Laurette Bennhold-Samaan in Samos, Greece: Working with Refugees

PLEASE EXCUSE English errors and typos as due to time and priorities, I have little editing time :)

Laurette Bennhold

Your job is over…. But your work in the world has just begun

Hearing the words, “your job is over” from my current employer went over like a lead balloon. Then, after 3 long and arduous months of job searching, I realized that I needed to change directions. I needed to take advantage of the time “off” in between jobs and do something that I have always wanted to do but never had the courage to explore. How could I take a month off of my life and go and serve out of my comfort zone? How could I not?

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized; they die when neglected. Life is a long line of opportunities.” — John Wicker

“The most successful people are those who are good at plan B” — James Yorke

It was time for plan B! It was the first time in my life that I could remember when I wasn’t in school, didn’t have a job nor didn’t have care-giving responsibilities. There was this continuous nagging in my head, Laurette, NOW is the time to seize an opportunity. Once I made this mental mind shift which took some inner work and exploration, the looming task of where was I going to go and what in the world could I offer?

I did have some parameters. I wanted to go back overseas and serve in some capacity. I only had a few months as I really do need an income. I wanted to be on the front lines working with people in need. The possibilities were endless and the exploration easy with the internet. According to the UN refugee agency, 65.3 million people are currently displaced from their homes. Among them about 21.3 million are refugees under the age of 18 years old separated from their parents or have lost their parents. One in every 113 people is now either an asylum seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. My mind kept returning to refugees. We don’t chose where we are born, to whom we are born, what passport we hold nor the political turmoil and unrest that happens.

I found an organization on-line which sounded ideal for me- socially oriented (not medically nor legally oriented as I don’t have those qualifications) and I filled out the application with excitement. I decided to wait and see if I got accepted before I would try to use my network to ensure it was real! Weeks later I got accepted and luckily through friends of friends of friends I spoke to a woman who had recently returned from Samos! How lucky was that? As she shared her story by phone I pressed “accept assignment” on-line! I was really going to Samos, Greek for a month. My mind raced with all of the preparations that I needed to complete with the anticipation of being gone for a month. Granted it wasn’t a year and “just” a month but I had never done something like this before at this stage of my life. My heart pitter-pattered a bit faster and my excitement and nerves mounted.

Samaan arrives to Samos, Samos

June 7th- As I sat on the plane feeling a bit numb and exhausted, I realized that I didn’t have strong expectations of what I would find as it will be all new to me. What will I really be doing? With whom would I be interacting? Can I make my way around town not speaking Greek nor reading the street signs? Will there even be street signs? What will the refugees be like? Will I be able to talk to them? In what language? What will our conversation topics be? I had zero answers to all of these questions so all I could do was to be patient (and sleep :)) and it will all unfold in due time.

After multiple flights (with delays of course), I landed at the small Samos airport which felt old and didn’t feel like an airport; no guards, no controls, one belt to receive luggage, all signs in Greek, Greek women totally in black (a tradition once their husbands pass away) and it was a rare gloomy, cloudy day. Of course, I had to go to the bathroom and found my way to a sign that said WC (at least I knew what that meant!)- I walked in and saw 4 stalls. Much to my surprise a man walked out of one of them and I quickly assumed that I had walked into the men’s room. As I started to walk out, in walks a woman and it was at that moment that I realized it was co-ed and physical resource conservation. Now it was time to figure out how I get my 2 very large suitcases off the belt and outside to a cab. I prayed there would be cabs. No luggage people in sight but a broken down cart in the corner- yay! I grabbed it not really knowing if it was for public use. It was standing next to an obvious priest or bishop in a long back gown, distinctive black hat, long white beard and a large silver cross which hung across his chest.

I quickly found one of the 3 cabs waiting outside and hopped in! As I got into the cab so did the driver and 3 children. We started driving. Who are these kids? His kids? There was lively Greek conversation in the cab as I turned to one of the children and asked her very slowly if she spoke English. Her eyes got big, her smile wide and her cheeks rosy as I could tell she was embarrassed. She laughed and never speaks a word the rest of the way- in English nor in Greek! Before I left the US I knew that I needed overseas health insurance but as the cab driver accelerated down the narrow streets and steep hills, I realized that I might need life insurance more than health insurance! What a ride both literally and figuratively! I also had heard numerous stories that while some local Greeks welcome the refugees not all do. Guess that is similar in all cultures. I, of course, feel like it is out of fear but I am sure there are many opinions on that. Normally, I start a conversation with a cab driver but my stomach was in my throat due to the car speed that I couldn’t get a word out! I arrived at my hotel in one piece feeling like I have just gotten off a ride at the fair. The view was stunning along the way but due to the ride I was left speechless.

