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!

Posted in Spirit & Light | Leave a comment

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.

20190624_211903

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

Posted in Western Europe | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

20190612_142613

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.

Posted in Greece, Spirit & Light | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

61228898_817864878588534_6584378657987362816_n-2

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.”

51755755_751575751884114_2388830491861057536_n

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.

Posted in Greece | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

61136553_813797788995243_6029085952649986048_n

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.

60549576_813797902328565_1367312575372460032_n

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.

20190517_113633

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.

20190525_201731

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.

20190302_144147

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.

photo-1501604297285-ce3a097f7255

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

Posted in Greece, Refugee Trail | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Refugee Camp by the Numbers

Numbers are an interesting thing around here.

There are currently more than 1,200 refugees on the island of Leros. Most of them live in the Hotspot camp, but about one or two hundred live in private accommodations or other housing set up by different organizations. At the Hub, we’re currently serving a little over 300 individuals each week, with more than 1,000 check-ins happening between Monday and Friday. Many individuals check-in for more than one class or activity throughout the week, thus increasing our head count.

Comparing the number of people that we serve to last year, our numbers have almost doubled. And, when everything got so chaotic in January with the arrival of 200 new people, we saw record numbers, until now. The difference between the record number of residents attending classes at the Hub now and the number of residents attending classes at the Hub in January is that now we know how to deal with such a large number of people. Many of us were here for the madness of January and have multiple strategies in place for dealing with large numbers of people.

61136553_813797788995243_6029085952649986048_n

Unfortunately, one of the strategies we have to implement is capping the class sizes each day. No more than 23 people can fit into the largest classroom we have. Anymore than this and it becomes very difficult to teach. 23 is already an alarmingly large amount of adults to fit into a small space, but then factor in crappy airflow, which makes the room extremely stuffy, extra people finding random chairs from around the school and dragging them into the class, an increased number of conversations happening throughout the lesson, and numerous people standing in the doorways, trying to remain within ear shot of the happenings of the classroom, it becaome a lot to handle.

When I was in Kenya in 2012, new policies had been put into place throughout the country to increase the number of students attending school. Kenya isn’t known for it’s great education system, so the country was trying its best to improve on its crappy system. Their plan ultimately backfired, with far more students attending classes than ever before, but fewer students actually learning. This is because the class sizes were increased, but the number of teachers were not.

This is kind of how I feel at the Hub when there are more students than chairs in the classroom. I really want the best for all of my students, but I would much rather refuse ten people from walking in the door than know that a smaller percentage of people in the classroom are going to learn if I let it get overcrowded. It’s crappy. It’s really, really crappy, but if there isn’t any structure, than the whole project takes a hit.

Obviously, I hate thinking about who I’m actually denying the opportunity to learn. The people who show up at the door don’t have much else to do throughout the day other than maybe worry, but it’s either them getting the denial for being too late, or the whole class not being worth teaching. This is the struggle when there are so many people coming to the Hub.

Other than a couple of sad feelings that pass over me, there isn’t much I can do about it.

 

Posted in Greece | Tagged | Leave a comment

“In Syria…KUH BOOM!”

Yesterday morning, while sitting outside of the Hub with one of my students, a fighter jet flew over the island. It whizzed by so fast that neither of us even saw it, we just spontaneously reacted to the sonic boom it left, our necks craning to see where the machine may have gone.

“In Syria,” my student says, and then imitates the sound of a bomb going off, “Kuh Boom!” I roll my eyes in annoyance, knowing that my country has contributed far too much to this endless destruction in the Middle East.

Why is a fighter jet flying over Greece right now? I don’t know, but Greece and Turkey are not the best of friends, so maybe they’re just flying by to take a look at what is going on with their neighbor, to remind them of the Greek presence.

For a large percentage of my students; however, fighter jets soaring over head was a common occurrence back in the lands that they fled from. Another jet passed by in the middle of one of my English lessons and I watched the knowing looks around the room as the sound cracked through the room. Most of the students smiled, describing to me in their broken English exactly what that sound means to them. They smile because they don’t know what else to do, or what else to say. How does one actually comprehend the sound of bombs dropping in the distance…or right on top of you?

Just a thought, just a reminder of what it means to be working with this particular population. It’s a message that reemphasizes how the most beautiful people always seem to have traveled the cruelest roads.

20190302_155259

Posted in Greece | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment