Athens to Leros, Ferrying Forward

Journal entry from Friday, 16 November, 2018:

I’ve just wrapped up four days in Athens after flying in from Cabo Verde on Monday. The time passed so quickly, but I found myself completely engrossed in the city and the people there for the entirety of my time there. Unlike my previous two trips to Athens, this time, I know plenty of people in the city, which really made all the difference for my stay there.

At long last, after more than eight months a part, I was able to reunite with my friend, Basel, who painted a number of paintings for my place of employment this summer. Coordinating this art exhibition with him was an extensive experience that kept us closely connected throughout the entire summer. Seeing him again in person, in a brand new location, mind you, was a trip. We spent our first afternoon together sipping coffee and sitting in a park in Athens before wandering around the city together and eventually ending up back at his flat where he and his two roommates, who I also know from my first trip to Greece, cooked dinner.

They cooked chicken, but kept me in mind and made sure to present multiple vegetarian options throughout the meal. Basel made a delicious salad which rivaled many of the Greek salads I’ve sampled across this country in my three trips here. Sitting down to dinner with the three of them in their studio apartment in Athens was a bit surreal. It felt like the moment was more than likely destined to not happen, so the fact that it was, indeed, happening was not lost on me. These were three people who, when I had left them, were still living in a refugee camp with no certain decision about whether they would ever be allowed to the mainland portion of Greece or if they would simply be sent back to Syria and Iran. Breaking bread with them, and hearing their stories really put a few things in perspective for me.

As a volunteer this past winter, there were specific rules and guidelines about how to go about developing relationships with the residents of the Hotspot (refugee camp). There were concerns about relationships between both sides growing too strong, which would result in the refugees feeling more loss when the volunteer(s) they had bonded with eventually left. But there’s also a coldness to not being yourself and opening up to someone you naturally would want to get to know and spend time with. The rules in place with the organization I work with about relationships with refugees is ever changing. Sometimes, the rules are very strict, other times they are more lax. It seems no one has quite found the perfect balance yet. This is why having eight months away from the project has changed a few things for me. I’ve grown closer with a select few residents who have now transitioned further into their journeys into the EU. Having crossed a few hurdles with them, a trust has been built, so when I found myself in their home and having a meal with them, they were more honest than they have been able to be before with me.

Unfortunately, I cannot share what I’ve learned over the internet. But as they shared some of their stories with me, my mouth dropped open a few times and I had to scoop my jaw up off of the floor in order to not present as a total idiot. Everything they were saying made sense to me, but I couldn’t help but be in complete and utter awe of the “system”…the disgusting, disgusting system that is in place to screen people and then decide what will happen with the rest of their lives.

Two days into my stay, I met up with two other former residents of the Leros Hotspot who are now in Athens. They too shared more with me than they had in my previous trip. What happens to refugees once they’re granted any sort of stay in Greece, whether it be for 6 months or 3 years, is ridiculous. They’re given no support. They’re just thrown into a new city, a new country, and expected to make their way on their own. It’s mind boggling.

As I write this, I’m on the overnight ferry back to Leros. The ship just departed Pireaus Port in Athens and we’ll cruise all night until about 4:30 when I’ll disembark in the middle of the dark with a few dozen other people and resume this refugee experience that I haven’t taken my heart off of since last January. Last time, when we docked, someone from my team picked me up and drove me to where I would be staying. This time, already knowing the island, the new team has left me the car parked on the side of the road near the ferry where I’ll drive myself to where I’ll be sleeping. This seems so innovative to me! Since I already know the island, why not let the whole team sleep through the night instead of wasting their time picking me up? Perfection.

I’m being as honest with myself as possible throughout this experience, I’m making that a goal of mine. Too often I’ve relied on stronger versions of myself to ‘get me through’ experiences like the one ahead of me, but this time around, I’m looking to feel everything that is ahead of me in a way that will help me to process events as things are happening. Too often, I feel like I’m trying to unpack experiences once they’re over, and the events and people and feelings all pile up as the days and weeks progress. I mentioned before my unease while in the Lisbon airport for 12 hours, transitioning from relaxing African holiday to full-time European volunteer work. Being in Athens, collecting stories and reigniting so much of the past gave me a lot to process right off the bat.

