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Basil is your normal, everyday 16 year old boy.  He likes to scroll through his Facebook newsfeed, hang out and laugh with friends, and kick around the soccer ball.  His raging hormones manifest themselves in crude hand gestures and he often requires a little extra encouragement to do certain chores of the camp like washing a pot as he is visibly distracted by all the action around him.  He is respectful, honest and the type of motivated, hardworking kid I would want to have in my classroom or my own circle of friends.

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Basil, who volunteers daily with Humanitarian Support Agency, sits atop the Greek ruins of Kara Tepe Refugee Camp.

Basil is from the village of Shingal, one of several Yazidi settlements in the desert climate Sinjar District surrounding a mountainous landscape in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq.  In the unfortunate draw of the geo-political lottery, that happens to be smack dab in the middle of Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, the established capitals of ISIS in each respective country.  To establish a seemless supply line would require the control of Sinjar.  Everyone in Sinjar knew this, and everyone knew ISIS would eventually come.  Luckily, the people had their own protective force, called the Peshmerga, who with basic military supplies, uniforms, weapons, and soldiers were tasked with the protection of the at-risk region.

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The expansion of the caliphate whose lines are constantly changing as different rebel factions and military forces conquer or are conquered [trackingislam.com]

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) as they have become widely known, actually prefer to go by their official name, the Islamic State.  In 2014, they declared a caliphate, a political-religious region run by a Muslim leader and successor of Muhammad.  Essentially, they established control of a real physical area on a map.  Signaling that they would be violently expanding their power and perverse views of a peaceful religion, they dropped the geographically specific part of the acronym.  However, monsters shouldn’t be empowered with being addressed as requested.  Most people around the world afflicted by their reign of terror, refer to them simply Daash, which is a derogatory term sounding similar to their name in Arabic.

In keeping true with their unconscionably horrific vision, Daash have been marching forward with a genocidal effort, specifically targeting Yazidi people whom they believe to be devil worshippers.  Yazidis are not Muslim and practice some customs, including pagan ones that are misunderstood and leveraged as hate by Daash.  The practices are similar to how you might have a Christmas tree.  Daash made no attempt to hide that they were coming to Sinjar to destroy the Yazidis, of which, different reports estimate around one million are a part of this ethnic and religious minority group.

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Yazidi New Year’s Celebration [vox.com]

Basil didn’t give too much worry to this as a then 14 year old boy.  A low, substandard wall of protection had been built, Shingal was halfway up a mountain, and the Peshmerga were there to protect them.  They had fortification, elevation, and soldiers on their side.

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Shingal, also referred to as Singschar sits at the Southern base of Sinjar Mountain, about 8km from the ridgeline. In early August, Daash started their siege of the Yazidi occupied Sinjar district, surrounding a group that had retreated to the mountain top as they massacred captured members of the minority group along the way. [Ezidi Press]

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Shingal has had numerous operations to liberate it, notably in August 2014, December 2014, and February 2016. [reddit.com]

On August 3, 2014, everyone was just about falling asleep on their rooftops, a common practice in an area with extreme heat and no electricity.  From this vantage point, just around 1am, people from Shingal could see lights moving in the distance, a clear indication that something was going to happen that night.  As residents watched on, within a half hour, they could see the lights split into three distinct groups and slowly start coming toward the village at different angles of approach.  Just around 2am, the first shots rang out, mixed with a slew of incomprehensible shouting.  The neighbors were yelling, but only the sounds of confusion and fear were audible.

Before Basil could stand up, an explosion, likely from mortar fire, turned the top part of his neighbor’s home into rubble.  His female neighbor was killed instantly, and her husband badly injured.

Basil got down off the rood and ran into his home with his four brothers, three sisters, and mother for safety.  Bullets were flying in the village in a one way assault.  According to Basil and echoed by another Yazidi man from two villages south of Shingal, no Peshmerga shots were fired.  In fact, the military force the villagers were relying on protecting them was nowhere to be seen that night.  The village thought they were finished as they had all heard about the brutal strength of Daash while knowing that the forces of evil had a lot of support from the rest of the Arab region that surrounded them.

Basil’s father went to get the injured neighbor’s Kalashnikov and with gun in hand, hurried down the mountain with other villagers in a heroic sprint to meet the enemy where they had advanced.  As volleys of bullets were exchanged, the children looked on through the darkness to see the hot metal streaking through the sky.

Video from the Daash perspective of the attack on Shingal, August 3, 2014.

Between 3am and 4am, a silence fell on the village.  Unsure of if any fighters were still outside and convinced their father had been killed, the family moved to the car they were luckily enough to have.  Mom had told the older brother their only hope was to take the one road out of the village and go up the mountain.  In this small car, they squeezed three families, a total of seventeen people. After a few short minutes of driving on this road, they got to the military checkpoint and found a barricade that had been locked and abandoned by the Peshmerga.

