my last day

My last day in the camp, working with Better Days for Moria was calm and lovely for the most part. The weather was bad, so we didn't have any boats coming in, and nearly the entire country of Greece was striking for better working conditions, so there also weren't any cab drivers, Vodafone salespeople, or even gypsies hanging around the camp. The weather was bleak, but a positive atmosphere hung in the air- or at least as positive as is possible given the situation. I spent the morning trying to be as productive as possible, while avoiding potentially stressful interactions. That meant I stayed hidden in the dry clothes tent, sorting new donations and repackaging shower soap into smaller bottles for hygiene packs. I had a nice conversation with another volunteer, Keith, from the UK. Keith and I agreed to take pictures of each other while we were sorting clothing and bottling soap so we'd have something to send back to our friends and families.

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Lunch came sooner than I expected. It was the first day at Moria camp where I was actually disappointed it was lunch time, because I really didn't want my last full day to end. Lunch is always delicious. We have amazing volunteer cooks who create masterful vegan meals on a small budget for the volunteers. I feel the need to continually shower them with compliments. (Kudos!)

After lunch I found a fellow volunteer, Florian, and asked him for help. I asked him to give Adnan (the Pakistani refugee who bought me a present and confessed his love for me) a gift of fifty euro to repay him for the gift he'd given me. For one, I'd hoped that repaying him for the gift would at least help me feel less guilty for how the situation had played out, but I also really just didn't want to take money away from someone who really needs it. I gave Florian the money and told him my stipulation that Adnan must not suspect that the money is from me. I wanted Florian to give it to him under the guise that it was a gift, unrelated to the awkward situation Adnan had put me in. Florian happily agreed to help me out and said he'd give it to him when the time was right.

After my conversation with Florian I wandered around for a bit, half trying to find some work to do, half just taking pictures and trying to preserve an image of the Better Days for Moria camp in my mind. While I was doing this, I ran into Adnan. He asked to speak with me and wanted me to walk down the road with him a bit. I told him I'd be happy to talk with him, but said I'd rather not walk anywhere.

“You don't trust me,” Replied Adnan.

“No, that's not it at all.” I said, flustered. “I'm just comfortable here. I don't see why we can't just talk here.”

Part of me knew that this situation had the potential to be far more dramatic if we moved to a more isolated location, so I wanted to diffuse that as much as possible by keeping us in plain view of the rest of the camp.

To that he replied: “You don't trust me. You think I'm a terrorist.”

Suppressing an eye roll, I denied his accusation.

“That's really not it,” I said. “Why don't we just talk here?”

After a moment's pause, Adnan began. He asked me for my phone number. He wanted to call me in California, just to hear my voice. I told him no. I didn't want to do that, and that even if I was okay with it, it was impossible because my phone can't accept or make international phone calls.

“I have a boyfriend,” I said. Trying to give the lightest, yet firmest rejection possible.

“I just want to call you,” he said.

“No,” I said. “I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that.”

After a brief pause, Adnan then went on to ask me for a memento. He wanted me to give him something of mine. Even the hair tie on my wrist. When I refused, he just continued to repeat his request.

“Please,” he said. “Give me anything.”

“No,” I replied. “I don't feel comfortable doing that. I have a boyfriend and I'm leaving tomorrow and you need to move on.”

“Please,” he said, “please, please.”

Simultaneously begging and making me feel guiltier by the moment for rejecting his request.

“No,” I said. “I'm going to walk away now.”

I turned and continued to walk up Afghan Hill, where I ran into Florian and another volunteer, Julian, who were digging trenches for drainage. We had a light conversation about ditch digging, and I was able to get my mind off of my depressing conversation with Adnan.

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Later in the day, after giving a brief Arabic lesson to some of my fellow volunteers, I ran into Adnan again. He was still persistent. This time he asked to take a photo with me. Again I refused, citing my boyfriend and the fact that Adnan needed to move on.

“You're young,” I said. “You'll meet someone else. Trust me. It's better for you to move on.”

“I don't think so,” he said. “You're the first person that I've met that I feel this way about.”

Then he repeated his request for me to take a picture with him, continually repeating the word “please,” as if using it more would somehow change my mind. But I remained firm in my refusal. I knew it wouldn't be good for him to have anything to remember me by, and I really dislike the idea of someone pining for me from hundreds of miles away.

His pleading continued until I walked away.

