Why I am here? Why I am working with and for Syrian and other refugees on a distant Greek island off the coast of Turkey? Why this place? Why right now? Why this tragedy?
This is the largest humanitarian crisis our world has seen since World War II. Human beings are suffering to an unimaginable degree, forced to flee their homelands because of murder, bombing, beheading, rape, kidnapping, violence, danger, extremism. The threat is of unfathomable magnitude. Hundreds of thousands of people have nowhere to go and no place to return, an experience I cannot begin to wrap my head around – and pray will never enter my frame of reference. The devastation caused by this tragedy is of catastrophic proportions, for individual lives, families, nations, the environment, and economies of all scales.
We – citizens, leaders, governments, the EU, organizations, the world – are not doing enough. Period. I am aware that is a highly loaded and controversial statement, but I cannot remain silent: my country has played a undeniable role in contributing to this disaster, yet has heretofore failed not only in addressing the root causes (primarily Assad, ISIS, and armed jihadis) of this mass exodus to halt it, but also in offering adequate, necessary, live-saving assistance to the hundreds of thousands in immediate peril and ongoing states of suffering.
I could not NOT come, be present, do whatever I could to help, no matter how seemingly small or fleeting. I have two arms in which to carry children from the sea and haul boxes of dry clothing, two hands to pull ashore boats and offer food or water, a pen with which to capture and tell this story, a computer on which to share images and words digitally, a brain to find simple solutions for bettering steps along the way and perhaps parts of the greater complexity, a phone to call for help in emergencies and document the situation through real time photography, a voice to first calm fears and then to raise awareness, and a heart to love unconditionally.
Unwanted by Europe, barred from America, shunned by the Middle East… where to? It’s a toss up, often, if refugees don’t have a relative – close or distant – already settled. Many have resorted to asking ME where I think they should go – Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Norway – as if my opinion were the gospel, that I knew something they were not yet privy to. But I do not. The tragic truth is that no one knows the best option, where refugees should go, how the world, particularly Europe, can or should deal with the influx. I wish I had an answer, that I could make right for all, but I cannot – and that inability to remedy the situation (a highly unrealistic expectation, I know) proves endlessly troubling. I need/ed to do something and, thanks to my stockpiling of air miles and cancellation of a speech, boarding a plane and showing up physically and fully was a possibility.
Even the refugees ask why I have traveled from the United States to Greece, after learning that I am not in fact a national, as logically assumed upon arrival on Greek shores. For you!, I say with hugs and smiles. I love exploring the common ground that I have with every individual who journeys to Lesvos. Syrians are shocked to learn that I have spent time in their country, that I know the bakeries in the winding alleys of old Damascus, the lookout point over the endless sea of green-lit minarets at night, the architecture of the grand mosques, the rolling hills of the Bloudan countryside… and that I have never experienced better hospitality than that of the Syrian people, end of story. Iranians cannot believe that my father spent a year of his childhood living in Shiraz, as I share stories. Afghans laugh at the few Farsi phrases my grandmother has taught me. West Africans are delighted to hear of my studies at Legon, the University of Ghana being the best in the region. I could go on and on… we are more similar than one could ever fathom.
Today was a whirlwind of emotions. We ate in the Molyvos harbor this morning, sitting in chairs on the very docks where we had saved lives and watched others perish in the hands of capable doctors on the tragic night the ship sunk. Energy in town has shifted; Greeks had death appear on their doorstep, compelling action, as dozens opened restaurants, churches, homes to those in need on that fateful evening. We then drove to the north, but unlike every other day, there were not hundreds of families and single men walking in the opposite direction. When we arrived in Eftalou, there were zero refugees awaiting the bus, a stark contrast to the thousands we had grown accustomed to seeing. It was election day in Turkey, the only plausible reason we could find as to why the numbers dropped so dramatically. Only one boat had come in all day, we were told by a volunteer, who was cleaning up the dumpsters-worth of trash that lined the street and coastline, remnants of emergency blankets, wet clothing, food wrappers, extra possessions that weighted people down, lifejackets, masking tape ripped off of electronics. Should we return to Oxy? Help sort goods in the warehouse? We decided to head over the mountain to walk the beach (in case more treasures had washed up) and see if either of the Skala transit camps may need assistance or drivers. But as soon as we reached the lookout bluff, I spotted a boat in the distance.
It seems that the powers that be put me precisely where they need me at that very moment; something compelled me to make that drive – and then the boat appeared.
Flagging down another two cars, we drove up the coastline and began waving the flag of choice: discarded, waterlogged orange lifejackets. The boat pulled in, a mound of women and children lying submerged in a couple of feet of water, surrounded by men packed side by side around the edge. We brought each one of the terrified souls to safety – all Afghan on this boat. One woman, wearing a full body painter’s suit to keep out water (very wise choice!), collapsed in the sand, tears streaming down her cheeks. I went over to embrace her, “I love you,” she cried in my ear. “I love you too,” I whispered, as my eyes welled with tears. “I love you, I do,” she replied, looking me square in the face this time, before hugging me tightly once more. We took the children to our car, to rip off clothes and dress them in cozy warm layers and sturdy shoes for the long journey remaining. There was such gratitude in their eyes, their faces, their auras. We drove away waving down the dirt road. I was torn: I needed to leave to catch my plane, yet have rarely felt so useful in my life. I know that I will continue to DO – and hopefully inspire, encourage, and mobilize others to do the same, in a variety of capacities.
