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Children drowning, smugglers abandoning those who had abandoned everything, traversing continents to seek refuge; all of these were the life-shattering realities I heard on a daily basis while volunteering in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp last summer on the island of Lesvos, Greece.  The emotional weight of working with displaced persons is heavy, but certainly not even close to the same level of being a displaced person.  Close friends can tell you I was a little bit jarred and distant when I returned.  As my brain struggled to process all the horror stories I heard and saw the entire summer to understand how such cruelty and injustice could exist in this world, I knew the struggle would be eternal.  I wanted to continue helping people who were fleeing situations I previously couldn’t imagine, but I wanted to see a different perspective to more fully understand the complete situation.

My first attempt to work with refugees was a tiresome Google search years ago to go to Jordan or Lebanon.  Both were countries bordering Syria and taking in large numbers of Syrian refugees, but beyond that I didn’t know too much.  I found a UNHCR posting for a manual laborer to dig irrigation trenches, and the idea of turning my brain off after a stressful school year of teaching and just digging a hole in the heat for a good cause sounded appealing.  Unfortunately, the minimum 6 month requirement did not fit in well with my plan to keep my teaching job and that plan fizzled.

As anti-refugee sentiments flared up across Europe and especially with the election of Donald Trump in the US, I began to see hate displayed more openly and advocacy to close borders gain more steam.  Last year, I wrote about the accepting nature of Greeks to extend their resources to their neighbors in need and I had to wonder what the scale of the rest of the world was doing.  My country with so many resources and potential for good had done embarrassingly little, but come to find out, little ol’ Lebanon had done a ton! According to the UNHCR, 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a registered refugee, but the actual number is likely closer to 1 in 4.  In fact, the number of registered refugees from Syria is greater than the entire population of Lebanon.

Syrian Refugees in LebanonImagine that in America; if in our giant landscape, 90 million people were refugees.  It seems unfathomable, but that’s what Lebanon has effectively done.  Even under Obama, the plan was to let in 10,000 refugees a year, and progress on that target fell way behind schedule from the day the plan was agreed upon.  To take on such a large number of new inhabitants has caused tension and problems for sure, but it has also save lives and offered countless opportunities to families with nowhere else to turn.

I used to have a Doctors Without Borders world map behind the desk in my old classroom that had their slogan, “We go to where conditions are the worst, because that’s where we’re needed most.”  I saw this video detailing the trash problems in refugee settlements in the Beqaa Valley and I looked at the numbers on the UNCHR data chart.

Greece was the sexy focus of the refugee crisis in Europe.  They got the mainstream news coverage, the celebrity visits, the EU funding, but Lebanon doesn’t have any of those things and they have let in more refugees than all of Europe combined.  The Beqaa Valley was a former Hezbollah HQ and currently maintains status as a drug growing region, but the dangers associated with either are minimal now.  Sitting in an office area with a view of the mountains 23km away that form the border with Syria, I know this experience will open my eyes to the problems of the word in a different way and hopefully help me be a part of better solutions.

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This piece follows an earlier post about the struggle of getting proper clothing in Kara Tepe refugee camp.

After an alleged coup d’etat that failed to overthrow the government on July 15, a three month state of emergency was declared in Turkey, giving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan significantly more power in every day affairs.  Several measures were enacted including closing the border to academics trying to leave and detaining people at will; over 13,000 have already been arrested and many more dismissed from their jobs.  I use the term “alleged coup” because many think the coup was staged specifically so Erdogan could seize more power.

That night, as my mother and sister texted me telling me to cancel my plans for Turkey, President Erdogan sent a text message out to all citizens which Aysegul, a volunteer from the long-time Greek rival nation showed me and offered a rough translation of:

All Turkish people, in Istanbul and Ankara, the government is fighting against military vehicles.  A few people tried to behave like in the 70’s and they have taken our soldier’s vehicles and guns and they tried to kill you, the Turkish people.  This is not an attack on me, this is an attack on you.  Now you have to go out and defend yourselves.  If you don’t do this, they will think you are scared now.  So I am calling on you now to go out to the streets to defend yourselves and your country.

