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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNHCR Data: Daily Arrivals, Lesvos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They had been in Turkey since 2012, waiting to make their crossing.  After fleeing the violence in Syria shortly after it broke out large scale in 2011, they crossed borders to prepare to make it into Europe with hopes for a better life.

For whatever reason after four years, they decided today was the day they were going to make it to Greece.  Sometimes people need to save up enough money for the passage, other times they have tried several times, but had to turn back because the boat capsized early on in the trip.  The latter was the case with a Syrian living and working in Turkey who is friends with one of our volunteers, Aysegul, who also lives in Turkey.  He has tried to cross the thin stretch of water to get to Lesvos an incredible 5 times now, having to turn back each time as the waves were too powerful.  When Aysegul asked him why he would take such a big risk when he had a job and good life now in Turkey, he replied that the life in Europe was the good life.  He said that the doors of passage were open now and no one knows for how long so if he doesn’t try to get in now, the opportunity might be lost forever.  This is the permeating thought even though Europe has closed its borders and effectively slammed tight the “doors of passage.” Much of the flowery freedom talk of Europe persists because of lies smugglers tell to rob people of their money.

Part of me thinks that the migration attempts of the people I met today were thwarted several times to lead to such desperation as what comes next.  Thirteen of them loaded into a three meter long wooden boat and left for Greece under the cover of darkness at 1am so as to not get caught.  From what I hear, Turkey has recently closed down two rubber dinghy manufacturing facilities as a means to stop migrations and appease the EU.  This has only led to people taking on more risk and more water in extremely dangerous and unreliable wooden boats. Forty-five minutes in, high waves flipped this group’s boat, trapping a family underneath and instantly killing one of several children on board.  Only two of the thirteen passengers had lifejackets, yet rather than swim back to Turkey which was significantly closer (as the crossing takes an average of 3 ½ hours), they decided to swim approximately 7 kilometers to the southern shore of Lesvos.  I can’t imagine what it takes to physically complete a swim of 9 hours with no flotation device, or what mentally sustained such a feat.  What was life like in Syria to facilitate the decision to flee at all costs? What were the last four years of waiting, hoping, and planning like in Turkey? How could things be so bad that you wouldn’t just turn around and swim back to Turkey?

I felt the desperation that night when survivors of that wreck arrived in camp around 9pm as part of a group of around 20 that been released from the closed processing station/camp up the road, Moria, and passed along to us.  Everyone could feel the pain, the guilt, the heavy heart retching mix of negative emotions that twisted our stomachs upon just seeing the body language and faces of the group that showed up.  Their suffering was palpable and accordingly, all the volunteers snapped to action to get them what they needed.  UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) had driven them to us and acted as a liaison and advocate for their needs while IRC (International Relief Commission), including a psychologist stayed with them and helped translate as they settled in.  There was a mix of English, French, Turkish and Arabic being spoken with everyone knowing some, yet varying levels of each.

We sat them down in our clothing area and asked them what they needed as a handful of volunteers scurried back and forth to the storage container behind us, trying to find something that they could feel good about and maybe ease their pain for just a short second.  I was able to find flip-flops in the right size for everyone in the first family and T-shirts with borderline inappropriate images for two girls in their early twenties. I felt a strange surge of pride when I overheard a new volunteer arguing with a veteran after the greenhorn had the courage to tell the vet it wasn’t appropriate for her to say things like, “This isn’t a fashion shop, just take what I show you.”  Clothing is stressful for all involved, but taking time to breath, reflect and understand where our customers are coming from, there is no reason we can’t meet them with a good attitude and infuse some magic into this shitty form of shopping.

I spent the rest of my time focusing on a bright-eyed 6 year old boy whose hair was puffed out straight on all sides like he had used a hair dryer to make it fluff.  I found him every single piece of clothing on our list which is quite unheard of.  I helped him try on a nice pair of cargo pants that went well with his new yellow athletic shirt.  He didn’t need a belt, but asked for one anyway.  I was happy to hunt down the only one I have ever seen in our container…taken off a pair of teenage girl’s jeans.  We high-fived several times during the session and when I saw him bouncing around camp a couple hours later, he came running up to me and asked me for a cappuccino.  What? Why would I have a cappuccino?  It’s 11:30 at night! That was my exact reaction to him.  We laughed, hugged it out and went on our separate ways.

Some people who arrived that day were rightfully exhausted and just went to their newly assigned housing unit and slept.  Others chose to shower first and change into the gently used clothes we gave them. We tried to make sure everyone got food.  The look of being lost and scared was the same on all of their faces.  Aysegul and I were on night shift, so we loaded up a bin with food to deliver to the new arrivals.  We cried together on the walk in between meeting each new resident at their housing unit.  We brought them okra and potatoes in a red sauce, still warm from dinner service, bread and yogurt, vegetables left over from lunch, crackers, raisins, orange drink, bottles of water and cups.  We offered as much as they wanted to take, with everyone knowing the calories torched during a nine hour swim needed to be replenished as soon as possible.

