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.


Moments in Moria

Happy March!  The weather’s getting nice here… today it was in the high sixties Fahrenheit.  I’ve been doing lots of slow night shifts recently, so I thought I would compile a few striking moments that I’ve noted in the past few days, for various reasons.

I stood in the door of the distribution tent an hour after dawn.  A Syrian family walked slowly down from the inner compound to ask for a quick medical checkup and some diapers for the little baby.  They were dry, smiling, and clearly not in distress, so I stayed in the doorway and watched, idly, as one of the mothers bent over her small son.  She looked up and caught my eyes for a split second and my jaw dropped.  I have never seen such eyes.  Piercing blue, so bright they looked like sunlight through thick ice, a flash and then she was just another refugee mother dealing with a rambunctious kid.  Later I walked by her, intent on seeing her eyes again.  She looked up and smiled at me with perfectly ordinary, green-brown eyes in a pleasant round face, with laugh lines etched deep around her mouth and temples.


Sometime around four in the morning, with nothing to do and too many volunteers, we huddled around one of the trash can fires.  One political refugee from Iran, two Americans, one Greek woman, a couple of Londoners, and an Australian.  We started reading poetry to each other, ranging from contemporary slam poets, to friends, to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Pablo Neruda.  There was no boundary between us as we spoke of love in others’ words.

Later another young man, also from Iran and speaking through a translator told me, “This is Paradise, because you come to volunteer.”  I didn’t know how to respond.  If Moria is Paradise – a place where residents sleep in tents, poop in port-o-potties, and get only the most basic food – then what must you be coming from?  When basic human rights and a few people to smile at and sit around a fire with, people you cannot even talk to directly, counts as Paradise…  I held back tears, and thanked him.

A timid little girl, clearly cold, arrived with her two younger brothers.  She made sure they had coats and hats, and only when her mother arrived did she point shyly at herself and mime a jacket.  I found her the warmest, cutest, pinkest jacket I could, with a fur-lined hood and a matching purple hat and scarf.  She put them all on and her face transformed into the biggest grin I’ve ever seen.  She breathed out a soft, “Thank you!” and then hid her face behind her beaming mother’s skirts and skipped off back to her tent.

We got a shipment of Axe body spray for men (gag) in little travel sized bottles, and had no idea what to do with them.  If you’ve never smelled Axe, it smells like a teenage boy’s locker room.  I was at a loss as to how to dispose of them, sure not a single refugee would ask.  Then our daily shoppers arrived that morning.  There’s a group from Pakistan that comes every day and tries to con us out of new clothes, even though they’ve probably each got more clothes than I own by now.  We know them, so for the most part we just laugh and flirt and tell them to go away, but that day I brought out an armful of Axe and all of a sudden I was the most popular girl in school. Twenty minutes later we had gotten rid of all the horrible body spray, and there was a group of Pakistani guys happier than I’ve ever seen them, contemplating the joys of cologne.


Kids’ Play Tent

A group of kind young men arrived one night and asked for jeans.  They were all tall and skinny, and we had nothing at all to fit them.  I told them to come back the next day, and one young man looked like he was about to cry, but they all thanked us politely and left.  They came back the next day and I found every single one of them pants that fit.  I gave them the nicest brands I could find.  As they left, this time all smiles, one pressed something into my hand.  “A gift for you,” he said.  It was a little souvenir refrigerator magnet from Turkey, painted in gold and bright colors, showing a mosque.  I can’t imagine why he had it or why he decided to give it to me – maybe he wanted to forget Turkey.  Maybe he wanted to thank me.  Maybe he thought I was pretty.  Maybe he wanted to pay, somehow, for the help we gave him.  It was so sweet, I carried the moment with me for the rest of the day.

A man quickly and skillfully shortened a belt, using nothing but a kitchen knife.