I don’t know who I am in this whole ordeal. Without even setting foot back on the island, I’m already feeling the hopelessness, the backwardness. And so, where do I belong in all of this? Or, gosh, do I belong? Being reminded about how messed up the system is here creates a regular cocktail of emotions inside of me. If someone is going to risk their life to get to Europe, then get shoved in a camp for a year or two while they desperately try to navigate the system which doesn’t favor honesty, and then, ultimately, get shipped back to the place they fearfully fled from, what’s the point? But I’ve already kind of got my head wrapped around it. We’re all spinning around this same earth together. Every small act of kindness or good deed ultimately adds to the whole. So, I remind myself, these are people. And yes, even though people I cared about in the camp from months ago have filtered out in one direction or another, there are new people filling the containers of the camp and they too deserve as many doses of love as everyone can shell out. And maybe their time in Europe is only temporary, but that doesn’t mean this is hopeless.

There is life to be lived, after all. There is love to be shared.

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Sad Stories and a Cappuccino

“That would be a good name for a poem,” he says to me as we say goodbye.

God, let there be a “next time!”

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This guy, one of the refugees I know, he’s a poet. He’s reached out to me after I posted a photo of myself in Athens on Facebook. I have four days between landing in Athens and catching the ferry to Leros. He’s asked to meet up and I accept the invitation. He brings a friend, another one of the refugees that I know.

The last time that I saw the pair of them, they were tied up in their asylum cases the same way most of the refugees I worked with are. When I arrived and when I left, there was no movement on either of their cases. Neither one got any closer or any further away to accessing the European Union or being deported for the three months that I knew them. Both of them were already excellent English speakers, but they still attended English classes in an effort to further progress in the language.

The one who initially reached out to me, he’s a poet, in every sense of the word. When he was imprisoned in his home country of Iran for being Kurdish (you can be put in jail for simply existing in Iran), he was stuck in his prison confines for six years. Halfway through his sentencing, he begged a guard for a pen so he could write poetry. When he was later caught by a different guard with this pen, his prison sentence was extended.

He had shared some of his poetry with me when I met him initially, and he continues to write now. Whenever I think about how artists critique themselves, especially to the point where they say things like “I’m not a real poet”, I remind myself of this remarkable Kurdish poet and am reminded that everyone is an artist; because, he may not be a published poet, but he certainly creates poetry in every sense of the word.

When I met up with said poet and his friend in the middle of Athens yesterday, I couldn’t help but give them extra long hugs as an expression of my elation to see them. For them to exist, before my eyes, in surroundings that are not the island of Leros, surely meant something was going right for them.

The three of us meandered up the street from the metro stop we had garrisoned at and eventually found our way into a cafe. I went to the counter and ordered three cappuccinos and then joined them at the table they had found for us at the side of the restaurant. They then began to fill me in on everything that had happened for them over the last eight months. Much like some of the other stories I had been collecting throughout the week, there wasn’t much positive content wrapped up in what they were telling me. Yes, they were in Athens, but it wasn’t because they were granted asylum or given ten-year visas to Greece. They were granted temporary six-month stays, which basically only gave them the chance to come to the Greek mainland and then try to illegally bolt out of the country via Italy or Albania, with or without the help of a smuggler.

Both of them had tried to leave, but had failed. With it being November, the encroaching winter is making passage more difficult into and through the Balkan countries. Temperatures around 1 degree celsius are enough to make anyone who is used to 40 degree days in Iran turn back for warmer weather.

The poet, he had arrived in Athens and been robbed of all of his paperwork and documents that made him a legal person existing in Greece. The other refugee had lost all of his clothes when he hung them out to dry and a storm blew through, taking all of his clothing with it. The poet further explained to me how he lives in a “squat”. But he likes it. It’s an area of the city where the police don’t go, so the mafia runs that part of town. It’s a community of people, about 80 or so, and the majority are Kurdish. The squat exists in an abandoned building and there are weekly meetings for the entire squat to make sure each person is on the same page about how life in the squat is going. For eight hours each week, every person is expected to stand watch during a “security shift” in order to protect the squat from being attacked by other squats.

I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but it all made sense, too. “The system” isn’t set up to allow refugees to thrive. It isn’t really set up for them to do anything at all, come to think of it. And so, it makes sense that they would find themselves in abandoned buildings, trying to eek out an existence.

