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Signing off, for now...

It is with immense hesitation that I sign off from my last shift on the shores of Skala. This afternoon I drive to Mytilene to spend a week at Moria (the registration camp) and Pikpa (a camp for children and other vulnerable refugees). I hold dear the spectacular people, from all walks of life, I've met here, and I am eternally grateful to have experienced glimmers of hope, however fleeting, among the devastating and cruel reality for the refugees who flee to these shores from their war-torn homelands. It has been a privilege to welcome them to dry land, and experience their extraordinary courage, resilience, perseverance and kindness.  
Stay safe, all. <3

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Tea

Sometimes, during particularly challenging days, you feel like all you need is a little extra help... Today that help came in the shape of my two-year-old shadow, from Afghanistan. It lasted a minute, but a chai tea party, sat on the floor, was all it took to make both of our days a little brighter.

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January 27, 2016. Mitilini, Lesvos, Greece.

Day 26: I feared there would be bodies. 

On my drive “home” last night, along the shore, I suddenly heard a scene of chaos hidden in the darkness.

In the moonlight, I could see a boat had just landed on the rocks. A night-watch ambulance was there, but no backup had arrived. I pulled my car over in a ditch and ran down to the frantic, crying voices coming from the beach. The medics were working on a baby, and after I searched the water for unconscious bodies, I checked the adults, one by one, for medical emergencies. The stable health of the hypothermic baby was soon confirmed, and we brought everyone up to the road to reassess their safety and wellbeing. When backup arrived, I returned to the boat to confirm everyone was accounted for, and I found two human smugglers, desperately trying to restart the boat's motor to return to Turkey.  I retreated.  A voice from the crowd on the road yelled, "Catch them!! You have to catch them!!”  The smugglers jumped into the dark waves, reached shore, and made a run for the woods on the other side of the road.  Three Greek fishermen ran after them, and when the smugglers reached into their pockets for weapons, I quickly ducked back into the darkness, fearing gunshots were imminent.  Inexplicably, the smugglers surrendered.  The police finally arrived, confiscated the smugglers' weapons (two knives, no guns), handcuffed the men to each other and rushed them to the police station.  
The baby was reunited with her mother, the 40+ refugees boarded a UNHCR bus to Moria, and the nightscape became eerily peaceful again.
These refugees survived. In the first 26 days of 2016, 149+ have not.
Tomorrow is another day.

 

I returned to the scene the next morning.  The boat had already been tagged, #safepassage. 

I returned to the scene the next morning.  The boat had already been tagged, #safepassage. 

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Adjusting

Tagged on the outer wall of Moria registration camp, Lesvos. 

Tagged on the outer wall of Moria registration camp, Lesvos. 

Sorry for my radio silence; the plight of the refugees remains urgent, so I prioritized action in lieu of words. 

In the week since I’ve been home, I’ve found I’m adjusting to the transition by taking distance to reflect, recalibrate, and remember the reality I just left.  My reflex is to respond with anger and despair, but my desire to persevere with action is unstoppable.  I hope to return to Lesvos in April; coincidently a month before the E.U. imposed deadline for Greece to curb the flow of refugees into the Schengen zone, and, by proxy, take duel responsibility with Turkey for the hundreds of thousands still fleeing active airstrikes.  Although not yet given orders to intercept refugee boats, three NATO warships have been deployed to the Aegean to intervene, eventually resulting in sending refugees back to the very war they’re trying to escape.

It’s heartbreaking.  Inhumane.  And cowardly.  

I’ve been encouraged, quite insistently, to continue sharing the stories of my experience.  Over the next weeks, you can expect posts from where I last left off, as well as my advice for who, what, where, when & why to contribute your donations and support.   

This first trip to Greece was a mighty journey, but a tiny drop in the ocean (so to speak) compared to those journeying from their homelands in desperation to find safer ground.

Let’s be kind to one another.

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A Schengen Change in Plans

In the first 22 days of 2016, over 183 refugees have drowned between this beach and the stretch of Turkey's coast just miles away.   

For the moment, the only update I have time to give is this:

Due to the 90 days over the course of 180 days restriction within the Schengen Zone, I will need to return to the U.S. on February 4th, though I have no doubt of my eventual return to Lesvos.  I'm not comfortable posting my itinerary publicly, but if you have any questions, feel free to email me.  I'd be happy to answer them.