Two women with six kids between them came to the changing tent on a very busy night.  The kids were damp but not wet, but they all needed a change of clothes.  One of the women, who couldn’t have been more than thirty, spoke some English, so we got on quite well.  Soon the kids were dry, had new shoes, and were beginning to run around the tent.  “Okay, tammam?” I asked, smiling at the women.  Tammam means ‘good’ in Arabic, and usually it gets a smile (probably my pronunciation, or maybe it’s a specific kind of ‘good’ and I’m using it wrong…) but this time both women shook their heads.  The English speaker said, “No, no, me!” and then words left her in her distress, and she took my hand and pressed it against her side, right under her arm.  She was soaking wet from the shoulders down.  She hadn’t even mentioned it until then, making sure her kids were dry and warm first.  She must have been freezing the whole time, but she never said a word.  Needless to say, I was horrified, and ran to get them both the nicest dry clothes I could find.  They left smiling.

A Week of Nights

I know it’s been too long since the last time I wrote when I start drafting blog posts in my sleep.  It’s been a long week, so I’ll give you the digest version with highlights.

I’ve been doing night shifts at Moria, which is the camp where every refugee must register before they move on.  I specifically work at Better Days for Moria, which operates outside the interior compound and is open to individual volunteers.  The compound is run by a couple of NGOs and we’re not allowed inside.  I like Better Days.  It’s an entirely grassroots organization, built and run by international volunteers.  We have hundreds of people living, sleeping, eating, and receiving dry clothes every day, and we can handle it.  That’s pretty amazing.  If you want to read an account of the beginning of Better Days for Moria, you can do so HERE.

I’ve begun heading the Distribution tent at BDFM Night Shift.  Night Shift is a funny group of somewhat crazy people who don’t mind turning themselves completely nocturnal.  The shift is from 01:00 to 09:30 or so and deals with the problems and functioning of the camp at night.  This ranges from sitting around playing cards and making hygiene packs on the slow nights, to completely changing the clothes of up to three or four hundred wet people in a night.  Sometimes it’s stressful, sometimes it’s hard, but I always feel good about it, even when I’m telling people over and over that I can’t give them new shoes because theirs are okay and we don’t have enough to spare.


Breakfast at the Tea Tent

I think I’ve made some of the best friends so far here on Night Shift.  Because our schedules are so weird we basically only hang out with each other, so we get very close very fast.  We’ve got a great core team right now, with me, four Spanish guys who bring a party everywhere they go, a few French people, a few English, and a few refugees.  We’ve got two translators with us right now, Shah and Rami, and between them thy cover at least four or five languages.  Shah has been working with BDFM for months, but Rami showed up in a boat a few nights ago and jumped right in.  We just celebrated his twenty-first birthday today.

One of the nice things about Night Shift is that if it’s quiet we can really chat and get to know each other.  Rami is a Kurdish Iraqi tattoo artist whose story includes two tries at crossing the channel between Turkey and Lesvos.  On the first try his boat sank and three people died.  He’s a good swimmer and managed to get most of the rest safely onto a Turkish Coast Guard boat.  A week later he tried again, and that time he made it, even though he says he was the one driving the boat.  It’s fairly typical for smugglers to just dump refugees in a boat and make them drive it, even if they don’t know how.  He told me, “I love water, I love swimming, but I hate this sea.”  I can’t say I blame him.


This kid was perfectly happy with his truck and his Distribution hat, shoes, and vest

There was one night when everything was hard, and everyone cried.  The buses never stopped coming and we never sat down for the duration of our eight hour shift.  Everyone was wet and various degrees of traumatized, there were kids crying, and we started running out of coats and shoes, the two most common needs.  At one point it started to rain.  Everything was terrible.  After the fiftieth or one hundredth time saying “no, your shoes aren’t broken, you can’t have new shoes,” I went and had a little cry behind the sadly depleted coat rack.  It’s hard to tell people they can’t have the things they need.  Camille saw me, patted me on the shoulder in support, and went back to helping another family.  I pulled myself together and dove back in.

