Death & Responsibility: Why We Should Care About the Middle East

Europe Migrants Photo Gallery
photo by Nilufer Demir

3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead, washed up on shore. The photo that made everybody suddenly care about the refugee crisis. Or rather, the photo that made some people act, while others shared and said “oh, how horrible,” and then went about their everyday lives.

*****

I want to tell you a story.

The story is about Rob Lawrie, a man from Britain who was almost imprisoned for life because he tried to smuggle a little Afghan girl across the border, to bring her safely to her family.

I want you to imagine that you are Rob. That you become so affected by what is happening that you leave your family to go volunteer at “the Jungle,” the camp at the French town of Calais, where thousands upon thousands of refugees are stuck, trying to get to Britain. Many already have family living in the UK. These people spend their days living in freezing, muddy conditions, without changes of clothes or often shelter or the ability to work or really, the ability to do much of anything at all.

But they are surviving. They have made it all the way from the Middle East, or maybe from Africa. They have escaped their homes, where most were facing almost certain death. They have made the dangerous journey across the sea. They have made it through Greece, through different countries, they have arrived in Calais. And now they are stuck, at this shitty, awful camp, in Calais.

These are people just like you. You might not know that at first, before you get there, but once you meet these people and talk to them you realize that the only real difference between you is the color of your skin, your country of origin. Your luck and your privilege from being born somewhere else.

You are Rob. You arrive in Calais, and you help for a few weeks, distributing clothes and food and doing what other volunteers do. You connect with the refugees. Really, you connect with them more than most people back home because these people, at least, are real. They do not hide parts of themselves, they do not put on acts or create fake appearances. These are people in an unfair, desperate situation, and your ability to see how beautiful they are in spite of it all strikes you, pulls at you.*

You start to bond with a 4-year-old girl. She reminds you of your children back at home. She follows you around the camp, and you make her giggle. You meet her father, who tells you they are from Afghanistan and her name is Bahar. Her mother is missing, back in Afghanistan.

Her father asks you if you will take Bahar with you, back across the border, where she can join other family members already living close by. You say no, because it’s illegal.

He asks again and again. You say no. You become closer with Bahar, are worried about her surviving through the freezing winter, here in these gross, unsanitary conditions at this camp. Her father asks again. You finally agree.

As you leave, other refugees sneak into your van without you knowing and you get pulled over and caught, accused of smuggling and maybe even child trafficking. You are thrown in prison. Your life falls apart.**

I wonder, what would you do if you were Rob?

I don’t know what I would do if it were me. Would I break the law to rescue a child?

Does this make Rob a criminal or a hero?

Are the people who snuck Jews into their homes during WWII criminals, or heroes?

*****

I was in a strange place emotionally, today. I finally went to bed early, thought maybe I was getting sick. But as soon as I closed my eyes, I could only see the articles shared all over my newsfeed all day about what is happening in Europe. EU ultimatum. Greece given six weeks to close their border with Turkey. 

I thought back to other things I’ve written about the crisis, and I had a moment where I pushed them out of my mind, not wanting to think about it – and then realized what I just did. What I have been doing. How, while I have still been keeping myself informed, the emotional impact has seemed like too much and so I have detached in a way from feeling anything toward it at all. I don’t want to read what I wrote. I don’t want to remember the gentleness of the people or the kindness I was shown or the terror that I heard about firsthand. I don’t know how to be involved without being there and so I push the emotional parts away, the parts that make me feel things. The parts that make me upset and stir me to action.

And so I lay half-asleep, noticing how my physical body just wants to rest but my mind is working overtime, now, creating phrases in my brain. And I think about it more and the hopeless enormity of the whole situation and I want to cry, and so I write, instead.

*****

Why have we come to a place in time where we are putting up walls and sending out bombs to kill people instead of helping them? Why are we living in a world where killing people is easier and cheaper and more useful than taking care of them?

Why threaten to shut Greece out of the EU? Aside from the stupidity of it all (it’s a sea border, the EU wants to use the Greek navy – what, will they just kill everyone who attempts to cross?), what is the point? Are millions of people supposed to stay in Turkey? Are millions supposed to now stay just in Greece?

I won’t even address the arguments about refugees staying home, fighting for their country, or anything even remotely related to that about why we need to keep them out of Western countries because I have still not heard one argument that is not either unintelligent, misinformed, or rooted in racism. I’m not going into that, here.

The message we are sending now, the message Western countries are sending is this: it’s not our problem. 

And that makes me want to scream because in reality, this is our problem, that we created, and we have a moral responsibility to help fix it.

*****

That’s what everybody reacts to. America didn’t do anything! How could you say this is the fault of America! How could you say this is the fault of Western countries?!

And I’m not surprised by it. Why would you know about the Middle East? I was never taught history about the Middle East. I knew about the Taliban from a Toby Keith song and I imagined Afghanistan to be a desert with some camels and people covered in fabric. I didn’t know Syria was even a country, a few years ago. Why would you know? Why wouldn’t you get defensive?

I learned about the Middle East now from articles and from going to Greece to meet people myself. I learned from talking to a friend, who made the area his major in college. I continue to learn, because it is awful, unbelievable information.

I am going to extremely summarize to you why it is our fault and therefore our responsibility. If it doesn’t quite make sense, I encourage you to look it up. Search it out. You’ll find the information if you look for it.

At the end of World War I, Western countries, mainly Britain and France, got to draw new borders and create the countries of the Middle East. They drew them because they got to mandate them, and so when they drew these imaginary lines, they drew them in accordance with the stores of oil they knew existed. They paid no attention to the communities of people already living in this area. They didn’t care about splitting up cultures or forcing different cultures to form to new laws. They cared about getting along with the new governments they set up so that they could have access to oil.

