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In Arabic, the root word of Ramadan means intense heat, which is exactly the taste that Amina Ramadan likes the most.  I found this out in the most unfortunate of ways when I was working side by side with her in the garden of Kara Tepe.  She picked a perfectly ripe green chili pepper that was dangling from a plant she had just weeded around, and after taking a bite, passed to me and said “Here. Very good.”  I’ve learned so far that cultural norms dictate I accept most offerings out of politeness, which I immediately regretted as my eyes swelled with tears and I coughed like a first time smoker.  With fire rising from my tongue, I passed the pepper back to her and said the most obvious statement of the day: “Hot!”

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Amina poses with David, facilitator of the Kara Tepe garden project.

I have worked side by side with Amina for more than a month now at the chai station that functions much like a water cooler of the western business world, only with much more importance.  People come here not just to fill up on the over-sugared hot batch beverage that wasps swirl around by the dozens, but to make meaningful connections.  They grab snacks of dates and crackers laid out for them on a table up front and talk about new camp policies, people who have left for Athens, news from back home.  They practice English with volunteers, teach us Arabic or Farsi, and ask questions about Europe.  Sometimes they just come for hugs or friendly smiles.

Nearby, there are benches where people can sit and charge cell phones using the four outlets running from an extension cord.  In the heat of the day, thin mattresses appear in the shade of the awning and people shuttle back and forth to the chai station to fill their cups with Amina’s brew.  Across from the chai station is a stack of pallets near the popular centers of operation for several NGOs.  Also in a shaded area, residents hang around the area waiting for a new pot to reach sweet perfection so they can pounce on the dark brown elixir and suck it down in its still boiling form.

Amina prepares each batch with pride, measuring out the right proportions of sugar and tea for each pot that she has whoever is available carry over to the propane stand from the faucet after filling.  A bunch of volunteers hang out in the gated area, but everyone knows Amina is in charge.  Whenever someone wants a new cup, they ask her.  Whenever someone has a question about anything in camp, they ask her, and rightfully so, because as the leader of the central point for camp communication, she knows everything.  Amina has the most humble personality you will ever encounter and even if she won’t wear the paper Burger King-esq crown I made her, she is still the Queen of Kara Tepe.

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Queen Amina relaxes while being fanned by Eddie and I as Janos feeds her dates on one of many blistering days in Kara Tepe.

Her unfathomable journey from Aleppo, Syria to the Greek island of Lesvos has a storyline that falls far short of what your worst nightmares are made of.  Every week, I would hear bits and pieces from other volunteers who had formed a strong connection with her or had seen a BBC documentary she was featured in which I hadn’t yet forced myself to watch.  I couldn’t bear to ask her about her story after I saw a reporter interviewing her where she flipped through pictures of her husband and tried to hold back the tears she was too strong and proud to show.  Whatever the wound, I knew it was deep and I didn’t want to be the one to pick at it.

As a loud young male from America who tries to keep as much skin exposed to the breeze as possible, I didn’t know how to properly interact with a conservative elder female from Syria who stays covered from head to toe like most women here do, despite the heat.  Could I hug her like the girls do? Could just the two of us have a private in-depth conversation?  Language was not the issue, our interactions felt awkward because we both were constantly feeling out the cultural expectations of one another.

I would bring her candy once I saw she had a sweet tooth, and she would give me extra food once she saw I had a bottomless stomach.  Amina was always making salads for volunteers because at her core she is a caretaker.  Some days she would see us glossed over in sweat and famished and force her own food upon us pretending that she was not hungry or had just eaten something else.

Basil, another world class resident volunteer, her and I would spend hours in the tea station area with other young vested helpers, sharing laughs, stories and tea pouring responsibilities.  Kids would try to sneak into the tea station to play with volunteers telling them to leave to no avail.  Amina would say the same thing and they would instantly listen.  The same went for adults trying to skirt the known rules such as getting more chai than allowed.  She has a fair strictness to her that commands respect, but one that never counteracts her radiating love and kindness.