We’ve all cried at one point or another.  Some of the BDFM team won’t do Distribution, because it’s too hard to tell people no.  It never feels good.  These are people who, often, come to us with nothing.  They have nothing, or they had everything stolen, or the smugglers threw it in the water to lighten the boat, or or or… the list of possibilities goes on.  And yet, when they come to us dry, in shoes that are only a little wet, or with trousers that fit but have mud on the bottoms… we don’t have enough for them.  We give them dry socks and pieces of emergency blanket to insulate the wet shoe until it dries.  We give them hats and gloves and scarves, we give them long johns if they need them.  We only give bags to mothers traveling with little kids.


A mother feeds her kids a chocolate croissant

One young Syrian man came to us two days ago at the end of a difficult shift and donated his backpack.  He spoke excellent English, and asked us for a smaller bag, some toiletries, underwear, and spare socks.  Then he unpacked his backpack, donated everything in it, handed us the bag, and walked away thanking us.  I haven’t seen him since, so I assume he got on a ferry.  I hope he makes it to wherever he’s going.

Of course, it’s not all work and no play!  Well, it mostly is, with the play sort of mixed strategically in wherever we can fit it, but we also sometimes go out and do interesting local things.  Henni and I went to a little circus show held in a local community theatre just a few blocks from our flat.  There are a few groups of clowns here, entertaining kids and volunteers, and they put on a free show (in Greek) for whoever wanted to come.  Despite not understanding a word, I had a great time.  There were pirates, Hades, menacing people on stilts, and I’m pretty sure Sappho (did you know it’s pronounced Sap-fo?) made a singing appearance, heralded by nymphs doing acro-yoga.

It’s been a good week.  The only big downside is that this is a volunteering community, and people leave very often.  Six people I love have gone in the past six days, friends I expect to keep in touch with, but maybe not see again for years and years.  Such is the trouble with traveling.  On the plus side, I now have friends to visit all over the world…

Over the Cliffs and Through the Thorns

To rescue a boat we go!  That was where I found myself at four in the morning two nights ago: carrying a box full of baby socks, running across a cliff (and occasionally climbing up or down the side a bit) to reach a recently landed refugee boat.

Let’s back up a bit.

01:00 Wednesday, Feb. 17, Moria.  I arrived at the night shift with Henni, Polly, and Lilian ready to rumble.  We expected a busy night with lots of boats and consequently lots of buses coming to Moria.  We were prepared to be the best clothes distribution team to ever hand out dry socks.  When we rolled in however, it turned out that half the volunteer population of Lesvos had the same idea, and there were WAY too many people.  We quickly divided everyone up into teams and dispersed to our various tasks.  Shortly thereafter Cyril, shift leader from Switzerland came over to Distribution and told us he was organizing two vans full of clothes and volunteers to patrol the coast, since we had so many people.

We immediately started cutting up emergency blankets and balling them inside socks, making boxes of trousers, blankets, and sweaters, and finding bottled water.  It transpired that almost no one had any experience either in Distribution or on the beach – of the volunteers there Cyril and I had been there the longest, followed by Henni, Polly, and Lilian.  Of those, I was the only one with First Aid training, and the only one who had any knowledge of the beaches.  I ended up giving an impromptu training talk on the proper use of emergency blankets and basic hypothermia identification and treatment.

We split the distribution team in two.  Six people would go out in two vans, and the rest would stay in Moria to deal with the situation on the ground.  By 02:30 we had collected two doctors, bringing our total patrol team up to eight, and agreed on which sections of the coast we would both cover.  I directed everyone to the lookout point at Tsamakia, where we met the rescue team there, a group of Spanish lifeguards called G-Fire.  We left one van there, and my team drove North to cover the coastline further up.