My hotel is in the center of town and while it is simple, it’s perfect for me. My favorite part is that there are many ”vulnerable families” (pregnant moms, families with many many children etc..) at my hotel. These families are sponsored by other agencies and do not live at the camp but we provide services to them as well. The kids often times hang out in the lobby which I welcome. They vary in age but often times you have a 9 year old watching 3 or 4 siblings and one who is under a year. Very cultural. I know that I need to delicately balance them getting to know me and then I disappear which has already happened too often in their life. We were advised to refer to our departure often so they know it will happen. That night, as I was folding origami with them they were building boats and labeling them as good or bad and role playing some disappearing. The thought of what they were really saying still gives me a pit in my stomach. What most of these children experienced is beyond words and yet there they sat folding paper and playing with me. They loved to take photos with silly faces using my phone and they even showed me a few phone tricks that I didn’t know. The refugees come from ALL social classes. They also all made a point of showing me their “new” (donated) shoes which I feel somehow, for some of them, helps ground them.

At 10:30pm I asked them if they were ready to go to bed soon. They replied that they were going to the park at which point I chuckled-at 10:30pm? Minutes later, their parents appeared and all 7 of them were off to the park. Cultural differences again!

Onboarding and Going to the Refugee Camp for the first time

I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it.
-Thomas Aquinas

June 9th — Volunteers are an amazing organization that fill an essential void for the refugees. There are many NGO’s and international organizations with whom they partner (Medin, Save the Children, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Boat Refugee Foundation etc.) but none fill the psycho-social void these children and families have. The refugees arrive by dinghies in the middle of the night (safer to not be caught) and the typical less than 2 hour boat ride from Turkey can last anywhere from 4–10 hours as they need to take the longer less direct routes to not get caught by the Turkish coast guard. They try to use satellite navigation but they don’t really know which beach they will end up on in Greece. The local coast guard might spot them or they land and a local will spot them and call the Police. The police then call Samos Volunteers (US!!) who will come in the middle of the night to supply dry clothes, blankets, food and water. They might have not had food or water in days depending on when they left. In the morning the other NGO’s and local authorities take over to get them police identification papers. They are then brought to the camp and either put in tents or barracks as this refugee camp was an old military site. Last week 300 arrived by dinghies. Yes, you read that number correctly. Just think of the coordination that goes into that! Not even a former COO can fathom all of those steps!!

The majority of refugees who arrive in Samos have experienced violent conflict. While we are not here to provide any sort of medical, legal, or psychological support, we empower and stimulate the refugees through our work and activities at the camp which including playing with the children, teaching English, German, Greek and French through Farsi, Arabic, Kurdish and Sorani, doing arts and crafts, music lessons and any other skills volunteers come with!

Living conditions at the camp are extremely basic, unsanitary and can be shocking for some; there can be shortages of both water and electricity and the majority of refugees are surviving on camp rations. Some of the refugees have been here over a year. Imagine no school, no work and nothing to do but wait under such living conditions. If their papers are processed positively for asylum or family reunification they are the fortunate ones. The others might get a denial (they have no legal representation) of which they can appeal but after a second appeal (decided by a single judge) they are arrested and put in jail for a few months before they are deported.

The Samos refugee camp (an operation funded by the United Nations Refugee Agency and Samaritan’s Purse) is an open camp which means that they are allowed to leave and go around the island. Some have broken the boredom cycle by playing music with a local Greek band and others have become cultural and community liaisons for Samos volunteers. Before I came, I thought that the refugees would be so traumatized by their past and many are but ALL of the are much more stressed about their future as it is so uncertain.

At the camp on my first day, I served tea. Twice a day we serve tea to the refugees. It was quite a moving experience for me to look into their eyes and wonder about their past and future. I’m sure they’ve experienced and witnessed more than many of us will have in a lifetime. Many of them speak Arabic and the few words I knew I was able to at least show my willingness to try to communicate. Most smiled at my miserable attempt. :)

Sunday-the day of rest.

June 11th- I rented a car (only stickshift) today with another volunteer and we drove to the darling, picturesque neighboring town of Kokari.

Coming home after dropping off other volunteers was an adventure and the streets are SO narrow that at one point I began to turn right and it was a SET OF STAIRS so I quickly started to turn left. The left turn was so very narrow that I give up and started backing down the street. In true genuine Greek hospitality a man comes out of his house, motions to me to drive forward and then to leave the car and he takes over driving around the narrowest corner. This was the sharpest corner and narrowest street that I had ever seen (ok-there were 4 inches on either side of the car!!) Of course, many of the neighbors were peeking through their lovely lace curtains!!! Who needs tv when you can have Laurette as entertainment!

Full work day with joys and sorrows

June 13th — Every evening we are given a schedule for the following day. The situation here varies and is so fluid that we cannot plan more than 24 hours in advance. We never know when boats are going to arrive and we never know where the need will be. Today I began by working at the warehouse. The warehouse is the place where massive donations are received, from all over the world, and we sorted out packages of sweat pants, T-shirts, socks and shoes which are given to those arriving by boat.

After lunch, I went to the camp to play with the children ages 5–12 years. The sun was hot and we sat under a shaded olive tree and play various games or stand on a uneven dirt ground doing activities such as jumping rope or swinging. The children vary in language ability and level of play interaction. Some have a challenge of playing with others, sharing and appear distraught. Others seemed to be in the moment having fun and being a child. I drew with some kids today and their pictures usually tell something significant about their story. Wish I were an art therapist.

