Grand Re-Opening

Well, the Hub reopened yesterday. It was the first opportunity for the refugees to escape from the Hotspot in nearly two weeks. While we worked for 16 days to give the actual structure of our school a facelift by painting it, we also did our best to revamp our schedule to better accommodate as many students as possible.

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The Hub and our vans.

We reworked the layout of when we would be offering specific classes, and we also redid our van schedule so that we would be picking up more people on fewer trips to the Hotspot. I think we knew that making changes over the holiday break was ambitious, because it’s so difficult to communicate any schedule changes, but we felt the changes were necessary and would improve the daily structure of the Hub, so we took our ambition by the hand and just went for it.

Painting is simple. You close the school for a few weeks, you move the furniture, you put down the tape, and you paint. Restructuring lessons is an entirely different story. Our students are mostly Arabic speakers, but some of them speak Kurdish and some speak Farsi. They live at the refugee camp about a thirty-minute walk away from where the school is. Any attempt to communicate with our students in done over our facebook page or on paper schedules that we post at our school and in the camp, we also attempt to verbally communicate while the students are in the school with us. Due to communication barriers, none of these are great methods for getting all of the information from the school to the students, but we do the best we can.

Basically, after just a single day of being reopened, the pretty new paint on the walls was staring down at all of us volunteers, reminding us that some projects are easier than others to implement.

When I got home last night, one of the other volunteers looked at me and said, “do you think the Hub is going to be broken from now on or was it just for today?”

Her question summed up some of the feelings and frustrations I had been feeling throughout the day. Our little school/community center is small, just a handful of classrooms and a reception area, library, and kitchen. It’s not enough space for a large group of people to be milling about without any structure. With our new driving and class schedules in place, there was a larger-than-normal amount of confusion. No one knew what was going on because only a certain number of people know to check facebook for any schedule updates. Everyone was also itching to get out of the camp after not having anywhere else to go for two weeks, so this increased the number of people coming to the school. We also had 300 new arrivals on the island, meaning that there were 300 new people who were just arriving from Turkey and just getting established in the refugee camp. Before this week, refugees who arrived to the camp were not allowed to leave for 25 days while they were being processed. This period of time was tough on the residents, as they were caged for nearly a month with nowhere to go. But now, with the camp beyond capacity (nearly 1,200 people living in a camp built for less than 1,000) the 25 day rule has been lifted in an attempt to alleviate some of the stress of overcrowding. This is beneficial to the refugees, but tough on our school. Not only are there simply more people available to come to school, but being new, they don’t understand the structure of the place, or how things work.

All of these things added up to our school more or less being overrun throughout the entire day. Our new computer system required us to take photos of each person as they came into the school, so we could better track who is attending classes. This will make the school more efficient in the days and months to come, but made for a backed up check-in process, which had everyone standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the reception area for a long time.  Once that was sorted, the classes were all jam-packed as people were trying to figure out how things actually worked. It was an overwhelming day to be a teacher.

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The day, which I hoped would level-out as time wore on, only got more complicated as we progressed. With depression all too common in the camp, people tend to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning and then sleep until at least 11 in the morning, if not until 2 in the afternoon. This means that more students arrive later in the day, swamping the van schedule and keeping the school building full into the late afternoon. Prior to reopening, we volunteers had visions of the school being more peaceful in the afternoon, once English classes had concluded. This wasn’t the case. Things just continued to be chaotic and confusing throughout the remainder of the day.

By the time the day was actually finished, the main concern was that no one really understood why we exist. Our class schedules probably didn’t make sense to them, and the driving schedules were even more confusing. For the second half of the day, when I was finished trying to wrangle students in the morning, I drove one of the vans. This was especially horrible as each time I arrived to the Hotspot, there would be dozens of people waiting for rides and I had to try to explain to them as they fought to climb in over one another, who was allowed to come and who wasn’t. With most of them being Arabic speakers, my English meant nothing to them, and those who were left standing must have been frustrated, confused, and annoyed at me as I drove away. It was a horrible feeling, but one that I’ve felt many times before. Communication breakdowns bum me out–to put it frankly.