Let’s make the summary even shorter and say that this began the destabilization of the area, from the beginning. Don’t worry, America gets involved, too, invading different countries, changing leaders because of oil, like puppets in a play. We give weapons to rebels fighting against Russia, because we want Russia to lose. We destroy peace and the economy in different places (you can contact me for details if you want them, this is a summary.) People don’t like us – what a surprise. 9/11 happens. We retaliate, invade Afghanistan and Iraq. People start uprising in the extremely oppressive communities in the Middle East. Fighting ensues in many places. Civil wars. Different bigger countries funding groups because of different political interests. Yes, ISIS starts and grows, too. But there were so many things wrong before ISIS.

I’ll make the summary more concise: Western countries decided we were more important and more powerful than these people, these “uncivilized” communities in the Middle East. We wanted their resources. We did anything and everything we wanted to get them. We still do. We don’t care about the actual human beings just like us who live there. We prefer to not think about them. We prefer to pretend the Middle East is full of nothing worthwhile, nothing human, at all.

And it’s easy to do it when you have nations of people who don’t even learn about that area of the world. Don’t teach them. You have people who only know what you want them to know and so you spread hate and fear and blame and those people are the ones who vote, who put you in office. Worse still are the people who think the system is so hopeless that they don’t get involved, who choose to do nothing at all, who don’t vote because why bother. Who think we will never change the world.

*****

People continue to die, over there, and we go about our lives here, not worrying about the fact that this is history repeating itself all over again. We shut the screaming cries of humanity out; there is nothing we can do, so we don’t care.

And I’d like to end on a hopeful note, but I won’t, because I feel just as hopeless as you. The only thing I do hope is that more people feel encouraged to learn, to share. That more people get involved and begin to care about something other than themselves. That you share this information. That maybe one day the energy shifts from being privileged and self-centered to being a little more open and having a human interest in the rest of the world.

 

 

______________________________________________________

 

*I am taking a bit of creative liberty here; I do not know Rob or know what he was thinking at the time. I have read his story, both his version and the version reported in the media, and that is where the main facts come from, but emotionally I am speaking from my own experience in Greece.

**Luckily for Rob, the online community of volunteers joined together, creating petitions and showing up in court to protest his conviction. Rob was eventually let off with a fine (after his wife leaving him and a suicide attempt, among other things.)

 

Silks, Hoops, and Strength

12527971_453162511558614_101875662_n

I am at a loss for words as to how to explain to anyone exactly what that aerial performance did for me last night, but I’ll try. I’ve shared the videos, but I want to tell the story behind those videos.

When I came home from Greece, I was a mess. Honestly. A total mess. I didn’t really leave my bed for the entire first week I was back. I cried a lot. I barely talked to anyone. I was sick and upset and depressed and tired. I was extremely overwhelmed and unsure about what to do with my life. Unsure about my relationship. Unsure about what actually mattered.

I did not go back to aerial until December 28th. I made myself go because I knew there was a show coming up, and the idea of performing was motivating. Also, because everybody closest to me seemed concerned.

My first day back, I was exhausted. I couldn’t climb up and down the silks more than twice without getting winded. I hadn’t done any physical activity in a month and a half. But it felt really, really good to be moving around. I realized very quickly that if I actually wanted to perform, I would need to be in the studio almost every day before the day of the show, January 9th.

A couple days went by, and just when I felt like I was finally starting to adjust to being home, I went through a huge betrayal by somebody very close to me that threatened to totally knock me back down again. And I really would have given up, I think, just gone back to bed… except I had to go to aerial the next day or I wouldn’t be ready to perform.

So I went back. I decided I would perform two acts instead of just one. I chose the songs and choreographed everything myself, from start to finish. I worked harder. I let my sister boss me around for the week and make me do her D1 soccer workouts. Instead of shutting down like usual, I opened up.

12506843_453162538225278_1943319470_n

I was nervous to perform because in our dress rehearsal the night before, I made so many mistakes. I doubted for a moment that I was actually ready. How could I really think that I could be ready to perform to two songs in a matter of 12 days? Who did I think I was?

I want to say thank you to a teacher who in the past three years has become one of my best friends. Who is intelligent and patient and understanding. Who through her teaching and by example instills self-confidence and strength in others. And especially for letting me be, for saying yes when I asked if I could maybe do two songs, even though I was nowhere close to ready, and for her teaching these past few years which made me actually capable of doing that.

So, right now, I am super sore. I am covered in bruises. But when I watch those videos, I don’t just see a pretty, strong performance. I see that I didn’t mess up. I see something I created. I see the strength that it took to pick myself up from everything, not only from the past month but from the past four years. I watch and I have this overwhelming sense of, “Wow, that’s me. I did that.” And that feels really, really good.

_____________________________________________________

To watch my aerial silks performance, click here. To watch my aerial hoop performance, click here.

To learn, click here 🙂

 

Why I Left the “Conscious Community”

 

I stopped teaching yoga a few months ago.

Then I stopped practicing. Completely. And what followed was a total pulling-apart of my entire belief system, of my personality, and of the way I was living my life.

It’s honestly something I don’t like to talk about very much. Mostly because people want to challenge everything I say over and over and over again, and I feel like trying to explain all of my thoughts about it is exhausting, or because I feel like the jumble in my head comes out not making a lot of sense.

But I got that question again today, from a yoga teacher, after I mentioned that I felt like I left the “yoga world.”

She said, “You stopped teaching?” And when I said yes, that I don’t really practice anymore either, she said, “You don’t practice? Why?”

And when I started to write back to explain, I realized that I just have so many mixed-up thoughts about this that it might serve everybody better if I wrote an essay instead. And then maybe I could organize those thoughts into a way that made more sense. And hopefully people who were feeling similarly to me could relate.