Some speak a few words of English and others none at all. Sometimes a nod, a smile, a hug or an offer for water were all they are looking for. As we were drawing I somehow felt tension in the air and looked on the street and saw at least 20 police. I didn’t understand what was happening and somehow wondered if it was a bomb threat given what is happening elsewhere in the world. I then felt the earth move and wondered what the police had done. There was also a girl jumping rope- could she be moving the ground at her feet? I later learned it was a 6.3 earthquake in Izmir Turkey and the multiple police were arresting someone who had lost their second appeal and were being taken to the deportation center. On the way home, my rented car made squealing noises which I barely noticed until the belt broke as I can not get the picture out of my head, nor the tears out of my eyes, of the Syrian refugee who I had served tea to the day before was being deported

More Stories Than I Can Tell

June 14th — The days are starting to blur as I have so many impressions and emotions every single day, every single hour and every single minute. Most are hard to capture in words. Words don’t do justice to the intense emotions I feel. They range from beauty when I open my curtains in the morning and look at the blue blue sky and water to the sunsets in the evening to inspiration when I talk to refugees who have learned English or German (those are the ones I can communicate best with) to sadness at the entire inhuman system and plight of the refugees in general.

Instead of recounting my daily activities, today I will share with you a few stories. While serving tea, I met a former Syrian high ranking official who spoke about seeing his entire division get shot before his eyes after he called for help and no one answered. He doesn’t know why he was spared or was he as he said. To witness such violence. My mind raced- How must he feel? How did this happen? Why did it happen? I didn’t want to probe nor bring up a painful experience yet I was grateful for the information he did offer as many do not. In general, I tend to ask a lot of questions in my “normal” daily life back home but here I am so much more cautious.

There is a long siesta time in Samos where the businesses and shops are closed from about 1 or 2pm to 5 or 6pm. People take their large meal at lunchtime and the sun is so hot during the day that the activities resume back in the evening when it is much cooler. It’s a schedule that certainly takes into account the heat. Since I like to adapt as much as possible to the culture- I took a long leisurely lunch which included an extremely large pita for only $1.50. Meals (at the right places) are very inexpensive. $3.00 for a large piece of moussaka for dinner.

I ended up only eating about a third of my large pita sandwich as I was totally full and knew that I would not get a siesta! Quickly I ran up to the camp to play with the children under the olive tree. The teachers hung their backpacks on the olive tree for protection and I did the same. We made a make-shift zip line using a rope we found and cardboard so the kids would not cut their hands. They were having a great time. I looked over and in the corner I saw a girl about 8 years old devouring my remaining pita. How in the world did she get it? Who knows. I was torn ethically. We were not to offer the kids food unless we had enough for all. Yet could I really take my food away from her? Just the thought of that brought tears to my eyes. At that moment, she looked at me sheepishly as if to say, I’m sorry I took your food or may I continue? I gave her a closed lip smile, biting my lip, trying to keep the tears from falling out of my eyes and nodded. I peeked around to see if any other children were watching her and they all seemed to be enthralled on the zipline. Of course, this brought many other questions to my mind about the have’s and have-not’s and Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs and when those are not met what happens. I also thought about food distribution in general in the world and how we have enough food for every person in the world but it is the distribution and remuneration system that fail us. Sigh…

On a more upbeat notes, we made animal masks with the kids in which they had a lot of fun. Interestingly enough many wanted to make sea animals such as dolphins which I found fascinating given how they had to cross dangerous waterways to get her. Speaking of getting here, today we had 49 new arrivals- 23 kids and 13 men and 13 women. More about that later!

PS-did I tell you a renter a scooter?

Just kidding-I don’t really want to buy life insurance!

One Week Over Already!

June 15th — I’ve learned a tremendous amount since I have been here and it feels like I have been here a month and not a week, The more I learn the more I understand what a complex issue resettlement is and yet what a gift the purpose of our activities fulfill . Many refugees that I speak to have their own personal stories from all different perspectives. Samos Volunteers have current long term refugees with good command of English as Community Liaisons Volunteers who work very closely with us on a daily basis. They are wonderful.

They serve multiple purposes — for us, it gives us a reality check into the true lives and hearts of the refugees. They translate for us linguistically and culturally. They are involved in every single project. For them, it gives them an international community, a professional identity and helps normalize their life a bit. They were asked what has been the hardest part of their journey and their answers ranged from making the decision to actually attempt the life-threatening trip, leaving family unexpectedly, loss of faith in public organizations to total lack of control and certainty about their future. What powerful insights!

The activities we provide, while very basic in nature (language lessons, arts and crafts, music, fitness) all serve a much deeper level. They help bring normalcy to the refugee’s lives (adults and kids). These activities are intended to help restore dignity and respect, create a social network, develop skills for the future, escape from the camp and help give them a sense of identity. I find this gives them a sense of hope, restores their trust and confidence in a friendly and accepting atmosphere. You should have seen yesterday how thrilled the kids were to go to the beach and what a sense of pride when we taught some of how do a handstand in the water, or blow bubbles, or swim through our legs!