In the van we had Camille from France, Tini and Sergio from Spain, and me, token American.  Camille, Sergio, and Tini had just arrived.  It was their first shift ever.  Tini and Camille and Tini’s boyfriend Craig had all arrived together in the van, which was named Percy, and Camille told me when we got in, “We have a CD of ABBA, so we will have a good night!”  We became Team ABBA from there on out, and I readily admit to quite a lot of off-key, tired singing.


Tini, Camille, yours truly, and Sergio

We found a good spot to watch a large swath of sea, settled in, and started bonding in the way that becomes possible when four strangers sit together in a little van at an unholy hour of the morning.  We didn’t sit for long though.  Only half an hour later we saw a little light, and moments after that another rescue team pulled up next to us, told us to follow them because there was a boat, and zoomed off again.  We clambered back into Percy and followed.

We ended up parking down a tiny, steep driveway that led onto what looked like a working farm.  I’m still somewhat astonished that no irate Greek farmer came out to yell at us, but we escaped unscathed.  There weren’t very many of us there at first, since most boats land either in the North or the South.  We were in the middle.  One team of two had come down from Korakas, and the rest of us were from the Mytilene area.  The team from Korakas explained that the boat was heading for a stretch of beach inaccessible by car, so we would have to walk for almost a kilometer to find them.  On the map it didn’t look too bad.  I picked up my socks, strapped on my headlamp, and we headed out.

Shortly thereafter we discovered the cliff.

There’s a common weed in Greece much like a thistle, but infinitely worse.  It’s a low bush that grows needles in triangular patterns and can stab you from eight million directions at once.  It’s everywhere, and it hurts like blazes if you get caught in it.  The cliff was, predictably, covered in it.  Where it was clear of the thorny bushes, it was muddy.  The night was warm and humid, and the only light we had came from our headlamps.  When we stopped moving we could hear children’s voices drifting from where we knew the boat had landed.  We moved fast regardless of mud and thorns.

04:15 Wednesday, Feb. 17, A Cliff.  When we reached the boat it had already landed.  The people had disembarked, started a little campfire, and were waiting for us.  One young man spoke decent English, and started translating for us into rapid Arabic.  It was a happy boat – no one was too wet, no one was sick or hypothermic, no one had drowned.  There were only 26 people, which is very small.  Their feet were wet, but none of the kids were crying, and they’d even managed to bring one old man and his wheelchair safely across.  Everyone I talked to was from Iraq.

We handed out water and dry socks.  Everyone already knew to put the emergency blankets next to their skin, which speaks of good communication between volunteers and refugees on the Turkey side.  They’re better prepared now.  One little family (a mother and her two daughters, one much younger than the other) wanted a picture with me and Camille, we grinned like fools with our arms around each other.  I used a few words of Arabic to say “Welcome!” and tell them my name, and ask for theirs.  We talked in smiles and gestures mostly, and a few words of English and Arabic.  I got some serious side-eye for being American.  Hazards of living in a country that invades everyone we possibly can, I suppose.  Sometimes I say I’m from Canada.

The wheelchair, the little kids, and the one very pregnant woman in the group posed a problem.  How would we get them to the road?  When I say we climbed over the cliffs I’m not exaggerating – we literally climbed hand over hand up a tumble of volcanic rock to get there.  We had to go up in stages because we were carrying so many boxes of clothes.  There was no way we could get the wheelchair over that, even if the kids and the pregnant woman could do it.

In the end we called another team that had a rescue boat, and they ferried the people off the beach and over to the tiny nearby port of Skala Mistegna.  Then we waited for the UNHCR buses to come take them to Moria.

05:00: Still waiting.

06:00: Still waiting.  We call them again.  I take a tiny catnap.

07:00: The refugees are stoic, they have no problem waiting.  The volunteers start getting grumpy.  I take a few pictures of the misty dawn.  It’s colder now.


The tiny spit of land behind the main bulk of the cliff is where they landed.

08:00: I take another quick nap in the van, and eat some chocolate.