*****

I am not trying to accomplish anything by writing this piece. I do not need to convince anybody else to stop teaching yoga, nor do I need to tell people to stop practicing, especially if their practice really benefits them. I do not pretend to know how other people are feeling about their own relationship with yoga or with their own spiritual beliefs. I know that a piece like this can cause people to feel a lot of different ways, and while that is not my purpose, I want to point out that if you react to it, it might be worth questioning why. Most importantly, I can only relate to all of this from my experience as a straight, white girl from America. So I do not intend to make any assumptions about the experience of people of other ethnicities or cultures or genders or anything else.

I just want to be able to release all of the thoughts that I’m still carrying around about this subject. I want to get my own thoughts organized so they make more sense to me as well. And I want this piece to be here for people who do relate to it, because I don’t think I’m all that unique in my experience, yet writings about this subject are lacking.

*****

c02
found on Pinterest

I stopped teaching yoga because I felt I was participating in cultural appropriation and I did not feel comfortable with it anymore. I have written my thoughts on this before, and I have also shared somebody else’s essay that explains it better than I did. You may access my essay here and theirs here if you either don’t believe yoga is cultural appropriation or that racism exists or whatever else.

All of that has been discussed before, so I don’t really want to spend my time talking about it. Also, I don’t really think that particular discussion can be led by white people. I think the discussion of white people teaching yoga is something that needs to be explained by people of South Asian cultures, and I have tried my best to educate myself on those views, which have solidified mine.

What hasn’t been discussed, and what I haven’t talked about at all, is how I’ve felt since I’ve stopped practicing.

I didn’t plan on stopping my practice, since I credit yoga with basically saving my life four years ago. I thought that yoga was the only thing that kept me sane. I told people that if I went a few days without practicing I noticed; I started to be anxious and depressed and on edge. That was true.

But once I stopped teaching, I was just so fed up with the whole yoga scene. I was fed up with the selfies, with the videos, with the constant self-promotion and the social media “look at me” community – which I fully, totally had been participating in. I was fed up with the drama in the yoga world, between teachers and studio owners and students. I was fed up with the fact that most white people would rather blindly cling to their teaching and their practice instead of even allowing themselves to question it.

And every time I started to practice, I couldn’t separate it from all of that. All I felt was fake.

So I just stopped. I didn’t tell anybody I was stopping. I just stopped.

*****

I want to define a term here before I start to use it.

When I say “conscious community,” I am including the yoga world, but I am also including this new-age wave that has started to spread throughout the US. This group of people that is centered around energy and spirit and creating our own realities. This group that eats organic food and expresses themselves through dance and that believes in manifesting and rainbows and butterflies. Where life is “exactly how it’s supposed to be.” Where there is a divine plan. Where “everything happens for a reason.”

I do not want to imply that any of these things are bad, the same way I wouldn’t say having a religion is bad (because that’s basically what it is.) They aren’t. In fact, some of them I still think are helpful. But what I am saying is that for me, most of these things were subconsciously very damaging, and that when I removed them from my life, I was totally set free.

*****

My world didn’t end when I stopped doing yoga. Maybe I became less flexible. Being away for the past month with zero physical activity definitely made me lose some strength.

In the beginning I was irritable, but more than that, I was sad. Just overwhelmingly sad. I didn’t want to practice because it just didn’t feel right, and I knew that it was time for it to end. I felt like I had lost something; like I was grieving this loss of something that had been such a huge part of my life.

But, the feeling passed. And the more time that went by, the more I began to rediscover myself.

I learned how to handle stress and depression and anxiety without immediately turning to my practice. I didn’t go to my practice to feel and release my feelings; I felt them and thought about them and talked to a therapist about where all this stuff was coming from. About the trauma of the last four years of my life. About growing up and learning certain emotional behaviors. I wrote about it. I stopped focusing so much on myself. And I stopped being constantly influenced by people who told me to forgive and to trust and to be positive and to love everyone and to feel my breath and be in the present moment.

And the more I was away from that, the more I learned how to be in the world again.

I realized that this idea that “everything happens for a reason” was something that was a very damaging belief for me to hold, and something I don’t actually believe is true. I realized that I don’t think that the world is perfect or that we can create whatever we want for ourselves all the time. I think those beliefs place constant pressure on people to be “more spiritual” and that they are beliefs we hold because we want to feel comfortable and safer in a world that is in actuality very unpredictable and unsafe.

Most importantly, I realized that this “conscious community” we have created in the Western world is only accessible if you are a person of some level of privilege.

I spent a month working with Middle Eastern refugees. I saw and heard the horrors that people experience every single day. I heard stories about bombs and looked at scars and heard children scream and saw people really, really suffering.

Who could tell these people don’t worry, they can create their own reality? That everything happens for a reason? That if they just did some yoga or learned to meditate that their lives would get so much better? These are people who will never be able to live in a city like Boulder or Asheville or San Francisco – let alone have access to America. These are people who can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods, to do a “cleanse,” or to take a yoga class. These are people who have a lot more to worry about than their own spiritual growth.

Does this make them less? Does this mean that they just aren’t chosen to do that in this lifetime?

The idea of “karma” was a really good way for some societies to form/justify caste systems.

A few months ago I might have shushed all of that away and said that it just needs to be happening for some reason, that because I have this privilege it means I need to work on my own spiritual growth and my own vibration to help the entire world, that really I am helping the world by “sending out love.” I would have laughed at people who are saying what I’m saying now. I would have said, “They just don’t get it.”

And now I don’t think that’s true.

I think the world is a mess. I think we better wake up to that fact instead of hiding in our worlds full of privilege and pretending that it doesn’t exist. I think we better help, and help doesn’t just mean buying expensive items that are “green!” or “fair-trade!” to pretend we are making a difference.

