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Posts Tagged ‘Kara Tepe’

Imagine having to read this book to your children.  When one day your life is fine and the next day you are on the run from the sky that’s raining death all around you, this is an unfortunately necessary publication.  My biggest fear reading this is that Chapter 6 may never materialize. The following is distributed in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp.

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I have around one hundred 18 year olds pass through my classroom doors each year.  I consider it an honor that some confide in me their life stories.  There are many superficial commonalities to what I hear in “I love this…I hate that” teenage jargon. However, the struggle of adolescence usually includes a few main threads: “My parents don’t understand me, I want to be accepted by my peers, I’m nervous about what the future holds.” Even teaching in China, the themes of teenage struggle hold constant with my students there.

With an at risk population such as residents at a refugee camp, there is a whole new and much more heart-breaking perspective:  “My parents couldn’t afford to flee the country with me, my friends were killed by mortar fire, and I have no clue what tomorrow holds.” While not everyone has experienced those exact situations, they are some of the unfortunate fixations that are all too common amongst displaced persons.   Hearing snippets of stories like that from the mouths of people who lived them is not just enough to make me forget about my trivial daily complaints like not having wifi or a washing machine, but to actually feel guilty I ever considered such small things real issues in the first place.

I quickly made friends with an 18 year old boy in camp named Hassam because desperately, yet understandably so, he was seeking to connect with anyone he could as he arrived the same day I did. I arrived via ferry from Athens where I had taken in cultural relics of an ancient civilization for a couple days and stayed in a hostel that overlooked the midnight glow of the Acropolis.  Hassam arrived via a small rubber boat from the coast of Turkey where he had spent two nights sleeping out in the open on the forest floor, trying to evade authorities while carrying just a handful of personal belongings.

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Hassam taking a selfie in the Turkish wilderness with other people who would share the same boat on their journey to Greece.  Photo courtesy of Hassam.

Hassam was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, a city you may recognize only from the maps and night vision images of bombs streaking across it’s skyline that were broadcast when the US initiated its search for Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Hassam made it clear that America had thoroughly “fucked up” his country and while he doesn’t like the United States as a country, holds no ill-will towards me as a person, unlike a few other camp residents who do.  What was also crystal clear was how the country became destabilized and a hotbed of radical forces once US forces started to pullout.

When describing why he was compelled to leave Iraq, Hassam offered generalities.  “For many reasons; we have a miserable life.  Iraq has no future.”  I know enough not to pry into past trauma and in time he will share what he is comfortable sharing as we build more trust together, but he did elaborate more to say he is Sunni and was receiving Shiite and ISIS threats on two different fronts.  That fear and ever looming danger just became too much to take.  After two days of what Hassam describes as government orchestrated attacks on citizens, including explosions at a mall that killed hundreds, he decided it was time.

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ISIS claimed credit for the July 4 suicide bombings in Baghdad that killed over 200 people (to which Hassam was referring). Source: Aljazeera

He echoed an assertion I had heard many times before: that everyone is so aggressive and angry because of how hot it is.  At first hearing this, I thought of how tired I was working in the hotbox of a gravel-grounded camp under the cloudless Greek sky as I sipped my ice water and wiped the sweat from my brow.  As Hassam showed me his sleeve tan-line, the difference between night and day, I looked up to see the current temperature as a mild 32 C when he told me August in Iraq gets up to 55 C.  Naturally, I asked about air conditioning, to which he said that the government electricity quickly gets overloaded from such heavy usage, and then the much inferior city electricity will kick on as backup before everything just goes out.  All in all, he says Baghdad got about two hours of electricity per day and then everyone just sat around being “hot and angry” the rest of the time.

While the environment at Kara Tepe might provide a cooler climate, the heat of uncertainty still courses through him.  From Baghdad, he travelled to the north of Iraq to get a visa and flight to Istanbul.  There, he stayed in a hotel for two nights waiting until his smuggler decided it was time to move.  One morning at 3am when the police presence was apparently thin, the smuggler arrived and led them him and others comprising a group of 35 on a two day trek through the Turkish forest.  They slept outside without blankets, mats, or tents, just huddled with each other and a final shred of hope.  At 3am again, they awoke to begin their 3 ½ hour journey across this straight of the Aegean to arrive in Lesvos.

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The sleeping arrangements in Turkey.  Photo courtesy of Hassam

Among the 35 people crowding this small rubber dinghy, were two pregnant females.  Hassam’s cousin and his family who he now lives with in camp were seated in front of him, and other displaced persons, some from Africa were seated in back of him.  The boat driver was from Iran and would also be seeking refuge in Europe. He was the only one who did not have to pay for the crossing, as technically he was in charge of getting everyone across.  Although due to smugglers trying to make as much money as they can off the process, a cheap motor was used that cut out twice in darkness of the oversea journey. “For me, I was scared.  I didn’t have a safety suit,” recounted Hassam as he also added that he didn’t know how to swim.

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Hassam takes a selfie with his cousin giving a peace sign in the background as they get closer to making landfall.  Photo courtesy of Hassam

While everyone pays a different price to cross, Hassam was charged $1,000.  A Syrian woman from Pakistan who made the same crossing from Turkey was charged $5,000 by her smuggler who then disappeared.  Her and her mother then found another smuggler who they gave all of their possessions to, including gold jewelry, clothing, and electronics, in exchange for the voyage.  He too disappeared.  They were in Turkey for a whole year before they actually made the trek after finding a third smuggler who was miraculously from their town in Syria and had a sense of loyalty through common ties.  He charged $2,000, the accrual of which must have been what took so long in Turkey after having traded everything prior.

In a windy region that has a shocking saltwater swell, I was not surprised to hear how much the boat rocked back and forth as it made a zigzagged approach to the shoreline visible in the glow of sunrise.  As the boat was spotted, a helicopter hovered overhead to notify the shore crews and standby for emergencies.  Very often, these cheap and overcapacity boats capsize or take on water and sink.  While actually typing this piece, I received a notification that a wooden boat leaving Turkey for Lesvos at 1am capsized 45 minutes after disembarking due to high waves.  One family with two kids died, 4 people were hospitalized, and three men are still missing.  Only 2 had life vests.  Thousands have died in the journey to Lesvos in less than a year.

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Waves rock the small rubber boat that people sit on the sides of during the 3 1/2 hour journey from Turkey to Greece.  Photo courtesy of Hassam

Upon arriving, the boats are met with volunteers on shore who provide foil blankets and changes of clothes if needed to prevent hypothermia.  A bus is usually waiting that takes them from the landing point (if the typical closest point of land in the Molyvos, northern Lesvos) an hour south to be processed in Moria camp in Mytilene, which is a closed camp run by the military.  If the situation dictates it, new arrivals can move to Kara Tepe camp down the street where I work.  I’m still trying to figure out what “if the situation dictates” actually means, but I know families have first priority for coming to the much preferred and open camp of Kara Tepe.

Hassam knows he has been extremely lucky to get to this point and as his journey onward will no doubt be trying, he appears to be approaching each day with a great sense of hope and mental fortitude.  Like most residents of Kara Tepe, he actually enjoys living in the camp with a good community feel and several services offered to residents.  However, this will not stop him from trying to get to Germany, the most desired end point for displaced persons.  After Angela Merkel announced what many considered a “refugee friendly, open door policy”, word of mouth spread quickly that Germany was the friendly, accepting, gold-standard of asylum.  While borders have since been closed, these rumors still persist and because many people’s family members got in before the new iron curtain dropped, it remains the pie in the sky final destination.

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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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