09:00: We give up on UNHCR and cram people into our own vans and cars, even though it’s not really allowed.  I try to phone the police to inform them we’re transporting unregistered refugees (standard procedure) and get no response.  Oh well, I tried.  Off we go to Moria.

Everyone gets there safely.  It’s been a busy night in Moria, and, exhausted, we go out for breakfast at Damas before dragging ourselves off to bed.  I take a day and a night off the next day to recuperate, which brings us to now!  I’m about to head off for another night shift, though I doubt I’ll be out on the beaches tonight.  Wish me luck!

Lazy Days, Busy Nights

I’ve lost track of what day it is again.  I’ve shifted my attentions farther toward Moria and the night shift recently, which makes it difficult to remember.  It’s still slow here, but last night there were a couple of boats, and we’re assuming that means we’ll be getting a steady stream of refugees from here on out, at least until something else happens to temporarily block the flow.

In the past few days I’ve done a few touristy things, like visit the local Cathedral, and walk around the town more.  I tried a couple of new cafes and discovered the most delicious Greek yogurt dessert thing known to humanity.  I don’t have a picture.  It was too beautiful to be captured.  It’s also been very windy, so my hat got blown off a lot.

There is a lot of amazing street art in Mytilene, which I use as landmarks and also take pictures of sporadically.  This little flying saucer is one of my favourites.  It’s a small city, but anytime there’s a stretch of blank concrete wall you can bet there will be art on it.  Some is obviously graffiti, but much of it looks deliberate, just there to decorate and make things look more interesting.  I love it all.

I went back to the No Borders Kitchen and was struck again at the openness and easygoing nature of the place.  They’ve made some amazing additions since I was last there.  There’s an information tent, more durable kitchen area, and they’re building changing rooms.  There is also, inexplicably, a trampoline.

I talked to the boy on the far left (he said his nickname was Shawn) about his hopes for coming to Europe.  He said he loves Italy and would like to live there.  We agreed that the food was delicious, and we both like the warmth.  All three were charming.  They offered me chocolate and wanted to take pictures.  I had to take a few because Shawn didn’t like how he looked in the first one (I thought it was cute, he had a big grin and one eye closed).

I also went up to Molyvos with my motley collection of German roommates, and we checked out the Hope Center, an abandoned hotel that volunteers are currently restoring to house refugees.  It’s on the North coast of Lesvos, so I got to see some of the interior of the island on the drive up.  Lots of big sky and olive groves.  Turkey is very close up North, we heard stories of four champion Syrian swimmers who actually swam across, and were fine.  There is also a small mountain of abandoned lifejackets.  It was a sobering sight.  The pile dwarfed the broken hulls of a few fishing boats dumped in the same landfill, and every single one of them arrived wrapped around a person.  It’s not even the only place to find piles of lifejackets on the island, they’re everywhere.


The boats have started coming again.  I’m about to do my second night shift in a row, so I need to have a quick nap, but tomorrow I’ll try to write a more current post about what I’ve been up to at Moria.

One Month

I’ve been in Greece for just about a month now.  The stamp on my passport says January 11, but I didn’t get to Lesvos until the thirteenth due to jetlag and ferry times.  In that month I have learned so much and met so many amazing people that it’s hard not to lose track of it all!

One month ago I stepped onto a ferry with Anna and Amy, two women I’d met online and booked a place to stay for a few nights with.  Amy ended up going to Chios, where she helped refugees arriving there for several weeks before she had to go home to her job and normal life.  Anna and I lived together for a few more days and continue to work together.  Tomorrow, on the one-month anniversary of setting foot on Lesvos she will get on another ferry and go to the Macedonian border near Thessaloniki to help refugees in Polikastro and Idomeni.  I’m thinking of doing the same, if it doesn’t pick up here.

