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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.