If you are joining my Souda posts for the first time here, please see Souda Refugee Camp Part 1 for an introduction to this series ... to Souda camp on Chios Island, Greece -- what it is and what I'm doing there.
Two things weigh on the ... guilt, I guess ... I feel over my privilege in life today. One is that despite my best efforts I've become sick with an extremely painful sore throat. After a couple days of this suffering, I had the privilege of being given a regimen of penicillin this morning because of who I know here as a result of being the Westerner volunteer; meanwhile as you may have read earlier, a refugee waits for many days to have a bullet that is preventing him from walking removed from his leg, and others walk around like a time bomb with shrapnel lurking in the shadows of their arteries, and mothers are helpless to save their sons' lives back in their homeland.
And I actually confessed to the few refugees I now genuinely consider friends how poorly I feel and they expressed genuine sympathy, and then I wonder what the hell I'm thinking confessing such trivial matters to these folks.
Second, several musicians are exiled here. One I mentioned already from Iran, but tonight we hung out with him after dinner and he's not just a dude with a guitar who can sing. "I'm not famous, but maybe a little popular," he told us. He said we could Google his name, and yep we found him with a professional album-cover type photo accompanying a professionally recorded MP3. "Music is my passion," he told us.
Another guy who fainted one of the first days we were here and Erik helped carry him back to his tent, then we saw him recovered and playing in the soccer tournament at Vial the other day, today we spoke to him more in depth in camp and discovered he was the guitarist in a heavy metal band in Iran. All the band members were arrested by the religious police. An Iranian jail is not a good place to be. He escaped and ended up here.
People kicked out of their homeland for playing music ... I love music in all its diversity so much; seeing live music is such an integral part of my life, I'm privileged to walk to any bar in my hometown, or in the nearby cities of Boulder and Denver, to see absolutely any kind of music that exists with no penalty but the price of the ticket and beer. It's hard to describe how vulgar I feel their exile is for this act of innocent, uniquely human passion.
It's not only, though it is primarily, people from war-torn regions here; injustices abound in countries where there is no recourse but to run away. Some people will say, "So you can't be a rock musician, big deal. Do something else." All I can presume about those people is that they themselves have no passions ... because if you have one, you know how your soul will wither and die, and you'll be left an empty husk of a person if you cannot pursue it. People with passions will make huge sacrifices to follow them, because little else matters.
It's difficult here at the grossly overcrowded camp, because on the one hand, it does seem correct to put the people escaping bombs and murdering, raping, radical marauders first in line for asylum. They fled to preserve their lives and the lives of their families which were otherwise in imminent, mortal danger. I do believe that if choices have to be made, they should be given priority in receiving asylum, as much as I respect and empathize with those seeking freedom for their passions. It's just a real pity, nay a shame, that choices are being made over whom to welcome. "Mr. X, you can come in because if you go back home your physical body will be in mortal danger. But Mr. Y, you cannot come in because it is only your soul that will die."
Along the lines of the veterinarian guy gleeful to get his hands on a cat, one of my favorite people here in camp was a math teacher when he lived in Syria (Damascus, I think) and today made me smile as he gleefully taught me and another mathematically-challenged volunteer (I'm missing serious math circuitry in my brain) a trick for multiplying large numbers by 11 and coming up with the answer super quickly. The teacher in him shone through and I ache for him to be able to teach children again. Even if he gets papers to Athens, what are the odds he'll ever teach math again? I don't know.
Today at "activities" time, which ends up being just as much, if not more, of a distraction for adults as kids, people made some wonderful decorations which we hung from the poles of the food tent. The math teacher made the white one in the back ... a paper lantern. A rare touch of festiveness.
A Drop in the Ocean mentioned to us before we left home that if anyone coming over had special talents or artistic skills or anything they could teach to the refugees or entertain them with, to bring supplies or whatever would be needed for that. When Erik told me he wanted to go with me to volunteer here (I typically do volunteering on my own), one of the first things that came to my mind, was that he would be popular in camp for drawing, as he has a talent for this. Little kids -- our nieces, nephews, friend's kids, etc. -- always love it when he draws little cartoon pictures for them. So I suggested he bring along sketchbooks and paper and pens to make drawings for the kids. Indeed, he was very popular with these tools of entertainment in hand. Here are some typical drawings he made for coloring.