They followed the road back past their homes and took a different route to link with the up-mountain pass.  As they were slowly puttering in their overloaded vehicle, a cell phone rang.  It was their father who was clearly shaken, but still alive.  He asked the car to turn around to come get him.  When they pulled up to where he was, they weren’t sure who they were looking at.  In the desert, Basil says it’s impossible to tell who you are fighting because the face is so dirty.  They gave dad water, quickly exclaimed their surprise and joy that he was still alive and loaded him into the car now filled with eighteen people, next to their cousin’s wife who had been shot in the arm and was in severely deteriorating condition.

The car was headed over the mountain pass towards Kurdistan, a three hour drive on the other side.  Headlights that had been following close behind them pulled up at the first allowable spot and shared news that the Peshmerga were not at their posts securing the road and it had been taken over by Daash.  This was the point everyone became convinced that the Peshmerga were paid to simply not show up to their posts that night.  Basil, his family, and several villages were completely surrounded.  Without hope and without an actual plan, they drove back to his village of Shingal as Daash forces continued up the mountain coming closer and closer to making contact again.

The family stowed their car away someplace they thought it would be safe.  They gathered some food and water and started up the mountain to a point of safety as the sun was rising and the temperature was growing unbearable for physical activity.  Shouts from Daash hit them as they reached another group of militants who set up a line to stop people from an escape route up the mountain.

Finding an alternate way to avoid the blockade of bullets, Basil got to the top of the mountain around 8am carrying his sister on his shoulders and rested just long enough to catch his breath.  He hadn’t any water as the little bit they were able to bring was being saved for the two youngest children.

What had actually happened to Basil’s father was that he had gotten thrown through the air by an RPG that landed right next to him, just like you see in the movies, Basil explained, trying to put the horror in a context I could understand.  When they got to the top of the mountain, dad nearly collapsed and was in awful condition.  Basil told him to stay put, and this 14 year old boy ran back down the mountain with a group of friends, not knowing what they would encounter.

He didn’t even have a weapon, but he luckily found a Kalashnikov on top of a Peshmerga uniform at an established yet unmanned post on the way down.  With three clips of ammunition and an estimated 10,000 others now fighting, Basil and his friend took a position across from a blockade of cars.  Daash militants were standing on top of the vehicles firing at them while three to four other fighters were firing from the shielded position behind them.

Daash were clearly outnumbered, but they had fire superiority.  With an AK-47 packing decent power but abominable accuracy, the targets were too far away to hit.  The Yazidi force that had gathered to repel the invasion had to contend with numerous types of high powered assault rifles that had an un-ending supply of ammunition as well as RPGs and various other heavy artillery.

Basil described the scene as being like a dream, an event he wasn’t actually there for.  When he squeezed off the last bullet from his third and final clip, he ran back up the mountain to where his family was.  On the way up, throat closing from thirst, he said he wished he was dead so he didn’t have to see all of that.  People on either side of him were killed.  Hurrying upwards as lines fell back, many people were too exhausted and had to stop for a rest.  They too would be killed shortly.

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A man from Shingal holds up pictures of his family, all of whom were executed by Daash after the attack on Sinjar, August 3, 2014 [Shared by Basil]

Peshmerga forces began showing up in the morning wearing plain clothes, allegedly so Daash wouldn’t kill them.  They were targeted anyway as RPGs were repeatedly fired at them.  After making significant ground up the mountain, at around 930am, Daash fell back to the line of the villages and raided them, taking all animals, money, gold, and valuables.  They had secured control of the road leading to another village of 3,000.  Forces moved down from Shingal and to that other village.

Basil and his family returned home to shower, grab clothes, and immediately left for Turkey.  They started walking to Kurdistan from Sinjar with no food, the three hour car ride they were originally trying to make what seemed like a lifetime ago.  They reached their destination the next afternoon as many people, including countless young children dropped to the ground and literally died of thirst all around them.  As news of the attacks spread, roads clogged with traffic as those close by tried to flee to safety.

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Thousands walk across unbearably hot desert lands without food, water, or possessions,  escaping the genocidal attacks on Sinjar [Reuters]

While Basil’s English was not good enough, nor my Arabic good enough to get a direct quote, one thing he said very clearly on his own was “In the mountain, there is nothing.”  There was nothing for sleeping and no blankets as they suffered from exposure in freezing nighttime desert temperatures while getting inadequate rest on the rocky ground.  They made it to Turkey where they spent almost two years in a now demolished refugee camp before coming to Kara Tepe and making it one step closer to the goal of settling in Europe.

Basil’s older brother was quick to make it into Germany before Europe closed its borders.  While they now play the waiting game all too familiar to refugees, they try to keep their hope up.  Today, they heard through the grapevine that UNHCR told another Iraqi about an EU deal just passed.  The agreement says that anyone from Iraq who is in Greece and seeking asylum in Europe must either shelter in Greece for 5 years before they can apply or return to Turkey.  Official announcements of this policy could not be verified, so even though I therefore don’t think it’s real, how Basil reacted to hearing such hope-crushing news was very real.  Escaping from a place where he has been targeted with the mark of death for the belief system of his people, he just wants to get back to the life any teenage boy wants to enjoy.  Still his fate is better than the Yazidis who have not made it out of Iraq.