Furthermore, I've changed my recommendations for donations, and I'm currently working on compiling an updated list of what to donate and who to donate to.  I'll post the finalized list when time allows.  Thank you for your generosity, and thank you, as always, for your continued support.  It means everything to me.     

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Some Days Are Like That

In hindsight, it’s difficult to differentiate one day from the next, but while it’s all unfolding, events seem so specific to the time they occur. Time has a funny way of morphing itself here.  If you’re not working you’re sleeping, but even when you sleep, your body and your psyche are at the ready to respond to any number of urgent situations, at the drop of a hat.  I can’t fall asleep anymore without my head first dreaming up visions of bodies washing ashore.  It seems a morbid thought process, but in all honesty, I think it’s more a coping mechanism for preparing for possible realities and normalizing life on these shores.    

There was a day last week we received no boats at all.  The European Union’s escalated pressure on Turkey to prevent refugees from crossing, the suicide bombing in Istanbul, the new nighttime patrols by the Greek and Turkish coast guard, and a day of high and stormy seas have all been cause for the lull in arrivals.  But it never lasts long.  There are quiet mornings few enough boats arrive for each camp along the shore to welcome and host one, and there are mornings, like Thursday, when twenty-eight boats dotted the seascape and arrived within moments of each other.  Last week, four and six-year-old sisters arrived unaccompanied.  The exact circumstances were not clear, but after days of waiting to cross, their mother had to briefly leave them to fetch something, and while she was gone, the smugglers sent the boat off with her daughters still inside it.  I’ve heard the mother made it to Greece the following day, and they’ve since been reunited.  It seems unlikely, but I choose to believe it.

Many of you have inquired about the magnitude of discarded life vests, hundreds of thousands of them, coloring the coastline and towering over the landfill on Lesvos.  I can tell you this; of the hundreds that I’ve personally inspected, I have yet to find one that isn’t counterfeit and filled with thin sheets of open-cell foam that, once waterlogged, force you to sink.  There are black-market factories in Turkey that “employ” refugees unable to afford the crossing to manufacture life vests to sell as the real thing.  Some look legitimate, others not even close.  I found one this morning that had a car taillight screwed into the foam to make it look reflective and official.  Others are made with less attention to detail, or even to fabric.  A handful of life vests from this morning were made out of a textured, green pleather.  

The anatomy of a counterfeit life vest:

There are some small groups and organizations that have been going to the landfill to recycle and upcycle life vests, even using them to make mattresses for refugees.  It is a fantastic means of reinvesting in the local community and raising continued awareness abroad.  It seems a hopeful way to make a dent, however minuscule, in the immense waste of materials that has far surpassed the resources of the local community to absorb.  Earlier this week, seven volunteers were arrested by Greek authorities on charges of theft for taking life vests from the landfill.  And on Thursday, five volunteer lifeguards were arrested on charges of human trafficking, after rescuing overfilled boats of refugees.  I’ve observed, and personally received, nothing but support from the local communities on Lesvos, but with Greece put square between a rock and a hard place in the politics of it all, I imagine these arrests are the Greek authorities’ way of voicing some bravado, however imbecilic their actions are.  

After days of countless shifts, I took my first day off last week, after waking from a comatose sleep.  I drove west to Molyvos, and I have to admit, coming from countless days within the confines of a village the size of Skala Sikamineas, Molyvos felt like Manhattan.  Even just the feeling of hopping in my rental car and taking a drive was therapeutic.  It gave me some much needed perspective, and I spent the afternoon sat in the sun, drinking coffee and decompressing.

 
Turkey on the horizon, the miles-long crossing of the Aegean.

Turkey on the horizon, the miles-long crossing of the Aegean.

Molyvos

Molyvos

Lunch at a table outside

Lunch at a table outside

During another quiet moment, I walked down the same beach so many boats arrive on, and I followed the coastline, combing the surf and the contour of the rocky shore for anything that washed-up or had been left behind.  

Last night I volunteered for another nightshift.  I’ve come to prefer them.  It’s the shift that contains both sides of contrasting worlds.  The typical calm of the nighttime, covered deep in darkness, with constellations overhead and lapping waves to monitor with night-vision.  And the busy chaos of the daytime, feet in the water, reaching for wet hands, prioritizing, multitasking and face-to-face with those you’ve kept night-watch for.  

One of many cups of nightshift coffee

One of many cups of nightshift coffee

Carolina (the lamb) and her stray cat friend, Garfield.  They sleep at my feet when I cook a pot of soup in the kitchen tent in the wee hours of the morning.

