Prelude: The feature posts about Souda Camp are a little different from my normal travel blog posts, but they don't really fit into any of my subcategories either (Tuesday Tales, Travel Essays, etc.). Typically I fashion feature posts around a collection of my photos, but I took only a handful during this experience. Since I don't have a cell phone, I can't snap photos with the ease of pretty much everyone else on the planet. It was more cumbersome and awkward to pull out a camera in most situations. So I didn't. The few pics I took were with my little point-and-shoot.
So for the first time in a long time, I committed a portion of a trip almost exclusively to the written word. I shared many of my daily experiences and thoughts in Facebook posts made in "real time" while in Greece. And honestly, they're the heart of anything further I can write to share on my blog, so I've simply reproduced those entries here, but in gathering them all and collating them here, I've added to them more information, details, reflections and pictures. I'm splitting the entries into several blog posts simply to break it up so a reader requires a few smaller investments of time rather than one huge investment to read a novelette-length piece.
So anyway, on to Souda refugee camp (technically referred to as a "reception facility") where Erik and I volunteered with the nonprofit Norwegian organization, A Drop in the Ocean, which distributes food (three times a day) and donated clothing to the refugees there. In late April to early May 2017, we helped with this distribution. .....
On a sliver of land between the shoreline of the Aegean Sea and the outer walls of the ancient medieval village of Chios Town on Chios Island, Greece, nearly a thousand refugees wait in a void. They left everything behind in their homeland. They ran, drove, bussed or flew to Turkey, then paid a boatman an outrageous sum to ferry them in the middle of the night in a rubber raft from the demoralizing conditions in the Turkish refugee camps to Greece ... hoping for a better camp and a better chance of being granted asylum in Europe. The majority have come from Syria and Iraq, but many other countries are represented in this melting pot of misery. The bureaucratic process of applying for asylum is wretchedly slow and many people are denied. They languish in Souda in an atmosphere pervaded by hopelessness and despair.
They washed up on shore with little more, perhaps nothing more, than the clothes on their back. Far behind them lie their families, their students or teachers, their pets, their houses, their motorcycles and cars, their lifelong friends, the butcher and grocer they bought from each week, their framed photographs, their knives and forks, couches and mattresses, the tea house they drank at, the food their mother made. With a soggy step onto the rocky shore of Chios, they start over from scratch.
They're issued a food card. They're assigned to a tent in Souda or to a shipping container-like box in Vial (the other, and larger, camp on Chios run by the Greek military, into which A Drop in the Ocean is not allowed), a family may perhaps be put in an isolated apartment. There is little-to-no privacy in Souda -- tents are set up practically on top of one another, strangers must share rooms in the large wooden "tents" made of plywood. No separation of toilets for men and women; they're just port-o-potties. The camps are infested with rats which sometimes crawl over people while they are trying to sleep.
After we left Chios, hundreds more refugees arrived and more tents were crammed in here. All the photos above are actually outside of the official camp itself, overflow from what the camp was built to hold. Then, when summer arrived, the government yanked up those tents, most were simply thrown away, and everyone was forced to move inside the camp boundaries.
The people are trying to start their lives over, write a new book for themselves, but they're stuck in a prequel in the camps on Chios.
My first days volunteering, I felt like an outsider watching the refugees -- an observer of a mass of people surging forward for food, retiring to clumps of tents and rows of wooden boxes, circling around crates of donated clothes. I knew intellectually what they had left behind. I knew the horrors that had befallen entire lands and ethnic groups. But everything was plural and large: lands, groups -- which is what most people see when they read detachedly and impassively about "refugees." But it didn't take long to resonate with their individuality, to see them as 1,000 separate strands in a weaving, rather than the broad picture the weaving portrays.
My Facebook posts:
I will remember today for the runaway kid. Yesterday, Erik and I and another volunteer sorted through boxes of donated clothing to make a "store" of kids clothing today, which we put out in the refugee camp. The way it worked: a parent could select three items of clothing per child. One of the volunteers would accompany each adult to ensure they selected only three per child. I was tasked with being one of these shopping companions.
One of my "shoppers" I accompanied was a single man with two young boys, around 3 and 5. He didn't have a wife, and his demeanor around his children was of someone overwhelmed and not used to caring for kids. For example, the mothers typically sorted through a box with rapidity, knowing at a quick glance whether or not something would fit their child; then selecting from the ones that fit was typically a relatively swift and shrewd decision. This man tried shirt after shirt onto his smallest child, one sweater was so clearly too small but he tried it anyway.