When the afternoon concluded, because they each had a meeting with a lawyer and the weekly meeting at the squat to get to, I offered to pay for everyone’s drinks. That only makes sense, right? I mean, if you have a coffee with a person who lives in a legitimate squat, you pay for their drink? But he insisted that he would pay. And I argued. And he insisted. And that, right there, might be one of the best examples of selflessness I’ve ever encountered. He said it with a smile on his face, too . He only got me off of his back when he said, “next time, you get it.”

This made me feel better. Yes, indeed, next time I saw him, I would pay for his drink. And then I thought some more as I watched him pay the nine Euros. Next time? Oh my God, please just let there be a “next time”! Let the two of us run into each other again somewhere on this giant rock floating around the sun and be given the opportunity to sip on caffeine and talk poetry, please!

As we parted ways, I noted how our meet up had been all sad stories and a cappuccino. He, the poet, noted that this was a decent title for a poem. We hugged and parted ways. When I returned home that evening, there was a message waiting in my inbox on my computer, a new poem, titled just that.

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Three cappuccinos and some sad stories.

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“Volunteering, Why Do You Do This?”

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We’re all in this together.

This evening, I found myself sitting around a small coffee table in a one room AirBNB with three other men. Eight months ago, they all lived in the Leros Hotspot, a refugee camp on an island near Turkey. I volunteered there, working with them for nearly 3 months. Now, they have all been granted different versions of legally being allowed to live in Athens.

The one of the three that I know the least took an opportunity to ask me a simple questions while the other two had stepped out for a few moments. He asked me in his Kurdish accent, relatively good at piecing English sentences together, why some young people liked to volunteer. He said he understood why someone would want to give a week or two of their time to volunteering, but he couldn’t comprehend why someone would give two years.

After a little more fishing, it turns out that he was referencing some mormons that he had met in the city who had preyed on him a little bit. He pulled out a small, black-covered copy of The Book of Mormon that had been given to him and as he put it in my hands I was able to make sense of what he had been asking.

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10pm coffee and The Book of Mormon.

The startling thing about all of this though, was that I had no clear answer for him. The confusion in my head translated perfectly out into the open air of the apartment as I literally stuttered and cut myself off three or four times in a row, unable to figure out how to present a cohesive answer. Yes, I was trying to select my words carefully for the man who understands Farsi first and English second, but honestly, I wasn’t sure of how to answer the question myself, even if someone else had been asking it.

This all felt familiar to me; however, so I dug around in my draft folder for this blog and found an entry I had written months ago, but never polished, so I never got around to publishing it, and I think it makes sense to post now, along with this post. It’s a blog entry I had begun to write after I was finished hiking in New Zealand with a friend. This idea of helping people had crossed my mind then too. Why do I like to volunteer? Why is helping humanity “a thing” for me?

Click here for my answer to this giant question or refer to the previous entry on this blog.

 

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But When Are We Going to Help People?

Over a year ago, when my time in Antarctica had concluded, I landed in New Zealand and went for a long walk.

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New Zealand as positioned above Antarctica.

After meandering down from the city of Christchurch on the southern island on the curving roads of the New Zealand countryside, my companion and I spent two days in Bluff, the most southern town in the country. We hiked a trail that took us to the cliff side that overlooked the ocean, facing directly south. We got there just before the sunset and we stood on the edge of that stony outcropping and watched the world turn dark, looking out over the only waters that lay between us and the continent we could no longer refer to as our home.

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My companion and me on the southern tip of New Zealand, looking out toward Antarctica.

Two days later, we began hiking the Te Araroa, a trail that runs the length of both the south and north islands of New Zealand. Our initial plan was to take a little over a month to hike the south island.

When you hike with someone else, you spend a lot of time with them. My companion and I walked on the sides of roads with trucks whizzing by us, scampered up rock covered mountain tops, schlepped our packs through the muddy trails of the woods, and navigated our way through sheep and deer pastures in the middle of the countryside. Together, the two of us covered a lot of ground, both literally and emotionally. It was as if we had both been released from our sentencing of four months in Antarctica and traversing the wilds of New Zealand was the most abrupt and powerful way to bring us back to the real world.

Being in Antarctica meant that I had formed close bonds with all of the people around me. Even if I didn’t have access to everyone in the world, there were still dozens of people I was close to while I existed with them on the continent. I think this intense feeling of absence, brought on by not being around my friends anymore, played a large part in bonding me with my companion while in New Zealand. Together, we covered a wide variety of topics in our discussions around the country. We had ample time together, certainly, and most of the time it was just the two of us. Two people, traversing the country with the same goal in mind: Head North.