Carolina (the lamb) and her stray cat friend, Garfield.  They sleep at my feet when I cook a pot of soup in the kitchen tent in the wee hours of the morning.

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

After meeting an overfilled boat of 60+ on the shore this morning, I brought a group of new arrivals through the camp’s entrance and pointed the men to the men’s clothing tent and had the women follow me, with their children, to the women’s clothing tent.  I jumped behind the counter, made a mental note of the size and age of the children and began riffling through the clothing bins to find appropriately sized undies, long johns, socks, trousers, shirts, sweaters and shoes.  With any luck, there are a minimum of 4 volunteers in the clothing tent together, but sometimes we get separated from each other in the orchestration of it all, so you have to take the clothing bull by the horns and just dive in.  After most of the children were dry and warm, a medic came in with a young girl, saying she was stage-one hypothermic and needed to be changed right away.  The girl was silent, kept her gaze downward, and was unresponsive to the commotion around her.  She looked to be maybe nine or ten, and I wondered if she was one of the unaccompanied minors who are all too frequently sent over to make the crossing alone, for lack of their family’s ability to pay the smugglers’ unaffordable fees for their own crossing.  Sometimes the circumstances are so dangerous and urgent, it is safer to send their child/children to Greece by themselves than to have the family stay together in Turkey.

I was reminded of something I learned at a pediatric trauma workshop I took in San Francisco; one of the most straightforward ways to work through trauma is to help normalize the traumatic situation for the child.  I rested my hand softly on the center of the girl’s back, and when she looked up at me, I smiled and began talking to her as if she could understand every word I was saying.  I hoped the tone of my voice would do the communicating for us, and when I took her hand in mine, she seemed content to follow me.  I tried to behave as though there wasn’t a more common or normal thing on earth to be doing than to change out of sopping wet clothes in a loud and crowded tent of strangers, and that the fatigue in her fingers and toes was a perfectly healthy response to being so cold (it was).  We carefully climbed over the others changing on the floor, and I brought her into the cramped volunteer area.  I had her hold onto me by sticking her hands in my warm jacket pocket while I searched for a full set of clothes.  She didn’t make a sound.  I kept talking, mostly to myself, but as a way to keep a soft tone to the situation, and when I handed her a pile of dry, wool and cotton layers and a pair of shoes, she took them and paused.  I could see the hesitancy in her eyes, so I grabbed her wet coat from off the floor and held it up as a privacy curtain.  She relaxed and smiled in acknowledgment.  I kept talking, and she kept changing.  Each layer she took off fell to the floor with a heavy thud of wetness, and with each layer she put on, her eyes got brighter and brighter.  With her properly dressed, I found her a pink set of gloves, and we giggled at each other as I tried to cinch the material down around each of her soggy, pruned fingers.  I kept looking at this beautiful girl as she so bravely faced the immense uncertainty of the new world she so suddenly found herself in, and my heart sank to think she was facing it alone.  I bundled her up in a warm coat, rolled up the sleeves so it fit her a bit better and wrapped a purple scarf around her neck.  We kept smiling at each other, and when I motioned that I was going to take her out of the tent, she got up on her tip-toes and kissed me on each cheek and on the tip of my nose.  In that moment, all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around her and protect her forever.  I gathered up all of her wet clothes, sneakers and coat, grabbed an extra sweater and pair of dry socks, and folded everything into a backpack I had found.  Wet clothes in one section, dry clothes in another, and I tucked a bar of chocolate and a lollipop in her coat pocket.  She kissed me again and wrapped herself around me. 

We exited the overfilled tent, hand in hand, and when we turned the corner she let go and ran up to a tall, slender, bearded man.  The man looked at her with such pride that I instantly breathed a sigh of relief to know she wasn't here alone.  I greeted the man in both Arabic and Farsi before learning he was Syrian.  His fingers and neck were beautifully inked with traditional tattoos, and I noticed he placed most of his weight on one hip, almost certainly the permanent result of a traumatic injury.  

“You are family?” I asked with a smile.  

“Yes, yes.  Father.  I am father,” he replied.  

The girl and her father doted on each other, and it was all I could do to keep my tears of relief contained.  I introduced myself, but our conversation was limited to the few vocabulary words we knew in each other’s language.  He thanked me for caring for his daughter, and I told him it was my absolute privilege.  The words between us were few, but they are words I will protect and carry with me forever.