On the flip side- not everyone comes to our activities (nor could we accommodate that) and I’m sure many are depressed, anxious, extremely stressed and feel helpless. Hard not to when given the situation. I feel that I can see some of this in their eyes when we serve them tea on a daily basis. We were given a training session to look out for changes in mood, lack of interest, poor concentration, PTSD symptoms, self-harm or suicidal thinking. There was a mom a few days ago who tried to commit suicide we heard. There are of course cultural variations in the presentation of symptoms. Some cultures under or over play the symptoms. Some will want to discuss and others keep it private. How sadness is expressed varies too. And of course these are cultural generalities and there are individual and personal differences as well- all quite complicated. Might they not need a cross-cultural specialist?

As you can imagine, we do not have many resources and the things that would be so easy to find or buy either don’t exist here or we don’t have the money to buy it. We need to always choose activities that all levels of English can play, are non-violent in nature and that groups can play. We really wanted to play Twister with the kids. We were able to paint large colorful circles on the back of a tarp we have but what about a spinner? With cardboard, water bottle and a nail we did it! Such an accomplishment! The small joys in life!

Laurette at the Police Station

June 18th- Today I needed to be up at the camp very early so I decided to drive the rental car. A few volunteers and I had the afternoon off and were excited to get an early start to tour the island. The camp is up an enormous hill and is a former military barrack. In the photo below, it is the white series of buildings going up the mountain side.

After finishing my work at the camp I walked to the car only to find a pink police ticket on the windshield… Oh my, my first parking ticket! As the ticket was written all in Greek, I had no idea what it said, why I got it nor how much it was. I immediately drove back to the hotel and as I got out of the car and got my backpack out of the trunk, I noticed the car had no license plates on the back. I immediately ran to the front and saw none there either. Oh no- had someone stolen my plates or was this part of the parking ticket?

Once inside the hotel they helped translate the parking ticket. It was for 40Euros but if paid within a few days 20Euros which needed to be paid at the local post office. I could handle that but that’s not all it was. I then needed to go to the car rental place followed by a trip to the police station to see if I could get my plates back. So much for getting an early start to tour the island. Today was going to be a bureaucratic day to put it mildly! At the post office waiting in a long line I noticed many signs and advertisements around me. They tended to have only 1 or 2 words in English and the rest in Greek so I had no idea what they were. I was only hoping that I was standing in the right line!

I was in the right line and off I went to the car rental office to tell them the story and see if they could help. The man at the car rental knows Samos Volunteers but I’m not sure how often he has had to retrieve license plates from the police and escort and defend people like me! We headed to the police station which, in my mind, looked like an official public office in many developing countries. Many office doors closed, few signs and not much activity happening. I was praying they hadn’t taken their siesta yet. Does the police office take a siesta, I wondered. My escort asked a few people some questions and waved my driver’s license and his car rental agreement around. We went into an office and he asked many questions and then we went into the next office and he did the same but this time raised his voice and asked me to talk. I explained in English where I had parked and that there were no signs and I was sorry and I promised not to do it again. I was still not sure exactly what I had done but obviously it was wrong. (I did later learn that I had parked too close to the gate entrance at the camp). We were then asked to be seated and wait. Wait for what, I asked. Wait for the head police official who was a woman. I was pleased to hear that there was a woman as chief of police however I had not seen a single woman since we entered the building hours ago. I could see efficiency was not going to be the word of the day here.

In the background, I could hear people screaming and crying in a very loud voice and asked my escort if by chance this was also the jail. He said it was a small jail and the wails we were hearing were refugees. That seemed a bit odd to me as I wondered what happened and why they would be crying so loud for so long. I knew I would never find out. A man, not a woman, finally walked out with my plates and I don’t think license plates will every have the same meaning for me. I did later learn that they were allowed to hold the plates for 3–5 days on all cars except rental cars which must be returned immediately and that was the reason my escort was raising his voice. Good he knew the rules and I was grateful he came with me as I have a feeling I would still be sitting there waiting.

On our way out, the crying and screaming of men’s voices grew louder as we were getting closer. My heart was pounding as I didn’t know what to expect. I then saw refugees who were shackled to the chair with their hands and feet. My heart sank to my stomach. As I glanced at them, they stopped crying, I nodded my head and acknowledged them and walked out the door. Once again, I had to bite my lip to keep from bursting into tears. Why were they shackled to the chair? Was that necessary? It was hard to start thinking about our delayed day trip given what I just saw yet I wasn’t sure what I could do. I decided to text the leader of Samos Volunteers just to explain what had happened, that I wasn’t in jail :) and what I saw at the police station. He was very grateful to know and said he would contact the human rights lawyer we work with as this had happened in the past as well. He later texted me that the lawyer went to the police station, the refugees unshackled which was good for me to hear and helped me continue my day. I’m beginning to feel like I need to have one foot in and one foot out. To me this means that I can only do so much while I am here and try to be in their world and help and still take care of myself knowing that I will be leaving. Otherwise it is too hard on me psychologically. I do take care of myself by staying in the moment at the exquisite sites. The sunset last night!

