a bus to get people to the local markets and stores. This consistently feels harsh, as we’re checking individual I.D.s each time someone we don’t recognize tries to hitch a ride, but it’s the only way to make sure that seats are available for those who are actually going to class and not abusing the system.

So, as I’m turning the wheel of the van and down shifting around bends in the road that line the side of a yellow flower-covered hill on the left and the crashing Aegean sea three meters down on the right, my brain isn’t exactly off. At the same time though, there are moments when I can appreciate the way the sun illuminates the hillside. When I even crack a smile as I realize that driving this darn van matters, and that I’m dodging the New York winter. It’s not so bad. It’s simple. It’s driving.


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The Complexity of Teaching

It’s 12:00 on a Monday and I’ve got that familiar feeling of excitement coursing through my blood. It’s a feeling that I have only experienced consistently in my life while operating a classroom. After three days off, I was happy to get back into the swing of things this morning; I always am. For one hour, four days a week, I get to head a classroom of knowledge-hungry students and I couldn’t find the work more rewarding.

At this time each day, I find myself pumped to be alive, happy about what has just been accomplished and charged for what is to come in the remainder of the day. Even if the rest of my day is mapped out to be relatively mediocre, there’s a magic that comes with being able to teach in the morning. Teaching English to beginners is not a complex thing at first glance, but then again, it may just be the most complex thing.

For example, this morning, I spent the entire hour I had with my students teaching them how to properly use three words: on, at, and in. These are three tiny words that seem like they would be relatively insignificant, but then you stare at them for an hour while trying to convey their meaning to a bunch of non-English speakers and you realize how complex even the smallest of words are.

The fun thing about teaching though, is that even when the students stare at you as if you are an alien, you can come back around and re-explain what you’ve just said in ten different ways. After an hour, it was nice to see the majority of students beginning to understand that we have class ON Monday and AT 10:30. Looking at this from a new perspective, it is a little odd that we “do” things IN a month and ON a day. These are prime example of things that stump my students, leaving them asking me to explain something further, and all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say, “sometimes English is just…funny.”

I see it in their eyes, when they laugh at my dumb jokes, they’re relaxing because they know to be in class ON Thursday AT 10:30 IN the month of March. They get it.

They’re getting it. 

I took the opportunity to emphasize at the end of class that even just adding these three little words to their vocabulary really increases the quality of their English. By mastering these three words, they go from, “my birthday is March,” to “my birthday is in March.” Both make sense, but one makes them sound like they’re circling mastery.

I’m so thankful this is my job right now.


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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


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


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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?


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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