“Her mother is also here?” I asked.

Lifting his hands to the side of his head to make a pillow, he responded, “Mother sleep in Syria.”

“Her mother is still in Syria?” I wondered out loud.

“Yes, her mother sleep in Syria,” he replied again.

“And will she come to be with you and your daughter someday?”

“No. No.  Her mother, sleep.”

At which point he flattened out his hand, brought it to his ear, and swiftly cut across his neck. “Behead.  Behead.  Her mother stay sleep in Syria.”

I looked down at his brave daughter, who was holding my hand again, and smiling up at me.

I looked into her father’s kind eyes, and I responded the only way I knew how.  I squeezed his daughter a little tighter with one hand and lifted my other hand to my heart.

 “I am so happy you are here,” I told him.

“Thank you.  Thank you so much.” 

 

Somewhere on Lesvos tonight, a little girl and her father are sleeping.

. . . While her mother stays asleep in Syria. 

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Shifts

Hello family and friends.  It’s Saturday morning, and I’m snug in my bed after allowing myself to sleep in and rest up to prepare for my night shift tonight.  I realize many of you look to this blog to check on my safety and wellbeing, so I apologize for the delay in updates (thanks for keeping everyone informed, Mom!).  I’ve taken a lot of night and double shifts, so time has been quite short, and so has sleep.  I’ll try to post updates more frequently, though I anticipate they will be short and brief (and not necessarily written in complete sentences), but at least you’ll be in the know.  My brain and my body are just about at their limit, so bear with me as I attempt to share the past few days.   

My walk to camp.  The black material that lines the shore is the wreckage of what's left of dozens of inflatable boats.

My walk to camp.  The black material that lines the shore is the wreckage of what's left of dozens of inflatable boats.

Life vests color the entire coast orange.

Life vests color the entire coast orange.

I expected the camp to be empty when I arrived for my night shift, but I found it full with those who’d arrived earlier that evening.  I stationed myself in the kitchen tent and ladled out soup as I eavesdropped on the foreign conversations outside.  The sounds of Arabic are expressive in a way that has me convinced I might possibly understand it if I try hard enough.  I’m so eager to know their stories.  As the evening wore on, the women put the children to bed, and the men stayed around the fire, smoking cigarettes and digesting the journey they’d all just made together; animated hand movements, fitting in something worth laughing about here and there, and occasionally becoming entirely silent after fixing their gazes into the hypnotizing, crackling fire.  

Long after I assumed the children had fallen asleep, a young, Syrian girl (about 7) ran up to me, as I put dinner away, and handed me a sheet of stickers of Turkish street signs.  She insisted I keep them and then ran back into the sleeping tent with a smile.  I stood in the kitchen staring at the stickers for a while, realizing that her parents must have bought them for her before they departed the other side of the Aegean for Greece.  As I held what was certainly one of the very last personal possessions this girl had, I wondered what I had done to deserve such a precious gift.  It felt like an important responsibility to care for these stickers as she had, so I safely tucked them away in my pack, and they now rest in my folder of other important documents.

The fuel for the generator is expensive, so shortly after we turned the power off, at around 2:30 a.m., the men left the fire and went to sleep too.  The camp was silent, and as I made the rounds to try to keep myself awake, I realized how responsible I felt for them all.  

At about 4:00 a.m. I heard some car doors slam outside the camp’s entrance, so I went to investigate and found a small group of Swedish lifeguards and doctors setting themselves up on the beach to take a night-watch.  With just two of us left on shift, their company was a welcome relief to help keep us alert and awake, and we spent the wee hours of the morning chatting about travel-adventures, joking about our own cultures, and carefully inspecting the water with night-vision every 30 mins.  

Keeping a night-watch with the Swedes.  One of the doctors has adopted a 16 year-old Syrian refugee.  

Keeping a night-watch with the Swedes.  One of the doctors has adopted a 16 year-old Syrian refugee.  

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

Lentil and bean soup, cooked in the dark.

Lentil and bean soup, cooked in the dark.