Imagine if everyone in the United States got a text message like that from Obama, requesting us to mobilize, insinuating we use violence to “defend” ourselves against an alleged threat that had already been quelled at that point.   Again, many believe this was a thinly veiled attempt to incite fear and panic to justify declaring a state of emergency.  The government officially vows this “will not affect civilians,” but media can now be censored and banned, curfews enforced, protests prohibited. People can be searched on a whim and while the world watches in anticipation of human rights abuses and the stripping of basic liberties as the leader tries to reinstate the death penalty, I decided it would be a good idea to go to Turkey to get inexpensive clothes for Kara Tepe residents.

No one I know who has spent any time in Turkey trusts their official leader whose crazed tactics conjure up images of Soviet era propaganda, but as the coup made Turkey’s currency devalue ever so slightly, my purchasing power had increased.  Inspired by the example of Eddie Mulholland who had made a supply run the night before the coup and joked about how he caused it, I set forth with two others to help stimulate the Turkish economy.  Janos from Switzerland handled the logistics of acquiring ferry tickets, researching departure times and location, bringing enough bags to carry our end of the day haul, and inventorying our purchasing needs.  Aurelie from France was our hired muscle, who in addition to carrying heavy bags, made sure we were safe and took amazing pictures along the way as she hunted down needed clothing with the skill of a bloodhound.

I said ‘Listen, 15 lira for each pair of shorts, but only if you get rid of Erdogan tomorrow.’ They said yes.  We shook hands and I left. -Eddie

On July 28, when our team got off the ferry at Ayvalik and passed through customs, the first sight we saw was a giant teleprompter with Erdogan giving a speech on repeat telling the citizens to restore order.  Next to the screen was a Turkish flag flapping in the wind.  The white crescent moon and star with a red backdrop could be seen in multiplicity on every government building and piece of public property throughout the city.  We were told this was a new drastic and noticeable change which even to an American seemed like an excessive display of flags.

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President Erdogan attempting to win the hearts and minds of his people.

Aysegul who had traveled a few hours north from her home in Izmir to help translate and negotiate the best price on clothing met us at the port.  Her ability to gleefully connect with everyone in the bazaar including the restaurant where we kept our bags was the keystone to a successful day of shopping.  She explained that everything we were seeing was post-coup patriotic facade and the once cheery and palpable energy felt across the city had been flattened.

After shaking off the eerie feeling of Jumbo-tron fascism, we followed the flow of Greek tourists from the ferry to the Turkish bazaar that apparently only runs on Thursdays.  People flock here from across the border to save mountains of money on their purchases of clothing, spices, electronics, and a whole host of other random items.  It was immediately clear, however that clothes are the main fixture of the market.

The first steps into the bazaar were full-on.  The narrow walkway with shouting vendors, pushy deal seekers, and manmade bird noises from colorful toys signaled my internal shock alarms.  We took two steps in, and then stepped right back out, deciding that if we were going to roll up our sleeves and own the marketplace, we had better get some food in our bellies first.  After a quick lunch of famous Ayvalik toast (thick bread grilled cheese), we slammed our bodies through the clusters of people all crashing into each other like molecules trying to bond.

It wasn’t five minutes before we were grasping handfuls of socks and then fist deep in men’s underwear.  Bags filled with cheap, yet quality materials quickly piled up as we shuttled back and forth to drop them off at our base restaurant that clearly didn’t want us occupying their small space once they realized we came to buy in bulk.  Aysegul made friends with a family selling us underwear whose cotton-peddling daughter had the same name and struck a fair deal when we told them we were buying for a charitable cause.  They asked if we needed men’s tank top undershirts, which we certainly did so we once again bought them out of all the sizes they had that would suit our needs.