She often holds and cuddles an infant I like to call the miracle baby.  As Amina explained to me, this child made the crossing over the Aegean from Turkey when she was one month old.  There was a shipwreck somewhere between the coasts and the child was assumed dead as the other passengers struggled to stay afloat.  After a half hour of capsized refuge seekers treading and searching, they the miracle baby bobbing up and down on her back with the waves, a big smile on her face.  Amina is now a central part of the whole village that is raising this child.

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Amina holds The Miracle Baby while Basil squats beside them.  [Photo shared with permission from parents]

Many afternoons had been spent sitting next to each other, exchanging short pleasantries during long periods of silence as she crocheted different pieces to give to friends’ babies or showcase at a local art show.  Amina and I shared the same space for weeks, yet still we felt distant.

But this day in the garden was different.  As I crouched down to take a picture, she enthusiastically approached me with a double fistful of tomatoes.  When I accidentally pulled up plants thinking they were weeds, she covered for me by hiding them deep into other piles of discarded pluckings.  She twisted random leaves off different plants and handed them to me to try, saying things like “Good for soup” or “Good for salad.” She seemed to know everything about this domain of greenery as new leaves kept appearing in my mouth with commentary like “In Syria, this very good.”

Amina is sharp and witty in all interactions even here as she picked up a small jagged-edged leaf that crunched too loudly when she bent it.  “David [garden organizer] wait too long, this no good now” she lambasted, noting that this beautiful tea herb was now a few days past its prime.  It was the first time we felt like real friends.

In the revolving door of a refugee camp where resident and volunteer goodbyes come more often than sunrises, many are hesitant to develop bonds they know might get packed down with soil before they have the chance to really bud.  Today after gardening, Amina spoon fed me a potent heap of Za’atar so I could taste the in-demand spice I thought I had purchased for several people, hopefully saving me from messing up again.  We full-belly laughed at both my obvious mistake and lip puckered face fighting to hold back a shot of the fine powder thyme-based blend.  I nodded my head to her, and her to me, silently acknowledging that through our cultural and gender hesitancies, we had in fact blossomed.

After getting back home from camp well past midnight, I woke up early the next morning I did what I had avoided doing since I got here.  I went to a cafe with wifi, watched the BBC piece she was featured in and tried to be as strong as she was in holding back the tears.  The video would be enough to make my eyes well-up if I was sitting on a couch one thousand miles removed from the situation, but now it had a whole different level of intensity.

After months of waiting in Kara Tepe, Amina has finally gotten her papers to travel to Athens and will make the journey in the last week of August.  I worry that she might be lost without a task to devote herself to and a team of volunteers to take care of.  I’m scared that she might miss the outpouring of love and respect from the triple digits of people that flock to drink her tea every single day, even in extreme heat and darkness.  The opportunity to move along on this next stage of her journey is a blessing a long time coming, but also comes with a loss.  I know how strong she is and I steadfastly believe she will rise above any hardship life throws her way.  After watching her story as told by the BBC, my mind can’t help but play on repeat the words of a famous Maya Angelou poem:

‘You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise’

‘Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise’

‘Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise’

‘I rise
I rise
I rise’

 

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.

I got home and stripped all of my clothes off and watched the water, grey from the dust caked on my legs swirl down the drain.  All day long, I feel sweat dripping down my body, except in the rare moments when I rest in the shade and my attention is drawn instead to the industrial strength stickiness coating my arms.  The most liberating thing is to rip off my shirt, tear off my socks, lather up with soap and then change into a clean pair of shorts.  This I now realize, is a luxury I have taken for granted.  For the residents of Kara Tepe, there often are no clean clothes to change into.

Once a month, families can go “shopping,” although this isn’t the shopping you may be accustomed to.  Getting clothing here consists of making an appointment two weeks in advance and hoping you don’t lose the little ticket that it’s written on.  When your day finally comes, you and your family show up to sit on a newly constructed bench opposite a small white shipping container filled with shelves of clothing bins, the whole area surrounded by a cage.  There is no Kohl’s to take a Saturday morning drive to, no advertisements showcasing latest fashions or variety of styles, there is simply the often barren contents of the white container.

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Two HSA volunteers walk toward the clothing distribution center, better known as “the white container” [Photo Credit: Aurelie B.]