Following the road from Shingal to the captured village of 3,000, Daash did what they have done to all Yazidis they seek to destroy.  In a course of actions the UN has clearly called a genocide, a label even they don’t use lightly, Daash brutally and immediately slaughtered all of the men and small babies.  Sometimes if Yazidi men agree to convert to Islam, they will be spared.  Often times, they can pledge their allegiance and will still be murdered anyway.  All of the women were abducted* and forced into a number of channels, all of which are beyond unbearable. For the full UN Genocide Commission report on the Yazidi crisis, click here.

Sex slavery is the most probable fate Yazidi women face.  Daash have set up online slave auctions as well as slave farms where women are bought like sheep, an analogy one purchaser used to abuse and degrade a rare escapee after he had purchased her.  Other women are given as sexual gifts to fighters, or traded/sold off to different militants repeatedly, often times in the double digits.  Almost all are raped repeatedly, even at the age of 9 year olds.  Many have killed themselves to escape the suffering.

This pattern of activity Daash clearly announces and celebrates is what compels mere children to sacrifice their innocence to fight, so that they may keep their lives in exchange.  The unimaginable plan to wipe an entire people from the planet is what has Basil and his family slowly moving through red tape to get to safety on the other side of the world.

America has taken a hardline stance refusing to put boots on the ground and has scaled back drone activity even after Obama’s promise to “degrade and destroy ISIL.”  The push into Sinjar starting on August 3, 2014 was enough to warrant a United States response in the form of an airstrike just a short week later and almost a full year later.  An international coalition airdropped food, water, and medical supplies to the cut-off region, and through the use of force established evacuation routes for many, but not all of the trapped people.  Shingal has seen been taken back from Daash control and now has a robust Peshmerga presence protecting it.

For now, Basil does what many refugees have confronted as the long enduring reality of their situation: he waits.

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*While this video appears to be a staged production, it’s unclear as to whether Daash is behind it and the overall legitimacy of it is questionable.  However, as it was shown to me by a crying Yazidi man in camp and represents a less violent version of some actual actions, I thought it important enough to link to.

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I almost punched a 16 year old boy in the face.  It was my natural instinct as he bit down hard into the flesh of my shoulder while my head was turned away from him.  I stopped my clenched fist mid-air as it was flying toward his cheekbone with malice. My mind luckily kicked in to calm my autonomic response and remind me where I was. We had been talking about America’s role in the Middle East which was perhaps an unwise topic to dive into with two Iraqi teenagers on my second day working in a refugee camp.

In a place with such diversity and limited language overlap, one of the first questions people ask is “Where are you from?” I don’t lie when people ask this and even if I did, with a backwards hat, sunglasses, and neon Nikes, most people already know.  I am apparently a walking American bro stereotype that only led one person astray so far when guessing my country of origin (they said France).

I apologized several times for my country’s transgressions in Iraq after being called out for the phantom search for “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”  “You lied to the world and destroyed our country because of it,” the older boy said.  “And then you make ISIS,” a point to which I also apologized knowing full well how America destabilized the region and in trying to destroy al-Qaeda, in fact helped promote the growth of a splinter cell who carries out atrocities that were too extreme even for al-Qaeda.

I get it, we messed up big time and the more I read on the topic, the more I understand just how short-sighted our approach was in Iraq.  But that’s how hindsight works, except it doesn’t work as a reflection on destroying a country and creating devastation that has caused a 16 and 18 year old boy to flee that you are now sitting face to face with as they unleash their trauma on you.  “I don’t like America, but I like you because I am not closed minded” the older one boasted.  “America, no good,” the younger one echoed using the little English he knew to embrace a feeling he knew well.

“You know it’s fucked up how America funds ISIS” the older one stated in a transition to larger issues.  He proudly if not haphazardly explained the theory that America bankrolls the black-flagged terrorist activities targeting the Western world while destroying the Middle East and beyond so we can justify the hatred and destruction of Islam. We reached an impasse in our only ten minute conversation as I started to express the “What do you know, you’re only 18?” attitude to counter his “What do you know, you haven’t lived in Iraq?” attitude.   We were both too stubbornly sure of our opinions formed by bias media to continue on that topic as tempers were starting to burn red-hot.

At this point it’s important to note that the feelings Iraqis have towards Americans is noticeably and understandably, a mixed bag.  Syrians, while often wishing we would step in and assist the toppling of the Assad regime with full force, tend to like America very much.

Wanting to hear more, even if it was a slew of words I didn’t like or even believe, I simply asked to hear more.  In talking about Saddam Hussein, the older boy said “He was both good and bad, but more good than bad” recounting what he must have heard from his parents and pop-culture.  This wishy-washy celebration of death spewing tyrants is exactly how most of my students in China express their feelings towards Mao Zedong.  I needed to dig deeper.  “What exactly was good about him?” I said trying to hide the slightly arrogant American tone that oozed off of the word good like puss out of a wound.

He liked that Saddam was a man of action, even if inflammatory and deranged. “When he made the plan to fire 39 rockets at Israel and destroy them, he asked other countries to fire the 40th.” In trying to orchestrate a complete wipeout of the Jewish nation, the older boy expressed how he was “disappointed” that no other countries stepped up and followed through on “such a great plan” to destroy Israel.