It means helping. other. people. It means standing up for what we believe in. It means standing up for humanity. It means donating and continuing to donate. It means educating ourselves and continuing to talk about it and not stopping. It means that big issues like the refugee crisis and climate change and racism and sexism don’t just get shared on Facebook and then left alone. It means that we take active physical steps to help the world we live in instead of living in denial.

Because the thing is, we can only create our own reality if we are living in a place of privilege. In America, if we have money, we can shut our eyes to everything happening around us. We can attend an expensive school, we can move off-grid, we can only eat the purest foods, we can focus on energy trainings and the moon cycles and live in total ignorance of the tragedy happening all over the world. We can say that “bad things happen everywhere, all the time, and I can’t help everyone so I’ll just focus on myself.” We can become so overwhelmed by the tragedy that we use that as an excuse to do nothing at all. We can hide and hope that the bad people don’t find us; that other people fix the problems before they affect us.

*****

I’m not against practicing yoga or having spiritual beliefs. But since I’ve let all that go, I’ve realized that maybe there is no “way.” I know that what I am doing and will do will be focused on making a difference in the world, in a way that I feel good about and can truly justify to myself. And I feel stronger, more confident, and more capable than I ever have before.

I want to know how you handle pain, real pain. I want to know how you help people. I want to know what you think about the world and what you believe in and what you think about the systems that rule our society. I want to know how you challenge those systems. I want to know how you take action in your community. I want to know how you take action in the world. I want to know what you stand for. I want to know how hard that is, to always stand up for your opinions. I want to know your dreams. I want to know where you want to go in the world, not to sightsee, but to contribute. I want to know how you deal with criticism. I want to know how you relate to your place in this world. I want to know what that means.

When we let go of the old, we make space for the new.

That’s how this journey has been for me.

Volunteering, the Refugee Crisis and Christmas: Returning Home 

 

chicken soup my mother made. (her photo)

 

I don’t know how to adjust to being home. 

I just don’t know; I’m simply at a loss. It’s been a week and I still can’t understand. How can I feel so differently when it’s only been a month? Why do I change so quickly? How could I have expected myself to stay the same?

How could I have expected myself to stay the same?

My inability to handle anything began on my way home. I had finally just hit overload with my thoughts and emotions, and that compounded by physical illness was literally too much for my brain to deal with. 

I boarded my final flight, my head pounding, so congested that I couldn’t hear anything, my throat and chest burning, my body hot with fever. I curled up in my seat; my legs folded up on my tray table. I pulled my eye mask down and finally, finally prepared to rest. 

A few minutes later, a lady two seats down reached over and tapped me. I pushed up my mask. I saw her mouth move but couldn’t hear a word she said. I shook my head at her. 

“Put your feet down!!” She shouted. 

I looked at her, not comprehending. “Why?” 

“We are about to eat, and I don’t want to have to look at your socks,” she said, as if it were obvious. 

“This is my table,” I said, dumbfounded that she was trying to control how I was sitting in my own seat. “That’s your table.”

“Yes, but you’re offending me,” she said. “It’s very rude.”

I had just spent a month with people who were often forced to sleep on the cold ground in the rain. People who ate sitting in the dirt. People who didn’t get to take showers. I hadn’t even really had time to shower, or to wash my clothes. I literally couldn’t comprehend the idea that my feet being in somebody’s view were preventing them from eating their own meal. 

She called the flight attendant over. He talked to me. I told him I was very sick, had no sleep, and was in the only position where I felt comfortable. He agreed, the woman got fussy and annoyed, so he went to get another flight attendant. 

I didn’t even have enough energy left to feel defensive. I just didn’t feel anything. And when I heard her complain about me for the fourth time, and the new flight attendant crouched down and said something gently like “well, you know that’s not really what they’re built for…” I just burst into tears. 

Honestly. I couldn’t react anymore. It felt like everything from the past month just hit a wall and the only thing left to do was to cry, in the middle of the plane. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. The unfairness of it all. The unfairness that this woman was mad because she had to look at my socks when I was exhausted and had been helping people who were nicer than her but who didn’t have the privilege to even get upset about something so stupid. 

“I…just want…to sleep,” I sobbed hysterically, and long story short, they moved my seat and I luckily ended up comfortable for the rest of my flight. 

*****

Before I left Greece I wanted to come home. I got sick and I missed my mother, I missed my bed. I was just really, really tired. 

So I landed in the airport at JFK and I expected to feel relieved. 

And then everything was in English. And I saw my mother, who took care of me on the way home. And I cried. And I slept the most fitful, unsound sleep ever and I woke up panicking, dreaming of Greece and feeling way too hot. And I kicked the covers off and I was freezing. And I knew I had a fever but somehow I was back in my room and it felt like the past month should have just been all a bad dream but it wasn’t. And all of the people flashed through my head. People whose country wanted to kill them. People who said my country killed their family. People who had nowhere to go. 

And I didn’t feel relieved. I felt wrong. Like everything was wrong. 

And my breath was too fast and out of control and I tried to tell myself to calm it down but all that did was transport me back to February, back to the hospital with my grandfather who was getting heart surgery. I heard the monitors beep. “Just count,” he said. 

“Inhale one.. Two.. Three..”

And then a few days later he was dead and that vision made me panic all over again and I laid in my bed and cried because the world was so awful. And I didn’t know how to deal with the world being so awful. 

*****

I went to the hospital the day after I came home and they were like, “You’re fine.” Nobody really looked at me but they did a bunch of tests and they said I was fine so I was probably fine. 

I couldn’t stop coughing and my head was all clogged but I was fine. “Sore throat,” they said. “You’ll be fine.”

Most of my problems were psychological.
 
I didn’t know how to talk to anyone so I stayed in my room. I felt awful, too, so it was a good excuse to stay in bed. But I didn’t know how to relate. I still don’t know how to relate. 

