It’s been a while…

Hello beautiful friends,

It’s been a while.  I went to Thailand (beautiful, hot, lazy days) and then flew to California, to continue my goal of circumnavigating the Earth on this trip.  Someday I’ll do it without airplanes!  I’m visiting with friends now, as I slowly work my way back across the States.

But that’s not the purpose of this post.  I’ll write about my travels again some other time.  At the moment I want to tell you about a new project I’ve taken on.

When I left Greece I felt a confusing mixture of guilt, relief, more guilt, sorrow, anger, and a huge desire to go back immediately.  But my visa was up, so I had to leave.  I drifted a bit, trying to figure out what to do next.  I decided almost at once that even if I couldn’t be in Greece I could still do outreach at home, raise awareness and maybe money, and send it back to my friends still working in Europe.  Maybe I could inspire others to work at home or abroad to make life easier for these people.

To that end, I volunteered to help with the newborn DC Rally 4 Refugees, a group of volunteers back from Greece who decided to keep working.  On August 28 we will rally at the Washington Monument in DC to spread awareness, educate, and raise money.  Although this rally is aimed specifically at refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we also stand in solidarity with refugees from the rest of the world, and will provide educational material on as many as we can.  There are 60 million refugees worldwide.  That’s a lot.

I’m the Volunteer Coordinator for this rally, which means that if you want to get involved, I’m the person to contact!  If you don’t want to get involved but do want to attend, like our Facebook page, share it with your friends, visit our website (which is getting an upgrade), shout it to the rooftops, donate, or just pass the word along.  The more people we have, the better!

I can’t tell you how much this means to me.  The situation in Greece is getting steadily worse as the EU does its level best to make things difficult for the refugees.  People are living in squalid conditions, being held in detention centers without cause for weeks, and literally starving in the streets.  When they “act out” by protesting, the authorities come and they get tear gassed and beaten, which turns protests into riots.  There’s very little protection for vulnerable cases and minors, no oversight at military-run camps, and the processes for relocation and asylum are cripplingly slow at best, nonfunctional at worst.

The USA should be doing more.  We have the space, the money, the resources.  We bear responsibility, as human beings, to help.  I hope this rally will begin to do that, by bringing awareness to the issue.

IMG_20160405_102555899

Advertisements

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.

IMG_20160405_102446607

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.

IMG_20160405_103128448

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.”

IMG_20160405_132438752

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.

IMG_20160405_103301220

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.

Holding Pattern

Hello world.  I am back with you.  I haven’t written in a while because… quite frankly I haven’t known what to say.  I’ve had to leave Greece due to my Schengen visa expiring, and I’m not happy about it.  I’m trying to sort through all the feelings and thoughts I’ve been having, but it’s a long process.  I suspect I may make a very difficult post soon about all the things you think about when you work with refugees, but today is not that day.

Here are the bare bones of my last few weeks.

The EU and Turkey passed a deal that they would deport refugees back to Turkey, which was designated a safe third country.  A few days later the US State Department issued a travel warning for Turkey and recalled military families from several provinces, highlighting how this designation is complete and utter bullshit.  Nevertheless, the deal went down and Moria became a detention center.  This is a fancy term for prison.

Better Days for Moria went into collective shock.  All our refugees were gone, and we had to figure out what to do.  We decided on a rest-and-wait strategy, and suspended services for a week and a half while we cleaned, rested, and stuck around to see what would happen.  We also had a wedding, which was a much-needed bright spot in an otherwise bleak week.

I tried and failed to extend my Schengen visa, in a process that included a police officer who was uninterested in doing his job, three attempts to go to Athens, thwarted each time by things beyond my control, and an ATM eating my card.  At this point I decided the universe didn’t want me to stay, so I stuck around for a few more days attending meetings, went to the wedding, and packed up to go to Thessaloniki.  From there a friend picked me up and took me to Idomeni.

Two months ago Anna left for Idomeni, and she’s been working there ever since, coordinating the medical team.  As the weeks progressed, lots of Moria volunteers traveled up to the camp there as well, until there were several great projects being run almost entirely by teams from BDFM.  One of my Night Shifts was there, splitting their time between making hummus wraps and making hot meals.  I stayed for three nights with Camilla, Rémy, and Adam, three fantastic human beings who have been volunteering for months.  It was wonderful to see everyone again, and underlined the community that grows around this kind of work.

On the day I arrived Anna told me she was going to Bulgaria.  “Can I come?” I asked.  She said okay, and just like that we had plans to take a bus to Bulgaria.  Having made that decision I felt the entire framework of my well-functioning emotional state tremble.  I didn’t want to leave, but at the same time I could feel the bone-deep exhaustion that three months of work and stress will give you.  I made hummus wraps for two days and took it easy, doing food distribution in the hot sun and playing with kids while managing the line.

