Anna and I walk into our hostel in Bulgaria. The room has high ceilings, a chandelier, and pale purple curtains. The walls are violet, and the towels range from plum to lavender. It’s called the “Violet Room.” There are two beds, each covered with a hand-woven wool blanket in a traditional Bulgarian style. They’re thick and warm. I look at Anna, “These would be great for a refugee.” She agrees. She was thinking the same thing.
It’s hard to explain how working with refugees changes you, but everyone I’ve talked to from my time in Lesvos understands. Everything I see is colored by the knowledge that somewhere, someone is getting beaten by police. Somewhere, someone has been trying to reach their sister in Italy but can’t do it because the borders are closed. Somewhere, someone has gone without food for two days so their children can eat. Somewhere, someone has carried their elderly father across borders and through terror, only to be separated in the chaos of crossing the water. Somewhere a mother cannot feed her baby because her milk has dried up from stress and poor nutrition. Somewhere, a child has been snatched and nobody noticed. Somewhere, a man has been sent back to Turkey, a country where he has neither hope nor prospects nor safety.
We came to Bulgaria by bus. At the border the customs official took our passports, stamped them, and brought them back. He grinned at me, “United States! Very far!” I nodded and smiled, and guilt rose up in a cloud to suffocate me. My journey was made in comfortable airplanes, where flight attendants took care of me. I slept on the flight from Boston to Athens, then slept again on the ferry from Athens to Mytilene. The airline provided me with an eye mask, slippers, warm socks, pillows, and a blanket. I never had to ask. The distance might be longer than a refugee’s journey, but it was made in a few hours, in comfort, in safety.
We cross the border and I nearly burst into tears. It was so easy. Because of my nationality, my race, my smiling-white-American-girl look, I was able to sit on a bus and cross a border, something thousands of people have been trying and failing to do for weeks. What makes me different? What makes it okay for me to travel, but not for them? If I overstayed my visa in Greece I’d get a slap on the wrist, if I got caught, if the person who caught me felt like it. They get beaten, tear gassed, deported.
We walk down a street in Sofia and past a shop selling bulk beans, seeds, and nuts. I make note of it as a possible kitchen supplier before remembering that I’m not looking for things to put in a hundred liter pot anymore. I have the same reaction to a shop selling cheap socks. Anna tells me a story of a woman trying to find coffee tables for refugees. “Those are great to burn,” Anna said, before realizing that they were actually for having coffee on. She makes note of things that can provide warmth but won’t spread toxins through the air. “I can smell a burning rain jacket from a hundred meters.”
I haven’t been dreaming recently. Or rather, I’m sure I have, but I can’t remember the dreams, which is unusual for me. When I do remember, they’re always about the refugees. Memories from Moria, or stress dreams about people I’ve met. Sometimes innocuous dreams, like the one where a fellow volunteer was secretly part lizard. I’ve no idea where that one came from, but it was set in the Distribution line at Moria.
I didn’t write for weeks at the end of my time in Lesvos, and now I can’t seem to stop. Anger curls around my ribs, deep, hot anger that changes the way I look at everything around me. I’m not an angry person normally, and I’ve never felt such rage. It chokes off my voice into short, sharp sentences when I try to speak about the situation, makes my humor sarcastic and biting, tells me to think less of those who neither know nor care about the refugees. It feeds me guilt with a ladle the size of a bowl – guilt for leaving, guilt for my freedom of movement, guilt on behalf of my country. Guilt for a thousand little things.
I know this is happening. I know why, and that I shouldn’t trust the anger, or the things it tells me to see. I don’t want to become a bitter person, or pessimistic and cynical, as I felt myself doing in the last few weeks. I’ve made myself a little mantra, or a way of remembering what’s important. To combat anger – tenderness. To fight cynicism – love. To soften bitterness – understanding. To melt hatred – compassion. This is a task perhaps harder than the day-to-day work of feeding and clothing people, harder even than providing them with ways to retain their dignity.
It is too easy to slide into the mire of negative emotions that waits at the bottom of the slope made of humanitarianism. At the top of the slope are the ideals of human dignity, safety, perfect health, and asylum for everyone in the country of their choice. At the bottom is the mire of anger, bitterness, and despair. Somewhere in the middle, clinging and climbing, are the volunteers and the refugees, together. Some slip further down than others. Some manage to stay near the top, balancing themselves on whatever bright spots they can find. Most keep climbing, unceasing, becoming more and more exhausted as time goes by. A step forward can turn into two, but it can just as easily become a tumble backwards. Sometimes meteors like the EU/Turkey deal come pelting out of nowhere and strike the slope, knocking everyone back. We keep climbing, because if we give up then those shiny ideals at the top will shatter and tarnish and drown in the mud. We cannot let that happen.