You’re Just One of Many

With Sunday wrapping up now, it’s a little daunting to be staring down the face of Monday morning again. What’s going to happen? After last week’s flood of new arrivals and hectic schedule, will there be any sense of normalcy established going forward?

The weekends here on Leros are a peculiar thing for me. They fly by, but at the same time, there isn’t necessarily anything to do. Normally, I’d be pretty good at making my own fun, or my own way, but the weather was grey and rainy all day on Saturday, which limits the number of things to do. With only one day off per week, sacrificing the only day off that I can spend on top of a mountain, gawking at the sea is a bit troubling when it’s because of rain. I like being able to use nature to reset. Without that yesterday, I was left to my own inner strength to kickstart things today.

Our weekly team meeting was spent trying to talk ourselves through how to manage the immense number of refugees on the island. Has the population of the camp ever officially been this high? The Palestinians continue to pour into Greece. Fifty-five new arrivals just happened upon Leros again this morning. The numbers only continue to grow. I’m starting to wonder what actually happens once things balloon to the point of not being able to treat people with any dignity. Can you imagine being one of thirty men who have to all sleep together on the concrete ground inside of a large tent? And then it rains…and breakfast is a small piece of cake…and lunch is some boiled beans in oil…and dinner is some undercooked rice…and your only saving grace is a little school on the other side of town, but you can barely understand what is going on there, or how the rules work, or why the vans only come at certain times and they always seem to be full before you can get a seat.

I then think about the refugees who have been crammed in the camp for months or even over a year. What is it like for them to have their lives closing in on them? They’ve grown used to what life is like in the camp, it’s tough, but they’ve grown used to it being a certain way. And then the camp fills up, mostly with single men, which drastically changes the tone of things. It becomes harder to get your meals in a timely fashion, you need to watch your back a little bit more, and the school you’ve been going to for months, the one place you can count on for a break, for a little relief, it’s been overrun with the new people. You can’t get a seat in the vans anymore because there’s always dozens of people waiting to go to school ahead of you. So, you decide to walk the half hour to school, but when you get there, the building is so crowded that you have to shoulder past people just to check the schedule to see when your class is. You see that your class is due to start in five minutes, but the room is already jammed full and you’re being told there isn’t any room for you. The only thing you can think to do is try and get there sooner the next day, but the place that the school was for you before is now gone. It’s no longer the escape that you need it to be because it’s so crowded. And you’re no longer able to learn English because you’re never sure if you’ll make it into the classroom, and even if you do, you won’t necessarily be granted any individual attention, because you’re just one of many now.

So, as one of the three teachers currently on the ground, it feels a bit like going into battle in the morning. How can I possibly make sure the maximum number of students are learning? It’s so worrisome. If I’m failing at teaching, then what am I doing here?

Inshallah, this will be a good week. I could see it going either way.

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“I spend the whole day watching my clothes dry.”

“You caught me,” he says to me as I step into the yard of the Hub. One of the refugees is hanging about ten items of clothing on the single clothesline we have in our backyard. I smile at him, unaware that I’ve caught a man with his hand in the cookie jar, but he explains himself to me.

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At the Hotspot, all of the laundry must be washed by hand because there are no washing machines or places to clean your clothes. But, worst of all, when you’re finished washing your clothing, you need to hang it up to dry outside. With so many people living in the containers, there is no room to dry your clean clothing indoors.

When I drive by Hotspot, I often see makeshift lines of clothing hanging between different structures. Something that didn’t factor into my brain though, until I came across my friend hanging his clothes outside, was that you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. With the moisture from the sea constantly in the air, clothing is never in a hurry to dry. And with so many people in the camp, leaving your clothing unmonitored can result in their disappearance, as my friend had learned the hard way.

He told me that he had brought his wet clothes to school because if he hung them up at the Hotspot, he would have to spend the entire day watching the clothes dry. He’s done this before, many times. He’s lost his clothing before because he didn’t stay with it while it was drying.

This sounded absolutely ludicrous to me, but then again, it also seems right in line with the refugee experience.

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Even for me, laundry is a hassle. There is a washing machine in my flat, but there isn’t a drier. Obviously, I like this because it is environmentally friendly, but it does drastically increase the amount of time that it takes for clothing to dry. A drier may take an hour, but having to put clothing on the line takes an extraordinary amount of time. The scenery from my apartment is phenomenal, a picturesque view of a sparkling blue bay, accented by a neighboring island and stoney brown outcroppings atop an adjacent hill. There is a constant (wet) sea breeze blowing in from the bay on my terrace where I hang my clothes. The wind constantly keeps things moving, but the moisture in the air doesn’t let anything dry. The breeze is so strong; however, that clothing is constantly ripped from the line and goes plummeting into the bushes and trees two floors below. I’ve, more than once, gone picking through the vegetation to recover table clothes, towels, shirts, and sheets.

At the end of the day, returning from work, after twelve or more hours in the sun and blowing in the wind, the clothes are never dry. So, often, we volunteers move the clothing inside and put it on or near our radiators. This works a little bit better for drying things out, but it never works perfectly and then moisture gets trapped inside, which creates new issues. Alas, I have no problems compared to those who live in the camp. My clothing is still in my possession when I return home at the end of the day.

Bring your clothing to the Hub anytime, my friend, I’ll watch ’em for ya.