In the end it was easy to leave.  I just walked out the door with all my things, got on a bus

busstop

Bus station in Thessaloniki

with Anna and Sim, got on another bus with just Anna after saying goodbye to Sim, and headed to Bulgaria.  I had no knowledge of the country, not a single word of Bulgarian, and no expectations.  I did have a sense of fitting circularity – I arrived on Lesvos with Anna three months ago by ferry, now we were leaving together by bus.

We arrived in Sofia in the midst of a massive thunderstorm.  The lightning was almost directly overhead, forking down at irregular intervals all the way to the ground.  The rain fell in a steady, plodding way, with big drops that soaked us through quickly, even though we had booked a hostel close to the bus station just to avoid this sort of thing.  We did make it to the hostel though, and managed to negotiate our way through paying even though neither of our hosts spoke a word of English.

It’s been two days now and we’re settling in.  We’ve switched hostels to a nicer and more central one, and we’re learning the city a bit.  I’ve tried one of the local specialties – a cold soup that’s basically thin tzatziki.  It’s delicious, I could eat it all day.  We’ve found the book market and two open-air fruit and vegetable markets.  I’ve visited a cathedral and we saw a mime on a bike.  I met a street musician auditioning for Bulgaria’s Got Talent (I hope he gets in, he’s a fantastic musician and he’s already made it to the semifinals) and Anna got a haircut from some ladies who never smiled and didn’t speak any English.  It looks very nice.  We’ve also bought henna, so we will both shortly become redheads again.

I’v also booked a flight to Thailand to get there in time to join my friend Elise for Songkran.  I’ll leave on the 12th.  Now I have to remember how to be a tourist, which is a more difficult task than it at first appears.  Wish me luck world, and I promise I will get better with posting again.  Ciao!

yogurtsoup

Oops

Dear people of WordPress,

It has been many moons since my last post.  I apologize.  I have gotten several very gentle, kind reminders that there are people out there who want to KNOW WHAT I’M DOING DAMMIT, POST ON YOUR BLOG ALREADY!  No, I jest, they were all very kind and gentle, and so here I am, satisfying my lovely readers.

It’s not going to be very satisfying.  Buckle up.

The reason I haven’t posted in an age and a half is because the EU and Turkey have conspired together recently to broker a deal wherein all new arrivals in Greece will be processed and sent immediately back to Turkey.  Needless to say, this violates international humanitarian law, which states that each asylum case must be assessed individually.  I think they’re getting around it by calling it an emergency situation?  Well of course it’s a bloody emergency, there are thousands of people fleeing horror after horror and all they meet with is rejection!

immigrant

From Salt, by Nayyirah Waheed

I have some feelings about this, as you can probably tell.

What this means for Moria camp is basically that the inner compound has become a detention center.  People go in and they don’t come out except in big buses, which take them to ferries, which take them to the mainland, where they get either shuttled off to other holding centers around Greece, or deported back to Turkey, which has been designated a safe third country.  Better Days for Moria, where I work, has suspended services for ten days while we send a small team off around mainland Greece to check out the situation, because reliable information is scarce.  They’ll assess various holding centers and camps around Greece and report back, at which point Better Days will decide whether to stay where we are (unlikely at this point I think) or pick up and move somewhere else.

We’re not sure what the future looks like right now, but the refugees will keep coming as long as there is something to run away from.  I keep telling people: they’re not running to Europe, they’re running away from their homelands, and that is a significant distinction.

Right now BDFM is a ghost camp.  I built a garden four days ago with Sofia and a few other random volunteers, and now it will probably never be used.  I’m considering digging up the plants, repotting them, and moving them somewhere else.  They can be refugee plants; somewhat traumatized, unwanted, both useful and beautiful, uprooted at the whim of those in charge, and replanted wherever there is space.  That turned into a way better metaphor than I was expecting.

In the meantime, there’s a spot of good news!  Kiki and Ramon are getting married on Monday!  Kiki is one of the founders of Better Days, and Ramon is our fabulous infrastructure man.  They’re both a little wacky, a little wild, and incredibly hard-working.  The wedding promises to be a bash of epic proportions.  Suggestions so far include fireworks, tattoos, and and a priest in a literal penguin outfit.  We may never recover.  I’m looking forward to it.

Two Months Today

It’s hard to believe I’ve only got a month left on this beautiful island. I’ve learned so much here, and had my eyes opened in so many ways. I am not the same person I was when I arrived. For one thing I feel that I have a much clearer, kinder, and more honest view of myself and the world. For another, I am now completely nocturnal and look FAR more fabulous than I ever have before.