They asked to take a picture with us and be friends on Facebook, marveling at the faraway places we had come from.  It’s a common response and one that was duplicated with an Iranian family we chatted with in the street just minutes later.  “Oh, I love America, very beautiful country” the father enthusiastically told me as he wished us well in our endeavor.

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Posing for a photo with our two underwear and tank top vendors in blue.  They wanted to post this to Facebook immediately. [Photo credit: Aurelie B.]

As time was running short and our shopping list still long, we split up and divided the Turkish lira we had left, knowing it would be impossible to spend it all on this trip.  I had set a budget of $2,000 to spend, which was difficult as we went to many stands and wiped out their entire inventory of things we needed.  There’s something magical about asking how much a pair of leggings is and then pulling out a bag to say you want them all.

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When I approached a huge table of shorts and asked for Yunus, a man Eddie told me had given him a good deal on his trip there, I said I wanted to buy all of his jean shorts.  Yunus was a 27 year old with a lightly colored, extended chin strap beard who relaxed in a cafe chair wearing a sleeveless shirt.  If there’s ever been a man I’m sure was in the mafia, it was Yunus.  I told him I was friends with Eddie to which he responded with “EDDEE!” as he motioned me over to his table.  The man he was sitting with at one of three tables outside a derelict cafe behind the massive clothing displays got up and ran away the second I was waved over.  Another man instantly passed through the doorway ready to take Yunus’s order.  Al Capone asked me what I wanted, to which I said I wanted to buy all his shorts before my ferry left in an hour.  He said “No, you must drink” which didn’t sound like a bad idea on this scorching hot day, but I was now in a time crunch.  “Chai?” he asked.  “Ok,” I said.

We exchanged the basics of where I was from and how beautiful his home in Istanbul is in the one minute before tiny hourglass shaped sipping vessels of piping hot red chai came out on a string dangled tray with two sugar cubes in the mini saucer and dainty little spoon.  I pinched the play-sized glass between my thumb and index finger as I nervously checked my watch.  Yunus and I talked about sports and Kara Tepe while he slyly motioned one of his employees to take down the sign above the shorts that listed the price as 10L.  The whole time this was happening, men from several tables kept coming up to him and handing him cash that he banked in a large wad in his pocket.

Finally, when he was ready, he got up, called out to men from four different tables who converged to the table with jean shorts. We worked together to pull out sizes 29-34 with a few occasional 36’s while leaving the already stocked larger sizes behind.  As mountains of denim piled up, glasses of lemonade arrived for us.  Yunus chugged his and pitched the plastic cup under the table in a single fluid motion that didn’t detract from his flow of counting and sorting.  I clumsily followed suit.  He called to the table next to him, and a man brought over a blue polo shirt for me.  “You,” Yunus said as he held it up to my body.  The same happened with a high quality pair of denim capris five minutes later.  I guess big purchasers get big perks, but I just wanted to load a big bag full of jean shorts.  I politely packed both away in my bag and donated them along with the rest of the clothing we got.

Yunus and I spent some time arguing over price, with me noting that I saw the advertised price, him noting that Eddie paid more last time.  I told him if I was paying more, he needed to include belts.  He said he didn’t have any.  I repeated myself.  He repeated himself.  I stood there and waited silently.  He said two words and snapped his fingers in the air and a bag of belts appeared.  He wanted me to buy more shorts from him even though I had no more bag space to transport them in.  I told him I would be back soon and although upset, we exchanged contact information on WhatsApp and he had two of his young male workers carry the heavy bags out of the bazaar for me and close to the taxi stand.  I now have a denim dealer.

