Posts Tagged ‘Turkey’


One of many long lines of patients wrap along the tin sheet walls of doctors’ offices in a field clinic near Balukhali Refugee Camp. Photo by Mike Kai

The army officer lifted his gun he had been using as a leaning crutch and walked off down the road after he told the girl just diagnosed with diphtheria she wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital.  The Prime Minister of Turkey was visiting and the Bangladeshi military had installed new checkpoints, restricted traffic, and called out their soldiers in full force to line the streets all the way to Cox’s Bazar, an hours drive away.  Coughing with low energy, the child and family took the news as if they had heard this line of logic before; they didn’t bat an eyelash as the volunteers around them erupted in protest.  Despite the fact that Turkey has a population of around 3.5 million registered refugees themselves, they are donating funds in mass for Rohingya, compelled like Indonesia by the plight of fellow Muslims.

Around 200 patients a day filter through this makeshift medical center on the edge of a massive refugee camp.  Staffed by doctors from an international placement organization called MedGlobal and run by HOPE, a Bangladeshi hospital, the tin roofed structure does indeed provide hope in recovering from some of the worst conditions imaginable.  Two months ago, people were coming in with fresh gunshot wounds.  Respiratory illness and rape are common reasons for visits as well.  Most wait from 3-5 hours to see one of a handful of doctors and nurses paired up with volunteer interpreters after they are registered by the dozen other volunteers who handle the less technical though still important clerical work and triage.  Everyone gets a prescreen for diphtheria as the camps are on official outbreak status with hundreds of suspected cases and 27 deaths as of December 26.

Today, the number of patients were fewer because the military would not let people up the road to seek medical attention and they also ordered the medical center shut down early, even though the Turkish Prime Minister came and left in the early afternoon.  Because of lower numbers, it was easier to sneak away to do a check-up on a woman the medical team was not sure would still be alive.  She was suffering from heart failure and after an assessment the day before, the team concluded she had little time to live.  With nothing to do, but ease her suffering in the final hours, they literally carried her over a broken bamboo bridge and up a hill to her sweltering hot (it’s currently winter in Bangladesh) tarp and bamboo constructed shelter.

The critical problem is that there could have been something done besides just easing her suffering.  In a country with decent medical care, her nurse told me her heart failure was treatable in many ways.  They could drain the fluid that had built up making her heart weak and unable to pump blood properly.  They could repair her lungs, also filled with fluid.  They could get her a heart transplant.  But here, they could not do surgery. Here, the Rohingya are stuck in a restricted area, not even allowed to travel to nearby Coxs Bazar where there is a hospital I casually walked into at the end of the day to get a diphtheria vaccine with no questions asked or money exchanged.

Instead, the scene this 50 year old woman faced as her ultimate reality was to be clinging on to life and literally to the bamboo beam keeping her tent and her torso upright.  Unable to speak or to even open her eyes, one of her seven daughters spoke for her while holding her tightly and another daughter along with her only son waved hand fans to create circulation in the tent so the medical team would be more comfortable.  The men of her family were presumably killed and a heart condition quite often linked to extreme stress that the western world normally sees around mid 60’s and 70’s according to her nurse, had become terminal…but only terminal because of who she is and where she is.  In the true essence of a mother’s love, her chief concern was for her daughters and wishing for them to get married.

It’s sometimes hard to find hope here.  Surrounded by children literally rolling tires with sticks past the medical clinic where people cough, cry, or internalize their pain; it’s impossible to shrug the reality that pain is all around.  As I was thinking back to my childhood of playing with all the toys a kid could want while watching a child pull a plastic bottle he tied a string to as a play-thing right in front of me, my daze was shook by the thunderous crash of a tuk-tuk into a goat on the road behind the medical center.  Three goats scurried off, but a crowd a men gathered and within a minute had chased down the goat that got hit while another man rushed from a nearby shelter with a curved machete and slit the goat’s throat clean to the neck-bone.  “Life just isn’t fair,” I thought to myself as I stood over the goat and watched it twitch its final movements while bleeding out on the soft sand beneath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ayvalik Spreadsheet.jpg

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

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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.


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.



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.


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?


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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