So most activity hours, Erik spent half his time whipping out pictures for kids to either have or to be able to color in, and the other half whipping out pictures for adults to either have or to color in. haha. The kids were cute, sure, but kids are wont to be. I typically got more enjoyment from watching the adults request pictures from him and seeing them so industriously coloring. It was endearing even though it was the unfortunate symptom of their overwhelming boredom.
One guy who was often meticulously drawing something on the table around him ... such as a coke bottle or coffee cup ... asked Erik to draw a picture of me. When Erik showed it to the man, they both burst into guffaws. The man wanted Erik to show me, but he kept refusing, saying I'd be mad. Finally I demanded to see it. This was the object of the hilarity .....
We have been staying 18 nights at a family-run hotel that is new in town, we are clearly the longest-staying guests they've had. One day the maid forgot to clean our room, and coincidentally ? the next day, the proprietor knocked on our door and gave us a bottle of white wine with no comment, haha. We are checking out tomorrow, and when we came home from working at camp this afternoon, there was a gift on our table of a nice local souvenir. And a cordially worded request to pass on to our American friends a recommendation for their hotel. So, if you're going to Chios to volunteer or vacation, it's no 5-star resort, to be sure, but I personally have no problem recommending City Point Boutique Hotel. They seem to get mixed reviews on booking sites. This was the view from our little balcony. It's very well located close to all the sea-front restaurants and the castle.
This is a pic of me and my giant teddy bear friend, Farshad, marooned here from Iran. Everyone needs a hug from this man. And to be honest, probably most volunteers get one! His English is not great and yet he makes friends with everybody. Such a light of love and kindness in Souda camp.
My friend, the math teacher, is also teaching Arabic to volunteers. I have earned a gold star in the picture below for correctly copying the letters of the text he writes. :) He's consulting translation software on his phone with me.
Most all the refugees have phones to keep in contact with their families back home. The U.N. gives them a tiny monthly allowance and I think this is how many keep their phone plans.
He showed me pictures of his mother so lovingly, planting a kiss on her photo with his fingertip. Other people showed me photos of their families and friends they left behind without knowing if they will ever see them again. Hoping but not knowing. Hope is a weird emotion to me. I see its benefits but I also think the universe is indifferent to it. People go on and on about how love is a uniquely human emotion, the thing that sets us apart. But I think some animals are genuinely capable of this. I think what sets us apart is hope. Animals have anticipation and maybe even a limited sense of hope for an immediate action like their food bowl being filled or someone opening the door to let them outside. But human hope has a vastness to it that is unique. I find this both heart warming and heart breaking.
As the compliments to me about volunteering in the refugee camp on Chios keep rolling in -- "you're doing such good work," "bless you for caring and helping people," things along those lines -- I have to suppress my urge to dispute their validity rather than accept them graciously. I'm not trying to be humble or falsely modest, and I certainly appreciate the comments.
I know that the organization we worked for needs help to distribute the food and clothes, so in that sense, yeah sure, I'm helping (and all the other volunteers). The on-ground coordinators are astonishing in a very difficult job; I have the most immense respect for them, as much respect as I could give anybody. But the "good work helping" compliments don't swallow easily because a lot of my time was spent preventing people from doing things that in normal life nobody should be policing them over, and I felt mostly like a putz, not a kindly helper, haha.
The food lines, three times a day, for example: I felt genuinely helpful when I was behind the "counter" filling the "orders" ... so if a person had a food card for 4 portions, I helped put together whatever constituted a portion that day times four. For lunch and dinner, usually that was a hot dish, some bread, some fruit or a little salad, a dessert. That's what I'm doing in the picture below, on the left, pic courtesy of Aina Crozier.
The other times, I was doing some sort of "crowd control" or organization at the head or foot of the lines. Different lines for women and men, and three different lines for men depending on some factors. The place I ended up working most often was at the head of the women's line, where I took their cards or papers and handed them to an NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council) worker who verified the papers and recorded that the meals were collected, and then I let them go to the counter when it was their turn.
Okay, I felt a little weird in that position. But the worst was at the end of the food distribution timeframe when, after a specified amount of time, once all the people with cards from Souda camp had collected their meals, people from Vial and people who wanted seconds could come get them. So now we were to simply allow the people in these lines to approach the counter one at a time.
But oftentimes, the ladies would all start sort of rushing the counter and I had to physically put my hand on their shoulders to stop them and ask them to wait. Then when the person at the counter stepped away, I'd reposition my hand to their back to signal them to go now to the counter. I don't know, I just felt really awkward physically stopping grown women from collecting a meal and keeping them in line like a bunch of school children.