“But then America comes in and killed him.” I had turned my head because I didn’t know how to respond to the eighteen year old’s characterization of a war criminal who placed such little value on humanity, it didn’t make his priority list at all.  I felt a sharp pain as bicuspids sunk into my deltoid just as quickly triggering my body to jerk away and my arm to swing around in one fluid motion.  An invisible force stopped my fist mid-flight.  I wanted to hit this scrawny little kid square in the chest as he broke his slobber clenched jaw from my body, but as a child, he has already experienced enough violence for 5 million lifetimes.

The next post is the story of that kid who bit me on my second day, but now affectionately calls me Captain America and is one of my best friends in camp.

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Two thousand people a day were coming to shore on Lesvos at the height of the forced migration that brought Europe into crisis mode.  This was around October and November when there was open passage throughout the continent and Lesvos was just a processing center en route to mainland Greece and beyond.  The small land mass served a similar purpose to Ellis Island, but was more intensely overrun and under-prepared than the small halls of hope were in New York at any point during US immigration history.

One day, 180 boats landed on Lesvos.  My mind instantly projects images of a blotted out sea, covered in a flotilla like one that Helen of Troy would launch.  With engines churning on dreams of freedom, many people stepped foot onto European shores for the first time under false promises from their smuggler that accommodation, food, and clothing were awaiting them. Most, however, were met with long waits for a bus to drive them to a processing center about an hour away while sitting in wet clothes because the huge influx of arrivals had shocked and depleted resources in a matter of days.

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Tents are strewn across the port of Lesvos as the number of refugees on the island tops 20,000 and the mayor asks for the state of emergency to be declared [ekathimerini.com, March 9, 2016]

As many countries decided their plan for accepting these new arrivals was not sustainable, safe, or in their own best interest, doors started to shut.  Borders were closed one by one as the European Union changed its initial open arms policy.  Even as leadership in Germany tried to hold out the increasingly unpopular decision to accept 800,000 refugees, passages through other countries were closed, leaving no route open to reach the far away Deutsch-haven.

 

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Since this image was created in October 2015, countries have increased their border controls, most notably Hungary with the supplement of heavy military presence to make a safe crossing near impossible [NY Times]

Trying to stop the new population overflow closer to its source, the European Union brokered a deal with Turkey that went it to effect March 20, 2016.  It basically said “Don’t send any more refugees.”  Because of Turkey’s close proximity to Greek islands and Middle Eastern countries from which people are fleeing, they are the point where the funnel meets the spout, through which all must pass.  In exchange, Turkey was to get favorable terms of commerce and investments that would bolster their economy.

The basic payment in cash or terms to another country is not a new tactic and it’s one the US participates in regularly.  First, some background.  Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people has more refugees than all of Europe combined.  Even with unemployment well above 25% and almost 1 in 4 people inside their borders being a displaced person, they continue to accept those who come.  Approximately 650,000 forced migrants from Syria are now living in Jordan.  Such an influx in new people and culture has sparked tensions with both of these countries firing off both de jure and de facto discrimination.  Syrians have had major lifelines cut off by losing the legal right to drive or work.  These are major factors that have led many people to seek asylum in Europe and to a much lesser extent, the US.

The US has offered about $60 million to Jordan to build schools for Syrian children, while the World Bank has offered up a $300 million interest free loan.  The European Union is dangling the carrot of tax-free imports which would be hugely beneficial to their clothing industry in particular.  A part of me applauds this policy of “Make life better for the refugees within your borders” except when I know that dictate ends with “…because we don’t want them here.”

From the people I’ve spoken with in camp, they certainly felt the discrimination, fear, and marginalization.  A family of seven displaced from Syria who spent the last two years in Lebanon, had enjoyed a good life in their new country for a while.  The father who was previously an academic, had learned a few trades and now found in-demand work as an electrician and plumber, making up to $75/day.  He drove a car and paid $4,000/year for his kids to go to school.  But when new anti-Syrian laws were passed, he was unable to find work.  Getting paid under the table and illegally, he would sparsely get offered $20/day and consistently get taken advantage of.  No longer allowed to drive or afford school for his children, he decided it was time to leave as the situation looked like things would only get worse.

This is how it has gone for everyone I talk to.  Turkey also does not offer the legal right to work for refugees, so to make ends-meat, they pick up any odd jobs and manual labor they can.  My friend Muhammed who fled Syria five years ago after forced conscription into Assad’s army has lived in Turkey since.  Getting financially taken advantage of as a painter and farmer, it took him the whole five years to save up 500 Euros for his passage to Greece, a relatively cheap price compared to others in camp.  Once he found out his wife was pregnant, he could wait no longer and borrowed the 500 Euros for her passage from another family member.

On March 20, after Turkey agreed to halt any refugees traveling to Europe as part of the new EU deal, boats stopped coming to Lesvos, cold turkey.  Months long stretches where each day was 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.  Turkey must have taken the deal very seriously as they were doing a tremendous job (judging by the results) of policing the issue.