Arriving home at the end of the day, I felt fine, but I felt comfortably slumped somewhere between “disheartened” and “hopeful”. If these were cities on a map, I’d be the rural town smack in between them, an hour away from each. There is still so much to look forward to, there are so many things that can be done and the days ahead will determine how our new system is going to work. My disheartened feeling comes from attempting a fresh start and ending up confusing people. But we move on. Today is a new day, and we’ll give it another try.

 

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News from the Waters

Living on one of the Greek islands that hosts refugees means that I constantly pay attention to something called “Aegean Boat Report”, a website that gives accurate and up-to-date information about the number of refugees crossing on boats illegally from Turkey to the nearby Greek islands. New information is posted in real time, but at the end of each month, a report is released, which nicely sums up all of the numbers from the whole month.

With 2018 just concluding, the final numbers for the year have been released. The report speaks for itself, but the break down of the numbers is especially interesting to me to glance over. Refugees board small, barely seaworthy boats from multiple different points in Turkey where they are smuggled across the waters. If they aren’t caught by the Turkish coast guard, they land on different Greek islands. Some of these islands are inhabited and some of them are not. Depending on which island they land on, they are brought to specific camps on the different islands that host refugees. As seen in the report below, the largest number of refugees get sent to the camp on the large island of Lesvos, not because the island is particularly equipped to handle more refugees, but because the distance between Turkey and Greece is extremely small at this point on the map, making it the easiest crossing. Unfortunately for those who make it to Lesvos, they end up in, what some have called, “the most refugee camp in the world.”

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More than half of the refugees fleeing conflict via Turkey on these boats are caught and returned to Turkey. Many of them are put in jail. Aegean Boat Report often posts videos of these arrests being made. Since this all occurs in the water, the videos always look confusing, just people being emptied off of their rafts and boarding a larger vessel and then being transported to Turkey where they quietly step off of the boat with their belongings. It all seems very tame, but what happens once they’re in the possession of the Turkish police is a whole different story, one that I can’t begin to imagine.

While the thousands of refugees on the islands are not prisoners, with the right to freely roam around the island they are assigned to, they are under “geographical restrictions”, meaning they are not allowed, by law, to move around the country of Greece. This is not the case for the refugees who are assigned to camps on mainland Greece. With camps on the islands often overcrowded though, many refugees end up getting transferred to the mainland, hence the category listed above. Many refugees, including people I’ve met personally, take full advantage of their lifted restrictions when they’re transferred to the mainland and try to escape to Italy or Albania, or try to find an alternative route to get themselves out of Greece and away from the asylum process that doesn’t always work in their favor.

With the number of arrivals on the rise since 2017, the numbers are once again proving that the conflict in the middle east and the general refugee crisis is continuing. The last time I was on Leros, less than a year ago, I don’t remember meeting anyone from the country of Palestine. Now, there are hundreds of Palestinians here, seeking asylum. This is a growing population of people, on top of groups from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, all of which also have a growing number of asylum seekers. More and more people are fleeing their homes for their lives.

Glancing over this final report from 2018, I simply acknowledge what it means for me to be working with refugees on the island of Leros. This is one of the most tame islands there is. The Hotspot camp is one of the most humane in all of Greece. The people have the Hub as an outlet for school and entertainment. There are never more than 1,000 refugees here at a time. And yet, often…almost always, things are unbearable here as well. Happy 2019…

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Please see www.facebook.com/aegeanboatreport for further information…

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Cheers, 2018

With 2018 drawing to a close, I find myself excited for the year ahead. I know so little about what is in store for me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The way things are set up now, I could very well be on Leros for the majority of the year, or I may crank up my wandering spirit and just see where the world takes me.

2018, for me, was the year of the refugee. My first three months and my final two months were spent on the ground, but the time in between was spent constantly in contact with the people I had met and organizing an art exhibition of work created by one of the refugees. I was never far from the cause, especially my mind.

Looking forward, 2019 seems set to begin on a similar tone as 2018, but I know there are so many possibilities going forward. So, cheers, 2018, thanks for all the love, and all of the great new people.