I understand the necessity of this order, it would be chaotic otherwise. Still, just the sight of the people surging forward to collect what I heard was pretty shitty food (not the NRC's fault, they don't make it) -- I never tried it myself -- was awkward to witness, and then more awkward to be treating them a bit like school children when in truth, I am the child compared to most of them. I don't mean in terms of age, but in terms of what they have experienced in their lives -- the things they've seen and gone through, and the decisions they've had to make -- and me in my privileged naiveté.
I didn't mind it so much at the head of the men's lines. They would often talk to me and joke with me and it was just a friendlier, more relaxed rapport. The women were not nearly so friendly and outgoing, and I don't know if it's a cultural thing or if they maybe felt some awkwardness or even resentment at another girl telling them what not to do. I myself am not a very outgoing person, but I acted the same way whether I was at the women's or men's line, simply saying, "thank you" to each person who handed their card to me. So the difference in behavior was them, not me.
I also often had to strip the women of their children in line. Children weren't allowed because the mobile fencing was pretty unstable and children had gotten hurt in the past, so I understood the rule, even though it seemed a little too broad to apply to toddlers who were being held in their mother's arms. But I also understand the necessity of an arbitrary and blanket rule, otherwise we would be faced with personal assessments of who to allow in line and who not to, and that could cause hard feelings.
Sometimes, though, I had to reach over the fencing and literally pull a kid off of their mother and haul them over the fence. Sometimes they would start crying and screaming pitiably for their mothers, and of course who could blame them. So now I'm standing holding a mother's distressed child, telling her she can't comfort it with her arms, and telling her when she can and cannot approach the food counter. Some of the kids, thankfully, were good sports and simply played with me until their mothers got through the line. Other kids threw rocks at me.
In the big picture, I guess I, and Erik and all the volunteers, fill a needed role. But when people bless me and tell me what good work I'm doing, I just think of standing there with confused and crying children, with my hand on the women's shoulders telling them to wait. Wait for your food; wait for your child to be put back in your arms; wait to see if you'll be granted temporary asylum; wait to know if the money you paid to the boatman to ferry you over from Turkey in the middle of the night was worth it; wait until the clothing distribution day to have me tell you that you can have only three items, to get a bra that once belonged to someone else, a summer shirt for the hot weather; wait outside my rental car where I'm handing out packets of sanitary pads from a box in the back seat, and then tell your name to a man (Salem, very nice who can work with people in Arabic) who will make sure you don't take more than one packet; wait for your dignity to return; wait for your privacy to return; wait for you or your husband to have a job again; wait, wait, wait, please wait.
There are many, many reasons why being a refugee on Chios is a bummer (as an extraordinary understatement), if you've read any of my recent posts about it. One that never occurred to me until after I've been home for a little while is the impermanence of so many friendships. Volunteers from Drop in the Ocean, NRC and other NGOs come, make friends with the camp "residents" and then leave.
For me, I made a friend and then went home back to my life and the people in it. For the refugees displaced from their life and the people in it, they just watch new people come and go from their lives, come and go, come and go. I keep up to date a little bit with posts and articles written by volunteers who came after me or before me and realize that they have made friends with the same people I did, and we have all parted ways.
I'm not a social butterfly who makes friends with tons of people, like some of the other volunteers do, only a few. These are two of the peeps I spent the most time with and enjoyed their company so much. I just read a piece by a volunteer who came after me referring clearly to the people I considered my friends, and it struck me how fleeting I am in their lives. The refugees make huge impressions on us volunteers, and we'll carry them in our hearts forever, but I can't even guess how many volunteers some of the refugees have made fleeting friends with. I imagine it's a little painful to try to make bonds and attachments with the volunteers because you know they will just be leaving in a few weeks.
To all the forces who matter to their welfare -- the UN and refugee councils who issue their food cards, who interview them and decide their asylum status -- the refugees are just a number, one of thousands crammed onto a sliver of space on the island. For once, I feel on the other end, feeling that I am just a number in their lives. Friend #43, perhaps. But I will always treasure having known them.
I can't tell you how many people have said to me either before I left or after I came home, "That will be/must have been a life-changing experience." I don't really know where that comes from ... why would it change my life? It's not like I didn't know the basic situation with the refugees already, that's the whole reason I went over there. Am I just too callous and jaded on life to be changed? Clearly I was affected and filled with many emotions and reflections. But changed? I don't think so. Perhaps because I've already volunteered and met people from all kinds of desperate situations around the world, mostly Third World countries ... Chinese peasants who nearly starved to death, who survived the persecutions of the Cultural Revolution, Namibian elders accused of being witches, families whose members were bludgeoned to death on bullshit witchcraft allegations, to name but a couple.