Later that night I went out to dinner with a large group of volunteers. It was one volunteer's birthday, and several of us were leaving over the next couple of days, so we had a big celebration and farewell party. Somehow we found the only restaurant that was open during the general strike. When we first walked in with our group of about twenty, the restaurant owner looked concerned. He told us he was worried he didn't have enough food for all of us. But he somehow made it happen and I think it was clear that everyone was enjoying themselves. The owner even brought out a cake and performed some magic tricks for all of us. It was truly a great send off.

During dinner I spoke with Siobhan, a long term volunteer, about the situation with Adnan. She was able to help me feel less guilty about rejecting him and all of his requests. It was her opinion that he was trying to manipulate my feelings. I rejected that idea initially, but now I think Siobhan may have been right. Whether or not he intended to, Adnan was definitely manipulating my emotions and trying to guilt me into giving him what he wanted. Despite the infinitely awkward and sad situation that surrounded us, that analysis makes sense to me.

Siobhan told me not to feel bad for rejecting him.

I'm still trying.

the "translator"

IMG_2191 When I first arrived at Moria Camp I knew that I wanted to use my Arabic skills as much as possible to help out. However, I intentionally avoided the medical tent because I was afraid that a bad translation could potentially harm someone. But the longer I've been here, the more word of my being "an Arabic translator" has spread. I have to laugh at that, because I'm definitely not a translator. When I'm speaking with people in Arabic I usually have to ask them to repeat themselves a lot, and then I infer a lot based on whatever context we're in. It's a lot of guessing, and I definitely don't always know what's going on.

But I was called in to the medical tent by my new friend Omar who also speaks Arabic, probably at a similar level to myself. He said he was having trouble understanding what a woman needed, so I said I'd try to help. The woman had two small children with her and after much confusion, I finally realized she just needed my help to carry one of her children into the main room so the doctor could look at the smaller child. So, for the first time in my life, I held a baby. He was wriggling around and clearly freaked out that a woman other than his mother was carrying him, but I did all right.

Once we'd arrived in the next room, the doctor wanted me to help with translations, asking things like: "Does the baby have diarrhea?", "When was the last time he pooped?" and "Did you give him milk or water?".

I don't know the word for diarrhea, or poop in Arabic. Sorry. So I tried to mimic those actions to the mother who had no clue what I was going on about. Eventually the doctor was able to make a rough translation using the international language of hand signals. I was able to help translate a few questions and answers though, so overall I felt as if I'd been helpful. That was, until the mother approached Omar and told him that she'd rather he just translate, because his Arabic is better than mine.

Omar translated that sentence to me, but I didn't need him to. It was clear what she was saying, and that she hadn't expected me to understand. Even though I knew she was wrong, my confidence was still lowered and I felt off for the rest of the day.

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Later on, Omar approached me again asking for help. This time for something completely different. He'd met a man, Hamid, whose family had lost almost everything to the Turkish police, including some of their passports. I'm not entirely sure what Omar's intention was in bringing me into this conversation, but I was glad that I was able to help in the end.

I told Omar that I had funds from donations I could give him, I just needed to get into the city to withdraw some money. Omar told this to Hamid, who immediately asked for Omar's phone number, promising to repay him once he reached Germany. Of course Omar told him this wasn't necessary, and explained that the money was from our family and friends back home.

I ran off in search of someone who could give me a ride into Mytilini. I ran into a group of Iranian-American guys who had just pulled up to the camp and told them what I was doing. They didn't particularly want to leave because they had just arrived and were excited to start working. So instead of giving me a ride into town, they pulled out their wallets and gave me money. It turns out they had raised some funds before coming here as well, and they were more than happy to share.

I brought the guys over to meet Hamid, and once I gave him the money, things got really emotional.

"Is he crying?" One of the Iranian-American guys asked.

"Yeah, he is." I said.

The Iranian-American guy walked up to Hamid and gave him a hug. They all hugged. It was a beautiful moment. Hamid looked over at me and told me a heartfelt thank you.

 

a strange feeling

Lesvos, Mytilini, Greece - 1/28 I started my day early with a run before sunrise. It's something I've been doing occasionally when I wake up early and can't fall back asleep. I only covered about two miles, but I ran a beautiful loop around Mytilene Castle, ending back where I started, at the Port of Mytilene, where all of the refugees who can continue their journey into mainland Greece have to depart.

