News From the Refugee Trail: January Edition

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The Echo team just before Christmas.

Greetings family and friends,

As many of you know, I’m back in the European Union, doing another jaunt of volunteering for the majority of 2019. I left New York at the very end of October and, after a quick stop over in Africa to see an old friend, have firmly planted my feet on the European continent. I spent the first three months of 2018 living and working on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea and I’ve returned to this same island to continue the work that I started last year.

Returning to Leros has been a completely different experience than the first time I was here. For the short stint I was able to spend here the first time around, I was volunteering at a community center and school for refugees of the Leros “Hotspot” refugee camp. At the time, there were 300 residents in this camp, from all over the middle east and Africa. My main duties while here were to teach English, drive a shuttle to move the refugees the two miles or so between the camp and our center, and assisting with clothing and hygiene product sorting and distributions. It was a thrilling and eye-opening experience, especially since I had been looking to become involved with work involving refugees for some time. I learned a lot from my time on the island in those three months, but the main takeaways were all human related. I met some extraordinary people who were both volunteers and refugees. The volunteer experience is so unique here, with people coming and going all the time, that I met people from more than 20 countries in the span of my time here the first time, from all over Europe, Africa, Asia, and even as far as Australia.

This time around, I’ve secured myself a longer visa and am able to remain in Europe for one whole year. I’ve already been here for two and a half months, which is so hard for me to wrap my head around, so it’s high time for me to send out an update, which is what this is! Things on Leros didn’t seem to have changed too much when I returned in November. Volunteers were still coming and going and residents of the Hotspot were still attending English classes and playing football when we offered them the time and places to do so. Things were stable. Once Christmas rolled around and we closed the community center for two weeks to do some renovations, we thought we were being given the unique opportunity to reset things and prepare our school to jump into the new year with a fresh start. We repainted the whole building, did some minor reconstruction on the reception area of the building, and did our best to rework the schedule of classes to optimize the classroom space and make sure the maximum number of students who could be attending English classes were, in fact, learning English.

When we reopened after two weeks, everything that we had planned to kick off the new year in a big way completely fell into a thousand pieces. From the end of December to the beginning of January, the number of new refugees arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey skyrocketed, causing the population of the camp to swell to more than 1200 refugees, 400 more than its capacity. When refugees make the decision to illegally enter the EU by crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands on small (often non-seaworthy) dingy boats, they aim for particular islands, because the island that they land on determines which camp they’ll be transferred to. Leros, the island I’m on, is “known” for being one of the better camps. Two of the reasons for this is that the camp isn’t overcrowded, people don’t have to live in tents, they live in small “isoboxes”, which are by no means nice, but at least come with heat and a roof. The other reason Leros is known for being good? The Hub, the school I work at. So, over Christmas, hundreds and hundreds of new refugees poured into Leros, filling the camp and disrupting the way things work around here.

A year ago, the populations of people I was working with were Syrian and Iraqi mostly. A few people were from Afghanistan, Iran and a sprinkling of different countries from Africa, too. This time around, 80% of the refugees are from Palestine, with more arriving in Greece everyday. Coming from the United States, my knowledge of Palestine is constantly muted by the media, but from the stories I’ve heard from the men filling the halls and rooms of our school, some serious reevaluation needs to be done.

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The Hub and the ever important vans.

On the Monday after Christmas break, our school was completely overrun with new arrivals, with more than five hundred people checking into our small building over the course of one day. To put this into perspective, normally 500 people check into our school over the course of one week. There were points in the day, between classes as everyone was moving about, that you literally could not move through the school without having to shoulder past people. Our cozy little community center had turned into a complete madhouse, with only nine volunteers trying desperately to keep everything in order as the day progressed.

At the end of the first week, nothing had gone according to plan and we watched as things only continued to deteriorate in terms of sustainability. More and more people poured into the school, creating chaos, mostly, and more and more refugees continued to arrive on the island, overwhelming the camp. After a week, for the first time in the three years that the school has existed, we stopped registering new students, alleviating the burden of taking on more people, which felt terrible, but necessary.

As I frequently have to visit the Hotspot camp for my work, I’ve watched the place deteriorate before my eyes with the added pressure of 400 extra people than the camp is supposed to be able to hold. Makeshift tents have been pitched within the fencing of the camp, taking away any of the free space that used to exist for kids to kick footballs around in, or for people to line up together to wait in line for their meals. The director of the camp recently announced that if another one or two boats arrives (which they will), then they will have no choice but to tell the new arrivals that there is no room for them in the camp and they will have to find their own accommodations. This, I can tell you, will be disastrous. Of the five Hotspots on the Greek Islands, two of them are already notorious for their deplorable and inhumane living conditions. Both the island of Lesvos and the island of Samos are overcrowded and have thousands of refugees living in tents or nowhere at all. In so many ways, the European Union is failing these groups of people. With the camp here in Leros now over capacity, telling new arrivals that there is no place for them will cause a growing amount of tension between the refugees and the locals on the islands. The people will have to start pitching tents and looking for other places to stay, which could easily amount to inhumane conditions which rival the other two islands which have articles written about them on a weekly basis about their despicable conditions.