I also have a shoe dealer as Janos and I had bought one shop out of all of their knockoff TOMS and other similar shoes.  I went to the only other shoe store I could find that had sturdy canvas construction that was light and durable enough for walking on rocks in the summer as well as playing football.  I bought all of their shoes in the size range needed as I sat on a stool outside, being handed waters and carbonated lemonade while father, son, and mother shuttled back and forth to a storehouse looking repeatedly for more.  Mustafa added me on Facebook and I told him I’d be back for more.

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Actual footwear worn by Kara Tepe residents who desperately ask for new shoes daily.

At the end of the day, our haul was big enough where two taxi drivers in a row refused to drive us to the ferry port.  Aysegul was furious and as she was complaining to officers in a passing police car, the first abrasive cab driver begrudgingly agreed to load our booty in his trunk.

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Standing by our haul for the day outside of the restaurant who kind of agreed to let us hang out there all day long. [Photo credit: Aurelie B.]

On the ferry passage back, the cruel irony of the journey did not escape us.  The ninety minute ferry ride to Lesvos cost us 4 Euros, the same price it costs to take a ten minute taxi ride from the center of Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos where we live, to Kara Tepe.  This same aquatic joyride that we pooled together loose change for and took the time frame of a Pixar movie, was a long expensive journey of life or death for the people we were bringing clothes to.

Everyone I speak with has paid between $500-$5,000 just for the boat crossing with the price depending on the smuggler and the situation.  While the most common range is $1,000-$2,000, many have been charged multiple times for each crossing they attempt to make after police or intense waves force their turn around.  Some are robbed of all extra money, cell phones, and clothes before they attempt to cross these waters that close to 4,000 died in last year.  In a 3 ½ hour dinghy ride piercing through the choppy, violent waves off the Turkish coast, many prayed for lives in the same place we rolled up our sleeves on the top deck of a sturdy ship and soaked in the sun.

We looked at the white cap rip swelling in the sea, knowing it was rough enough that day to toss even a seasoned sailor from the bow.  I still struggle to wrap my mind around how anyone has the fortitude or desperation to make such a harrowing journey.  Even if they are dry and have new clothes by the time they get to Kara Tepe, the hell they’ve conquered is surely worthy of at least decent clothing as a symbol that they matter and are not just a stain like that which might appear on the clothes that we give them or that parts of society might consider them.

I felt bad popping bottles and toasting to a successful day as the ferry was ready to disembark on a journey that was so smooth for us because we were born in countries that provided us with “proper” paperwork.  But as our drinks clanked together, I tried to reframe what we were really celebrating. We toast to celebrate that we have a lot of brand new quality clothing that people will actually be happy to receive.  We toast to all of the donors who believe in humanity and basic human needs who selflessly offered up their hard earned cash so that another might have clean underwear.  We toast to one less person we have to say “mafi shoes” to who is crying because their feet can’t bear the pain of rocks prodding their soles anymore.  We toast to the small glimmer of hope that is symbolically woven into the threads of the clothing we are bringing back; that this might be the catalyst for positive thoughts that compound and inertia mentally carries forward.

Our stream of positivity was abruptly ended at the portside Greek customs house.  An official asked where I am from, and after I said “United States” he signaled us to grab all of our bags, walk around the x-ray scanner and back out the side we entered, filing into a waiting room.  Another man came in shortly after, closed all of the doors, told us to set our bags in a straight line on the ground and then have a seat.  He returned a minute later with a large pawed German Shepard, who while no doubt did his job effectively, lacked the discipline one expects to see in a professional canine as he stepped all over our bags, and got distracted by us, tugging at his leash to get closer.  As I was running through in my head if we had done anything illegal, Janos started talking to which the handler quickly and firmly said “Do not talk!”  The duo left and a moment later we were allowed to do the same.  I asked the officer who had brought us in the room in the first place what that was all about.  Was the dog looking for drugs? Explosives?