A family of eight and a family of five entered the cage and the adults squeezed onto the bench that barely fits them while children ran around in unpredictable patterns seemingly targeting the knees of volunteers in the claustrophobic 10’x10’ area.  There were only three volunteers working in the white container this day and both families competed for our attention with waves and pointing to their feet preceded by “my friend, my friend”, a clear signal that they wanted shoes I knew we didn’t have.

I took the family of five while the two other volunteers started with the family of eight.  I grabbed a clipboard with checklist to track the one item from each clothing category people are allowed to get: Short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, bottoms, socks, shoes, hat, underwear, bra, jacket, flip-flops, other.  Residents are not allowed in the white container so the process, through an awkward series of pantomiming and touching our own clothing, is to figure out what they need and bring out a small selection from the white container to show them.

I decided to start with the father, because I find men far easier to channel my inner fashionista for.  The policies say we are only supposed to bring out four of each item for people to choose from, but that’s a horrible policy, so I don’t follow it.  Here is how that actually works when put into action: A man wants a T-shirt and I bring out one that is too big, one that is too small, one that has a subtle stain down the front, and another that I didn’t realize was bedazzled.  However, back in the container ten feet away from me are thirty other shirts.  I will not force a man into choosing the least awful of a pile of crap when I know there might be better options; this isn’t American politics.  I can prevent this. My own personal policy is that these are human beings and I will keep bringing out items for them to see until they find something that makes them happy.

That father today was quick and easy. Thanks to the unpredictably good stock of donations, he got brand new jean shorts with pockets, brand new boxer shorts, and a black baseball cap bearing the logo of some foreign company.  He now sports a new grey “Football People” shirt that scores of other men around camp wear because we got a bulk donation.  Their numbers are growing to compete with the flock wearing leftover Tough Mudder shirts and those rocking threads with an inspirational quote and face of either Nelson Mandela or Bob Marley.  This man wanted a long sleeve shirt too, which I couldn’t give him because due to the potential of increasing arrivals, we have cut back on what we can give.  So begins the age of the one shirt policy, a sacrifice one must make for the good of the state so as not to draw selfishly on limited resources.

The same goes for footwear.  His were not technically broken, so he’s stuck with them.  The uneven jaggedness of the ground eats through flip-flops in about a week.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Pennsylvania had hundreds of miles of infamous rock clusters sharper than a knife (I still have a scar down the length of my forearm to prove it), but Kara Tepe may be ripping up my soles faster.  People need footwear, but we often have nothing for them.

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Four-season shoes of child refugee from Syria that will be considered acceptable for many months to come. They are in much better shape than what most Kara Tepe residents rely on. [executive-magazine.com]

The mother wanted black leggings, the most in-demand item, but all we had were heavy sweatpants and jeans five sizes too big.  She asked for a black scarf, we only had bright colors.  She asked for underwear, but only males were working at clothing distribution, so to avoid awkward and potential cultural conflicts, the family waited for ten minutes while I went to go find a female volunteer to handle the selection.  The mother then quickly tried to make a choice as handfuls of strangers leaning on the cage behind her looked on.

I moved onto the teenage daughter who surprisingly didn’t appear to shoot laser beams out of her eyes at me like most girls do in this clothes acquisition process that is so drastically different from what they grew up with.  I didn’t have anything good for her, but each item I brought out, I held up to my body as I danced and sang, selling it like a cheap infomercial so I didn’t have to tell her there was nothing else for her.

While this was happening, two children from the large family the other two volunteers were working with had a crying competition in which none of us were the winners.  Their sixteen year old brother tried to calm them down as he helped them try on socks and a pair of shoes two sizes two small.  No one wants to ask where the father of the family was because by the way the older brother was handling things, it’s clear the worst may have happened to their absent father.

He was presented with the only pair of jean shorts in his size, which he at first accepted graciously and then asked us politely for another pair because he didn’t like the stitching pattern on the back pockets.  We knew there was nothing else, but pretended to look anyway.  Just to offer a point of comparison, he was shown a pair of large shorts down to his ankles with no pockets so the originals might look better in comparison.  These are the awful mind games we wish we didn’t have to play.  The whole while children were still crying and people peering into the clothing area were asking for various items even though they knew they needed to make an appointment.