Then, on June 2, German parliament voted to officially declare the Ottoman persecution of Armenians during and post WWI, a genocide.  Anyone from human rights activist to lazy high school student could have looked at the evidence and draw the same conclusion.  I have been teaching it as such in my US History classes for five years.  However, for political reasons, countries often avoid such labels as genocide.  We are scared to call something what it really is when the label is bad and will offend other parties involved.  After the breakup of the Ottoman empire following the Treaty of Versailles, Turkey was carved out with a few other fragmented parcels of land.  To say “The Armenian Genocide” is to point a finger of guilt at Turkey for their scapegoating and destruction of an entire population of people.

Germany had broadcast that they were set to rule on this well in advance.  Ankara sent word about how deeply unhappy they would be over an unfavorable result.  Many questioned whether this would cause Turkey to reneg on their agreement to keep the valve of refugees closed tightly.  Their official statement after Germany’s ruling, even with the red handed title of shame was to stand by their previous agreement.  At least, that’s what they said.  The numbers tell a different story though.  Shortly after this, more boats starting arriving; one every couple of days.  Why Germany would pick this specific time to come to consensus on an issue looming for more than one hundred years, I have no idea.

There are roughly 2 million registered refugees in Turkey and 2.5 million others that haven’t gone through official declarations and paperwork.  Every day as more cross the borders into Turkey, a few more leave. Daily boat arrivals have grown since the April drought of 0, 0, 0, 0, 0 to a flow of 2, 3, 1, 2, 7.  One hundred fifty people arrived on the morning I wrote this.  Many are trying to escape the turmoil bumbling over in Turkey that mirrors that of a country slipping into the violence they originally tried to escape.  A Syrian man in camp said that after several years in Turkey, he finally decided to make the journey to Greece after the bombings in the Istanbul airport on June 28.  Once he heard news of that event, he crossed the Aegean in a small wooden boat the next day.  No one has left their home in one country to substitute violence in another.

The events of the recent failed military coup will likely be a catalyst for more arrivals.  President Erdogan is not a friend to Syrian refugees and many despise his leadership that restricts them of fundamental rights.  However, the distraction the coup provided and the internal discontent it represents are the key factors for migration here.   As word reached the ears of volunteers late on July 15, my immediate first reaction was that we would be seeing more boats coming.  If I was a displaced person trying to avoid police, this is just the internal struggle I would need as a diversion to stage my exit. As Turkey is forced to shift focus more and more to their own internal issues, they will be able to devote fewer resources to stifling the flow of people into Europe.  Indeed, the next morning we had some boats arrive.  While there has not been a huge increase since, there seems to be a vastly different pattern developing from that of April and May.

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Lesvos is the largest of three Greek islands arrivals passed through before arriving to mainland Europe through Greece.  [UNHCR]

UNHCR Data: Daily Arrivals, Lesvos

And so here we all are, in a bankrupt country which has had unemployment numbers comparable to the US Great Depression for the past 7 years and even more staggering numbers of youth unemployment.  The country clearly lacks the economic strength to support a dependent population, yet they are trying their best.  Despite some instances of discrimination, the citizens of Greece have been surprisingly welcoming, all things considered.  In a country with so many needs, how can this mindset persist?

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Current Unemployment Rate is 23.30% [National Statistical Service of Greece]

Greece is an open minded, humanitarian state that worries itself with more than just the comfort of its own citizens, but rather the safety of a world population.  In The Battle for Home by Marwa Al-Sabouni, the high level of tolerance in Homs is discussed through the lens of both people and city design by a brilliant architect.  Al-Sabouni asserts that because of its location on the Great Silk Road, Homs became a commerce hub that was home to different cultures and products, thus serving as a point for interaction and exchange of diverse ideas.  Over the course of its history, Homs has switched back and forth from being a domain of Christianity and Islam several times.  After imperial conquests ceased, people of different beliefs lived in a peaceful coexistence.  Churches and Mosques both stretched into the skyline representing a fusion of ideologies and not just tolerance, but acceptance.

I believe that Greece has the same recipe for acceptance in their history.  Without trying to sound like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I believe Greece invented couchsurfing.  Xenia is a term that means “guest friendship.” In classical times, this was a strong social norm that dictated one sheltered, fed, and looked after a visitor with reciprocity generously given if the host traveled to the land of the guest.  Xenia was originally an honor code enacted by fathers who fought together in battle and sent their sons to travel throughout the country to broaden their horizons in a number of ways.  I imagine the scene as “Knock knock, ‘Hello, I am Patriclus, son of Theseus who you battled with many years ago.’ ‘Yassas! Welcome friend!’ All hug.”  Top notch hospitality has always been a keystone feature of the Greek populace.

Additionally, the country has long been a central point in worldly affairs in commerce, thought, and beyond.  Owning the Mediterranean and catapulting civilization leaps and bounds with development after development, they became a magnetic force for success.  Merchants, academics and anyone aspiring to improve their lot in life flocked to Greece.  Even as the Roman Empire took over, places like Athens remained a central hub, attracting people far and wide. Persian traders, religious crusaders, and outsiders Greeks originally categorized as barbarians flocked to their main cities.  The agora itself was set up to be an open place of trade and oration with main roads all passing through.