But this is all still to come. A few more boats still need to arrive before the first refugees are rejected and told they have no place to sleep. In the mean time, classes at the Hub continue as usual. My random and scattered career in the field of Education now continues for a fourth year, this time teaching adults English as a second language. With so many people from different backgrounds on the island now, I’m able to offer all different levels of English, starting with simply teaching the alphabet, all the way up to writing essays and reading more in-depth texts. It’s been rewarding to be needed in a teaching capacity for the last few months as there haven’t been other volunteers with educational backgrounds. Just like when I was here in March, it’s so rewarding to teach adults. They show up wanting to learn, and I don’t have to fight them everyday to pay attention or to care about the material, they motivate themselves.

Day to Day

Each day on Leros feels like a week. It’s a peculiar place, this island, in the middle of the Aegean Sea. It’s as if everything within the confines of this small piece of land is “real life” and everything off of this piece of land is imaginary. With so many people coming here to volunteer, there is a constant stream of humans coming and going. This means that we often have to take people to the airport or to the port to see them off on a ferry in the evenings. As odd as it sounds, the moment they leave the island, it’s as if they never existed. It feels as if I’ve dreamed them up sometimes after they’ve been gone for just a day or two. For this odd reason, it’s easy to feel present here. It’s as if life slows down when you’re on this island.

Most mornings, depending on if the weather is cooperating or not, I pull my bones out of bed with the rising sun and walk to work, which takes about 50 minutes. I live on the far south end of the island and my work is located in Lakki, the main town on Leros which is centrally located next to Europe’s most strategically placed deep water port. The walk to work is on the single road that runs the length of the island, and I wind through both farm country and little groups of houses as I go. The island is usually bustling with life as people zip by on their scooters to get to work or to drop their kids off at school. There’s also always a plethora of wildlife about, with goat bells ringing in the distant hills and the occasional donkey or dog milling about. By the time I’m halfway to town, my route runs into the road that leads to Hotspot, so I’m often greeting refugee after refugee in the morning as I pass them on the side of the road.

When I make it into town, I stop at a small coffee shop that has my order memorized and then I usually make my way over to the school just as 9:00 is rolling around. We have a team meeting and then I proceed to teach English classes at 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, and 2:30. On days when an extra teacher is on hand, I often drive one of our vans to the Hotspot to pick refugees up and bring them to school. This is a terribly stressful part of the job though, so, at this point, I prefer not to do it. I can explain more about that later.

As simple as what we do at the Hub seems, there really is never much down time, and our workdays often stretch from 9am until 7 or 8 in the evening. This can get a little draining, but the work is always rewarding, which keeps me coming back. In my free time, I like to hangout at a local music cafe where one of my best friends on the island works. He and I often make fun of each other and play chess together when the place isn’t too busy, he also likes to talk my ear off about everything related to tennis since he’s a super fan and he’s never really had anyone to talk to tennis about before. I thought I was a tennis fan until I met him, now I realize some people are true tennis fans, I just find it entertaining. He and I were born two days apart and he found this so amusing that I think it sped up our friendship. He’s from Cyprus but lives here permanently with his wife and five-year-old son. His son is a pretty good friend of mine too..

I also like to spend my free time with my friend Basel, who was a refugee the last time I was here and has now been granted asylum in Greece and is an interpreter at the very camp he used to live at. He painted a number of pieces of artwork that I sold at my job this summer in New York, so the two of us were in consistent touch all summer as we coordinated his art show. It’s been so nice to be back in his presence and not have to speak with him via email and Facebook anymore.

To close out this message, I’m enjoying where I am in the world. It’s nice to wake up every morning and have a shot at making a difference. I’m not currently chasing the almighty dollar or digging into some rut in which I’m working to pay bills or student loans. Life is, actually, rather simple. I live on a magnificent Greek island that just happens to be shouldering some major responsibility right now, which I’m glad to be a part of.

Cheers, love,

Matty

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The Echo team in early January.