His oldest child, meanwhile, had accumulated a small box of clothes for himself and when I tried to gently depopulate the box of excess items the father had not put in there, the little kid wrapped his arms around the box and sprinted through the fence out of the shopping area. Erik was standing at the fence and I yelled to him to catch the kid. So Erik chased him down, big old ogre chasing a little kid with a box of clothes. Erik brought him back to me -- a smaller but meaner ogre -- who started counting the items and telling him he couldn't take all of them ... but of course words are futile when we do not speak the same language. The father watched it all silently. He wasn't mad at me, he wasn't mad at his son, he just watched. Like a man watching a movie of someone who is not himself.
So now the kid is screaming and crying, and Erik's preventing him from running, and I'm stealing clothes from his box. We're pretty much the meanest people on earth. As soon as the situation finally got sorted to a suitable degree and the family of three left, immediately I was tasked to accompany a woman with an infant through the "store." I came up to her and she held out the little bundle she'd been holding to her chest. "Should I hold her for you?" I put out my hands as the translation of my words. She promptly placed this tiny bundle in my arms; I was so taken aback at how small and light it was. Her daughter weighed less than either of my cats. As the infant fussed in my arms, I was overcome with fear that I'd drop her mindlessly like I would a squirming cat. I held onto her with such purpose, with such anxiety. The anxiety the parents must feel for their children as they flee war-torn homes and other situations so desperate that they would come here to live in a tent by a cold sea shore, wait in line for an hour for food every meal, pick through other peoples' clothes to wear and watch strangers take them away ... It's hard to fathom.
I'll remember today for the mayhem of kids I had to attend to while the women were standing in the seconds line for food. But I'll tell you about that another time. What is standing out to me now is how I have never before felt awkward when someone tells me where they're from. The men here ask me (ones who can speak English), “Where are you from?” I tell them America. They say, “Oh good, very good! America!”
I ask in return where they are from.
How do I reply? “Oh good!” “Oh wow.” “I see.” “I’m so sorry.” “That sucks.” ?? I don’t know. (there are refugees from 25 different countries here, though the majority are Syrian)
Today a young man from Damascus tells me and Erik how he can’t go home or he’ll be forced into one terrorist army or another, fighting against his own people, but here in Chios he’s been arrested by the police and put in jail because they were harassing him and I guess he “harassed” back.
A local police force hangs out in a large bus all day long just outside the camp's perimeter so they can rush in to quell any unrest. Several times we saw them march into the camp in full riot gear, in tight formation like a Roman army going into battle.
The Syrian looks at us with one slightly crooked eye. He apologizes for his perfectly understandable accent. We stab the ground with our toe while listening, and in the pauses in his speech where a listener would otherwise inject a brief comment, we are mostly silent, not knowing what to say. When he sees we must go serve food, he shakes our hands and thanks us for talking with him.
There are quite a number of Iranians here. Yesterday some of the refugee men invited volunteers to sit in with them while they played music at a house in town where they can take language classes. There were two very talented guitarist singers who played and sang in duet, very beautiful Persian music. Sometimes all the men in the room spontaneously joined in singing … such a wonderful, moving vibe.
Now when I see those young men in camp, standing in line for food, I think of their beautiful, passionate voices, their nimble fingers on the guitar, the talent that is boxed into tiny rooms and tattered tents beside the sea in a foreign land. But I also think of the comfort it must bring them to have this one thing they can take with them from their homeland anywhere, and the joy it can bring them in the bleakest of circumstances.
These are the first camp residents I see now as individual people with unique hopes and dreams. They aren't fleeing war like so many here, but are fleeing a country in which they cannot pursue their dreams, they cannot fulfill the vision they see for themselves as musicians within the "morality code" of Islamist Iran. I felt particularly sad to meet the Iranians after having been to Iran myself and felt at that time such hope for the young people who want the freedoms that Western society has. In many ways Iran is so much more progressive than its Muslim neighbors ... I've been singing praises for Iran's relative liberalism for 3 years now ever since I visited there. I felt disheartened to be jerked back to reality, that religious oppression really does override individual liberties in the end.
I met an Iraqi refugee who was escaping not war but another assault on civil liberties. He pulled me aside as I was standing outside the food distribution tent and wanted to talk to me away from the other people. A little skeptical of his motivations, I walked halfway between where I had been standing and where he walked to. He backtracked to me, stood very close to me and said in a low voice, "I don't want the others to hear me."
"What's up?" I asked. I figured he wanted something. "My father wants to kill me," he said.
"What?" That's not what I expected. "Is he here?"
"No, that's why I left Iraq." He spoke good English and soon got to the point, which was that he is gay. His father wanted to kill him for that and also because he isn't a Muslim.
"I told my father I don't believe in Islam." I thought that was pretty ballsy if he knew his father was a devout Muslim. This is actually a punishable offense in some countries (including Iran). If you were to denounce Islam for another religion such as Christianity, the lawful punishment is death. "And I told him I was gay." Another ballsy move. "Then he said he would kill me, so I had to flee." He had a silver earring in one ear and an arm full of tattoos. He stomped out a cigarette on the ground.