Fences, borders, walls, and seas may divide, but I refuse to accept such arbitrary and troublesome boundaries. I will fight for the dignity and respect of humanity – for my new friends, for my peers, children and elders alike, for my fellow human beings.
I loaded my car, bid Jodi farewell (leaving her with mounds of clothes and shoes to carry out our work on-the-ground for a final day), and picked up a volunteer who needed a lift from Oxy to Mytilini. I wanted to load my car, as there were 56 Moroccans awaiting a bus at the transit camp when I arrived, but a woman stepped in to forbid it. It is ILLEGAL to pick up or drive refugees anywhere on the island. I had clearly broken that law thousands of time, shuttling dozens at a time between the shore, roads, bus stops, camps, and more, but I had not taken any the 70 kilometers from the north to the main port city of Mytilini. And this woman did not allow it, in the name of human trafficking, rationale I had to understand.
The Irishman, whose name is currently escaping me, and I delved into the larger context of the crisis – its origins, ramifications, and what, if any, potential solutions may exist, an endless conversation. Our destination was the main hospital, where I went in search of Okba, my “uncle” who I had cared for after the shipwreck and, according to his nephew who I ran into at the camp, was still a patient. After much searching and gesturing, we learned that Okba had been discharged earlier in the afternoon and was now on the ferry to Athens. Success!
I went to drop my fellow volunteer at a place called Pikpa, which he explained was a temporary residential camp of sorts, where families of refugees in the nearby hospital could stay. Nestled among a grove of trees, there were a number of small cabins, covered outdoor spaces, and a communal kitchen, where they cooked for themselves with foodstuffs provided by the two NGOs who ran the site.
Driving in, the sight of a boy with his head in his hands and his hands on the table caught my eye. I approached him and said hello. He looked up at me, but did not speak a word of English. Through gestures, paging through the passport he handed me, and small bits of Arabic, I learned that his name was Hussein, he is 16 years old, from Homs, Syria, and had made the journey alone with no family. He was on the “yacht” which sank and now awaited paperwork to be able to continue to Athens. He shed an air of profound sadness that I had not felt, particularly in a teenage boy. I walked around with him until we found someone who spoke English: a 17-year-old Afghan girl named Sultana whose English was impeccable.
She too had been on the doomed boat journey and the current carried her away from family, leaving the girl stranded and alone for five hours in the water until the light of a helicopter had spotted her and sent a boat. She was taken to the hospital where she remained for days, still suffering from spinal pain and a deep cough as we conversed. While she had mastery over English, she did not speak Arabic, only Farsi and Pashtu, so Hussein and I continued our search for an Arabic-English translator. We found Warda, a Palestinian social worker, who filled in the many gaps in our exchange – and promised me that Hussein was being particularly well looked after, as he was an “alone child,” under age eighteen without parents. He had family in Germany, who had been contacted, and would soon be on his way to meet them. She also informed me that Ibrahim and Sara, the thirteen and twelve-year-old brother and sister I had cared for on the night of the shipwreck, had been taken to Germany by their uncle, after watching their father, mother, and two little brothers die before their eyes in freezing waters, before being rescued themselves. I cannot imagine such an experience, awful beyond comprehension. Hussein clearly felt the weight of this ordeal and I felt for him. When I absolutely had to leave for the airport, I hugged him and hugged him again. In searching for my keys, I came across a penny in my bag and gave it to him with a laugh. He held tight to my small parting remembrance. I closed the car door, looking at his sweet, pained face through the glass. I then reached into my purse, grabbed a pen, and wrote my name, email, and mobile on the back of an old boarding pass – and handed it to him, signaling Facebook, email, and WhatsApp. Hussein was overjoyed! He took off his fleece gloves and handed them to me as a gift; I could not accept, but he insisted. I motioned to him that where I was going was very hot and that he needed them far more than I in this winter weather, yet showed my deepest gratitude. He obliged and blew me a kiss as I pulled away, waving until I could no longer make out his figure in the distance. His despair is and will remain with me; I sit crying right now as I prepare to leave the island that has taught and shown me so much in the past eight days.
I do not have an answer to this crisis, far from it – but have participated in many intriguing conversations. In talking about the benefits of formally opening the borders of Europe, one Greek man equated it to the benefits of legalizing marijuana, an oversimplification clearly, but notion worthy of consideration. Another praised Merkel, saying that Germany would receive the cream of the crop in terms of well-educated professionals, a young block that will bolster an aging Europe and raise the GDP with only a single percent increase to the continent’s population. One put forth the viability of extending the operation of ferries straight from Turkey (instead of from Lesvos) to Piraeus, the primary port of Athens, though that would require a high degree of cooperation between the Turkish and Greek governments that citizens think impossible, due to legacies of occupation. Everyone has an idea, but there is too little implementation of any, as no action is without serious consequence, viewed differently by the many players with a stake in the exceedingly complex situation.
What I do know is that we (whoever we may be) cannot afford to stand by idly for a moment more. Innocent human beings are dying every single day – in their home countries, in the perilous crossing to the hopeful land of Europe, in treacherous conditions along the refugee journey.
STEP UP, SPEAK OUT, SPREAD THE WORD! Not tomorrow, today. Give money (raise it or write the check of any size yourself to a worthy organization on-the-ground), donate goods (winter clothes are desperately needed right now), volunteer (get on the plane with whatever skill set you posses). Call or write, follow or text me. I have not only heard of this real life catastrophe, but personally witnessed its horrific magnitude – and now that you know, one can never again claim ignorance.