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300 Single Men

Our tiny volunteer team is beginning to wear down ever so slightly during this hectic week, but we’re powering through! Three new volunteers will arrive tomorrow morning on the flight from Athens and we’ll be reinvigorated by our first set of newbies since the new year has begun.

With the Hotspot beyond capacity at the moment, a few changes have begun to occur on the island. With the onslaught of new arrivals in the recent days, the numbers are starting to shake out and we, as an NGO, have been given more information. The vast majority of the people who have arrived on Leros are single men from Palestine. The numbers are so skewed, in fact, that the tone of the Hotspot, the Hub, and even the island seems to be shifting. With the tiny “people containers” packed full with sometimes twice as many people as capacity, a giant tent has been set up for the people who cannot fit into containers to sleep in within the Hotspot. As it stands now, there are no beds in this tent, so the refugees are simply sleeping on the concrete.

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“People containers” or “iso-boxes”, little structures built for four people, often filled with 12 or more.

Another bit of information that passed our way was that “99% of the refugees are refusing clothing donations.” So, we’ve been instructed to hold off on giving out new clothing until further notice. Most of the Palestinian men have more money than the average refugee and they are not interested in second-hand clothes, or so I’ve heard. Refugees who are arriving on the island wet are still being given clothes, this won’t change since it’s essential to keeping people alive.

Just north of us, on the island of Lesvos where the crossing between Turkey and Greece is small, the overcrowding in the camp has led to deplorable conditions. A man froze to death yesterday. Reports are showing the high amounts of people making the crossings in these winter months are emphasizing just how dire the situations are in the countries these people are fleeing. Usually the number of new arrivals are very low during the colder months. The people who end up getting wet while crossing the waters need to be rescued quickly to avoid hypothermia.

On the volunteer side of things, we’ve been overwhelmed at work but also struggling with our living conditions at home. The Aegean Sea may be beautiful and especially welcoming to look at from our terraces in the morning, but the salt water in the air keeps everything just a little bit damp, so mold has been growing in our bedrooms. This was troubling, but returning home from work yesterday evening to discover all of our heating units were not working was especially worrisome. Although we are not sleeping in a giant tent like the refugees, it was still a chilly evening huddled under multiple blankets last night.

While the mold situation is being dealt with, our organization has put us up in a hotel in town. I’ve already decided that this will be the only night I spend here. I can handle living in a cold room with blankets while the refugees are out in the cool night air. I don’t need a hotel to rescue me every time I get a little uncomfortable. That being said, I’m writing this post from the comfort of my heated hotel room, in a clean bed, just having showered with fresh (non-salt!) water for the first time in weeks. I’m grateful, but I’m also wondering how many other people I could fit into this room with my roommate and I…

The tone of Leros has certainly shifted now with the arrival of so many new men. I find myself walking around town and getting called after a bit more now than before. All of these new people do not know how things work around here just yet, so it’s taking some getting used to. They see me, I’m sure, as just another confusing white guy, but hopefully one of these days they’ll realize I’m just here to help them and love them the best I can. We’ll see what time has in store for us.

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One Degree From Palestine

Palestine

When I was in Leros in March, I don’t recall meeting anyone from Palestine. Now, there seem to be more Palestinians arriving than any other ethnicity. It’s interesting to speak with these individuals once they arrive at the Hub. If  we track their timelines, they seem to all have left their homeland about a month prior to their arrival. They travel to Turkey, and then make their way over on boats to the Greek islands. By the time they reach us, a month has passed. This is just what I’ve encountered, obviously these are not hard facts.

As I posted in my last entry, there has been a large increase in new arrivals on this island. Many of these people are from Palestine. Our school has had a boom in the number of students attending, which is directly related to the conflict in Palestine. The idea of being only one degree removed from this conflict is oddly exhilarating. As conflict increases, the more crowded my classes get, possibly exactly one month later.

Yemen

Less than a week ago, I was driving to work with another volunteer and she brought up the country of Yemen. We were both aware of the on going conflict/famine in Yemen, but we had never met a refugee that was from this country. It seemed peculiar to us, but once we looked more closely at a map, we could see the problem.

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Yemen, as positioned south of Saudi Arabia.

The conflict in Yemen is caused by Saudi Arabia. There isn’t a direct route out of Yemen without going through Saudi Arabia, especially in the direction of Greece.

Yesterday; however, I had an advanced English speaker sit down in one of my classes, tell me his name, and claimed to be from Yemen. Boom. I don’t know how this happened, but I look forward to hearing more from him in the days to come, if he’ll share with me.

Cameroon

The people from Cameroon were here on Leros during my first “go” here. There were also people from Burundi, Guinea, and Congo. There was a healthy population of people from Africa here. Now, they’ve all gone except for one. He was in my Beginner English class for the entirety of the three months I was on this island last time. He’s young, not yet twenty, and I was saddened to see that he was still here upon my return. I saw him first on the side of the road, walking to town from the Hotspot. When I had a chance to catch up with him, his English hadn’t improved drastically, but he was a bit more conversational than the last time I had seen him. He doesn’t know why he is still here and the rest of his friends have been allowed to move on. He’s a victim of the system, confused, uncertain about what his fate will be and why he’s been left behind. It’s strange to have my two experiences linked by someone being screwed over by the asylum system.

 

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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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