A “typical” day, serving tea and the toilet: the 3 T’s

June 24th — I’ve been asked who are volunteers. Samos Volunteers are a privately funded organization and works with many partners on the island. Samos Volunteers is funded only through private donations and crowdfunding which is remarkable to me. What this means is that most (if not all) people are pure volunteers and come to donate their time and energy. Some stay for a month but most stay much longer and most are returnees (have already volunteered earlier and come back). This speaks volumes about the organization. Some volunteers come with their parents or vice versa with their kids. We have 2 sets right now which is inspiring to see. Many are in their 20s and 30s but there are some older volunteers like me. It’s such a well run organization and I have been very impressed with the coordinators who are volunteers as well and how in such a short period of time they train us and we are already passing on our knowledge to others. Incredible.

We work in 2–3 hour shifts and usually have 3 or 4 shifts a day. I have not been assigned to serving tea at the camp in the early shift 7am (thank goodness as I’m not an early morning person) but I have served tea in the afternoon. My day usually begins at 9am and ends at 6pm and we have a weekly staff meetings once a week and group dinners on and off. We are kept busy! We all do many things (from working at the warehouse, teaching to reception duties at the education center). We receive our schedule in the evening for the next day. The situation is so fluid here it’s better not to plan too far in advance. We are always part of a team and the teams vary each day and there is always a supervisor who varies as well. We teach classes in multiple languages, art, music, take kids to the beach weekly, arts and crafts with kids and adults as well as women’s activities at the camp and at the shelters. All of these activities help provide some normalcy for the refugees. The shelters are 2 local modest hotels who provide housing for larger families or pregnant moms. I am living at one of these shelters and one of the mom’s went into labor last night. There is a local hospital close by and much better than being on a dinghy which has happened as well. This will be her 5th child and the other siblings are very excited about another brother or sister. I am getting to know them well as they are just down the hall from me.

Last night one of the girls (about 5 years old) who has taken a liking to me always wants to come into my room. I think she is curious to see what do I have. I invited her in. She immediately saw my shoes under a table and took hers off and placed them with mine. My guess is she does that home in Afghanistan. Her eyes got very big and with a large smile when she saw some chewing gum on my night stand and asked me if she could have a piece. She was blowing bubbles in minutes. I brought some bubble gum for the kids from home. She was also fascinated with my round brush and ended up brushing my hair. After a few minutes she asked if she could use my bathroom. She went inside and I heard the toilet seat go up. I figured she knew what she was doing at that age. I then heard a strange squeaking sound and I asked if she was ok. She didn’t answer. There was dead silence. I knocked on the door and then opened it slowly and there she was squatting on top of the toilet. My eyes grew big as I wasn’t quite sure what to say as I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable but I wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to slip and fall or fall in. My instinct was to say- Oh! You can sit like this as I pretended to sit on a chair (or toilet) in mid air. She nodded. My guess is that she is familiar with the squat toilets and wasn’t quite sure what to do with this white porcelain bowl so high off the ground! Cultural differences and adjustments!

Tables Turn Under the Olive Tree

June 28th- Much of today was playing with kids under the olive tree. We brought some books from the warehouse and kids were looking through them. One girl hung on to one at which point a boy grabbed it from her. This sparked them hitting each other and then she burst into tears. It’s so very hard as unless you have the exact same thing for every child there is a fight. Sometimes I find that I lose my temper a bit but mostly it just ruffles my mood when I have to break up a fight or tell the kids repeatedly to stop in as many languages as I can. I once actually stood in between 2 boys who were fighting and closed my eyes as I thought I might get punched in the stomach. I didn’t and they stopped.

We have thought long and hard as to how we could distribute some books without a massive scene. When each child leaves the play area? Former volunteers have said this hasn’t worked either. We do have a “library” with cards so they are learning that concept and can borrow books.

As I was discussing what options we had with two of our community volunteers (refugees who have been here a long time with excellent command of English and good cross-cultural skills) they were saying how difficult it is for multiple reasons. The conversation somehow turned to them and I asked how they were doing today. I am careful not to ask how are you doing (in general) as I’m sure that’s so hard to answer- their life is on hold, most are separated from their family and friends etc.. In our conversation one Syrian man said, “I have lost everything but I have not lost hope.” I almost burst into tears. I wondered, if I were in his situation, would I have lost hope? At that moment, I gathered my thoughts to the present moment and I looked down to the street. Once again I saw the large blue police van which gave me a pit in my stomach. The last time I saw so many police, they were arresting someone who had lost their second appeal and were being deported. I held my breathe. Was it going to happen again right before my very eyes? Would I know him or her? Why should that even matter? This time it was a family and they all were being taken away. They were arrested and were taken to the local prison (time varies) and then will be sent back to Turkey or their original country. God forbid it’s the latter as then most likely they would be killed. The ones who are granted asylum get to go to Athens, Greece and then on to an EU country. I looked over at the woman community volunteer and she had her face in her hands and then tears streamed down my face. While I didn’t know them (as if that should matter) she obviously did. All of a sudden, I felt a warm hand on my back comforting ME. It was our community volunteer (a refugee). I was so touched, as all HE had been through and there he sat comforting ME. No words were needed from either side — only a touch.

