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Posts Tagged ‘Refugee’

A terrorist attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad left 22 dead on August 19, 2003.  Five years later, the UN General Assembly officially established the date as World Humanitarian Day which according to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, “is an annual reminder of the need to act to alleviate the suffering.  It is also an occasion to honor the humanitarian workers and volunteers toiling on the front-lines of crises.  I pay tribute to these dedicated women and men who brave danger to help others at far greater risk.”

There are approximately 130 million people around the world that need humanitarian assistance to survive right now.  This is just to survive, not to be comfortable and is happening through no fault of their own.  Millions in Ethiopia are struggling to survive in the worst drought and subsequent famine in 50 years.  Millions in Syria flea or are trapped in the crossfire of a brutal civil war dropping bombs in their living rooms.  Violence and food insecurity are not only claiming lives, but they are destroying entire cultures all around the world.

These are people, just like you and I, who only want to have a safe and peaceful life.  They want their children to grow up in a place where they don’t have to fear airstrikes on their walk to school or if food will ever materialize to save them from starvation.  Everyday this increasingly vulnerable and marginalized population are forced to make impossible decisions.

 

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A heavy dose of reality helps adapt a popular game to a perspective many people face daily across the world. [view the whole program on the World Humanitarian Day website]

The UN’s website for World Humanitarian Day has a number of resources that help provide perspective for problems that certainly transcend those I face.  My biggest dilemmas in the last year have ranged from the trivial “Should I respond back to that abrasive email from my boss?” to the trite “Can I afford to take that next vacation?”  Following the lines of a popular leisure game I often play while laughing with friends, this version of Would You Rather offers a small glimpse into the impossible choices people around the world face daily.

If you can handle the weight of what that link represents, I urge you to Walk in the Shoes of a Refugee. After volunteering in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp for almost two months and hearing people’s personal stories in the many layers of pain they are built upon, I couldn’t get through this one without crying.  With every click of the mouse, I was able to picture a face next to each option, people who had told me while they themselves were in tears of that exact decision they were forced to make.

The United Nations is using this day to promote their Agenda for Humanity to provide hope for a better world.

Agenda for humanity

As noted in a previous article, How to Save the World, all it takes to be a hero and put a stop to the evil we are currently seeing around the globe is action.  World Humanitarian Day celebrates those who commits to any of the five steps shown above.

Today I celebrate the dozens of volunteers I have sweat beside in the summer heat trying to pitch in however possible to serve families with dignity and respect who have fled the unimaginable.  These volunteers compelled to action have paid for their own airfare, accommodations and food to get to a little island in Greece.  They remain dedicated despite medical issues, illness, relationship strains and breakups, financial hardships, and fatigue.  Some days rocks have been thrown at them or they’ve cut their leg completing a thankless task no one will ever know about like moving a pile of moldy canvas tents to increase storage space.  Still with each new morning, they rise to the call of service.

“Humanitarian” is not a title exclusively reserved for those who interact with human suffering directly.  Anyone that seeks to promote the general welfare of others is a humanitarian worthy of celebration.  It could mean financial contributions like those from my best friend, Ryan Pierson who has biceps the size of Texas and donated money to fund the purchase of 70 tank tops for men saying, “Because every day is arm day, even in Kara Tepe.”

“Humanitarian” is a term that also applies to people who spread awareness instead of turning a blind eye.  I think of my friends Susan and Sal Lepore who continue to share articles and dialogue with me about issues that matter, even though we only met randomly on a boat ride in Peru two years ago.  I celebrate people like my girlfriend, Brittany Dunn of The Mind Body Project who helps me stay centered and who shares every article I write with her audience to ensure people’s stories don’t slip through the cracks.

Telling people’s stories is a vital component to spreading awareness and providing hope for a better world, according to the UN.  I think to Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and the line that says “I speak for the trees.”  Those who provide a voice for the voiceless and amplify their plight despite risk, repercussions, or condemnation deserve hearty applause.  I cheer for the people who intervene in a coffee shop as two baristas exchange a look when I say I’m working at a refugee camp and they tell me “They are all terrorists!”  Fighting the evil of ignorance at this level is just as worthy of a humanitarian effort as actually working in a refugee camp.

I personally revere those who go into the most difficult situations so the harsh realities of human suffering aren’t silently lost behind a blinding wall of ignorance.  Like the firefighters who ran toward the burning and collapsing twin towers on September 11, there are many who exemplify that same courage to bring us pictures and stories that galvanize the pain and suffering in an urgent call to action from the places of most danger.

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A widely circulated photo and video of this boy from Aleppo has come to be called “The Face of War” [The Guardian]

In Syria, Assad’s regime along with the help of Russia, continuously commit crimes against humanity by specifically targeting hospitals and civilians.  Despite this known danger, many medical professionals working with Doctors Without Borders continue to station themselves where they are needed most: in the center of where bombs are exploding.  The few doctors who remain have seen children and patients they stabilized killed by explosions that also claim the lives of their colleagues.  Yet, there they remain, knowing they serve a vital need.  A popular story swept across the internet at the end of April about The Last Pediatrician in Aleppo.

Things like this should be hard to read about and see, but that shouldn’t stop you from noting the reality of the situation. While I fear for the world so satiated by violence that teenagers can show me videos of beheadings that commonly appear in their newsfeed without flinching, I fear even more for those who pretend these things don’t exist. This is the pivotal place where we as a society of consumers have a choice to make. Will you quickly scroll through the articles and pictures on your Facebook feed that make you feel sad and uncomfortable, or will you take further steps?

In July, 44 attacks on hospitals were reported in Syria.  Just last week a hospital specializing in pediatrics in the north was attacked by two airstrikes in broad daylight which left 13 dead, including 5 children.  The ICU was destroyed, along with the operating theater, pediatric department, ambulances and generator.  There is no safe haven or place of refuge inside the borders of this country-wide warzone.  Still, doctors devoted to their mission remain.

All around the world, humanitarian aid workers face risks to deliver lifesaving services and care.  They fall victim to violence, kidnapping, and murder along with the people they have devoted their existence to helping.

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The risks are often high for those who go to areas in need of the most help [Full graphic at reliefweb.int]

If you are appalled by the atrocities happening across this pale blue dot we call home, don’t stew in silence, do something about it.  It may sound like a Kennedy pitch, but ask what you can do to make a difference in the world. Research some of the most vulnerable people who need immediate help, encourage your political representatives to take some form of action, volunteer with a charitable organization at home or abroad, make a small donation that can fund something essential for another, recognize those in your immediate community who also need help.  Be creative with your kindness or as the UN advocates, “work differently to end need.” All it takes to be a humanitarian and hero is action.

The faces of human suffering may seem so far away, but they are real and they are all around you.  Wherever you are, use whatever you have to do whatever you can.  Don’t ignore the comments that seek to stereotype, degrade or demoralize others.  Make it your job to care for your fellow man.  Do it now and do it always, do not wait until a problem escalates to 450 volts, as explained in a previous post, to try to stop it.

Martin Niemöller who spent more than seven years in concentration camps under Nazi power, including Dachau, immortalized his guilt and responsibility in the well known provocative poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.

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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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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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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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