Exposure breeds acceptance, maybe not in ideas themselves, but in the understanding that people have different ideas.  So when the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time broke, I believe Greece opened up its arms because it has a rich history of understanding and accepting people who are different.  People they would have once considered barbarians, are now considered friends.  It is worth noting here that “barbaros” in Greek, simply means outsider and in the intellectual, democratic realm of Athens where citizenship was so highly valued and safeguarded, anyone who was not Athenian was considered a “barbarian.”  One could be persecuted and perhaps even exiled for “philos barbaros” or showing love to outsiders.

It has taken a lot of exposure and time for such feelings to subside, but the evolution of acceptance seems to be at a high level in the only country besides the USA where pridefully flown flags can be frequently spotted on the streets, in shop windows, and on cars.  If the early stages of reacting to difference is hate, Greece is well beyond that.  Even though it’s impossible to see what stands behind the white washed coat of a retaining wall on the walk to Kara Tepe, the spray painted message now reads “Welcome Refugees.”

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While the rest of Europe has closed their doors to those escaping the exploding destruction of their former lives, Greece has said what they have told the world for thousands of years as nations rose and fell around them, “Come to us.”  It seems to be a successful mantra for an enduring civilization and so more boats will come.

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I stepped off the hour late overnight ferry from Athens across the gangplank and onto the Greek island of Lesvos in the town of Mytilene.  The Aegean sparkled in the morning sun and terracotta tile roofs boldly climbed the mountainside behind the harbor.  Historic style buildings dotted the landscape of this tourist paradise and I wondered to myself “How could this be the European epicenter of the refugee crisis?”

After waiting outside my summer accommodations for 30 minutes for someone to open the door, I abandoned my post leaning up against the door and went on the search for wifi.  Conveniently, I found those little bars of goodness at a phone shop where I also purchased a SIM card. Greece is super tight on registering SIM cards, requiring my passport, father’s name, and blood type. Ok, they didn’t ask my blood type, but the process was longer than any other country I’ve bought a data plan in.

When I finally got in touch with the volunteer coordinator, I was assured she would be there to open the door for me.  When I arrived the second time, I was brought to my room which had an absolute gorgeous view.  Yet again, I felt the guilty intrigue of basically living an island paradise life while so much suffering was going on right around the corner.  I was handed house keys and a badge and vest to be worn at all times in the camp.

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View from the balcony of my 3rd story room. The Aegean sparkles just a few blocks away; the landmass in the distance is Turkey.

After I washed the previous day’s grime off of me, I entered the buzzing kitchen to meet other volunteers from Jordan, Netherlands, Canada, and Spain.  They were making sangria and talking about the rooftop party they were having on Friday, which they assured me, I would be able to get out of the night shift (11pm-5am) at midnight so I could make the start of.

We left on foot a short while later and on the 15 minute walk to a taxi stand, the conversations of last night’s escapades, tonight’s party plans and how late everyone stays up to drink frightened me a little bit.  Either I was living in a college frat house, or the situation was so bad that people are going deep into drinking as a coping mechanism.

A ten minute taxi ride at the cost of 5.10 Euros got us to the camp entrance, which from the road you would never be able to tell was a refugee camp.  In fact, walking inside, I still wouldn’t have necessarily guessed it was a refugee camp as it differed heavily from the image I had in my mind.  There were no tents flapping in the wind or hoards of people standing in line for services like food.  There were spotlessly clean facilities, numerous garbage cans which were frequently emptied that lined main streets adorned with lights, nice looking housing units made out of vinyl, and a community garden.

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Kara Tepe Camp Housing Units, Source: irinnews.org

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Kara Tepe Community Garden, Source: HSA Facebook page

I felt pretty stupid for being so far from the mark with what I was expecting.  Having misguided expectations to be the norm for me as I remember the first time I set out on the Appalachian Trail in the North, I thought it was going to be a wide and relatively flat walking path in the woods.  Within the first three miles, I knew I had made a grave error in planning.

After reviewing requisite paperwork and agreeing not to hold the organization I’m working with liable if I die, recognizing that “Sexual relations with Persons of Concern is strongly discouraged” but not prohibited for some reason, and other policies like no photos within the camp, I sat around with other volunteers.  After two hours passed of doing nothing, I started to second guess my choice to be here.  “I should have gone to Lebanon,” I thought over and over in my head.  I could have done some real good, I could have built houses, ran games with kids, made a real difference in an area starving for help.

I was assured by other volunteers that it was abnormal to have so much down time, but we were just waiting for food to arrive which was very late. I was just letting my own inadequacies get to me as I quickly started to get down on myself for a number of things, already thinking I wasn’t going to make a difference.  All the other volunteers spoke different languages.  They switched flawlessly in conversation with one another between French, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. Several spoke Arabic or Farsi with residents of the camp who came to our station to get tea.  Most days, I can barely articulate my thoughts in my single native language.