It’s really hard to go from being surrounded by people who have nothing, who have had everything taken away, but who still find reasons to smile, songs to sing.. To people who have everything but don’t know it. To come back to a world where everything is functioning smoothly and houses are covered in Christmas lights. A world where people are worrying about presents and their arguments with their families. 

It’s strange to go from being surrounded by people from all over the world who are just like you, who care about the same things you do so much that they are also willing to act on it.. Back to Pennsylvania where people are really fine and they just don’t realize that yet. Back to news of Trump and businesses opening and closing and people shopping for holiday food in the giant grocery store. 

It feels so comfortable, so easy. It freaks me out because I feel like it wants to suck me back in. Complain about what you look like, it says. Worry about school. Stress about your family and people not getting along and where you’ll go and who you’ll see. Worry about the fact that you haven’t done any exercise in a month. 

And I shut that out, all those thoughts coming back from a month ago. And I try to focus on the people right in front of me, but I don’t know how to do that either. I don’t know how to describe what is happening and nobody seems to ask the right questions or wants to talk about it nonstop like I do and so instead I simply don’t talk. I shut everything out and don’t talk. And I obsessively check posts from Lesvos on my phone. And I stay in my bed. 

My plans now are in total upheaval. I was going to go back to school in January. I had a plan, structure, set ideas. Now they’re gone. I can’t organize any of the new desires floating around through my head. They’re all too big, they require too much thought at the moment. Do I leave everything? Do I leave everybody? How am I most useful? What matters the most?

And it’s supposed to be Christmas but it’s warm outside. And I read another post, “16 people drowned today.” And it doesn’t feel like Christmas. 

I was talking to a therapist, someone I’ve never spoken to before, and I talked about the last 4 years of my life. “Wow,” she said when I was done. “Just, wow.”

It felt good to have someone acknowledge that because I usually don’t acknowledge it myself. I start to brush things off, to think they’re not such a big deal. There are bigger losses, bigger problems around.

Sometimes when it gets to be too much and then someone just looks at me, astounded, and says, “wow..” that feels nice. 

The answer I’ve been giving everybody now is “I don’t know.” What am I doing with my life? I don’t know. What should I do next? I don’t know. 

The best advice I was given was that I won’t have any room in my head to make decisions until I spill out some of what is taking up so much space to begin with. So I talked a lot today. And I’m writing. And I can feel those new ideas starting to take shape, shadowy, hesitant shapes in the back of my mind. 

*****

If you donated money to me, thank you again, so much. Unless I told you specifically what I used your money for (I did for some people because I made some smaller purchases earlier on), the donations ended up going to the tea tent, run by a group called the Wild Lemon Team. The tent provides warm chai and snacks to people throughout Moria. It has a constant flow of refugees and is needed and popular. I worked a night shift one night and I was super busy – there wasn’t a lull, ever, at all. The sugary tea provides a much needed sense of comfort and boost of energy. The tent is run by a man named Juval who is incredible – so giving and kind and helpful. The tent costs over $1000 a day to run. Moria is very overcrowded right now and they put out an urgent call for help, so that is where the money went. Money is needed everywhere, but that is somewhere I felt good about. If you donated and would like proof of that donation I can send that to you. Thank you for your support. 

I’ve lost this sense of trust I used to have, this sense that everything will be okay. But along with that loss has come a new sense of empowerment. It’s more of a, everything will not be okay, but it is what it is and I can do what I can to make it better. It’s scarier but more real. And I’d prefer that, to be honest. 

History and Racism: Why Language is Important

 

sign outside the squat in exarcheia

 

On our way to Athens, we took the ferry.

The ferry was weird. Walking in one direction, my friend and I entered a room full of white people. This consisted mostly of put-together adults, sitting properly in their seats. They stared at us as we walked by. I guess we were a bit of a sight – Sheri with her curly Irish-Jamaican hair shaved on one side; me blonde-hair, blue-eyed with a giant pack strapped on my back that I refused to part with after arguing with the luggage man.

Where are all the refugees? We wondered.

We walked the other way, and entered a different area, the same exact setup as the other side but with one really fucked-up difference.

This room was full of refugees. People sprawled on couches, people clutching their blankets and sleeping on the floor. Children crying. Sheri and I looked at each other in total disbelief.

We actually went back to watch the spot where everyone entered the ship to make sure the staff weren’t purposely segregating people. They didn’t seem to be, which made it even weirder, in a way. This is sad to me.

I don’t think I need to tell you which side we felt more comfortable on.

I went to order a beer. There were a bunch of Moroccan men in front of me. The man behind the counter was in the middle of taking their order and totally ignored them to ask what I wanted.

“Um, they were here first,” I said.

He looked at me. “Just tell me what you want.”

“No,” I said, “I’ll wait my turn, thanks.”

“Do you think that’s a woman thing, or a refugee thing?” Sheri asked me afterward.

I shook my head. “I don’t want to know.”

*****

We sat upstairs, at a table on the upper deck, open to the air.

This area was also full of refugees. I watched as a child ran by, making a gun shape with his hands, pretending to shoot.

There was another boy, maybe 5 years old, playing with a stuffed doll. He was swinging it around, slamming it into everything he could, throwing it at the ceiling and jumping up and down. He noticed we were watching him.

He ripped the back of the doll open, and laughed when we acted shocked. Sheri took the doll and cradled it in her arms, pretending to comfort it. He stole the doll back and put it under the leg of a chair, sitting on it, jumping up and down to hurt the doll more. He started pulling the stuffing out of the doll and throwing it on the floor. I stood and started to pick it up, pretending to lunge toward the boy, who screamed and ran away.