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Even at moderate treading for 9 hours, the calorie deficit is extreme.  This also does not take into account calories required for your body to warm itself and maintain homeostasis.  Source: fittipdaily.com

Everyone was kind and appreciative, but all were doing the thousand yard stare.  I met Rami who spoke excellent English as I checked in on his roommate who was shirtless and staring up at the ceiling with one arm raised and hand rubbing his head.  I asked them to please take some extra food to eat.  Rami instantly snapped into a narrative. “I thought I could save her,” he said of the little girl he swam with in his arms for nine hours, “but she was already dead.”  I tried to hold back the tears forcing their way out at the sight of a broken man describing an impossible journey.  He told me that two men swam ahead and made it to shore in 6 hours to notify authorities and get help.  A whole family died, two parents, two children.  Four more ended up in the hospital. As Rami moved his hand up to run over the top his head, the way people do when stressed, I just hugged him.  I didn’t know if it was culturally acceptable and I was dripping in sweat, but I pulled this 5’7” hairy man sweating with the intensity of the day into my body and just held him tight for a couple seconds.  I told him we were so happy to have him at Kara Tepe and that I was so happy he made it to us.  In the absence of knowing what to really say or do, I just told him that if he needed anything, even beyond what was provided at camp, to just let me know.  As we parted, he simply said, “Thank you, my friend.  You are the best.”

One couple who had just arrived was sitting outside of their housing unit when Aysegul and I showed up with food.  She asked them in Turkish if everything was ok, and the woman said she was scared that there might be spiders inside.  I gave the man my cellphone light to use as he went in and searched, reassuring his wife that after 9 hours treading in the ocean towards Greece, that the unit was spider free.  He laid a UNHCR wool blanket over their 6” foam mattresses on the ground and prepared to sleep. The wife was still a little uneasy about bugs, so we helped them haphazardly string up a standard issue mosquito net, really appreciating how the housing units trap heat for the first time.  As the small, singular solar light has to be charged in the sun before use, they were without light for the night.  They had no pillows.  As we left their unit, I looked to see dark empty space surrounding the unimposing mattresses in the back corner.  I could tell the woman was scared.  They had lost all of their possessions.  But they had each other and I hoped that would be enough.  On the way out, the man insisted we each take a piece of gum, an expression of his gratitude. Feeling bad to take the only thing this man had to give, but also knowing it would be an extreme insult to refuse, I took it with sincere thanks.  It was the best fucking piece of gum I’ve ever chewed.

The last housing unit we got to for food distribution was already sleeping.  The neighbors explained to Aysegul that it was a man and wife and two kids who were sick.  We heard the baby coughing as the neighbors told us they had earlier given them a stockpile of their own food immediately when they arrived.  If you’ve ever struggled to find the capacity for generosity in your own life, take note from this family of five who living in a refugee camp with almost no possessions without hesitation gave up their food to strangers who had just a little bit less.  We gave them some juice boxes and offered other things to replenish their supply.  Out of politeness and knowing how stingy everyone usually is passing out food, they took very little.  Before we left, they thanked us for trying so hard to help and offered us homemade cheeseballs.  Again, respect dictates you cannot say no, even though they are made from squeezing the moisture out of the yogurt from previous days and then drying outside.  Last time I ate one, I almost vomited.  I took it anyway.

That’s how it goes here at the community of Kara Tepe.  Neighbors help neighbors, people look out for each other and form tight bonds by interacting and being present in the lives of those around them.  Residents ask me every day how I am doing faster than I have the opportunity to check on them.  Still, with this small glimmer of hope, there is much hopelessness.  I wonder how many more lives will be lost to such senseless violence and how many more will be lost fleeing the violence.  I look at the children’s faces around camp and wonder how many have drowned trying to get here; how many have been killed taking up arms to defend their home against ISIS.

I can’t shake the image of Rami swimming to shore for 9 hours through waves big enough to flip a boat, trying to keep a girl’s head above the water, part of him knowing she was already dead.  In the same waters I was leisurely swimming and sunbathing in today, people were fighting for their lives.  How can the components of our existence be so drastically different? How have we gotten to the point as a species where we can allow people to become desperate enough for these things to happen? I cried in the storage container looking for clothes.  I cried carrying second servings of food to the housing units.  I cry as I write this now wondering if the world will ever wipe the tears from the cry of humanity.

 

Can you spare a few dollars to help the people featured in this story? Click here to fund clothing and toys for residents of Kara Tepe.

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