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Once in a while we would happen upon a field full of sheep. They were so skittish that we never got the chance to get too close to them.

It sounds like some sort of scenario people would come up with in order to entertain each other: If you had to be isolated in the woods with only one person for an extended period of time, who would it be and what would you talk about?

My companion had indeed been my friend during our four months on the Ice together; however, he wasn’t someone who would have come to mind to answer the above question. Come to think of it, no one really comes to mind. This made it especially interesting to be isolated with him and to have the opportunity to really connect.

It should come as no surprise that, at one point in our time together, we thoroughly covered the topic of the future, and where we both imagined ourselves going. He had his plan and told me all about the jobs he was hoping to pursue, the house he wanted to buy, the girl he wanted to marry, etc.

And I listened. And I hiked. And I found myself waiting for him to say something, but he never did. And so, when he seemed to have reached his conclusion, I asked him:

But when are you going to help people? 

He didn’t have an answer.

Having listened the entire time with a curious ear, I was a little perplexed, but I didn’t say anything more, we just kept hiking. This is how it came to be that I scribbled down in my journal one evening: when are we going to help people? 

It’s been over a year since I floated around in Kiwi country with my friend, and this sentence has periodically jumped into my mind in the time that has passed since. I think what gets me about it is that it makes sense to me. At some point in a lifetime, doesn’t a person want to help other people? This has to be the thinking of everyone I come across, right?

Nope. And that’s okay. This isn’t how everyone’s brain works. It is; however, how my brain works. This took a little bit of time for me to think on before I came to the conclusion that it is okay if you don’t want to help other people. It’s okay to go about your life and treat people with respect and take care of yourself. It’s okay to buy yourself a house and to live extravagantly, so long as you aren’t hurting anyone. It isn’t a requirement to help other people.

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At the beginning of the country-long trail.

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Our first few steps.

I grew up with parents who had professions in the helping fields. A teacher and a social worker. They met while serving homeless youth in New York City, and they made sure that volunteering was something that my siblings and I were, at least, aware of. Due to their hearts, I was more or less destined to live a life where helping other people would land somewhere on the list between buying a home and getting married. It’s just something that needs to be done at some point.

When being interviewed for some of the volunteer programs that I ended up being involved with in my earlier twenties, I used to answer that I liked to volunteer because I was selfish. And that was the truth. One of the best parts of volunteering was the high that I got off of it, simply because it made me feel so good to be doing meaningful work. Maybe some other people benefited from my existence in a certain place at a certain time, but I was too, and I liked that.

At the end of the day, when everything is said and done, I’m not trying to paint myself into some heroic light. It’s not like there is any rule book for this human existence that says we have to do anything. Other than breathing, taking up space, and dying, I’m pretty sure we’re not obligated to do anything. I just know myself enough at this point to recognize that meaningful days are just about all that keeps me going. Fulfillment is my jam.

Having moved through multiple jobs that I’ve loved and multiple jobs that I…haven’t loved, I’ve been able to pinpoint the deciding factor for each one in terms of whether I like them or not: Fulfillment. Either I felt like what I was doing mattered at the end of each shift or I didn’t. And that was that. Nothing else was a deciding factor, not location or climate or even the amount of pay. Fulfillment was it.

So, when are we going to help people? That’s the question, yeah? I find myself asking it frequently, constantly keeping myself on my toes because I want to make sure I’m putting my existence to good use. This summer, I’ve felt kind of bound up in my place of work. Things have been fine, but I’ve been lacking fulfillment (there’s that word again) in the job that I do 35 hours a week. My existence has been enhanced by some of the smaller side projects that I’ve created for myself that have left me linked to the refugee crisis in Greece, but the monster that keeps me employed and drops money into my bank account falls short in the fulfillment category.

And that’s why I’m heading back to Greece, and back onto the refugee trail. I always find myself a little extra motivated to kickstart some excitement in my life after I’ve completed a fulfillment dry spell. So, I’m very grateful for the many lessons I’ve learned along the way, especially while trekking in New Zealand with that sweet cook I met in the kitchen in Antarctica.