The next hour, a woman of about eighty told me through a translator who was luckily standing by the cage and from Afghanistan as well, that she wanted a long sleeve white shirt that went below the knees.  I knew we had nothing like that in stock, but I always try to look anyway.  She didn’t make eye contact with me the whole time, and when I walked out with the five white shirts we had, she refused to look at them.  With palm down, she waved her hand in the universal sign of “get those out of my face,” then stood up and walked out with the help of her cane.

No one walks away with an entirely good feeling.  Residents may have gotten something that they can tolerate while volunteers have snuck into the white container to throw things, jump around in general boughts of frustration, or cry.  There is a lot of crying on both sides.

Think about if you were displaced in a different country you knew nothing about.  A visibly stressed girl in her mid-twenties approaches you and says something really fast in a language that you don’t understand.  She repeats herself several times, pausing to enunciate more and turns up her volume which you find condescending.  Finally, she gets frustrated enough to just give up and say something different several times.  You know this is a clothing appointment so you ask for a red T-shirt with no writing on it, and a dark colored baseball cap.  Not being able to understand you, she walks away thinking she has it all figured out and brings out four black abayas for you to look at, but not try on, along with the one hijab she has left.  Don’t know what an abaya or hijab are? My point exactly.

Most of our clothes are donations from western countries and some are downright inappropriate for the more conservative dress style of people we work with.  When a woman wrapped from head to ankle with a light cotton, flower-print fabric comes in for an appointment, there is no way I am going to bring her a shirt that says “Bitch Please” on it or a bright pink halter-top.  When a kid wants shorts so he can run around and play soccer with his friends and all I can offer him is corduroy pants and a suggestion to cut them into shorts, we have a problem.  There are some people who would rather be naked than wear the stuff we show them on a poorly stocked day.  If you are more than two standard deviations away from the mean size for your gender, that may very well look like your only option.  We can do better, we need to do better.  I will do better.

Just because international aid standards, as our NGO Head of Mission reminds us, says refugees only need one change of clothes in addition to what they are wearing, doesn’t make that right.  Try sweating in temperatures of 95 degrees for a full month with no escape from the heat because the interior of your housing unit is at least 10 degrees hotter.  Imagine your wardrobe consists of only two pairs of jeans, a pair of flip flops the thickness of three pennies, one pair of underwear, two black T-shirts, and a bucket hat.  With six screaming children, do you think you’ll be able to find the time and energy to hand wash your clothes each day with a bucket and soap you need to hunt down on your own?  Do you think you’ll be able to hold yourself together when a volunteer tells you getting a new shirt is not an emergency and you’ll have to make an appointment next month after you spilled coffee on your only other shirt late last night when you got a text message from your friend back home saying their four children died from an airstrike while at school?

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A woman hangs her family’s “summer” clothing up to dry on a fence at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp [Photo Credit: Basil]

Not just as an organization, but as humanity, we can do better and we need to do better.  I will do better.  We can never let our tank run out of empathy, for it is when we are tired and frustrated that we need it the most.  Perspective is important for understanding that no one is coming to us hoping for the awkward, heavy clothing we frequently show them in sizes too big or small that most of you reading this would be appalled to even look at.  Residents here shouldn’t have to accept awful options because as some volunteers have snarkily stated “they are refugees, they should take what I give them and be happy.” They are people.  They have sacrificed everything to get to this point where they are sitting in front of us.  They deserve better clothes and they deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity.  I would say we all need to walk a mile in their shoes, but most of them don’t have shoes, only flimsy flip-flops you wouldn’t last ten steps in.

My next post will be about my mission to do better by organizing a trip to Turkey with co-workers on my day off to restock clothing with generous donations from my GoFundMe page.  I will return again in a couple weeks so if you want to fund some clothing, $10 can buy a pair of brand new shoes, socks, underwear, tank top, and a hat!

In the meantime, if your closet needs a purge and you can afford the international shipping costs, I know many people who would love to have more clothing options.  Please send to:
David Triboulot
Kara Tepe Camp
81100 Mytilini, Lesvos, Greece

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.

Iraq Bites

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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