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“School’s Full”

We are no longer accepting new registrations at the Hub. This means that people who arrive on the island from today on will not be able to come to our school to attend classes or to our library to study. Of all of the Hotspots, all the refugee camps in Greece, Leros was often looked at as one of the best ones for a refugee to be placed at. The camp doesn’t have tents, first of all, so the people have actual structures over their heads for when it rains. There also isn’t typically too much overcrowding, so people are treated at least marginally more humanely. And, of course, Leros has the Hub, which gives people the critical ability to have something to do and somewhere to go other than the camp. The Hub educates, stimulates, and uplifts. Our blockage of new students is unprecedented, in that, we have never done this before in all of the years that this NGO has existed. It’s really sad, and the decision was not come to lightly by my coordinators, but it feels like the right move. It feels like it’s an immediate way to alleviate stress on the team; however, the solution will only help us a certain amount. It’s like plugging the hole on a sinking boat when there’s already almost enough water to pull the whole vessel below the surface. There’s still a lot of work to do and we’re not out of the woods. The water that isn’t in the boat still wants to get in! Or something like that.

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In 2016, the EU-Turkey Deal went through in an attempt to limit the number of refugees pouring into Greece from Turkey. This was called “the European Migration Crisis.” This deal was a horrible agreement that allows Europe to legally send refugees back to Turkey, even if they aren’t really safe there. It was a bullshit agreement that, while technically legal, was so inhumane, sentencing hundreds of thousands of people (specifically Syrians) to the tumultuous journey of crossing illegally into Europe multiple times, having to make multiple attempts after being returned to Turkey. This was Europe closing its doors to refugees.

We’ve now closed our doors, and the EU-Turkey Deal was the first thing to cross my mind when my coordinators announced their decision to our group this morning. But what can we do, right? There are so many questions that have been floating around in my head. We have so many new rules in place in an effort to make this place operate. At the end of each day and at the beginning of each day at our morning staff meetings, there’s always new examples of how people are finding loop holes in our system for classes and for the vans. We’re constantly finding little problems around the Hub, like people leaving doors open, stealing tea, riffling through bags, etc. We’re waiting. Waiting for all of these new people to not be new anymore, for them to know us and to trust us, to understand the rules, how this place functions, that we are here to help and to love them. Will things ever go back to “normal”? Will the tension in Hotspot inevitably be carried over into the Hub?

For the two days that we have not been accepting new registrations, we have not seen a noticeable difference in the number of people coming to the Hub. Obviously, we didn’t expect to see a difference, since we already have hundreds of people signed up to come to our school each day, but for a few unlucky people, they’ve been denied the chance to come to us for education and relief from the Hotspot. I overheard our receptionist telling a few people about our new policy. The problem is, they’re not understanding what’s being said to them. They only feel the sting of the denial. And even though they’re being told that our new policy won’t last forever, will they be so offended that they’ll simply never come back to us?

All of this being said, despite how crappy it is to now only be serving most of the refugees, I’m still more at ease knowing that our numbers aren’t still growing, even if it’ll never be felt. It is sad to hear about the continuation of boats flowing across the sea each day though, with more and more new arrivals each day, more and more people won’t have a shot at coming to us to relieve stress and to attempt learning English.

I’m ready to take bets on when we will reopen our doors because, for now, there’s one less door open for refugees in the world.

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Rain Dampens the Spirit

When it rains here, it pours, both literally and figuratively. The streets fill with water that comes rushing from the hills and you have to drive a bit more gingerly than usual. The bay, which normally rests quietly a foot or two below town tends to crash ashore when it’s raining, just due to the nature of storms rolling in from the sea. Being on an island, the amount of water becomes much more apparent for some reason, perhaps because it feels as if the rain were to continue for too long, there would be no land left and we would all end up in the sea.

Despite bringing cold wind along with it, which dampens everyone’s mood, rain also brings work to a grinding halt, almost. The Hotspot struggles significantly with rain because of the way it is laid out. When it rains, puddles form almost right away, and then they grow into miniature lakes, which engulf the entire camp. You literally can’t step outside of your caravan without having to walk in water. I’m not sure what can be done to remedy this problem, but it definitely doesn’t help the overall mood in the camp on rainy days. The grayness is bad enough, but feeling immobilized due to the water is worse.

When driving to pick people up for class, I generally pull the van up as close to the gate of Hotspot as I can, but when it rains, I have to reposition where I park so that the people coming to the van do not have to hurdle themselves over puddles in order to get in. The general tone of Hotspot is something entirely different on rainy days. It looks more like a cage than ever, like the overhanging gray clouds somehow amplify the unwelcoming nature of the barbed wire fences. The people inside look more like prisoners than ever, too, stepping carefully through the water, attempting to keep their shoes or boots as dry as possible as they flash their papers to the guards at the gate and then shuffle over to the van.

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At school, away from the Hotspot, although we are warm and dry inside, the tone that the rain sets on the day is impossible to ignore. With so much water socking in the camp, only a percentage of people come to class. This eases the burden of having the place overrun by 500 people throughout the day, but it’s tough knowing that the empty chairs are because the majority of my students are stuck in their caravans with a dozen other people with nowhere to go and nothing to do. I can’t imagine what that must feel like, especially after months of living that experience.