By 7:30 in the morning, the camp was still asleep, I had finished making a soup for the anticipated new arrivals, and was relieved from my shift shortly afterward.  I wished the Swedish night-watch good luck and began the 5-minute walk home along the shore.  Midway I kept getting the impression that something wasn’t quite right, and I stopped to scan the gray horizon I had been staring at all night.  All of a sudden a particular wave caught my eye, and way off in the distance, a fleck of orange (life vests) could be seen bouncing on a nearly invisible boat, often disappearing behind the rolling waves.  I stood in the road staring at the sea to assess what was unfolding, and gradually started walking back towards camp when I saw the volunteer Spanish coast guard guiding the boat in the camp's direction. 

If you look closely (center, horizon), you can see the incoming boat.

If you look closely (center, horizon), you can see the incoming boat.

Doctors, medics and a crowd of volunteers were on the beach waiting for them, so I stood back to see how I could be most useful.  When the boat arrived, it unfolded as usual; children off first, then adults, keeping families together, then an assessment of urgent vs. minor medical care, and then it’s straight to the camp.  I brought up the back of the crowd but soon found an Afghan woman sitting on a bench on the beach, heaving and throwing up.  A doctor shouted over the crowd, “Don’t worry about her, she’s just seasick!”  The woman’s daughter (about my age) was by her side, and I asked by signing with my hands if her mother was able to stand.  The two of us hoisted her up and helped her make her way across the road to the women’s tent to get dry and changed.  We sat her down again, and I instructed the daughter to stay with her mother until I returned.  They were both shivering, so I hightailed it to the kitchen tent to retrieve some hot tea.  They were hesitant to accept the cups I had brought them, and I wondered about the hostile environment they had just escaped.  After refugees have paid for their crossing, the smugglers have complete control over them until they are given orders to cross.  Not all, but some smugglers have been known to lock refugees in abandoned buildings for days, rob them of every last belonging they have, threaten families against each other, and rape the mothers and young women.  It is unimaginable to me, the epic length of the dangerous journeys these people make to flee their homelands to find refuge and safety.  And the constant threats they face, even before making the risky seven-mile crossing by sea, constantly forced to risk their own lives as a means to save themselves.  And the ones who make it are lucky.  Shortly after this boat arrived, another boat, still in Turkish waters, sank.  The Turkish coast guard refused to go to their rescue.  Twenty-three adults and six children drowned.  

I sat with the Afghan mother and daughter, and I lifted the hot tea to their blue lips.  I kept smiling and calmly explained in the only language I knew how that it was so important they consume some calories, and that the hot tea would make them feel stronger.  After each took their first sip, they smiled at me with a warmth and friendliness as if we had known each other a lifetime, and in a sense we had.  We had known each other for the first 38 minutes of their new lives.  It didn’t take long before I understood we didn’t need to speak to each other to understand.  They knew I was grateful they had arrived from across the sea safely, and I knew they were grateful to be treated as if they were family.  I will never forget the warmth in their eyes, nor the gratitude they showered me with as I bid them farewell after they were warm and dry.  I watched them leave for the transit buses and was overwhelmed with guilt and fear for them.  I tried to imagine them eventually settled in a new homeland together, but the truth is, many will be refused asylum and sent back.  What must it be like to be sent back to the place you have risked your life, many times over, to escape?    

It is not uncommon for refugees to purposely leave behind the last belongings they have at the shore camp before leaving to register.  They fear any trace of their previous lives might prevent them from receiving asylum, and that is a risk they can’t afford to take.  Many volunteers, myself included, can’t bear to throw the last traces of these people’s identities away, so we dry them out by the fire and guard them as if they were our own.  

I found this passport washed up on the beach.  It belonged to a women three years older than me.  I'd like to believe she made it safely to shore.

I found this passport washed up on the beach.  It belonged to a women three years older than me.  I'd like to believe she made it safely to shore.

This photo-less passport is signed with a fingerprint.  

This photo-less passport is signed with a fingerprint.  

I had the privilege of meeting this little boy.

I had the privilege of meeting this little boy.

A heart-shaped piece of somebody's home, brought with them on their journey.

A heart-shaped piece of somebody's home, brought with them on their journey.