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Caught Between Africa and Europe

If I were a fish, I’d be so upset with myself for getting caught in this net that I would have wiggled and shaken and fought like hell to break myself free only to find myself more entangled, left with not an ounce of strength to my name, only able to wait until morning when the fisherwoman would return to see that my lifeless body is of no use and cast me back into the sea.

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I’m sitting at a Burger King in the Lisbon Airport right now, slurping down a coke and staring at some fries. I’ve been denied access to the terminal since my flight technically doesn’t take off until tomorrow. This means I won’t be able to sleep in the lounge my friend suggested I locate and rest in for the evening. It also means there will be little point in venturing out into the city since it’s the middle of the night and I have my pack with me. And so, here I sit. And here I write.

I’m sad right now. I’m allowed to say that on the internet, right? I don’t have to pretend to be happy all of the time and post pictures of all of the flashing things I do and pretend everything is always spick and span?

I’ve just landed in Lisbon, Portugal, essentially the only city that flies directly to Cabo Verde where I’ve just spent the last 11 days visiting an old friend from high school who is posted their as a U.S. diplomat. I’m in a bit of a unique position (in that, I have never been in this kind of place before) where I’m arriving into the European Union, which I would be legally allowed to do no matter what the case was since I hold a U.S. passport, but I also hold a long-stay visa, meaning I’m allowed to exist here for a year. This is the visa I was granted this summer, that I worked hard to get my hands on. But when I landed here a few hours ago, my stomach didn’t feel right. Something wasn’t sitting well with me.

There was something weird happening energetically on the plane I was on for four hours from Africa to Europe. The man sitting to my right was “man spreading” so badly and the announcements in Portuguese kept throwing me off, pushing me further and further down the rabbit whole of anxiousness. I tried to distract myself with the books I had brought with me, but none of them were comforting, with two of them being about the middle east and one of them being about living in a garbage dump in South Africa. As we approached Lisbon, I couldn’t see anything out of the windows since I had an aisle seat, so I had no reference as for when we would be landing once the turbulence started to pick up and the flight attendants all vanished into their seats. I think the metaphorical aspect of turbulence was bothering me, for some reason. But then we landed, and the seat belt sign clicked off and more passengers than I’ve ever seen before managed to scramble into the aisle almost immediately. The man-spreader to my right stood directly over me, his arm a mere two inches from my face as we waited for the plane door to open. He didn’t seem to notice he had majorly invaded my personal space, of which, I couldn’t create anymore, since I was still sitting in my seat. And so that discomfort sunk in for a few minutes before we were eventually let off the plane.

Then, checking into the EU, going through immigration, fetching my bag, and stepping out into the night air of Lisbon, I still felt uneasy. While in Cabo Verde, I was communicating over the internet with one of the refugees I had worked with this past spring. He was having a rough time and I had nothing to suggest to him, no advice to offer. It is so very difficult to relate to his experience. I carried him in my heart onto the airplane, certainly. Borders are tricky things when you’re an asylum seeker. So are visas…and passports…and police papers…and…any part of yourself that can be used against you in the case of racial profiling. For me, flying in from Africa, I stepped up to passport control, feeling off balance, handed over my passport without saying a word, and the man scanned it. He then started at the beginning of the book and peeled through each page one at a time, searching for an empty spot to put a new stamp. He came across what he must have assumed was a blank space, not noticing that the two stamps I had from Mexico last November were faintly marked in the booklet, and he stamped me into the European Union. This means he never even got to the page with the massive blue visa sticker with my face on it that indicates I’m allowed to be here long-term.

And that, my friends, is white privilege. Or, white advantage, if you’re with me.

This situation isn’t shocking to me. I’m not going to pretend like this is something that’s hitting me like a ton of bricks all at once. But, the fact of the matter is, while I worked diligently this summer to secure legal access onto this continent, it wouldn’t have mattered either way if I had or had not. I do think; however, for a person of color, it would have mattered that they do the work, and if they were lucky enough to secure the same visa that I did, they would certainly at least need to present it to the passport control personnel upon arrival.

I unexpectedly had to check my bag when at the airport in Praia. It was free, which meant I didn’t have to worry about dragging it around, but it did mean I had to leave the airport in Lisbon in order to collect it before turning directly around to check back in for my next flight, which leaves for Madrid in ten hours. I stood outside for about an hour for seemingly no reason. It’s raining right now, so I found an awning and just rested my bag up against the wall I was leaning on, taking most of the weight off of my shoulders. Once in a while, a security guard would wander outside to smoke a cigarette near the receptacle to my right, or an airport worker would pass by with a line of luggage carts, pulling them along like they worked in a grocery store parking lot. And the rain fell, and I just stood there and let myself feel my feelings. No explanations needed.