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Everyone is Named Mohammed

Our fourth day of painting and revamping the Hub has concluded and we’re just about at our goal of painting three classrooms, the library, and the reception area of the building. I’m starting to lose my mind ever so slowly as the paint fumes have begun to mess with my brain, but I continue to be impressed with how rapidly we have gotten work done this week.

With so few of us volunteers here, we’ve been fortunate enough to have the help of some of the refugees who have shown an interest in being part of the project. On Monday, at the conclusion of the work day, I found myself at the front door, about to leave, and I turned around to say “thank you” to Mohammed for coming in and helping us, only to realize that all five of the refugees who had helped us paint that day were named Mohammed. All five of them have continued to come throughout the week.

The last time I was here in Leros, I don’t recall meeting a single man named Mohammed, but now, it seems I only know Mohammeds. To avoid confusion, the volunteers have nicknamed them all, just to keep things straight. There’s “Translator Mohammed”, “Sewing Mohammed”, “Football Mohammed”, “Oh My Gosh Mohammed”, “I Love You Mohammed”, “I.T. Mohammed”, and the list goes on. Each one is named after specific activities that they are known for participating in or for things that they’re known for saying. They’re a great group of guys, really, and they’ve moved our project along twice as fast as it otherwise would have gone.

Having a variety of cultural backgrounds in the building has been fun too because there’s always different music playing. The sounds of high pitched Moroccan Arabic singers have never sounded so sweet to my ears as the notes ricochet off of the empty walls of the building as I’m painting in a separate room from the speakers. A handful of volunteers who are currently here speak German, so between English, Arabic and German, there’s always a new vocabulary word to be practicing too, depending on who you are speaking with. For the most part, the Mohammeds are decent at speaking English, but “Sewing Mohammed”, who didn’t know more than ten words a week ago, now seems to be able to communicate with us ever so slightly using his rapidly expanding vocabulary. He used to just glance at me to greet me, now, he asks me how I am whenever I see him, and today, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Matt, you are my heart.” Clearly he’s got some studying to do…but it was a nice gesture.

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Mohammed and me. Team bonding on Christmas involved everyone putting a dab of blue paint on the end of their nose. 

Although the work continues, it does still feel like I’m on Christmas vacation from school. I’m so grateful for a break in the routine and the school is still going to be closed for another 10 days. This project allows a bit more freedom than normal, so when I was tired at the end of the day today, I just announced that I was leaving and began to head home, I didn’t have to complete any tasks. Although my initial thought was to head home early and, perhaps, catch up on some sleep, I stopped into 7 Gates, the local cafe we always hang out at, to pay my tab and ended up getting roped into hanging out with my friend for five hours. So much for catching up on rest, but at least I got another blog entry in the books!

Peace!

 

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A Greek Christmas

Christmas is still such a strange concept to me. As a child, I would have never imagined myself being away from the people that I love most on this particular holiday, but adulthood has proven to be more complicated than my little self ever could have imagined. Not only have a spent more than half of my Christmases in my twenties away from home, but I’ve done it from the other side of the globe, on different continents, five different times. This year is no different, I’m more than five thousand miles away from the Christmas tree inside of my mother’s living room.

With Christmas break now in full swing, our school remained shut down for students, but the work for those of us volunteering is more intense than ever. The entire place currently looks like a construction site as four of the rooms are now partially painted and all of the furniture that is usually placed ever so lovingly around the building is now strewn about and covered with tarps. There’s dust everywhere, and people passing in and out throughout the day. With our second day now concluded, I’m beginning to see that, at some point in time, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. The task of painting the entire building was daunting at first thought, but now that I’m seeing the commitment of everyone, I have faith in our abilities.

The best part of the past two days hasn’t been the work of the volunteers, but the work of the refugees. With not much going on in their lives, many of them have popped in to help us with the work that we are doing, and they’re really, really resourceful. Refugees are just ordinary people, so when they show up to Europe, they need to apply for asylum and sit still for a long time while they’re being processed, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have lives coming together prior to having to flee their countries. Therefore, even though we’re just painting and doing some light construction, we have professional electrical engineers and contractors working with us to get the job done. And man, let me tell you, they sure know what they are doing.