One of my double shifts this week included taking the morning shift at the camp, and a 5:30 p.m. shift at the lighthouse in Korakas until 11:30 the following morning.  The small solar powered lighthouse (originally built in the early 1800’s I’ve heard) is accessed by a 45 minute drive by 4x4 to a peninsula of a cliff that looks to be spitting-distance from Turkey.  Before volunteer groups made a presence, the lighthouse was often visited by the Albanian Mafia, who’d show up to salvage boat materials for resale and force any refugees found to pay a large fee.  Now that there is a constant presence of day and night shifts at the lighthouse, the mafia has moved on to less protected pastures.  As refugee boats are now being forced to cross in the night to avoid the Turkish coast guard, many are instructed by the smugglers to head towards light on the other side.  In the case of the lighthouse, there couldn’t be a more dangerous place to arrive, though thousands have already done so.  The cliff is slick and steep, and the waves force incoming boats to crash against the jagged rock.  On shift, out job is to monitor the waters with night-vision to make sure boats don’t arrive, and if they do, to be prepared and ready to rescue those aboard, if the volunteer coast guard can’t get to them first.  A thunderstorm and the driving wind and rain nearly made the road back to Skala impassable, but luckily we eventually made it “home.”  I spent my first 20 minutes back tented in all of my rain gear, sat in a tiny cafe with a coffee, and surrounded by local fisherman discussing the day’s happenings.  It was warm, and quiet, and felt like home.  

The Korakas lighthouse with a view of Turkey. 

The Korakas lighthouse with a view of Turkey. 

Dozens of wrecked boats and thousands of life vests are trapped at the foot of the lighthouse.  Not everyone who has arrived here has survived.  

Dozens of wrecked boats and thousands of life vests are trapped at the foot of the lighthouse.  Not everyone who has arrived here has survived.  

Fourteen boats arrived during my morning shift yesterday; bringing about 700 refugees.  There were no significant medical emergencies, which was very lucky considering the amount of small babies, pregnant women, and children and adults with special needs aboard.  By the time I left camp after nightfall, they were all dry, fed and on their way via UNHCR bus to Moria to register.   

Nine days here feels as though I’ve been here for ninety.

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My first shift

In spite of my exhaustion, I’ve been having a hell of a time falling asleep before 3:00 or 5:00 in the morning.  At first I thought it was jet lag, but after taking melatonin tablets AND sleeping pills, I’m beginning to think my sleeplessness is circumstantial.  It’s hard to fall asleep during the time emergencies are so frequent; at night.  I’m trying to surrender to the rhythm my body is choosing, which means sleeping when the sun rises.  

my sleeping loft

my sleeping loft

my living space

my living space

Typically, the camp is only full immediately after a boat’s arrival.  Refugees are welcome to spend the night, but often they arrive so early in the morning that after they’ve been given dry clothes and warm food, they quickly leave to board the UNHCR buses to Mytilene to register.  Only after refugees have registered are they legally “authorized” to spend their money to make the trip to the mainland, depending on where they choose to seek asylum.

I had my first official shift yesterday, from 15:30 to 23:30.  It was drizzling when I left my room to walk down to the camp, and when I arrived (5 mins. later) the rain was coming down in sheets.  The camp quickly began to flood, and the weight of the pooling water on the tarps caused them to collapse without regular rounds going around camp to push the water out from the inside before they’d give way again.  While it was still daylight, a group of anonymous, Swedish volunteers spent hours digging drainage ditches and dumping wheelbarrows of gravel onto the soaked pathways to the tents.  We all hoped no boats would arrive, but it’s always a possibility, so we prepared as best as we could.  I was dressed in my thick, wool socks, Gore-Tex boots, long johns, slacks, rain pants, long-sleeved shit, vest, fleece jacket, down coat, scarf, and wool hat - and entirely tented by my hooded raincoat - but when it rains that hard, there’s no way to really escape from the wetness.  Later at night there were only three of us on shift.  We took the night vision goggles to the shore and scanned the horizon for incoming arrivals.  Thankfully there were none.  As the night got quieter and the rain, even louder, we took refuge in the kitchen tent with Carolina, the camp’s orphaned lamb.  She thinks she’s a puppy, and we treat her as one.  The rain roared outside, and in-between rounds to drain tarps and clear ditches, we spent the rest of the night talking about secrets and sipping hot tea; ready for boats, but hoping they’d arrive in safer conditions.  We kept the soup warm, and the kettle on, just in case.  

Before...

And after...

After I woke up this afternoon, I returned to the camp to see it full of new arrivals making their way to the buses for registration.  I try to be conscious to always keep a smile on my face when I walk through the crowd, and often times refugees will grab you by the hand in thanks.

Today, since I don’t seem to be sleeping at night anyway, I volunteered to take the night shift tonight (23:00 to 7:00).  With the improved forecast, I expect there will be more arrivals, so I’ll prepare my pack accordingly.  During the quiet hours of the evening, I hope to get some time to practice my Arabic and Farsi.    