IMG-20160310-WA0009

Night Shift never looked so good

I almost forgot that today was two months, but the stamp on my passport says January 11, so I guess it’s true.  Technically I arrived in Lesvos on the 13, on the same ferry the refugees use to go to Athens.

Also, in case you were wondering… the thing behind me?  That’s a pair of pants someone donated.  It’s the second pair that size – presumably from the same person, since I can’t imagine two people of that size are donating regularly to Lesvos.  The scarf, pajamas, and fuzzy legwarmers are also from distribution.  We play dress-up with all the weird stuff we find every night.  Well, I say we.  Yesterday my friend Hillary looked at me and said, “Sonia, you make all these guys feel better about the stuff they get from distribution.”  I took it as a compliment.

Wake Up Europe!

Yesterday Better Days for Moria held a peaceful protest in support of open borders and safe passage, and as a wake up call for Europe.  This crisis isn’t going away.  These people have nowhere else to go.  We wanted to make a concerted, visible statement of our convictions.

When I arrived with face paint I was surrounded by young men all asking me to paint their faces like clowns, or with the flag of Pakistan.  I wrote Pakistan on more foreheads than I remember, then No Borders, Solidarity, AFG for Afghanistan, and a few clown faces.  Volunteers got hearts and peace signs on their cheeks, and soon everyone was wearing their politics on their skin for the world to see.  Ahmed, a Syrian translator with a bald head drew a peace sign right on the top.

P1030725

Chants of “Open the Borders!” and “Wake up Europe!” rang through the air from more than two hundred throats.  The camp was packed with people – cars lined the road outside and it was hard to move when I got down to the center.  I darted about with my camera, trying to find a good angle.  Sign after sign, face after smiling face passed by and it really hit me how many people are stuck here due to Europe’s unwillingness to let them in.  The five hundred or so that we host in the Olive Grove is nothing to the fifteen thousand in Idomeni, but it’s still a lot of people.  Most of them are single men, often teenagers, traveling alone or with friends.

P1030623

The feeling in the air was festive, but there was a line of seriousness underneath it all.  Most of these people have no homes to return to, or face torture, death, and war if they return.  Despite this, borders remain closed and thousands of people are forced to wait, hoping against hope that something will change.  I saw more smiles and laughter than tears, but there were some unhappy faces.  Everyone knows the situation is bad.  

We sat in a sprawling circle, signs held high, listening to a heartfelt speech written by one of our refugee volunteers and translated into five languages.  Three volunteers wearing suit jackets representing Europe stood silently by, hands covering eyes, mouth, and ears.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  It was a powerful image.

P1030583

One man stood up in the center of the circle of sitting Pakistanis and began leading a call and response in Urdu and English.  “One love!  Europe!  One love!  Europe!  All love!  Europe!  All love!  Europe!  My heart!  Europe!  My heart!  Europe!”  He was crying only a minute in, still shouting his hope and determination in a cracked voice.  Everyone clapped and cheered for him, and I felt myself tearing up as I thought about how, in all likelihood, he and everyone sitting around him would be deported back to Pakistan or Turkey in the coming weeks.

P1030761Although most of the protesters were men there were a few women.  One looked like she was praying.  Another shouted and cheered, then grabbed a sign and sang along with a group of young men from Iran.  A husband and wife stood together and clapped and cheered along with the crowd, the woman just as loud as the man.  A little girl of perhaps eleven years started a chant for Afghanistan, holding a sign that read “Wake up Europe!”  I took particular note of them as it was International Women’s Day.  The strength of the women I have met on this journey is humbling and inspiring, every single day.  

We sang “Imagine” by John Lennon all together, and at the line, “Imagine there’s no countries/it isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for…” I teared up again.  It’s not hard to imagine a world without war, a world where people can move freely toward a better, safer life, but at the moment it seems like a fever dream.  It’s so far from the reality it seems almost ludicrous, and yet we must cling to that dream and use our voices and actions to make it a reality.  We must do this as humans and in solidarity with our siblings around the world.  

At the end the volunteers made a human chain surrounding the refugees.  We started with our backs to them symbolizing Europe turning its collective back, then turned around to show our own support and love.  The message was clear – wake up Europe!  Open your borders, help those in need, let them bring new life to your cities and fields.  Learn new cultures and new traditions, revitalize yourself!  The time of isolated countries is over and done, the time of globalization is at hand.  Embrace them, these hopeful people who come to you with open hearts.  They will help you back to humanity.

P1030748

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.