Both today and yesterday, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day felt nothing like any other holiday season that I’ve experienced in my life, but it didn’t matter. We have a task at hand and a limited amount of time to complete it, so we work. Most of the residents come from Muslim countries, so Christmas has no significance to them beyond it being a day that forces their school and all of the shops in town to close down.

I like the idea of repainting most of the school during these two weeks off. It’s the only point in the entire year when Echo is closed, so it’s the one chance to get any sort of big project completed. I think this time around, the Hub is getting a much needed facelift. For me, I’m hoping a fresh coat of paint helps to invigorate me for 2019.

All of the shops and stores are closed for the 25th and 26th, so we planned ahead for our painting and got twice as much paint as was recommended, just to make sure we had enough to complete our project. We’re painting the school three different colors: white, blue and a sandy brown. We ran out of blue paint already today, and the sandy brown color we ordered registers on the wall as more of a mucus-green color. We opted out of painting with this color and are now just trying to paint everything we can that needs to be white. We have to wait until Thursday to get the other colors we need in order to complete what we’ve started. This is standard on this island though, if you want something, you better make sure you have whatever you need before the place turns into a ghost town. Thankfully, one of the coffee places remained open and had a delivery guy working, so our mid-day slump was reinvigorated with a latte delivery.

Around six in the evening, we called it quits for Day 2 and headed home to shower. At 8:00, all eight of us were invited over to the lead teacher of the Hub’s house for Christmas dinner. It was a nice, simple get-together with all of the local volunteers on the island and a handful of other locals. The food was particularly Greek, with numerous vegetarian options. It was a room filled with the endless exchange of both the English and Greek languages, all of the Leros misfits who didn’t have anywhere else to be for the holiday.

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 A team photo taken of the Echo volunteers two weeks before Christmas.

If time allowed, I wanted to visit my friend this evening after dinner, but by the time the meal wrapped, it was after midnight. He works at the local music cafe/coffee joint where we volunteers spend a lot of our free time. He and I have become close in the time that I’ve been on this island, and I spent Christmas Eve with him in the cafe last night, just hanging out and talking. The rest of my team was home in bed when I decided to drive back into town to be with him. The cafe was completely empty, so we just hung around together, but I liked being with someone that I care about on Christmas Eve. He seemed to feel the same way too since he had to be at work and his five-year-old was at home without him. It’s a good example of making your own family as you go in this world, especially when your blood family is nowhere to be found.

So, that’s a wrap on Christmas Day, but the Christmas season will press on here for another week or so. I’m off to bed now as it’s late and Day 3 of painting will commence in the morning.

Merry Christmas!

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We Can Do Better

One of the questions that the organization I’m working for asks its volunteers upon receiving their application for work is what their backgrounds are in. With so much going on at the Hub, there are so many different avenues that volunteers can find themselves venturing down. Since I have classroom experience, I spend a large chunk of my time teaching. I would say the majority of what we do here on the island revolves around the classrooms within the Hub, but another piece to the puzzle that is Echo100Plus is our storage department.

We are truly fortunate to have always been lucky enough to have a stream of clothing donations coming in from all over Europe the past few years. Every so often, a few boxes arrive, filled with donations of clothing and shoes that we then get to sort and distribute to the residents of the Hotspot camp. Since I’m normally teaching in the mornings, I rarely get scheduled any time to be a part of the storage department, but every so often, I get the chance to drive to the other side of the island where our storage garage is, and sort through a couple of boxes of things, throwing them into their designated crates.

With anywhere from 600 to 1,000 refugees on the island at any given time, our clothing donations are crucial in helping the people who have fled their countries to become more established on Leros. Even though we are only one small NGO, we have been designated the task of dealing with distributing clothing to the refugees. This means that if we don’t provide the people with clothes, they won’t be given any. We are the sole distributors of clothing, jackets, footwear, and hygiene products. This is why monetary and clothing donations are so important.