It is such a foreign world out here, in the boondocks of Skala, but I’m slowly making it my own.

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First 6 hours on Lesvos

January 1

I departed Athens at 1:00 this afternoon to make the 40 minute flight east to the island of Lesvos.  I took out my book about the science of treating hypothermia, and the woman sitting next to me asked if I could teach her what I’d learned.  She was an oncology nurse, traveling to Lesvos from Israel, to volunteer with the Israeli equivalent of Doctors Without Boarders.  Neither of us knew very much at all about what exactly we had signed up for, nor what to expect when we landed, but we agreed we were over prepared for many different outcomes.  I look forward to keeping in touch with her and to swapping stories of our experiences. 

I was so jet lagged and cold-ridden during my first 48 hours in Athens, it wasn't until our initial approach for our landing in Mytilene that I finally felt like I was in Greece.  Fertile, stoney terrain, olive groves as far as the eye could see, and dark, turquoise waters crashing against rocky cliffs polka-dotted with sheep.  

I hauled my luggage from the petite baggage claim area and was relieved to see the young man (a teenager) from the rental car agency happily waiting for me with my car.  I excused myself to the toilets to count my money, and after I handed over the cash, he tossed me the keys, bid me a happy new year and disappeared into the parking lot.  It was me, my Nissan Micra, 50 pounds of medical and emergency supplies, 40 pounds of long johns, fleece and woolen layers, and a tin of my mom’s chocolate chip cookies… On Lesvos.  At last.  

Now, after having completed the journey, I can tell you there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I would have successfully made the drive to Skala Sikamineas without my dad’s GPS.  And I say that especially after being forced to drive for a brief moment down a sidewalk to access the road.  My 1.5 hour drive north brought me through quiet nooks and crannies of towns too small to have a main street and still sleeping off their new year festivities.  As I drove on, it quickly became evident that I didn’t overpack at all.  Any significant purchase I’d need to make, shy of the bare necessities, would involve the 1.5 drive back to Mytilene at some point.

Skala Sikamineas (Skala Sykamineas/Σκάλα Συκαμινέας) is an ancient, compact, tiny fishing village at the bottom of a range of stone cliffs below a mountain (which were far more intimidating to drive down than the sidewalk!).  It meets face-to-face with Kuruoba, Turkey, with nothing but a miles-wide arm of the Aegean Sea separating the two countries.  The room I rented at Pension Niki is a miniature apartment, of sorts.  There is a toilet and shower drain in the bathroom, a sink, electric burner and mini fridge tucked inside the front door, and a lofted bedroom less than twice the size of the bed itself, accessed by walking around yourself once to get up the stairs.  It has a corner window that looks out over the top of an orange tree, the neighbors’ rooftops, and with a view of Turkey beyond.  It is clean and well cared for, but obviously built for the summer season.  There is a breaker to switch on a half-hour before you need hot water, but only to the shower tap.  The sink runs on the ground tap which, in sub freezing temperatures, verges on too cold to drink.  There is “heating,” but it does very little to heat the damp air, and the bed is covered with a springtime blanket.  I am so relieved my mom insisted I pack her fleece blanket.  I may investigate taking a day off at some point to drive to Mytilene to purchase a sleeping bag.  Until then, I’ll sleep fully clothed in multiple layers. 

After I unpacked, I walked around the corner to the harbor and the restaurant where my orientation was to take place.  I was the only volunteer to show up, and alas (and admittedly not terribly surprisingly), my orientation was without any orientation at all.  One thing quickly became clear to me though; Skala is packed with dedicated, hardworking volunteers from all over the world.  And those who come (and choose to stay) to aid the refugees who are so desperately seeking safety and constantly arriving, will only last if you are self-reliant, resourceful, communicative, take initiative and jump in wherever help in needed.  And help is needed everywhere.  Here, the ability to be efficient and systematic at the same time as being constantly flexible can mean the difference between life and death for those arriving. 

