What Happens Now?

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.


A plea from the parents of Idomeni.  Approximately 40% of residents at Idomeni are children, with a majority under the age of five, according to UNHCR.

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.


A family sits inside their tent in Idomeni

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.  IMG_20160405_102456953_HDR

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.”


A little girl leads her siblings back to their tent

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.


Two men walk to food distribution holding hands

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.


Skills I Never Thought I Would Acquire

Sizing shoes: I have become an expert at looking at someone’s foot and guessing its size correctly.  I can also convert between European and UK shoe sizes in my head.

Did you know that you can size a man’s trousers by the circumference of his neck?  I now know this fact.

I speak a few words of Punjabi now.  Who knew.

Clothing mime.  I’m so good at it guys.

Saying no: I wish I did not have to be good at this, but I have become an expert at telling sad people that they can’t have new shoes/bags/jeans.  I’m also good at shutting the door in their faces and telling them to come back later.  I hate this part of my job, but it took only one instance of having nothing for a family of wet, crying kids before I learned that it is worse to tell someone who really needs a thing that they can’t have it than to refuse someone who desires a thing but doesn’t need it.

Sleeping literally anywhere: I’ve been reasonably good at this for a while, but I’ve recently perfected the art of catnaps in boxes of clothes.

Cutting up emergency blankets.  Weirdly specific, and something I do almost every day.  I have a system.

Lack of surprise at whatever the latest illegal and inhumane measure various governments or the EU have taken to keep people out.  Again, a skill I wish I didn’t need.  Almost every day we get news of more horrors.  10,000 people stuck at the Macedonian border.  Pakistanis arrested and deported for no reason other than their country of birth.  NATO and Turkish police pushing boats back or deliberately sinking them, respectively.  Lack of food, clothing, shelter… People lying down across train tracks in protest, children being teargassed in multiple countries, fires breaking out in Calais as the Jungle gets bulldozed, 400 kids left homeless* and alone.  Human rights violations along the Balkan Route are as common as ditchwater.

*A note on this article: some of the numbers may be confusing.  It’s estimated that there are around 400 kids in Calais, the youngest of whom is ten.  This also does not take into account the families who have taken on a relative’s kid as their own, which happens frequently.  Those kids are often much younger, and although they are not unaccompanied, they are traveling without their own parents, and the mental stress can be very damaging.  Although the article barely touches on it, one of the biggest concerns around unaccompanied minors is human trafficking and sex slavery.  The refugee crisis has already provided human traffickers with easy pickings – kids disappear all the time.