I think traveling is one of the most mindful “places” I ever find myself. Both in airports and on planes, I seem to find myself more “in the moment” than I typically do elsewhere. I find myself more content just listening to the hum of the airplane than reading or watching movies. And in airports, I’m more than happy to stare out the giant windows at the planes shuffling around each other on the tarmac. So, for me, standing just outside of the airport watching the rain was an inviting feeling. It’s kind of hard to believe, though I won’t get to see it, I’m gulping in the Portuguese air, which, unofficially, is the 20th country in the world I’ve now visited.

And yet, here I sit, at a Burger King that appears to be nearing closing time. I’ve got three hours until the clock officially clicks over into “tomorrow”, which means I’ve got to find a place for myself for a while before I can officially check back into the airport. How will this next trip through security and immigration look? Will anyone even glance at my passport since I’m traveling within countries that exist within the same borders? I think I’m shaken a bit by the expansiveness of this whole human existence. I’ve left my friend behind in Africa once again and I’ve got a journey ahead for myself now that I’m not entirely sure about how it will shape up to be, who will be a part of it, what the timeline will look like, what it will entail, etc. That’s a little intimidating to think about. And then, of course, not being able to rest properly tonight will keep me on my toes.

I do have hugs waiting for me at the end of this traveling ordeal when I arrive tomorrow afternoon though. This is something that is keeping me going. Some of my people in the capital city have already contacted me and I hope they’re prepared for me to squeeze them so hard that their heads pop off!

Until then, there’s just something about international security that rattles me now that I’ve worked so closely with refugees. There’s a sadness that lurks between the eyeballs that stare at you through the glass booth and the hurried traveler on the other side. If I get confused in airports (which have signs clearly labeled in English just below the Portuguese!), how are other people suppose to pass through here as cool as a cucumber?

Okay, that’ll have to do it for this rant. Here goes nothing, ten hours in Lisbon, then a 6:30am flight to Madrid where I’ll change planes before boogying onward.

Check your privilege. Count your blessings. Shed some gratitude.

Peace.

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Posted in Spirit & Light, West Africa, Western Europe | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Year Ahead

With the summer behind me, I now have my sights set entirely on the European continent. Funny enough, I’m writing this post from an African country, but my attention is indeed turning toward Europe. I spent the summer back at the Omega Institute for a third time, completing my second full six-month season, and officially completing the rare task, for myself, of having returned to a place for the first time in my eight years of traveling.

While I did the best I could to stay present to where I was this summer, I couldn’t help but pay mind to where I had come from and where I was going. I worked diligently over the months of June, July, and August to secure myself a visa that would allow me to legally remain in the European Union for a longer period of time than I was able to this past spring. This, plus the art show I was curating, had Greece and the refugee crisis never far from my mind.

The boring details of my visa and what it means to have access to the Schengen Area:

The Schengen Area is a group of European countries with open borders. This means that citizens of these countries can freely pass between nations without being checked at individual borders. Members of the European Union can live in one country and work in another. In the United States, we have essentially the same policy when it comes to states. You can live in Vermont and work in New York and no one bats an eye as you cross from one state to another. We can effectively drive from Washington state to Florida and no one would need to be updated on our whereabouts. This is how the Schengen Area works in Europe, only its an open border policy between different countries.

There are 26 countries that are part of the Schengen Area, most of them are part of the European Union; however, a few others, like Norway and Switzerland, are part of Schengen but not in the EU (there are also a few countries that are in the EU but not in the Schengen Area, but let’s not worry about that right now). For a tourist, the Schengen Area is a bit more inconvenient than it is for residents. Not that people often take extensive vacations that last more than three months, but for those of us who have found ourselves in positions where we’re traveling long-term, this cool agreement between European nations can prove to be annoying. For tourists, the Schengen Area agreement means that you’re only allowed to be in all 26 countries for a total of 90 days. This means, for example, you can’t spend 90 days in Spain and then cross the border into Portugal and spend an additional 90 days there. You get 3 months for the entire Schengen Area.