Lesvos is losing volunteers fast.  We’ve had almost two weeks of strange quiet and everyone is restless.  Combined with the reports of desperate need from the Macedonian border and Athens, I’m not surprised that those with the means and the itchy foot are leaving.  It feels like the calm before the storm here, but not everyone has the time to wait around for the storm to break.  I’m staying at least until the end of February, because when I look back at how quickly the situation has changed in the past month it’s hard for me to believe it will stay this quiet.  I have time.  I can wait.  The boats will return.

In the meantime I patrol the port to report on Coast Guard and Frontex activity.  Today they did not bring any boats in during my shift.  It’s windy and the sky is low and heavy, so I hope no boats attempt the crossing.  It feels like a storm in the air.  There is lightning just waiting to strike, thunder just beyond the edge of hearing.  It’s warm, too, warmer than it’s been for several days.


Mytilene Harbor

There is news about NATO deploying a fleet to send refugees back to Turkey before they make it to European shores.  There is a rumor about Saudi and US soldiers in Syria.  There is talk of a new EU ruling about the Schengen Zone.  This crisis is far from over, even if it feels like it right now.  Things change so fast, and there are thousands of people waiting to cross in Turkey.  They will find a way, as people always do.

Unsafe Passage in Turkish Waters

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 14.15.54

I woke up to this in my newsfeed yesterday. NOTE: numbers of dead unconfirmed

Lilian is a friend of mine who works with the Worldwide Tribe.  She worked the night shift in Moria two nights ago and posted this in the morning when she finished.  I talked to my friend Sadzida (Sa-JEE-da), who spoke to this man in the tent.  She’s an Arabic translator from Libya and Bosnia.

The man she spoke to went to the medical tent in Moria with some minor tooth pain, and while he was there began to tell her the story.  He tried four times to take a boat to Greece, and on the fifth try he finally made it.  Once they were on the water however, the situation became lethal almost at once.  The Turkish Police appeared and began deliberately trying to sink the three boats.

“They used knives to cut the boats, and then filled them with water from hoses,” Sadzida told me, relating what the survivor told her, “the men tried to push the boat as fast as it could go,” she made paddling motions with her hands, indicating that they did this manually.  “They threw stones at the police to make them go away.  Some threw even their phones.”

She specified that it was the Turkish police in uniform sinking the boats, not the smugglers or the Coast Guard.

Two of the three boats went down.  Everyone drowned.  One boat managed to escape into Greek waters, where it was picked up by the Greek Coast Guard and towed into safe harbor in Mytilene.  The survivors were bundled into a UNHCR bus and brought to Moria as usual.  “He was afraid to take pictures,” Sadzida said, “he is afraid for his family if he takes a picture and it goes online.”

Sadly, this is a valid concern.  Many refugees are camera-shy, and it’s often because they fear for the safety of relatives left back in active war zones.  Sometimes association with someone who fled the country is enough to endanger a family back in Syria.  Some of the young men are happy to take selfies with volunteers and it’s common to see newly landed groups taking a “we made it!” selfie, but often enough when they see a camera slung around someone’s neck they melt away like fog in the sun.

Far from wanting to disappear, this survivor begged Sadzida in tears to tell his story.  “He wanted me to tell everyone,” she said, “he was crying, he didn’t want the ones who were killed to be forgotten.”

Although there are many articles about capsized boats and plenty of statistics on refugee drownings, it’s hard to find anything about deliberate sabotage.  Yet we hear firsthand stories from refugees all too often.  Unconfirmed rumors have Turkish authorities shooting at boats, rival smugglers slashing each others’ boats, Coast Guard officials watching boats sink without helping, and refugees slashing their own boats in efforts to get rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.  We know that refugees almost never have real life jackets, and most of them believe they’re paying for a seaworthy boat right up until they have to get in.

Sometimes it feels like a miracle that anyone makes it across the water at all.  Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet writes in her poem Home, “you have to understand,/that no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land.”  They run from horror to horror, and we can only try to help.


Sunrise over Turkey