I heard him giggle, and looked over as he finished pulling the last of it out. He threw the empty doll at me. I pushed all the white fluff back inside and held the doll out of his reach. He jumped, grabbing my scarf, pulling as hard as he could. I picked him up and spun him around.

We played like this for a while. We ran inside at one point, which I think caught the attention of his mother, and she came out a short while later. She said they were from Syria and told us his name.

I know children can play violently anywhere in the world, no matter what they’ve been through. I just wonder what it is that these children have seen. What feelings are being expressed when you are tearing a doll to pieces and running all over the place.

*****

In Athens, there is an anarchist neighborhood called Exarcheia, where the police are not allowed to enter. There is an empty building the anarchists have occupied (also known as a “squat”) and have now opened for free housing for refugees. It’s super well-organized and clean, with ample supplies of clothes and food. No one is in charge, nothing is protected. People are free to come and go as they please.

Athens needs more places like this now, with so many nationalities being sent back away from the Macedonian border. The city is a confusing place to volunteer, because everything is so spread out and the situation changes daily – even more so than it did on the islands.

Volunteers are allowed in places and then they’re not. Places are open to house refugees and then they’re not.

“The thing is,” a Greek man said to me, “these are people. Not boxes. We are treating them like boxes.”

*****

Security at the camps in Athens was also one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. It seems like procedures are put in place to satisfy someone, just so there are rules, but the procedures themselves don’t actually accomplish anything.

We wanted to volunteer at the Taekwondo stadium, where the government had agreed to allow refugees to be housed. I heard a lot of volunteers were turned away, so I managed to contact a girl who said she knew a group of volunteers inside. She said we wouldn’t be allowed in unless we registered first, and would have somebody email me an application.

The only information I actually had to fill out was my name and my age, and when I wanted to work. That was the entire application.

When we got there, there was a big fence all around the outside. Police were guarding the entrance. We had to be led to the group we were with, and another guy took us inside. Everyone was making this seem very important. The man took out completely empty notebook and had us write our name and country of origin.

So, just to recap: that was the whole “registration” process. Basically, giving our names. But without doing that ahead of time, you absolutely would not be allowed inside.

*****

A few of us helped put meals together at the stadium for a bit, and were actually impressed how refugees were being fed there, so that was good.

But we still hadn’t seen the inside of the stadium. It seemed like we were restricted to the outer parts of the building. When the food was done, we decided to ask another volunteer if we could see the inside.

“Oh, no, you can’t do that,” she said. “You don’t have a badge.”

“We can’t get in without a badge?” We asked.

“No, not without a badge. You wouldn’t want to anyway, especially not with girls. Especially not with the blonde.”

What? We said, looking at each other. We had all come from places where we were working very closely with refugees, often alone as women.

“What if we want to?” I asked.

“No, you don’t want to. You don’t want to go in there, it’s very chaotic. And anyway you can’t without a badge.”

This woman made it sound as if the inside of the stadium was this super scary, unsafe place, teeming with men ready to jump on women at any moment.

The conversation went back and forth like this for a few minutes. Not getting anywhere, finally we just said ok and walked away.

We walked out of the room and were looking for the entrance. “I think that’s it,” my friend said, gesturing to a totally open doorway where refugees were walking in and out.

That couldn’t be it. There was nobody guarding it, nobody to check a badge.
We walked through the entrance, into a totally calm stadium, with tents and blankets set up and groups of men sitting on the floor.

We were completely confused. It was the opposite of what the woman had described.

We walked around for a little. Some men waved hi, and one came up asking for help with something. There was no chaos. Nothing at all.

I don’t know if the woman had actually been inside or not.

This is why language is important. This is why the way we describe things to others is important. This is how the media has influenced us to see an entire group of people as something different than we are. As if they are wild animals. As if they are not quite like you and me. As in, “maybe they should be helped, but we cannot allow them into our country.” So much “them” and “us.”

We cannot condemn an entire group of people for the actions of a few. We cannot shut out refugees and Muslims because there are extremists. We cannot take one experience of assault in a refugee camp and say women are unsafe and cannot walk around by themselves, or distribute things without a man with them, because it’s not like we take the many examples of rape on university campuses and forbid women from going to school.

We can’t talk about the same situation differently with one group of people than we do with another. If that’s happening, it’s because the argument is rooted in racism. If an argument is racist, it’s invalid.

When white men do bad things, we say they are “mentally unstable” or “just being boys.” When refugees do bad things we talk about them like they’re animals and say we need to keep them all away from here.

We become very, very afraid. Check your fear. Check your privilege. Ask why.
I do not think anybody should be making decisions about these people without having met them in person, without having heard about their lives. Otherwise, it’s too easy to make up stories.

Our experience with the woman in the stadium was symbolic to me of the way the world is acting during this crisis. From the outside, it seems out of control, terrifying, unsafe. But when we are able to ignore those ungrounded fears and move past them, to go in and see that these are just normal people in a really awful situation.. It’s so easy. We have to help, we have to be human beings.

Part of me wonders if the fear is just easier to hold on to. If we face what’s really going on, we see that the world isn’t a happy perfect place. We feel different emotions and we get personally involved and we are affected. It’s harder. We have to help.

Remember learning about Hitler in school? Remember talking about the Nazis and about the Jews and being blown away by the fact that something like that could happen? Remember realizing that most Nazis were probably otherwise good people who were just doing what their government told them to do? That they just believed what their leader said?

I do. Because I remember wondering what I would have done in that situation. I remember thinking of course I would not have just gone along with everything. I would have spoken out, I would have helped.

The funny thing is, I remember everybody in my class saying the exact same thing.

I remember learning that history repeats itself and that the reason we learn history is so we do not make the same mistakes.

Lesvos to Chios to Athens: Volunteering in Greece

 

warehouse items from Chios. yes, the truck left like that. only in Greece

I have been trying to write this post for a few days now, but I’m so sick and my head is so clouded and stuffy and my throat hurts so much that I can’t even focus enough to make it all flow or make sense.