After spending 90 days in the Schengen Area, you are required to be out of the Schengen Area for a total of 90 days until you are legally allowed to re-enter for another 90 days. There are a few more details to this whole thing, one that I’ve read into extensively at this point since it has closely impacted my life for both the last year and for the year ahead, but I’ll spare you the nonessentials.

SchengenMap

The Schengen Area is made up of the countries highlighted in both shades of blue on this map.

I’ve secured myself a Schengen visa for the next year. The process was stressful but rather simple. I took the train into New York City for an interview at the end of August and by the end of September I received a call from the embassy telling me to come pick up my passport. The voicemail that was left for me that told me my passport was ready for pick up gave no indication about whether I had been granted the visa I applied for or not. This made it especially exciting to arrive at the embassy in-person and see the shiny, new visa in my passport indicating that from 25 October 2018 to 25 October 2019, I’d legally be allowed to exist in the Schengen Area.

For a part of the time ahead of me, I’ll return to Greece where I will again work with refugees on the island of Leros. After beginning 2018 there, my heart has never been far from the cause and the need in that particular part of the world has not shrunk since I departed the island in March. Today, I am very much looking forward to getting back to doing some daily, meaningful work.

At this point, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to keep a steady heartbeat on this blog over the months ahead.

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Tell Me About Kraveta

Since leaving Greece in March, I’ve kept in close contact with four of the refugees I met and worked with while on the island of Leros. These relationships have, at times, felt extremely fruitful and at other times lacking, simply in that they exist over the internet. We exchange text messages mostly, but have the occasional voice calls or video chats to one another, despite how frequently we are interrupted by poor WiFi connections.

I’m proud of the efforts each of the individuals have made with me to stay connected. We’ve worked hard to bridge both the geographical and lifestyle gaps that exist between us. These four young men have kept me connected to Greece, to Syria, to Iraq, to an ongoing crisis in the world, and have made me feel more involved in an area of the planet that needs help than I otherwise would have been while living out the last six months in the comfort of the Hudson Valley in New York State.

Staying closely connected to the global refugee crisis hasn’t just kept me grounded this summer. Having these four people consistently in my life since January has been inspiring, and I greatly value the words we exchange with one another over the internet. We discuss everything from the ins and outs of our daily lives to dishing out full-on explanations about certain differences in our culture. Like, for example, what one wears to a wedding in the U.S. is called something different than what someone would wear in Syria. In Syria, more lavish clothing is called “Kraveta”. There were many points in the summer when I’d be buried deep in the rat race of work and everyday life, that conversations with my friends on this tiny Greek island were the highlight of my day.

This is why it was jarring when, all at once, one of them seemed to vanish into thin air.

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Jay always said that it was difficult for him to take serious pictures, so whenever we took a photo together, we made sure we were as goofy as possible, even to the point where we would ruin otherwise nice photos.

I watched as the application I used to be in touch with Jay indicated the growing amount of time that was passing since he had “last been online”. It didn’t take much investigating to find out what had happened. As is the case with so many asylum seekers living in camps in Greece, some decision about his case was swiftly made by the authorities, and he was scooped up from the camp and put in jail, where he was waiting for his deportation back to Syria.

While he was in jail, I heard nothing from him. The time continued to pass by and it started to feel almost as if I had imagined him. He was a ghost. Gone. I kept thinking back over some of the conversations that had taken place between the two of us over the previous months. What more could I have said to this man who was being held hostage before getting shipped back to the dropping bombs in Syria? Did he at least know that I cared about him?

My cousin’s wedding crossed my mind. It was the reason I had returned home from Europe in the first place back in April, and the first thing I was able to share with the refugees upon my return. I sent them a photo of me in my wedding attire. Jay said I looked “fancy”, which made me wonder if the wedding attire in Syria was drastically different from what I was wearing or if there was some similarity.

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One thing that I noticed, and it’s worth noting that this may have been my incorrect interpretation as a westerner, was that the men from the Middle East treated touching one another as a much more common act than in North America. Piling on top of one another like in this photo was nothing out of the ordinary.

When Jay vanished into the abyss, I was left wondering about more than Kraveta. How did it come to pass that my Syrian friend on the other end of my phone was suddenly gone and now I was left wondering about him? Where was he? What was he doing everyday? When would I get to talk to him again? Would I get to talk to him again? And when would I learn everything I needed to know about the fancy attire that is Kraveta?

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