A Different View of the Ocean

Courage is the ladder on which all other virtues mount― Clare Boothe Luce

The gift we can offer others is so simple: a thing as hope- Daniel Berrigan

I love the ocean and always have. It gives me a peaceful sense and an appreciation of nature. My dream has always been to retire at the ocean someplace, sometime. I now look at the ocean in a different way.

June 29th- Yesterday I learned much more about the EU/Turkey deal the end of March in which the EU paid Turkey to accommodate more refugees however many of the refugees would prefer to be reunited with various family members in other countries. In 2015 when there were hundreds of refugees arriving daily, to Samos, they were sleeping on the streets as there was no coordinated location to house them (no refugee camp). Last night at dinner, I spoke with a Greek owner of a bed and breakfast and she just opened her doors (and gave up her income for a long period of time) to house families who were arriving literally at her shore. As you can imagine they were so grateful for this hospitality. Most did not have luxury.

Last night we were called to meet a refugee boat arriving. They tend to arrive in the middle of the night as it’s harder to be spotted by night but some have arrived in the daylight. The call was made and a few people went down to meet the boat. We aren’t given much time once the boat arrives as the local authorities need to start the long paperwork process. While the refugees try to use satellite navigation sometimes they don’t really know where they have landed. I heard through a volunteer once that a refugee woman thought she had landed in Germany as that is what the smugglers had told her. Oh my…

It was like a surreal event, the dinghy arrived loaded with people and the coast guard, police and lots of other officials were there. Some were crying, others silent and all stunned to some degree. They made it. Some had been traveling or hiding for days so it is not only the boat ride but the traumatic days prior. We distributed aluminum foil wraps for warmth and each person gets a kit. The kit (which we assemble at the warehouse from donations) contained sweatpants, socks, underwear, t-shirt, and sandals (in summer), a nutrition bar and hygiene items. We handed these items out as my mind wanders about their past journey, the camp and their futures. It’s was a numbing event. Ram Dass used to talk about life being scary and it made no sense not to hold hands as we go through it. I held on to some children’s hands thinking of this. What did they need after their immediate physical needs were met? Hope? An orientation of the spirit? Reassurance of their future? To express their grief or not? Normalcy? All I could be was a witness to hold the space and listen, provide comfort, immediate reassurance and safety for the moment.

I can barely write more. The ocean will never be the same for me.

Typical boat but not actual due to security.

World Refugee Day- our celebration at the end of Ramadan: Moving, Music and Mixer

July 1st — When you hear refugee’s on the news- do your ears perk up a bit more having read my personal account? In case you didn’t know (and I didn’t prior to coming here) according to a new report from the United Nations, 65.6 million people were forced to leave their homes in 2016, the highest number since World War II. Half of those who fled were children. Of that group, 20 million left their home countries; the rest remained within their borders as internally displaced people. According to this report, the rise is due in large part to continuing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan and the terrible famine in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the spring of 2015 more than 1 million immigrants, most of them Syrians, would attempt to go to central Europe, the majority traveling via a dangerous path through the Balkans. Many of the migrants who risked the trip would end up brutalized by bandits and corrupt police. Some would end up in Samos and some would die en route. This was the beginning of a surge that would turn into Europe’s extraordinary refugee crisis

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called the crisis “a disheartening failure of international diplomacy.” South Sudan, a country plagued by both violence and hunger, saw the biggest number of people leave — about 340,000 have gone into Uganda. About 200,000 Syrians also left their homes for the Middle East and Europe. Pause and think about these numbers…. At the camp here in Samos there are mostly Syrians but also refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Iran and others. Two refugees with whom I was speaking with today both, one Shia, one Sunni said that if they were home they would be killing each other literally but here they can be friends. Powerful!

In the midst of this devastating data there seems to be some positives. According to Jan Egeland (in Norway) the “negative, xenophobic” reaction to migrants may be dissipating in many parts of the world. There are still stories that terrorists are associated with refugees, which is wrong. Wrong. We’ve even seen in some the recent European elections that less politicians are supporting closed borders. Let’s hope “other” countries open their border more as well 😊

I find it virtually impossible to really understand the hardships and complex family emotions that erupt during a refugee’s flight to safety. Mahmoud’s (name changed for safety) sister and father had escaped Syria and made it to Germany. Mahmoud was taking his brother’s two children to their father. On their route to safety they faced miles of hiking by moonlight through bandit-filled forests, did jail time in Hungary, lost weight and became ill from endless walking and poor-quality food. I’ve heard this insight over and over again — Refugees are people (just like you and me) of circumstance, not of choice. Believe me, no one would choose the path they took and are taking unless they really had to.