When new arrivals get to the island after arriving on boats from nearby islands, we are in charge of giving them clothes right away. Often, they’re still wet from their journey from Turkey. We have a number of different clothing packs pre-made and ready for when new people arrive. For the most part though, our storage team is constantly prepping for “distribution.” When I was here earlier this year, the team I was on did two distributions while I was here, earlier this month, we did another one. Distribution involves closing down the Hub and all normal activities and focusing entirely on giving clothing out to the residents of the camp. This seems like a simple task, but when there are nearly 1,000 people to distribute to, including families with small children and babies, a lot of work needs to go into the event.

For this particular distribution, we closed down the Hub for one entire week and turned the classrooms into a shop, with men on one side of the building and women and children on the other. Ahead of time, one of the volunteers created a timetable for when residents could come in for their appointments. With so many people needed jackets and shoes for the arriving winter, we had to schedule people in 20 minutes shifts, with both of our shuttles constantly running from the Hub to the Hotspot, in steady rotation, picking people up, and dropping them back off.

As each van load of people arrived to the Hub, we volunteers would direct them to their designated areas and then assist them in finding clothing that would best suit their needs. So many of the men prefer to wear formfitting clothing, so we ran out of small and medium jackets relatively quickly. It gets a little old, but for the most part, being people’s personal shopping assistant is pretty fun. The communication is always hilarious too, since most of them only speak Arabic and Farsi.

All in all, the week was a tiring success. Most people were at least somewhat satisfied with what they were walking away with, and I felt good about people getting more clothing to keep them warm. Even though this area of Greece is pretty nice, the weather can still take a toll on the body, especially if you live in the Hotspot.

I think one of the highlights of doing distribution is that we get to interact with children. We aren’t licensed to work with children on a day-to-day basis, so when they come in with their parents to collect clothing, it’s the only chance we really get to see them. Seeing single young men on a daily basis is one thing, but babies and toddlers coming in with their parents to collect shoes and jackets is a sobering reminder of what a mess the Middle East is. We need to do better than this, we humans. We’re capable of so much more.

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“I didn’t expect to spend the day nursing a starfish.”

I’ve got a little catching up to do. A few weeks ago, I tried to put out a final post before taking two weeks off to work on a separate project here in Greece, but I didn’t manage to get my thoughts sorted in time, and so there have been an obvious lack of entries for this month.

Like every blogger before though, I’ll persist. Let’s just pick up from today instead of trying to recap all of the days that have already unfolded.

I’m checking in with you on the shortest day of the year. It appears to be a fitting time to try something new, like getting back into regular blog posts. The moon is full outside of my window as I write this and it’s illuminating the entire bay that exists directly off of my veranda. I have to keep stopping myself from walking out into the cool night air and gawking at the deep blue of the scenery. The goat bells are poetically ringing in the distant hills again too, for effect. I can’t believe I live here.

As of last night, the community center and school that I work at is officially closed for the holidays. For 16 days, our doors will be shut. This seems like a peculiar time to be on this island volunteering with our regular routine now completely dismantled, but I think it’s a good time to do some resetting. When I arrived a little over a month ago now, the team I was working with was huge, 14 people. Almost every one of those people has now boarded either a plane or a ferry and are now safely snug in their respective countries, home for the holidays. Two days ago, I took the final large group of volunteers to the port at 11pm where they boarded the ferry for Athens. Now, it’s just me and a handful of other people who are waiting out the holiday season here on Leros. There are a few new volunteers who are here short-term, who seem to have dropped by specifically for the holiday season. I’m not sure why, but it’s nice to have extra faces around.

For the next two weeks, there will still be plenty to do. This interim time will be used to prepare for some educational revamping at the center as well as some much needed cleaning and painting of the facility. We’re also offering a football camp for two weeks so that the residents of Hotspot have something to do for the two weeks that we’re closed. Very few of them will be celebrating the upcoming holiday as they come from muslim-majority countries.