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I worked at the Syrian gate again today. The weather was pleasant the whole day, so that meant that there were more boats arriving on the island, and more refugees arriving at Moria Camp. Several buses arrived at the Syrian gate today, at least two of which held a number of wet people who were still in need of warm, dry clothes.

After one bus was unloaded and the people ushered into the camp through the Syrian gate, I noticed a few families who were sitting outside the gate, looking confused. I asked a volunteer with the group I AM YOU why a particular family was just sitting outside the gate. I hoped that he might know something, since he speaks better Arabic than me, and seemed to know more about the group who had just arrived by bus. The volunteer told me that this particular family had just finished registration, but that they had no money to continue their journey.

"Okay," I said. "Can you tell them to come with me, and that I might be able to find some funds for them?"

The volunteer translated for me, and I began walking up the hill from the Syrian gate to the Better Days for Moria (BDFM) camp. We walked slowly, since this family had five small children with them. On the walk up to BDFM I introduced myself to the father and asked his name. He told me his name is Mohammed, and thanked me for helping them.

Once we reached the BDFM camp I told the mother and children to wait near the children's tent, so the whole family wouldn't have to wait around while I tried to sort out whether I should buy ferry tickets for this family, and how to go about doing it.

Mohammed came with me into the information tent, where I found Siobhan (a coordinator in the camp), and told her what I intended to do. Siobhan didn't even flinch. She gladly looked up the ferry times, told me how much a ticket would cost, when the next ferry was leaving, and who might be able to give me a ride into the city to buy the tickets.

I found a ride with David, a pastor from Dallas, Texas who has been volunteering in Moria Camp for a week or so. He was more than happy to give me and Mohammed a ride into Mytilini. Our first stop was at an ATM, where I took out about 300 euro for the tickets. Next we stopped by the ferry building where I tried to figure out how to purchase ferry tickets. I quickly found out that you do not buy the ticket inside the ferry building, but in one of the many travel agencies in the city. Mohammed and I went to the nearest travel agency, located just across the street from the ferry building.

The travel agents were very helpful. I was able to buy tickets for Mohammed and his family to Kavalla, with additional bus tickets to the Macedonian border. I also gave Mohammed an additional 60 euro for his family. But it didn't feel like enough.

When we got back to BDFM, Mohammed and his wife were extremely grateful and continually thanked me for my help. His wife kept kissing me on the cheek, and Mohammed told me that she considered me a sister.

I tried to give them instructions on what to do next, but I was at a loss for words, and couldn't figure out how to translate what I wanted to say. I ended up just telling them to go back to the gate where we'd met, knowing that they would either catch a bus to Kara Tepe (the family compound) or find a place to stay within the Moria Camp.

After all of this was over and we'd said our goodbyes, I walked over to the tea tent to take a break. I felt overwhelmed. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever before experienced the feeling I had at that moment. I couldn't describe it.

I didn't feel as happy as I thought I would. All I could think of now was the stark reality that this family would face along their journey. The Macedonian border is closed today, hopefully only temporarily. I worried that didn't give them enough extra money for their journey. And later in the day I even learned that the ferry strike in Mytilini will continue through the weekend, so Mohammed and his family will have to find a way to go back into Mytilini to change their departure dates on their tickets, or they risk losing them entirely.

This process that refugees have to go through is so complicated and inherently disillusioning. I'm almost glad that I will only be here for a short time, so perhaps I'll still be able to maintain some sense of hope.

the Syrian gate

Moria Camp, Lesbos, Greece - 1/26, 1/27 I've spent the past two days working at “the Syrian gate.” Which involves standing for hours on end, in cold (or sometimes sunny and lovely) weather, waiting for buses to arrive, or waiting as confused-looking families mill about so I can attempt to answer any questions they have.

Usually my Arabic comes in handy, but sometimes I have no idea what someone is asking, and end up feeling dumber for having tried to help. For the most part, people have similar questions, so it's not difficult to figure out what they're asking, but at other times, I'm simply at a loss. Thankfully, I'm rarely working alone, and there are countless other experienced volunteers around to step in.

There's a man who sells sim cards and cellphone minutes at a Vodafone stand near the Syrian gate every day. I think his name is Faisal. Before I met him I was very skeptical of the Vodafone salespeople, and him in particular. But he came over to me and another volunteer yesterday and introduced himself. I learned that he's Syrian and speaks Arabic, Greek and English, and he comes here because he feels compelled to help. Yes, he's making a profit from his Vodafone stands, but the refugees would be buying new sim cards either way, and at least he is very helpful in translating and answering any questions people have. I approached him several times today to ask him to help translate with people whose questions I couldn't understand, and he was more than happy to help.