With a heavy Greek accent, he said “Drugs.” I asked, “Why was I targeted as an American? Once I told you where I was from, that was the second you told us to go to that room.” In a confusing response, he muttered “Your country…Guatemala, Venezuela, […unintelligible Greek…]” He then listed a few more countries followed by more unintelligible Greek and ending with, “I think USA.”  My best guess is that he was personally not a fan of the US based on a long history of drug trafficking and destroying other countries’ governments and economies in sometimes covert actions that often include the transport of illicit substances.  Normally that kind of thing would get me down, but I was happy to not have been detained on the Greek side which proved to be more fear inducing than Turkey.   No customs duties had to be paid since we were bringing hundreds of pounds of clothing to Kara Tepe, a situation to which all of the coast guard officers seemed sympathetic.  A cab brought us straight to the camp where we stocked the clothes and got ready for the next day.

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Since I saw just how far money could go in Turkey and because I didn’t have enough time to spend all the money I went with, I am going to make one final push in soliciting donations and return on August 11.  I have already requested Thursday as my Turkish Bazaar Day-off and will contact my dealers this week to let them know what I need.  Below is the amazing list your donations were able to fund this time around which is about 4-5 times further than this money would go if I was spending it in Greece.  If you know anyone who would be interested in throwing down a few dollars to contribute to the next round, please direct them to the fundraising page.

Even just $5 was able to purchase multiple articles of clothing.  $7 got a pair of TOMS. $15 totally clothed a single person, head to toe.

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That my friends is the power of people coming together to do good things.  If you have ever had doubt in your life that you could make a difference, look at what can you happen when compassion pools together.

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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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“This flight has been oversold, we are looking for volunteers to give up their seats and in exchange we will offer a $275 flight voucher with no blackout dates.”

I found it odd that the gate agent used the term “oversold” instead of “overbooked” as if to skirt the connotation that it was any fault of the seller; that the demand in the free market is really what generated the selling of more seats than actually exist on the plane.  And there is the exact problem, a seller offering something they can’t follow through on.  Consumerism has suffered and debt has ballooned in historically painful pasts and present as average Joes have purchased goods on credit they didn’t have the assets to back up.  The dilemma seems no less problematic from the other end where a company is taking money for a product it can’t actually deliver on.  All too often on airlines, “this flight has been oversold” is the opening salutation that marks the beginning of the painful boarding process.

Fuel costs are at all time highs, overweight passengers cost more to transport, security costs are through the roof; we’ve all heard the headlining explanations as to why airlines are collapsing as if the age of air empires is being grounded.  So, like any modern business they begin to rely more on economics and statistics.  The carriers know that a certain number of passengers will not make it onto the plane.  They will reschedule flights, change plans altogether, or who knows, just not show.  Big data is the emerging technology that is shifting the way that all businesses conduct themselves and effective tracking/use has made gross national trillions. Although, the problem is that complex data sets can’t reliably track human behavioral outcomes without fail.

Computational matrices will say based on past traveler habits, seasonal trends, weather, and whole variety of other proprietary coded secrets to sell five more tickets than actual seats on the plane.  The data shows the likelihood that 5 people won’t show up and instead of an airline missing out on that potential $1,000+ in ticket sales, they overbook.  Intentionally.

Last night at Ronald Reagan Airport (DCA) as the clock rolled closer to midnight and delays for the last flight to BDL (Hartford) compounded, the gate agent announced with increasing fervor that,

“This flight has been oversold, we are looking for volunteers to give up their seats and in exchange we will offer a $275 flight voucher with no blackout dates.”

I have always heard these announcements and been so jealous of the lucky travelers who could lay claim so just an offer of gold.  With no churning agendas, they could confidently delay their plans and pocket a free flight for another day.  Well last night, I was in the lucky position to have the same circumstances cast upon me.  Feeling bad about the prospect of abandoning my CEA group on the last leg of our journey together, I didn’t have specific Saturday plans so I at least humored myself in talking to the US Airways employee manning the microphone.

No sooner had we entered the airport had we gotten notification that our already late flight had been delayed.  Are delays becoming more standard than on time flights?