"Do you know if there are any places around here for people like me?" I presumed he meant bars or clubs or something, but I of course had no idea. But considering he was surrounded mostly by other Muslims, whose degree of liberalism he had no way to gauge, I understood why he didn't want anyone to overhear our conversation. Then I felt like kind of a jerk for being so skeptical and walking only halfway to him.
Another man I met was a Yazidi. He asked me if I knew who the Yazidi were. "Of course," I said. He raised a skeptical eyebrow. I told him that I'd been to Iran and to Yazd and visited the Towers of Silence and the fire temple. Perhaps I might not have paid so much attention to the recent news reports of Yazidis had I not had this personal connection to their homeland. But I have followed the horrific persecution of this ethnic minority by ISIS. The Yazidi are some of the most desperate refugees on the planet, who fled their homes with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
Just take a moment to imagine yourself at home fixing breakfast for your children or watching television or getting dressed to go to work, and suddenly your town is invaded ... you hear your neighbors yelling that they are coming, you hear the shots and screams and know you'll be killed, raped or kidnapped if you finish that piece of toast or watch the end of the TV show or finishing tying your suit tie. You gather your family as best you can and run. It's not much different than outrunning a tsunami -- it's just wave of ideology, murderers and rapists rather than the salt and water of the ocean. The Yazidi are people whose women and girls were taken and kept as sex slaves by ISIS fighters. I've read accounts of women who eventually escaped, particularly a group who are receiving asylum and psychological help in Germany, and their experiences cause me to tremble, literally, with a combination of abject fear and livid anger.
So this man was surprised that I knew about the plight of his people. Which shows how much support they have felt from their fellow global citizens ... he wonders if we even know about them. He tells me he's scared to be Yazidi here in Souda, because the Muslims don't like him and he has even been given death threats because his religion is considered an abomination by some Muslims. I suggested he start lying about his background! So he had a talent for drawing. During the "kids activities" hours that the Drops oversaw each morning -- providing materials ostensibly for kids to entertain themselves with but it mostly ended up being men at the tables using the pencils and crayons and paper -- he was often there drawing pictures. Some were benign portraits or flowers or something kind of mystical, but one will haunt me for a long time to come: he drew a picture of a woman with her lips sewn shut and her body wrapped in barbed wire, and above her, the words, "ISIS is bad."
Every day I told him to draw me a picture. One day he instead wrote a paragraph about himself in careful cursive English. In retrospect, I wish I'd taken a photo of it. But here are a couple of his drawings.
Although my day today isn't yet over to know what I might most take away from it, I suspect it will remain my conversation with a math teacher from Syria. He taught math to 10 year-olds. His city was bombed, he lost family members, he showed me a huge bulge near the inside of his elbow ... shrapnel lodged in his arm. The hospital here is not very kind toward the refugees and will only treat the most dire of health circumstances. A new hospital is opening up that has stated it will treat refugees, and a number of the islanders staged a protest against its audacity to uphold the humanity of the Hippocratic oath (first written in Greece, ironically).
So the math teacher can't get proper medical care here to cut it out, so it stays and causes him pain. I touched it, the bulge, the hidden shrapnel lurking beneath a thin layer of human skin. It's the closest I've ever been to war weaponry, a fraction of an inch away on the other side of human flesh. I feel like such a child for being so innocent of the nightmares that lie on the other side of my dreams.
Dancing with flares ...there was a wedding celebration at Souda camp last night. Another volunteer and I were invited into the women's tent while we left Erik to fend for himself with the men, haha. Only the three of us volunteers went. Leela and I apologized for our lame clothing (just what we wore to serve dinner in) to one of the girls in the tent and she said (she spoke excellent English), "Oh don't worry! I would normally wear nice clothes to a wedding, too, except here I only have one pair of pants and two shirts. I have no choice." She is 19 and been married 5 months, came here from Syria. And so it was with all the guests, that nobody could dress nicely.
They were so welcoming to us, it was a very cool experience, although not a whole lot happened, to be honest. The women were just talking and playing some dance music through their phones, and some of them would get up and dance with each other from time to time. One lady was making a henna butterfly on the arm of the bride. And once in awhile everyone would break out into the ululations that Middle Eastern peeps do, with piercing, "yah-la-la-la-la-la."
"We do this when we are happy," the Syrian girl said to us. Leela tried it, but I felt shy.
The couple had already signed papers, this was just a celebration. The bride's outfit was rather, umm, racy. So I'm gonna have to say they were not traditionalist Muslims. When I asked if she would mind posing for a picture with Erik, she happily complied. The other pics with the flares are from the men's area, actually, which they were fine with us foreign girls entering before the bride was there.
OK, I'm going to stop here for today. I'll put more of my Facebook entries in subsequent posts.
Want to help? Either with a financial donation or your own two hands? Check out these two organizations who are doing the good work.