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One man was traveling with his son and had just received his registration number. (All refugees receive a number before they are registered, so they can come back and complete their registration once their number is being processed.) This man told me that he left his bag on the UNHCR bus that dropped him and his son off at the Moria Camp. I tried to help him figure out where he could go to find his bag, but I had some difficulty translating the answer. Faisal was more than happy to translate for me, and treated the man with so much kindness, even kissing his head and wishing him luck as he departed.

Later in the day things at the Syrian line got more stressful (but only by my newcomer standards). UNHCR buses were picking up families who had registered and taking them to Kara Tepe (the family compound) to spend the night, since there was no more space at Moria Camp. After one bus full of families departed, the bus driver returned, but he seemed exasperated by the lack of a line. Everyone was clustered near the door (still somewhat orderly, nothing too dramatic) and the bus driver decided to drive the bus forward what he said would be another “hundred meters.” He ended up driving the bus to a distance that felt like nearly 400 meters, and perhaps felt longer to the families who were walking with small children and carrying all of their belongings with them.

The sun was setting and there was still at least one more bus load of people who needed to be transferred to Kara Tepe. At this point the workers at UNHCR had passed this duty along to myself and one other volunteer (Martina). They said they'd be back, but it felt doubtful. I kept walking back and forth, bringing people from the Syrian gate and leading them down the road to the spot where the bus would pick them up. I kept repeating: “It'll be about 20 minutes until a new bus,” to various people, hoping that a bus would actually arrive within that time period.

By this time it was nearly completely dark outside. I put on my headlamp, hoping it would help alert cars that were still driving down the road of our existence. I'd been trying to radio in to the information tent with Better Days for Moria to find replacements for myself and Martina, since our shift was up and Martina's ride was waiting for her. I was worried we were too far out of range for the walkie talkies to work, since we'd been moved nearly a quarter mile farther away from the main camp than we were originally stationed. It seemed like no one was responding to my calls for assistance. Eventually someone did respond and we got two new (experienced) replacements, which allowed myself and Martina to feel okay with leaving this group of people out in the cold, dark, standing by the side of the road waiting for a bus.

I last heard about the group of people waiting for the bus was when I was walking back up the hill to the main camp with Martina. We ran into a guy who was bringing down hot tea for the people who were waiting. I hope he got there in time to give out hot drinks before the bus arrived. When it gets dark here, the cold seems to come with it- and quickly.

--

Aside from working stressful bus lines at the Syrian gate today, I had the opportunity to encounter some of memorable people.

One guy named Alice (at least that's what it sounded like) approached me, asking if there were any organizations that could provide him with money for a ferry ticket. He is from Nigeria, and only had half of the money necessary to buy a ferry ticket to Athens. I had 20 Euro on me, so I gave it to him.

It was a difficult decision to make on the spot. We'd been told in our volunteer orientation that it can be difficult to assess who really needs money, and that how to decide who to give it to can be complicated. I figured that he might have a decent chance of getting to Germany as a Nigerian, and figured that I could spare 20 Euro. Alice was extremely grateful and continually approached me throughout the day with kind words. Unfortunately, he'll have to wait until at least Friday to catch the ferry to Athens because of an upcoming strike by the ferry workers.

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When I came into Moria Camp on the bus this morning things were a bit hectic. There was a large crowd of people, pushing and shoving to get onto the bus I was on with a few other volunteers. I learned that there was about to be a ferry strike and people were trying to get in to the city to catch the last ferry before the strike began. I think there won't be another ferry to Athens for a couple of days at least. People were clearly desperate, and I heard stories of fights that broke out a bit later in the morning.

I'll try to post more tomorrow. Until then, I leave you with this:

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moria camp, day 1

Moria Camp, Lesbos, Greece - 1/25 IMG_2160

Today was my first day working at the Moria refugee camp. I was less nervous than I thought I would be going into it, and thankfully it turns out I had no reason to be nervous. Everyone I encountered was kind and had a sense of humor about the situation, which seems essential. It seems common to make fast friends with both volunteers and refugees.