Today, for the first day of break (and, it being a Saturday, our only regularly scheduled day off) one of the other volunteers and I walked to town for a coffee and then sat near the water’s edge in town and looked out over the harbor. We sat lazily in the sun for quite some time, catching up about all of the goings on around the refugee camp and the community center where we work. There always seems to be something to catch the other person up on as there are so many people doing so many different things throughout the entire day. Last night, there was even activity at two in the morning happening that I needed to be caught up on. There is truly never a dull moment on this island. Even if there were dull moments, they would be filled with the stories of all of the other moments that are, in fact, not dull.

Sitting in as public of a spot as we were by the water, there were dozens of residents from the Hotspot walking by us and waving as they went. It’s easy to feel popular when you work at one of the most welcoming places for refugees on the entire island. A few of them even ventured off of the road over to us to say hello and see what we were doing. One of them brought us a rock and placed it down in front of us, revealing that there was a medium-sized red starfish on it. With his limited English, he just said, “sea star” a few times and then walked away. We kind of glanced at each other, wondering if we should put the poor thing back into the sea or if the man would come back for it–we weren’t entirely convinced it wasn’t supposed to be his lunch.

And so, we kept talking and sitting in the sun, our legs hanging lazily over the edge of some rocks, dangling over the water. Every so often, one of us would unscrew the cap to our water bottle and we’d pour some water over our little sea friend. The irony of the two of us both being vegetarians wasn’t lost on us. We knew we had to keep the little guy alive.

As the day went on, we were alerted via our phones of more than fifty “new arrivals” that would be transported to Leros soon. Every time a boat of refugees illegally crosses the water from Turkey to a Farmakinisi (an uninhabited Greek island close to the Turkish coastline) they get out on the rocky island and call the police. The police then come to collect them and bring them to Leros, where they’ll stay at the Hotspot for an undetermined amount of time.

Despite being given the “heads up” that people were being transported to Leros, we had heard that the boat that usually picks up refugees was broken, so we weren’t sure how they’d be getting to Leros. My friend pointed out that she was relieved that it was a sunny day, because the boat had arrived to the island in the middle of the night, and since Farmakinisi isn’t habited, they would have been left exposed to the elements. Sure enough, after having sat long enough, a boat emerged at the opening of the port and we watched as it grew in size, coming closer to us. When it wasn’t too far off, we could make out the dozens of heads positioned along the front of the bow and along the stern. The Hellenic Coast Guard had collected the 53 people and had brought them into the Port of Lakki.

It’s one thing to work with refugees everyday, it’s another thing to literally watch them sail in from their insane escape-to-freedom-journeys which are essentially concluding as they land on the shores of Leros. From a distance, seeing them all silhouetted against the backdrop that is my current home, the stony hillsides and the Italian architecture of town, the boat looked like any other boat in the harbor, just gliding easily along the water toward one of the docks. When it got to shore, my friend and I walked over to where they docked. Since the area was all public space, we figured we wouldn’t get in trouble for being there.

By the time we were close enough to see what was happening, we saw that the people had been divided into two groups, families on one side and single men on the other side. They were all instructed to sit in rows on the ground, on the concrete. They looked like criminals, which I suppose, they technically are. Their crime? Entering Greece illegally. This is a moment where I have to take a step back and imagine myself from an outside perspective. What would a new born, a brand new human who hasn’t been instructed about the world yet, what would they think of this, committing a crime in an attempt to stay alive?

Police were surrounding the wet refugees, just casually standing around them, as they were waiting for a bus to arrive to pick the group up. I walked by casually with my friend. Everything about the situation has been integrated into normal life here on Leros. There were other people strolling by, cars passing. There were even other refugees walking by while pushing their babies in strollers. I’m not sure if walking by new-arrivals is re-traumatizing for those who live here or confusing for those who have just arrived.

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I caught some sun rays shining through the clouds, dropped against the neighboring island of Kalimnos one morning on my walk to work. 

That’s my little update for today. There truly is never a dull moment in this work that I’m doing. The thing that continually blows my mind about this whole experience is that things that should seem so abnormal, so mind-blowingly disturbing, roll right off of my back. I don’t think twice about refugees rolling in after a tumultuous journey out of war.

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