I stayed at the restaurant to help pack cheese sandwiches to send to the registration refugee camp in Moria.  Hundreds of sandwiches later, I looked up to see a parade of cold and wet refugees walking past the window.  They had arrived in the dark on a stretch of shore that was without a night watch and walked down the beach to the glowing lights of town to seek safety.  We all dropped the sandwiches and ran outside.  I partnered up with an EMT from Virginia and combed through the crowd to assess priority cases for care and first aid.  There was an Iraqi man holding a baby, and at his feet was his wife who had fallen to the ground.  We got her to her feet and she said enough words in English to communicate she had fallen on the rocks when she climbed out of the boat.  Having still not been oriented to the locations of the two shore camps, I followed the EMT who had clearly done this many times before.  We slowly made our way down the dirt road to the Lighthouse camp, under starlight.  The mother and father stayed quiet and calm, but I was suspicious of how quiet the baby was.  Once we entered the medic station, we sat the mother down, mimed to the father to help her take off her wet socks, and took a closer look at the baby who looked to be about 4 months old.  Her name was Bandra.  She didn’t start crying until we were inside with electricity.  Her parents had lovingly clothed her in as many layers as they could, but she got wet during the crossing, and now those layers were doing nothing but refrigerating her.  The EMT checked Bandra’s vitals, and I peeled off her sticky, wet layers and found a dry diaper.  As the mother was being seen by a doctor, Bandra wouldn’t stop wailing, so the EMT motioned for the father to come change his daughter’s diaper.  But the father hadn't changed a diaper before, and neither had the EMT, so I gave them both a lesson.  Bandra cried, and she cried, and she cried.  Even when she was dry and warm and bundled up.  Even when she fell asleep she actively cried.  I could hear her crying as I left the medic station and walked back to the harbor to meet another incoming boat.  

A volunteer coast guard sent word they had found a small inflatable boat filled with about 40 people and they’d be towing them into the harbor from the sea.  We gathered emergency blankets and stood on the stone dock, waiting for them.  The freezing night sky was lit with nothing but thousands of twinkling stars, and the clouds from our warm breath touching the frigid air was the only movement we could see.  Eventually I spotted the coast guard’s searchlight as the boat cut through the dark.  I struggled to hear anything more than ripples lapping on the dock over the calm and silent water.  But soon the sounds arrived.  First of the children crying.  Then of the babies crying.  And then the apprehensive, terrified and relieved whispers of the adults.

We led the new arrivals to the camp and sat them around a bonfire.  As I handed out hot chai I found Bandra's parents.  Warm, content and with smiles of relief on their faces.  And a peacefully sleeping Bandra snuggled between them.  

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Car, boat, bus, plane, plane, taxi.

Beautifully ripe oranges in winter weather

Beautifully ripe oranges in winter weather

I'm in Greece!  Though after a long and sleepless journey (thanks to a miserable head cold), it felt like it could have been anywhere.  I was met at my sweet, little hotel in Glyfada (a suburb) by the owners, who after taking one look at the bags under my eyes and the kleenex pouring out of my pockets, ordered me to bed.  After throwing my luggage to the floor, falling dead asleep in a steaming hot bath and crawling into bed, the world was soon made right again.

I woke up with a bit more spring in my step, fewer kleenex in my pockets and walked downstairs for coffee.  The owners were in the breakfast room and smiled at me so big, their eyes closed into the shape of crescent moons.  "Ah, you are normal again!  I can see it in your eyes!," they sang to me.  It seems two Greek coffees equals one American, so as I started in on my third cup, I simultaneously chuckled and sighed as I read "Trump" in the headlines of the morning paper.  He's unescapable.     

The Temple of Olympian Zeus 

The Temple of Olympian Zeus 

I tried my best to make the most of my 24 hours on the mainland, mostly taken up by securing a Greek SIM card, and followed by taking the 50 minute tram ride into the city to seek out ancient ruins.  I found Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, but as I headed towards the Acropolis it began to snow, and after I lost the feeling in my toes and my lips turned as blue as the Greek flag, I settled for a hot chocolate and a distant view of the Acropolis instead.

After two months of waiting and preparing, t's still surprisingly impossible to believe I'm here in the flesh and blood.

Tomorrow I fly to Lesvos, drive to Skala Sikamineas and have my orientation meeting with Lighthouse Relief, which is precisely why I won't be awake to watch the ball drop, so I'm counting on you all to do some partying for me.  

Happy New Year one and all, from Athens!  I have a really good feeling about 2016.

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Departing 29th December 2015

Hello family and friends,

I'm still learning the ropes of creating a blog, but with any sort of luck, this will be a good place to check for updates while I'm abroad.

Thanks so much for your words of encouragement and support!  

What a posse I have :) 

Carina

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