I arrived at Moria this afternoon, after traveling by bus with my friend Emma, who I met on the flight from Athens. We were just in time for the daily tour of the camp where the current coordinator for the day shift, Liska, showed us around and got everyone signed up and registered as volunteers.

During our tour we were lucky enough to run in to the (in)famous artist Ai Weiwei, who is creating a documentary and art installation on the island. He was very kind and answered everyone's questions, and even took selfies and group photos with the volunteers. I found myself surprisingly starstruck however, and couldn't think of anything to say to him besides: "You follow me on Twitter!" -- so instead of potentially embarrassing myself, I thought it best to not say anything at all.

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After the tour I asked Liska where I might be most valuable given that I speak Arabic. She recommended I sign up for the day shift from 9am-5pm, and said she'd give me a walkie talkie tomorrow so I could make the most use of my language skills.

I got a chance to speak Arabic with some people a for bit today, but it was mostly speaking broken Arabic with three Iranians and one Kurdish guy, who each only understood a bit of the language. So communication was limited.

While I was sorting clothing in the Dry Clothes tent three (potentially) Moroccan men came up and asked for coats and warm clothing. I went into the back to fetch a coat for one of the men. After making sure his coat fit, I quickly made my way back into the tent to continue sorting women's personal hygiene bags. Another couple of volunteers came out to further answer the men's questions. They were looking for sleeping bags, and although Moria Camp has a number of sleeping bags from a recent donation, they're only providing them to refugees who can't receive them from UNHCR (which provides aid based on nationality). But myself and the other volunteers who were assisting these men didn't know the whole story at the time.

One of the volunteers told the men that we couldn't give them sleeping bags, but that they could get them from UNHCR. While this was happening, another woman was off figuring out why we couldn't just give the men one of the many sleeping bags at Moria Camp. She came back after the (potentially) Moroccan men had already left, presumably to get sleeping bags from UNHCR. She told us that they could be deported if they are identified by UNHCR as being Moroccan, and myself and two other volunteers immediately broke into a run and began searching for these men, trying to find them before they made it to the UNHCR camp.

I was the only one of the three who actually knew what these men looked like, so I ran to both UNHCR gates, scanning every male face around. I couldn't find them, so I can only assume that they didn't contact UNHCR about getting sleeping bags, hopefully they knew better. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing.

on my way

Athens, Greece - 1/23 In spite of my fears (and a strong desire not to leave my boyfriend and dog) I am embarking on a two week trip to Lesvos, Greece. I will be volunteering with informal aid organizations on the island, trying to assist with the current refugee crisis by using my knowledge of Arabic, and by purchasing shoes and other warm clothing with your donations.

The man I was sitting next to on my flight to Athens today asked me what encouraged me to take this trip. On instinct, I referred to my standard answer: I read an article about what was happening on Lesvos and was inspired to help. It seemed like there was no official organization on the island. No big aid groups had stepped in yet, and the island's residents were left to help pull in dinghys full of cold, wet desperate people as they reached the shore.

And that's true. I was inspired by that article. It helped me realize that I have skills that might actually be useful in this situation. But it took something more for me to actually take the steps to go through with this trip.

Unfortunately, I think it took the death of my mentor* and friend, Bonnie Bucqueroux, who passed last October. It was thinking of what Bonnie would have said- what she would have encouraged me to do- that really gave me the strength and confidence to know I can do this.

I know Bonnie would have been proud of me, and would have encouraged me to make this trip. She always saw potential in me, and she always encouraged me to follow the path I wanted in life. I believe that path includes helping people and exposing injustices, which is something Bonnie dedicated her life to.

I feel confident that Bonnie would have supported my choice in making this trip, and for me, that's enough. So when I'm nervous getting on my flight to Lesvos tomorrow, I will try to keep that in mind.

 

*Blogger's Note: I want to clarify my feelings about my wording here. I don't really want to say that "it took Bonnie's death" for me to make this trip. That seems cliche and is not quite what I'm trying to say.

What I intended to say was that Bonnie's death served as the impetus for me to start actively and voraciously pursuing my dreams again. Because it allowed me to see that no matter how vibrantly we live, our lives can still be taken from us at a moment's notice, and I don't want to just sit around and wait for it to happen while my future and my dreams slip away from me. (Clearly I'm thinking about more than just this trip here.)

Bonnie lived her life pursuing everything that interested her, and never being afraid of what someone might think of her. She trusted her gut and did what she knew was right. At the very least I can honor her by attempting to do the same.