In partnership with other NGO’s and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) we celebrate World Refugee Day and the end of Ramadan. World Refugee Day was actually last week but due to Ramadan we had the event on Sunday evening. It was one of my highlights. It was held at an old amphitheater in the old part of town, up on hill with an incredible view. There was food from many of the refugee countries, artwork that they have been working on in art class, music from our music classes, the kids and I (I’m in bright pink) sang songs and I face painted many of them. The parents ended up wanting their country flag painted on their arms which I did as well. The sewing group made “World Refugee Day” stuffed letters. Over 500 people attended which included refugees, sponsoring agencies and locals. I was, of course, moved to tears again thinking about the various reception we have received from the locals. For example our volunteer group went to dinner the other night and one restaurant did not welcome us as we had some refugees (our Samos community volunteers) with us as they said it would be bad for their tourist business. We took our group to a different restaurant which welcomed us with open arms. As I watched and felt the atmosphere at the amphitheater, every single person who was there was thrilled to be there — all together celebrating the strength in diversity!

Sample videos below to give you a flavor!

Samos is Small: people impressions

Give what you have to someone. It may be better than you dare to think. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Appreciation can make a day, even change a life. Your willingness to put it into words and action is all that is necessary.— Margaret Cousins

July 3rd- I grew up in a small town- about 15, 000 townspeople and then 15,000 university students. The entire island of Samos has only 35,000 people and the capital Samos about 6,000 (not including the refugee camp which is about 1000 give or take).

First, a bit about Samos, Greece. It’s in the eastern Aegean Sea, separated from Turkey (which I can see with the naked eye) by the mile-wide Mycale Strait. It was the birthplace of mathematician Pythagoras and philosopher Epicurus, and is known for producing sweet Muscat wine which I don’t actually care for. On the southeast coast, the remains of the ancient port of Pythagoreion include the 1000 underground aqueduct, built in the 6th century B.C. It has breathtaking views which I have enjoyed fully and will miss terribly.

So how small is the town? This morning as I walked to work, I ran into the man who rented me the car (and accompanied me to the police station), then I went into the local coffee shop/bakery who know me and as I stopped at the few stand farmers market on the street (sometimes just off their trucks) and picked up some strawberries, the lady at the phone store who sold me my local SIM card was waiting for fruit as well. At lunch time I ran into our one of community volunteers (a refugee) and we had a coffee together. What I love about my work here are the conversations that I have with the refugees. As you can imagine every single person has an incredible, fascinating rich story. I wish all of these stories could be gathered and told to the world and future generations as this is a piece of history.

I’ll try to capture some of the people that have I have met. Abdulla (name changed) is a black Palestinian refugee from the West Bank and while some other fellow Palestinians have secured asylum, he has not. The local authorities have a hard time believing he is Palestinian even though he has all the paperwork to prove it. He told me about his job he left and his family. He has siblings as well and they are very worried about him and he is more worried about them. There is fighting every day on neighboring streets in his home. He also told me about the boat trip here on the dinghy with 40 other people even though the dinghy really holds 25. He said the hardest part was leaving his family and then hiding in the jungle for 2 days before he could board the dinghy. Sometimes hearing these stories, while I hear the words, I can barely comprehend the intensity or reality of it all.

At breakfast this morning I sat with a man who was working at Frontex (another partner of ours) which is the European and Coastguard Agency who supports search and rescue operations during border surveillance at sea. They are providing support at the camp during screening, debriefing, identification and fingerprinting. He was a former refugee from Iraq who lives in Northern Europe and now works as a translator with Frontex. They also work with the Kuestenwache which is docked at the shore where I walk daily. I was able to ask him many of the horrendous stories that I had heard and hear some positive ones as well. Was it really true that the Coast Guard sometimes circles the dinghies and tries to sink them? Was it really true that if the refugees jump into the water then the Coast Guard must save them but if they are in the dinghies they do not? That is often times what the smugglers tell the refugees. He confirmed that as an international agency they would never be allowed to nor want to sink the dinghies. I heard personal accounts which were different.

As I work at the reception desk at our education center, I hear countless stories which remain in my mind as I go through the motions of the day. One young Syrian man who traveled with his friend as they saw the Coast Guard boat jumped off their dinghy in fear and hid in the water for 7 hours and then he saw his friend drown… or the darling teenage boy who lives at Praksis (a UNHCR funded shelter for unaccompanied minors 15–18 years old) and would rather watch videos than learn English. Samos volunteers runs classes in the shelter for these boys (English, music and photography). Or what about my friend. who has left a mother, grandmother and 2 sisters behind and talks to his mom daily with facetime. He dreams of seeing them all once again, somehow, somewhere. He misses his routine, their home and her cooking. As I sit next to him in the park, he cries as he talks to his mom, his mom and grandmother sob and I try to hold back my tears once again. This time it is my turn to place my hand on his shoulder to give him some comfort.

I unexpectedly needed a quick activity with kids and we had some construction paper and markers. As you can imagine- supplies are scarce and we do what we can with what we have. (see fun painted water bottles below) Today, some of them drew some amazing pictures — wish. I were an art therapist. Take a close look.