What came next, was something I could excel at: carrying heavy crates of food.  A catering company provides all the meals and drops them off basically whenever they are done preparing them within a 2 hour window.  The camp is divided up into five different sections of delivery, so volunteers work with some residents of the camp who want to help out to deliver food directly to everyone’s housing unit.  As I saw this unfold, I immediately fell in love with the labor intensive process.  Sure, we carry crates that bash our knees and pull our arms from our socket, but it offers such an important opportunity to interact with everyone.

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Kara Tepe Camp Map, Source: reliefweb.int

Each person is entitled to one plastic container (the size of a Chinese combination dish container) of a hot dish, and several other items that are delivered apparently depending on the day.  Today for lunch, it was eggplant and potatoes in some sort of red sauce.  In addition, there was a large (12oz?) cup of plain yogurt, a bag with a cucumber and tomato that people make salad out of, an 8” loaf of bread and spoon.

In each group, someone has a clipboard that goes by the housing unit records to say how many people live there. Each food item has a different volunteer to deliver it, and as I was the new guy, I handed out the saucy container that leaked red oil down my arm.  Volunteers handing out spoons must wear gloves, an option which I will definitely partake in next time. Some people lied and said they didn’t get food, which I don’t blame them for, I would be trying to eat as much as possible too.  They are denied, but the painful part was that after distribution is done, all extra food is brought back to the tea station where volunteers can take multiple servings.

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Containers of yogurt await food distribution, Source: HSA Facebook page

I’m told that how we people receive food will be changing soon as Oxfam, the financier of said operation, is running out of funding for this camp.  There are 700-800 people in the camp currently, but at its height, there were 3,500 people, and nowhere near enough housing to accommodate them.  One of the most shocking things that hit me first was how many kids are running around.  It’s not uncommon to see a family with 4 or 5 kids, and many are quite young.  In my mind, I think that has to be one of the motivating factors to leave a country collapsing in turmoil; to give your kids a better life.

As wasps circled the sweet tea where we were eating lunch, Eddie who is another teacher from the US starting teaching a 3 year old boy how to play baseball, with a new plastic bat and ball the kid was carrying around.  I joined in, trying to show the kid how to hold the bat with two hands, look at the ball as it came through.  I caught as Eddie tossed some over the plate.  The kid cranked what would have been at least a double, but tried to go Bam-Bam on the rest.  We drew a good crowd who gave some cheers and laughs.  I think we’ll have some more time to drill fundamentals later.

After lunch, I went to work sorting boxes of donations that roll in each day and are tossed next to a green shipping container which houses boxes of sorted items.  On either side of the container are large tents filled to the top with clothing donations that are sorted, and counted.  Sprinkled around the area are handfuls of other boxes with more items that wouldn’t fit inside the tents.  I’m told by the guy who runs the receiving area, that they have more stuff than they know what to do with.

They had just received 50,000 individual sugar packets as a donation, which seems like a huge number, but judging by the number of wasps flying around the tea station, will certainly be used.  First, someone will have to go through the tedious process of tearing each one open to access the few grams of sugar inside.

I remember for middle school canned food drives my mom would let me clear the cabinets of things we haven’t used and must have been bought because they were on sale.  Waxed beans, beef consume, cream of mushroom, cranberry sauce, and a can of Chunky soup thrown in for every 15 cans of lesser items so I didn’t feel so bad about my donation.  Clothes donations are a lot like that as well.  I sorted through a lot of crap that other people certainly don’t want to wear, as it was clear the original owner never wanted to wear.  Bags of moldy, burnt, stained clothes triggered the gag reflex, as I threw 5 things in the trash for every one thing I sorted into a usable pile.

This was all happening amongst Greek ruins: collapsed columns, finely chiseled marble wall blocks, and probably some pottery shards that we just didn’t notice.  We were literally on an ancient archaeological site that was converted to a camp when I assume space was needed to handle the arrival of 2,000 people a day to Lesvos.

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Kara Tepe: A refugee camp built on top of ancient/Ottoman ruins.  Source: Getty Images (obviously)

When needed, these sorted boxes get moved 80 meters across the gravel access road to camp and into a green shipping container to restock the supply at the distribution point.  Around this hot box is a cage where families can make appointments one day prior and show up 1 time per month to get up to one article in each category of noticeably used clothing (socks, long sleeve shirt, short sleeve shirt, etc).  This is the most stressful part of the volunteer job because you have to basically hand people a lot of crap and hope they like it.

It’s high summer and there are no men’s shorts left.  Our clothing line for 5-10 year olds consists of a couple pairs of sweatpants and four boys shirts that are extra wide.  If people thought they were going to get shoes on their visit, they will be upset to see we have one pair of black dress shoes in size 39 with a hole worn in the side.  While some people are truly grateful for whatever they receive.  Others are visibly upset, throwing clothes back at volunteers and ripping appointment tickets in our faces.  I get it, a lot of what we show isn’t something I would want to be wearing.  When it’s upwards of 90 degrees and a man asking for shorts is shown a pair of corduroy pants two sizes two big and told there is nothing else, I would be frustrated too.