I was doing so well, trying to prevent the inevitable with my herbs and my hand sanitizer and it was really working! And then I shared drinks with 6 other volunteers on a night out (a story in itself) and immediately, there it was.

Everyone is sick here. I’m also the most pathetic sick person in the world. And as shitty as I feel in my bed, I keep thinking about becoming sick as a refugee and having to sleep outside.

My first day in Moria, I was setting up tents in preparation for the incoming rain and a doctor brought an awful-looking refugee up to me. “He has a bad lung infection,” she said. “He needs a tent, and he needs blankets and water, immediately.” I ran for those things. Now, with a cough sounding similar to his, I cringe thinking about how he must have felt, sleeping in the cold rain that night. (This was before the new medic area at Moria was set up at the bottom of the hill.)

Anyway, I have since left Moria, spent a few days on another island called Chios, and am now in Athens. My flight home leaves this Friday.

The border to Macedonia has closed, as of a few weeks ago, to people who are not Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghani. Thousands of people were stuck there, in Idomeni, most of the time without food or water or anything. There were many fights among different nationalities (created by the segregation at the border!) and it became an intense and sometimes dangerous place. Now, the camp is being cleared out, and everyone not of the chosen nationalities is being sent back to Athens. They have a choice to either be deported back to their country of origin (very dangerous for some), or to try to claim asylum in Greece (a really bad idea, because of the economy.) Thousands of people with literally nowhere to go. Some have sewn their mouths shut in protest.

I left Moria mostly because I was beginning to feel kind of useless. I also was getting pretty tired of the way some of the volunteers there were acting.

Most volunteers are truly helping here, which should be appreciated, and not discredited. I don’t think that what I’m about to say discredits anybody’s help. But I think that it is necessary to point out the behaviors that were happening there that nobody wants to talk about, because it affects people on a daily basis and it diminishes the effect some could have. I also am trying to be really honest about my experience as a volunteer, which includes the fact that I’m not perfect. Maybe my reactions to things aren’t always perfect, either, but I do stand by what I say and how I feel.

Among the many great things happening… There was also a lot of sexism (and sometimes even racism) in Moria. One of my friends said, “I have never felt so silenced as a woman as I do at this place.”

It’s true. It’s kind of a weird mix as there are also many women in leadership roles, but the sexism still exists.

I have been blatantly ignored more than once, even when I repeated myself multiple times, only to have a white male repeat what I said and then actually be listened to. It even happened once when my (male) friend actually noticed and called it out by saying, “You know she’s speaking, and you’re still only talking to me.”

It happened when a male worker physically moved me out of the way a few times while he walked past, by grabbing ahold of my shoulders and moving me like a child. He never would have touched a man that way. “Seriously?” I said. “That’s so rude.”

“Well then we’re rude people,” the man said to me, uncaringly, barely even looking at me. “This is the way we work.”

It happened when a man was talking about moving boxes and said something along the lines of “I need some men (sorry girls, ha) to help me tomorrow.” Never mind that I know many women stronger than him – it’s also just in the way the statement is made and presented.

It happened when two girls went to distribute blankets and were “surrounded by men” and “felt uncomfortable.” It happened when a woman was assaulted – and the reaction from all the male volunteers was to declare that women should no longer walk around at night without a man accompanying them. “We have to keep the women safe,” they said. Never mind that my friend and I, both girls, had distributed blankets alone the night before and felt perfectly secure. While I totally validate a woman’s experience of feeling unsafe, if you feel uncomfortable doing something, don’t do it anymore. The solution isn’t for a bunch of boys to decide that we need men with us at all times. I never once felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and neither have many of my female friends. I think a big part of it is knowing how to assert yourself, and also knowing that these are regular people, not foreign animals that are out of control.

It happened, as I mentioned in my last post, in the middle of complete and almost scary chaos when I had a good idea to end it and had to repeat myself a million times before another man spoke up for me and people agreed to do it.

It happened constantly, and I was constantly shocked by it. “You forget, most of the world is that way,” my friend said to me.

Racism, too – I was blown away to hear a volunteer here refer to “those fucking Pakistanis,” before spurting off a bunch of super inconsiderate phrases.

My friends and I just looked at each other. “You’re volunteering in a refugee camp..” I wanted to say, but since this man had put a lot of money and time into the camp, it didn’t seem worth it.

*****

New volunteers coming in and trying to completely take control has also been an issue, I think. Taking a leadership position is great, but not by ignoring the experience that others before you have had.

One time, when I was doing distribution, a Greek woman came and started helping. I informed her that when evening came, we wouldn’t distribute blankets where we were, but that we would have volunteers going to each tent and distributing them that way.

She put an empty box right out front and started to fill it with blankets. “But it’s cold,” she said, “Nobody will know we have blankets if we don’t show them.”
Yes they will, I told her. People ask for blankets 500 times a night. It works more efficiently if we go to each tent.

I had made the same mistake a few nights before – if we hand out blankets at distribution, some people end up with 10 and some people won’t have any. There’s no way to control it. Someone told me I shouldn’t do that, and a bunch of us then agreed there was a better way to do it.
I had to leave for a while and when I came back, this woman had stacked the entire distribution area full of blankets. We had blankets in storage that should have lasted us at least a couple days. She went through them all in one night.

I was upset when I came back and irritated by her telling me “but people are cold” as if I didn’t care about that. We know people are cold. But it’s also important to understand how to ration things so that everybody gets something. That means that maybe everybody will be slightly cold instead of one person being freezing and one person being super warm.

But I can deal with that, because that I understand. I had made the same mistake before. It comes from a good place, even if it’s frustrating. I think maybe stressors like that are just part of being an independent volunteer.