Others made greeting cards. They asked me who they should give their cards to (it was obviously a new concept for them) and I said anyone they would like. Someone in their family? One pauses on saying mom or dad as perhaps they only have one parent here or no parent at all. One girl excitedly said she wanted to make a card for her mom. She drew beautiful red hearts and flowers on it and wrote some sentences. She later said that her mom was not here — gulp… and then she looked sad (understandably so) and then she struggled in her broken English and a bit of a guessing game to finally tell me that she could not ever give this to her mom…… as her mom couldn’t read. Her best friend here however told me that her mom was a nurse and could help her learn to read as her mom helps lots of people. Refugees come from all walks of life.

As I live in one of the refugee shelters (a modest hotel) I am getting to know many of the families. It is wonderful and there is one woman who always wears the brightest most joyful hijabs (head covering). Yesterday when I saw her she had a beautiful purple hijab and I stopped to say hello. She speaks very little English so our “conversations” are quite short and include lots of hand gestures and laughs. I complimented her on her hijab and within seconds she had taken it off her head and placed it on mine! There I stood looking at her beautiful hair which I had never seen. I was shocked that she had given it to me but then I quickly remembered that in some cultures if you compliment something they almost feel obliged to give it to you! and refusing it would be insulting but accepting it uncomfortable. So there I stood, wrapped in her hijab, offering to give it back, knowing full well that it would come home with me and most likely move me to tears every time I wore it remembering this gesture and her wonderful family.

I knew that I would be doing some arts and crafts with the women from the camp and so I brought some of my mom’s old beads and jewelry collected from her travels and life in North and West Africa that had fallen apart in hopes that some of the camp refugee women could put them back together in another part of the world. What a lovely full circle. My mom would be so pleased!

One day we did “spa day” with makeup, manicures and yoga. They all had a good time and wanted more. All they want is normalcy and something to pass the incredible long wait to see if they get asylum status or not.

There are those who have gotten asylum status which means they go to Athens, Greece and then on to another EU country. Some get jobs immediately and others start the job search. You can barely imagine the immense relief and joy when they learn they have been granted a safe country to legally reside in. This gentleman below got all of his papers plus an amazing job in Athens! We join him in his joy!

When I sit and reflect as to why I am here and what contribution am I REALLY making, it’s not something grand at all. It’s the conversations, the human interactions and being the listening ear. It’s being open to receiving a hug from a child or giving a nod and warm smile to some of the adults. It’s reassuring them they are safe for now and that others in the world do care and they are not alone. After all, isn’t that what we all want on some level. I know I do.

The Top 10! What I will miss most and least.

In reflecting on my time here, here is a list of things I won’t miss and what I will miss!

10 things I won’t miss:

  1. Kids fighting
  2. Washing my clothes in the shower
  3. Spotty internet
  4. Trash bins next to the toilet
  5. Way too narrow roads for me to drive
  6. Driving for 20 min up hills in first gear
  7. Cigarette smoke
  8. The look of desperation
  9. Barbed wire around the refugee camp
  10. The living conditions

10 things I’ll miss: ( it was hard to come up with only 10)

  1. The refugees especially the kids
  2. The smiles and conversations with adult refugees
  3. Constant appreciation for all that I have
  4. Conversing about the state of refugee affairs globally
  5. The sense of helping however small
  6. Poster-like views of the ocean and sunsets
  7. Olives, baklava, dolmades, stuffed peppers, gyros …
  8. New friends from all over the world
  9. Short term meaningful purpose
  10. Experiencing immediate individual impact albeit small

Going “HOME”

Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit it. — H. Jackson Browne

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” — Dalai Lama

In Closing

July 5th- This was my first blog and I hope that I was able to capture my ideas, impressions and stories to create imagery and intrigue. I hope you have learned a bit more about what one person’s experience has been with refugees and I hope it has brought questions to your head and moved your heart in some way.

Tomorrow at the crack of dawn I fly back. Over my career I have worked with others on their re-entry and how difficult it is and oftentimes more difficult than the outbound adjustment. I have no doubt that this experience will stay with me forever. It has impacted and affected every bone in my body, every breath that I take and every thought that I have. One can never “go back” from such an intense experience without being changed in some way. I will need to figure out how and which parts to incorporate into my life.

Do I want to go home? No, not yet….but then I pause… I am so fortunate to have a “home” and to be able to go back. Refugees do not.

What have I really done here? I sometimes think the refugees did more for me than I could ever do for them. I am so glad I came. I strongly believe that simultaneously you can be well while doing good. As Booker T. Washington said, “I learned long ago that those who are the happiest are those who do the most for others.” You don’t need to traipse off to Greece to do good. There is so much need everywhere- just down the street from you, in your community. Decide where your heart is and what you would like to do to make the world a better place. It needs it now more than ever. You are more powerful than you think you are and have more to give than you could ever imagine. Meaningful work is far better than busy work. Don’t let fear or procrastination stop you. Follow your heart. Follow your intuition. There’s never a better time and that time is now!

I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes by John Wesley.

Do all the good you can

by all the means you can

in all the ways you can

in all the places you can

at all the times you can

to all the people you can

as long as you ever can.

This experience has certainly given me a different perspective.

Thanks for accompanying me in my journey to Samos Greece.

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