As I try to channel my inner fashionista in the awkward process of looking at a person’s body and bringing them a couple pairs of underwear that I think might fit, I enter a new level of uncomfortable failure. A woman from Lebanon tells me she is thankful even though the 7 dresses I showed her were not to her liking and she left empty handed.  A man from Iraq leaves with nothing after requesting a black shirt and sees the only one we have has a yellow kangaroo having sex with a giant rat on it.

Appointments often take a full hour.  Residents are not allowed to see our clothes selection so we try to communicate regarding what they want, and then bring out 4 or so items, hoping that they pick one of them.  The process is exciting when someone chooses something you bring them, but you have to work for those moments.  Already, I have held up skirts to proclaim their beauty and moved my hips to make the fabric sway in the wind.  The family I was helping got a laugh out of that, but didn’t like the skirt.  The most powerful summary of how clothing distribution works can be tied together with one simple fact: the second word of Arabic I learned here was “mafi” which translates roughly to “there’s no more”

Ramadan had just ended and it was tradition to give gifts and get new clothes celebrating the new year holiday of Eid.  Many families had been disappointed with the getting of new clothes part, but one NGO that works in the camp bought toys for all of the kids; certain packs for boys and certain packs for girls.  Just around 10pm, it was decided without a plan, we would pass out toys to kids who were all wondering around the camp.  When they saw what we had, hoards of little ones flocked to us.  We went from housing unit to housing unit asking how many children they had.  As people saw what we were passing out, they gave us inflated numbers of phantom kids and we ran out of toys as we got just about halfway through.  The Santa Claus feeling I got from kids following me around kissing my arms asking for toys was quickly turned into despair as we had to make plans to buy more tomorrow and simply tell bright eyed children who just wanted some hope to play with, “mafi.”

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Various staff members in our building were trying to band together to be Nintendo characters for Halloween this year.  Emails with suggestions were sent out multiple times with people calling dibs on the iconic Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Link, and Donkey Kong (one particularly hairy teacher).  I had things narrowed down to the dog from Duck Hunt or a Nintendo controller that I would craft out of WB Mason paper boxes.  Even though I love group bonding and team building like this, I decided last minute to swim against the current and use a costume I could tie to instruction.  As my US History classes study the Robber Barons and Captains of Industry that shaped big business after the Industrial Revolution, I felt I couldn’t waste an opportunity to make learning come alive as much as possible.

Just two days ago, I was playing devil’s advocate with a student who was writing a persuasive essay trying to prove John D. Rockefeller as a Robber Baron.  As we went back and forth, he finally said, “Why don’t you just go as him for Halloween?”  I thought to myself what a great suggestion that was and immediately committed to it by saying “I WILL!”  It didn’t take much planning as I am just wearing an old suit I got from the Salvation Army for $12, a hat that cost $2 and a golden chain that was $0.25 from a vending machine.  All of these items were previously used when I went to a Titanic theme party on the 100 year anniversary of it’s sinking; since then everything has just been sitting in my closet waiting to be used again.

Dressing up is nothing out of the ordinary for me, as I always go to ridiculous lengths for learning.  Some students notice immediately that I am John D. Rockefeller as I throw quotes around like “The most important thing for a young man is to establish a credit — a reputation, character” and “Try to turn every disaster into an opportunity.”  I stood at my door handing out dimes to every student that walked in.  As a class we had just learned about how Rockefeller was one of the first people to hire a PR agent to cast a favorable light of public opinion upon himself.  One of the first suggestions this man gave was that Rockefeller carry around dimes in his pocket and hand them out to every kid he saw in the streets every single day.  Rockefeller did this and his popularity skyrocketed.  The equivalent today would be if someone walked around and handed out $2.27 to every child they saw.  What kid would not like that?  It was good review for my students who had already mastered the study of this business tycoon.  It was good reteaching for my students who had forgotten a bit and needed a refresher.  It was a good first glimpse at the material for my students who are habitually absent or hard to reach by traditional means, but were more alert and interested because today is Halloween.

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The best part about the day is teaching people I don’t have in class.  Everyone is curious about costumes and wants to know 1) What people are dressed up as 2) Why they chose that particular costume.  The guesses got hurlded at me like pumpkins out of a trebuchet (http://science.discovery.com/tv-shows/punkin-chunkin/videos/punkin-chunkin-trebuchets.htm) as I walked through the halls this morning.  “Al Capone” “Dick Tracy” “Frank Sinatra” were all good guesses, but not quite on the mark.  Sure, I could just tell people and make them happy, but I have just accomplished the goal that every good teacher tries to reach daily- I got people interested.  I succeeded in building hype and anticipation, people were yearning for an answer.  Instead of an answer, I gave clues and let motivation and the power of self interest inquiry do the rest.  I told people I was the richest man in American History (possibly even world history, although some dispute Rockefeller to actually be at #2 there).  I said I was the biggest oil tycoon who has ever lived.  I dropped quotes, handed out dimes, and left the conversation just when I knew people’s interest was piqued enough where they would actually search out the answer.  Let’s be clear here…this was not just with students, but staff as well.  So sure, I could have pulled off an awesome costume like this http://i.imgur.com/hUIBq.jpg, but instead I chose one that would have more impact.

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