No sooner had we entered the airport had we gotten notification that our already late flight had been delayed. Are delays becoming more standard than on time flights?

“This flight has been oversold, we are looking for volunteers to give up their seats and in exchange we will offer a $275 flight voucher with no blackout dates,” she said in response to my inquiry.

“Yea…I caught that part…what is the next flight we would get booked onto?” I queried

“805 tomorrow morning.”

As I processed how that would stick me with yet another night around 5 hours to sleep, I asked about hotel accommodations for the night.  I was met with the response of, “We are not offering hotel rooms at this time.”  I did that sideways head turn that dogs do when they are either confused by your actions or hoping you feed them table scraps.  Knowing the cheapest hotels in DC are around $400, this struck me as downright dumb.  This offer might only entice a person who lives in DC and already has lodging to take this deal.  Otherwise, by my count, it would be a net loss to the customer of $125.

I felt bad for the 5 angry people who were standing in a separate line up against the wall in desperation just hoping someone would give up their seat, but this was just a bad offer I walked away from.  I was with a union group and figured there was no need to negotiate at this time, simply wait for the airline to feel more pressure and wait for a better offer. This unfortunately did not happen for the next 30 minutes of pre-loading organization.  As Zones 1 and 2 boarded the plane, no deals had been made.  The same 5 people stood in the same line, only the general atmosphere had transformed from frustration to anger and was teetering on rage.   I was ¾ of the way back in Zone 3 boarding (out of 4 zones total).  Just before my boarding pass was scanned, I asked the agent if she was still looking for people to get bumped off the flight.  She responded with an emphatic “Yes, yes, yes…pleeeeeeease!!” I asked if they were offering a hotel yet, and if so, I would also need cab-fare to get there.  I was particularly impressed with myself for mentally mapping out that last part.  I unfortunately had failed to ask about food vouchers, which, note to self: do next time.  She called up her supervisor, brokered the deal in no more than 20 seconds of desperation and told me to step out of line so they could process everything after the plane was loaded.  I asked her if I could have a later flight than 805 so I could have time to explore the city a little more, and she snapped back, “Yes, there is an 1100 flight, just please step out of line.”

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Another teacher with our group asked for straight up cash.  She was told they “couldn’t offer that anymore” to which she speedily sidestepped onto the plane.  One other man took the deal that I got and in the mean time the 5th person in the stand-by line gave up hope and walked away.  That meant there were two bodies left yearning for this nighttime flight and the comfort of their own Connecticut beds.  The girl in front, sporting a UCONN sweatshirt unabashedly broke into tears that dribbled down onto Jonathon the Husky.

My information was processed minutes later.  I was given a hotel voucher, flight voucher, and told a shuttle would pick me up in 10 minutes.  I walked toward ground transportation and stood statue like, frozen in the cool wind, wishing I had packed a jacket while I waited for a bus bearing the Hyatt Regency Crystal something-or-other markings.  Shortly thereafter, I was whisked away to my hotel. In 8 minutes, I entered the stunningly modern and breathtaking lobby, was processed by reception and entered a chic and impressive hotel room, which for the third night in a row had an extra bed I wouldn’t be using.  I smugly paused at the threshold and thought to myself about how proud I was of my decision.  I had beaten the system.  I wouldn’t have to drive until 2am to get home from Hartford; I would claim a good night’s rest in a different and exciting environment.  I turned on the TV which was a treat to watch for once and fell asleep to the MSNBC reportings of corporate greed.

For $810, I would not have thought this was a good deal, but a clean, modern hotel room just asking to be slept in for the cost of $0 is a warm and welcome sight.

For $810, I would not have thought this was a good deal, but a clean, modern hotel room just asking to be slept in for the cost of $0 is a warm and welcome sight.