The refugees here, and particularly those from war-torn Syria and Iraq, have their own unique tragedy in having once lived a "normal," prosperous life and having it suddenly and brutally stolen away from them. But I'm not sure how being around their particular tragedy is supposed to change me. I know that of all of the unfair and unfortunate lots I've witnessed around the world, theirs is perhaps the one I could most likely fall similar victim to. They once had lives like mine (I've never had a life like a peasant or tribal African), and it's not inconceivable that events could force me into a life like theirs. But I already knew that, it's not an epiphany. I probably shouldn't admit this stoicism, now you will think I'm heartless. But this is a curious thing to me. Feel free to write to me your thoughts on it.
After our stint was over on Chios, we have kept in touch with a number of the volunteers whom we met over there. Many volunteers are planning to go or have already gone back to Souda, and their lives do, in fact, seem to have been changed by the experience ... perhaps because they made deeper and more meaningful friendships with the refugees and volunteers than I did. For me, I saw it simply as a kind of global civic duty. A lot of people, particularly on the ground in Chios, such as the coordinators and NRC workers, say a big part of the volunteer value is simply showing up, illustrating to the refugees there are people who know about them, who care about them, and even if the friendships are fleeting, we provide them amusement and something new in their chronically boring lives -- we're like the "activities hour" just being ourselves and being accessible to talk to.
Since I've been there, Souda camp has changed radically first one way and then the other. Right after our departure, it just kept getting more and more crowded. Hundreds more refugees arrived in the already over-crowded camp. Tents sprawled and overlapped on top of one another along the beach as overflow from the fenced-in camp "proper." Privacy and sanitation plummeted even further. Then the municipality pulled up all those tents outside the official camp boundaries and stuffed everybody inside so the beach wouldn't look unpleasant to the ferry boats arriving with tourists, who disembark at a pier just a short ways down the beach.
Now, Souda camp is being emptied out, it looks like a ghost town from the pics I've seen. It's been difficult to ascertain just what is going on. As best I know, from sources in the Drops administration, Souda is being steadily depopulated, with most of the refugees being sent to camps on the mainland, in Athens or near Thessaloniki. But I don't know what percentage of people being moved off Chios have actually had their papers approved so they can move freely in Greece, and how many are simply being relocated to a different camp to continue waiting. The smuggling boats from Turkey have largely petered out over the summer (I had imagined they would only increase). So this helps in being able to reduce the camp population when it's not being inundated with hundreds of new arrivals each week. But of course that could change at any time on a dime; it's hard to know what is driving the boat traffic on the Turkey side.
Most of the NGOs who were working in Souda when we were there have been mandated to leave by the Greek municipality. And as of yesterday, that includes the NRC, the Norwegian Refugee Council, who was responsible for the food distribution, this is who the Drops helped to distribute each meal. The group who sponsored the soccer match we went to in Vial is now taking over. Some of our refugee friends had begun working with the NRC in their endeavors, which was great for them to feel useful and have something meaningful to do with their time. Now they are back to Square One. It's just more displacement in the refugee lives. First displaced from their home by invaders or by persecution. Assigned a module in a camp, a tent or box, other people might show up assigned to share the space with them, then their new nylon home on the beach is pulled up by the stakes and they're displaced again. Then they settle down again behind the ancient city walls but then they may be picked up and ferried or bused to another camp with no briefing, no indication what waits for them there. Once they fled their homeland it's like they gave up all power to control their own lives -- they're just a leaf in the wind blowing out of somebody else's mouth, somebody shouting at them, "do this, do that, go here, go there, wait here, wait there, wait some more." I think this is an appalling life to bestow on our fellow humans and for them to endure when they can look around and see the rest of the citizens in the country they're seeking shelter in going about their self-possessed lives so easily and contentedly.
At the end of the day, I don't have a nice concluding sentence to sum up my time or my feelings. (Or at least not yet, these conclusions can take time to percolate in the back of the heart and mind.) I don't have a heartwarming sentiment about how my life has been changed as a result of this experience. I'm just me, with the profound luxury to go back to my life, my home, and decide where, voluntarily, to travel to next.
Want to help? Either with a financial donation or your own two hands? Check out these two organizations who are doing the good work.