Happy Halloween everyone! I spent my morning sleeping before starting the 3-11pm volunteer shift with our new friends at Oxy- the Starfish crew! (Small startup NGO with a big big heart). Today we had a few busses of wet rescues come in and my job was to greet them & hand out tickets for food and bus for transport to their next destination as well as a welcome booklet with information in either Arabic, Farsi, or English (a “welcome to Europe” guide for refugees if you will), it’s extremely helpful! Another task where organization and communication (especially amongst the volunteers working together) is super key. I worked the welcome tent window with our friend Emily from Canada and she was strict! There was an amazing younger guy who was trying to help us communicate with incoming refugees by translating in Arabic and it got a little chaotic at times but never really anything we couldn’t handle. I felt a pang in my heart when Emily lost her patience with him and told him to go away but after he whimpered away I explained to her how important it is to use any translation services we can get. Can you imagine going to a new country, no idea what’s in store next, and people are trying to help you by speaking your language and they get shooed away!? We laughed about it at the end but I did send another volunteer to bring the guy back so we could put him back to work in his area of fulfillment.
One of the most beautiful things about my experience on Lesvos, and I have seen other volunteers and journalists write about it, is the self-appointed volunteers. The refugees who are jumping in and helping whenever and however they can. I felt so proud to be part of such an amazing community today doing the smallest of tasks. Today we learned the importance and ease translators can bring to us, as well as the fulfillment they can get from providing their translation services just helping volunteers communicate in the lines (lines for food and bus tickets, lines to get on the bus, lines to get medical services, etc). Even the mess other people left behind of water bottles, wet clothes, trash, etc; the refugees I met were right there with us helping us clean Mother Earth. In the welcome tent, Emily and I kept busy by organizing tickets so they could be reused. When the refugees arrive, they are given one food ticket good for a meal at the food tent nearby. Their meal consists of a sandwich, fruit (apple and banana), protein crackers, water, and choice of milk or juice for the children. In the beginning we were told that each person should only get one food ticket, but some people (especially children) came back for more. You have to understand that some of these people have not eaten in many hours, some for over a day. At first we denied them and shortly thereafter we realized how crazy that was because it was a fairly slow day at Oxy so we did give second tickets to whoever asked. I think this was an inner conflict with Emily but we got past it pretty quickly. She kept calling me “good cop” and “soft” but really I think it is just about being humane, assessing the situation and applying changes in plan accordingly, and constantly asking ourselves if we are doing the best we can to accommodate the refugees. When someone’s hungry, just give them food until they aren’t hungry anymore if it’s possible. Seems simple enough.
Each refugee also gets a ticket for a seat on one of the busses that comes to transport them to one of the camps, depending on their nationality. The children do not get tickets, we just explain to the parents or older relatives that the children go on their laps. Many families came together, big families (12-13 people) and the importance of keeping them together became very clear very quickly when a few individuals came up asking where their family members were. There was one girl in particular from Syria who was in her early 20s who had lost her family somewhere between getting off the boat on the beach and getting to Oxy. I could see the fear in her eyes as Emily turned her away saying we don’t know where her family is so I sent another volunteer to find the manager on duty to help this girl. I heard later on that she was reunited with her family at the Syrian camp, Karatepe. In between other bus arrivals I took it upon myself to clean and organize the welcome tent which was full of boxes, blankets, supplies, rain gear, welcome booklets, bags and other random assorted items. I felt such a sense of accomplishment when it was organized and the incoming volunteers later on were so grateful for the clean space. It was here that I realized that volunteering can also be providing services to help make the lives of the other volunteers easier. Service enables service.
There were many signs up inside the welcome tent with common terms in a few different languages including Arabic and Farsi. I learned that Akil means to eat in Arabic and I vastly improved my miming & Turkish in the course of 5 hours of rigorous practice in trying to communicate with individuals coming in to wait for their bus to somewhere else. The guy who helped me clean last night got all of his €700 stolen this morning so he was still there trying to find his way further away from Iraq. Some of the other volunteers who spent more time with him than I did said he might need to see a head doctor as he didn’t seem right. Apparently he hadn’t slept in many days and it seemed that he was suffering from severe trauma. A bunch of people chipped in and gave him money out of their pockets so that he could eventually pay for a ferry after going through registration. His eyes welled up with tears at their gestures and I know he will be eternally grateful. I did not see him again after this day. I really hope he’s ok.
Another guy from Iran shared a lot about philosophies of life and becoming famous. I will never forget his name, Jamal Jhamal. He had the most beautiful outlook on life and was very open in sharing his perspective of how he thinks humans should interact with one another. Jamal claimed that Allah (his conception of God) makes everyone good. He explained to us in detail how everyone is born with a good heart, and that the evil in this world is created by ideas and extremes and literalism in society. I could have talked with him forever, he was the nicest guy. Jamal was in his early 20s and he when we asked him where he was headed he responded ever so non-chalontly that he didn’t know. His response was so carefree that it made me think about what my response would be if I was in his position. He was just so happy to be away from Iran. He told us how the government in Iran beheaded a friend of his simply for being a part of a demonstration, a protest that the government didn’t agree with. I wouldn’t want to live in that space either. Jamal wrote down his name for me and told me that he is going to be very rich and famous one day and that he will marry the queen of Europe. He told me how happy he was to be in Europe and that he will never look back. He begged me to add him as a friend on facebook which I vowed to when I returned to wifi. We laughed together when another refugee seriously asked for the wifi password at the transit stop. What a dose of reality. He even gave our volunteer friend from Denmark an autograph:) I could not find Jamal on facebook later, but I do not worry about him. I know that he will succeed no matter what life has in store for him. We ran out of mens socks & shoes tonight so that will be a serious donation. I was so happy and grateful to end my day with a very long, hot shower back at Hotel Akti followed by conversations with other volunteers. Tomorrow will be my last day volunteering here in Lesvos as I have an early flight on Monday morning. I am not quite sure how I will return to normal life. The world of Lesvos has touched me, it has forever changed me.