This morning was leisurely as I woke up at 8:30, made a chamomile tea, and flipped through a DC sightseeing coffee table book after a long shower.  I had time to peruse the gift shop before I caught the 920 shuttle back to the airport.  I spent all of that time wondering where I would go with my new flight voucher.  I dreamed of exploring Denali National Park, touring my family around San Francisco, or relaxing on picturesque beaches in Cancun (wait, does US Airways fly to Mexico?).

TSA regulations are definitely made for worst case scenarios.  I have never taken longer than ten minutes to get through security and after that minor yet reassuring inconvenience of de-belting and barefoot body scanning, I settled in at my gate to trek onward past the first 95 pages of Gone Girl. The 1100 flight delayed to 1150.  1150 delayed to 1245.  1245 delayed to 215.  215 delayed to never.  The flight was cancelled all of a sudden.  The false hope all of the delays gave the mob around me only increased the irate shouts of passengers who were tired of being jerked around.  We were fed constant lies over the PA system of our plane being late to arrive from another location (even though it was already parked on the tarmac), of our captain and crew running late (but told they would be there in only 5 minutes on three separate occasions), and of weather issues.  As everyone around me got incensed, I just kept trying to crack what was going on with Nick and Amy in this growing murder-mystery of a book.  Every 15 minutes I heard “Attention military members, the USO lounge is open from 6am-10pm and can be accessed through…” blah blah blah. It would be the thing I heard most by the end of the day, because it is now 900pm and I have been in this terminal for almost 12 hours.

The customer service line hadn’t shrunk to under 20 people in the first 10 hours I was here, and I reckon when I hopped in it, I was a solid 60 people deep.  I tweeted and called US Airways with my dying phone as I inched toward the counter in an hour total.  I was told I was automatically rescheduled to the 835pm flight because the 4pm flight was booked and that I just had to stay in line to get my new ticket printed.  I wanted to make sure that I would actually get home tonight so I asked what the reason for the cancellation was.  I had heard it was weather, but the rep on the phone said that was not the case, nothing was posted in her system, but if it was weather, they would have known.  For that reason, she confirmed that I could request food vouchers in response to me directly asking.  Once at the counter, I was told no food vouchers because the original flight was cancelled due to weather (lies!) and that I would be put on standby for the last flight of the night at 835pm.  I was dismissed and given a ticket with no seat number or boarding zone.  Normal me would have been enraged, but I just didn’t really care.  I wanted to make sure I was going to get home, but the waiting didn’t bother me as much as it visibly did the passengers of the other flights around me that were cancelled.

I stood at a charging station to get my phone some juice, and went through 5 customer service phone calls, 3 internet confirmations, and 45 minutes of being on hold.  While I wish these numbers were exaggerations, they are not.  In the end, all it took was one competent person, the last man I talked to who said he just had to click one button on his end to assign me a seat and I could see any ticketing agent 4 hours before the flight to print out a boarding pass.  While the process sucked up a lot of my day, I ‘m not mad because I’ve been super productive.  With no bed to nap on, no wifi to be distracted by, and consequently no Netflix to be consumed by, I was stuck with a book and my mind.  I let my phone battery die down so no one could text me, and I just fell in to my book.  This must be why Thomas Jefferson was able to read as many books as he did in his life.  I had just seen his collection at the Library of Congress for the second time in my life and am still in awe.  What does my generation do when given free time? We distract ourselves, we do something mentally passive while the time ticks by.  It felt good to immerse myself in something that required brainpower and long periods of focus even if I did have to spend a whole day in a noisy airport with food I can’t eat (Still going strong on Whole 30 even though it’s around day 65).  And at the end of the day, I still have a free flight to somewhere.

Replica of Thomas Jefferson's library on exhibit at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Photo taken from washington.org

Replica of Thomas Jefferson’s library on exhibit at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Photo taken from washington.org

 

To see the high resolution photo album from the trip, click here: Brian F Germain’s Flickr Account, CEA/NEA Orientation Album

 

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