But rain is something worth mentioning…and making a post over, because winter in Leros is represented by rain. In New York, it snows; in Leros, it rains. That’s just what winter looks like here. I’m taking careful note of the temperature each day, noticing that it is never much below 50 degrees or so, but when the wind blows and I haven’t seen a day of snow this winter due to being in this climate, I feel a bit chilled knowing that my blood is thinning. It’s weird to be a spoiled northerner-in-the-south in the middle of January.

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There is Not Enough

When I think about the larger human picture, sometimes I get a little freaked out. It’s worrisome to think about the future, especially in regard to resources. One of the things I heard years ago, that I really liked, that was used to remedy the worry, was the phrase “there is enough”. This used to be mantra when I worried about the inevitable demise of human existence. With the human population constantly on the rise, this is something that crosses my mind every so often. If, indeed, people continue to arrive to this planet in the way that they are now, we may have a resource problem eventually. For those of us based in the west, this isn’t nearly as concerning as it is for those in nations under more pressure economically and environmentally.

When the conflict in Syria first burst into what was known as the “crisis” in 2015, people flooded the Greek islands from Turkey. They arrived everyday in the hundreds. I wasn’t here, but some of the volunteers who are here with me now were, and they’ve explained to me in detail about what it was like. The streets were makeshift camps, the town was overrun, the population of the island doubled, people waited in herds to board the coming ferries to take them to Athens (and further into Europe). Desperation was everywhere.

When the people were waiting, it would sometimes take a few days to process them before they would be allowed to leave the island. During this time, volunteers were in charge of distributing food to the refugees. At first, the refugees were unaware about the amount of food that there was for everyone, so they were (understandably) nervous, wanting to make sure that their families were fed. Fights would break out, “it was war”. But, after a day or two, everyone would understand that there was, in fact, enough, and everyone would be fed. The lines weren’t as crammed, people were more casual about getting their food, and everything was fine.  Then, after a new ferry arrived, the people would all leave and new ones would arrive and not understand the rules again, therefore, creating more chaos, more “war”.

Right now, at the Hub. We are having the opposite problem. People initially had trust in us, they figured we had enough to offer. But, we don’t. There is not enough. And word is getting out. We don’t have space. We don’t have teachers. We don’t have time. There are too many refugees. STOP. THE. WAR. IN. PALESTINE.

As I’ve stated in previous posts, I remember a time when I hadn’t met a single refugee from Palestine. Come to think of it, three weeks ago, I hadn’t met anyone from Palestine. Now, these are the only people who are managing to find their way into the Hub. I don’t know where all of our “usuals” went from before Christmas, but it’s so sad not to see them anymore.

At present, I’m teaching English classes throughout the entire morning from Monday to Friday and driving in the afternoons. I can wrap my head around what is happening from the safety of the classroom. I know that people are at the Hotspot flooding the vans, trying to grab a seat before they’re full and they become late for class, but when I’m at the school, I only have control over who is delivered to me and how much room I have in the class. I’ve actually been able to get a little bit of teaching in the last few times I’ve tried. My first class was filled with genuine bonafide beginners. I taught them how to write the letters “A” through “J” over the space of 45 minutes. Then, later in the morning, I taught A1/B2, which is a class for people who are really starting to grasp the structure of the English language. This second class is fun because the students understand what I’m saying and they’re able to keep up with the lesson a bit more easily than those who are just figuring out what shapes the letters in the alphabet look like. It’s genuinely fun to teach adults who want to be learning, it’s just that the classroom is designed for ten students, and with the situation as dire as it is, 15 or 16 end up cramming inside, just to have an hour where they don’t have to worry about being in the Hotspot.

My introvert brain is overwhelmed by the never ending stream of refugees coming through our doors, but I pretend that I’m here for a reason, I put on a brave face, mostly because I have to. But when I have to jump into one of the vans and start shuttling people to the Hotspot and picking new people up to bring them to lessons in the afternoon, it’s completely exhausting to be policing people over and over again, trying to maintain some sort of order, trying to be fair, trying to keep things organized. We’re struggling to process how to deal with the current number of people, and trial and error is the only way we can adjust things, which only throws people off, only causes more confusion, only causes more frustration.

I wish I could bottle up the tension in my brain and body when I’ve concluded a day with hours and hours of driving, just to remember later on what it is like.  I carry so much of the anguish with me as I try to keep things truckin’ and fair. It’s so bizarre, being able to let something go the moment it’s over, but suffering fully through it as it’s happening. But this is reality for today, and tomorrow and maybe for a little while after that.

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The Leros Hotspot in 2016, before the overcrowding began. 

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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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