What I cannot tolerate, though, is people coming in and acting like a dictator, telling people what to do without caring how they come across.

A boy showed up one day from Canada and essentially took over the distribution area, which was what my friend and I had been doing. He came in with a clipboard, checking things off, changing the system, and having everyone report to him. When I arrived that day, everything was a complete mess. They had closed the men’s side down and were letting women and children inside the distribution area. There were children screaming, people pushing in line outside, people taking forever inside, and it was just chaotic. I asked him what was going on and why people were inside.

“I already tried. Fine, then you fix it!” He shouted at me.

“Well, okay,” I said.

My friend and I moved everyone gently back outside. We backed up the line, tied a rope, and started letting people come forward to get clothes two at a time. We sent the men away, telling them they should come back later – we were only taking care of women and children right now. Within half an hour, the line was moving smoothly and everything was fine.

“It’s going pretty well,” I said nicely.

“It didn’t work,” the boy said smugly.

“What?” I said. “Yes it did.”

“No, it didn’t work. They’re all calling you a bitch.”

“I don’t really care what they call me, we have a line and it’s calm again. It worked.”

He told me that he was in the military and had 9 years of experience with Save the Children. I guess that means he knows better than me?

This is the problem, I think. This boy was helping, in a way – some people like to be ordered and those people were responding really well to him taking a leadership position. And I don’t mind someone taking charge as long as they’re still open to listening to other people’s ideas.

We must all be open to hearing that we’re wrong.

When I came in the next day, in time for my shift, and I asked him if I could relieve anyone, he glanced down at his watch and dismissively said, “We’re fine.”

Honestly, I felt unwanted, and excluded from the place I had been working the entire time. And while maybe in a different situation I would have tried to mend the conflict or get someone else involved or take charge a bit more, the reality was that he was going to be there 3 weeks longer than me, and it was probably more valuable to everybody there (especially the refugees) to just let his system be in place, not to cause more issues, and to just let it go. While I didn’t totally agree with the way things were being done, things were still getting done, and that was the most important thing.

I didn’t have to be there, though. And so after spending the next two days feeling literally useless, as all other areas appeared to be handled, I decided I would go to Chios with a friend.

*****

We had heard that there was a lot of need in Chios, but the call for help turned out not to be entirely true. The independent volunteers on Chios are just starting out, so, as one put it to me, they’re on “step zero.” They don’t really have any tasks for anybody to do yet, and they mostly need people who can stay a few weeks and help to integrate their new system into place. Since my time in Greece was running out, I wasn’t sure how long I would want to stay.

The first night there, though, I did experience something important. It’s something I had heard many times but never actually saw for myself.

Other volunteers and I heard there were three families left in the UNHCR camp on the island (the hundreds from the day before had taken the ferry.) We made a bunch of sandwiches and took a crate of bananas and went to the camp to deliver them.

The man working there looked at what we had. “Our rule is no food,” he said. “Since there aren’t many people here tonight, I’ll let you go with the fruit, but no sandwiches.”

“Why not?” We asked him.

“Rats,” he said convincingly, as if we would totally understand. “People leave crumbs behind and we have problems with the rats.”

I nodded. “Okay, maybe we can watch the people eat them to make sure they don’t leave anything behind.”

He hesitated.

“They can eat them outside,” my friend suggested.

“Yes,” I said, “we’ll make sure they eat them outside.”

To put it into perspective, the rooms the people were in are these tiny IKEA huts. It’s basically 4 walls with a piece of foam on the floor. There is no electricity or bathroom or heating of any kind. It’s just a giant box. But sure, we’ll tell the people they need to eat their food outside.

We went in and delivered the food to very grateful people. On our way back out, we stopped to talk again.

“They didn’t want to eat them right now,” we said, “but they promised to eat them outside.”

The man nodded. “Okay, because we are not supposed to let food in. No food from outside. The rats.”

“Do you clean the rooms?” My friend asked.

“Yes,” he said, “but crumbs can still get, you know, in the corners.”

I just looked at him. “So do you feed them?”

“Yes, they get energy biscuits. Trust me, they have all they need.”

“Energy biscuits” sound like something exciting, but they’re not. I’ve eaten one. It’s UNHCR’s version of food. They are basically like tiny shortbread cookies, and the main ingredient is sugar. They have the word “glucose” stamped into them.

“That’s all they get all day,” we said, disbelievingly. “And we can’t bring any food into camp.”

“They have enough,” the man said. “A process is underway to begin feeding people in the camp.”

I wanted to scream. What about the people who are hungry now? I really can’t process that. We aren’t feeding people because you might get mice??

“Why are they still here?” We asked instead. “Why didn’t they take the ferry?”

“They don’t have any money for the ferry,” he said. “We’ll pay for them, but we wait a few days first to see if they really can’t come up with the money themselves.”

I have this whole conversation recorded, by the way. I could not even believe what I was hearing.

This is what makes me upset. There is this big organization that could be helping the most. Instead, it’s like they help halfway and then leave everybody else to pick up the rest of it. Independent volunteers now need to find a way to legally feed people, and in the meantime, sneak sandwiches.

*****

So we left Chios, and are now in Athens, volunteering here. Figuring out where to go and what to do.

I’m currently fighting myself, in a way. The part of me that usually takes care of myself super well when I’m sick. The realization that I can’t because I brought things to prevent getting sick, but nothing to really treat it. The fact that I’m in Greece and don’t know where to buy anything. The way my body aches and my throat and chest burn and my eyes just want to keep closing. The part of me that’s like, I am such a baby. The part of me that threatens to just become totally emotional and overwhelmed because there’s only so long I can keep everything bottled up. The part of me that struggles to shut it down, for now. Only 3 more days. Help for 3 more days. 

I was suppose to fly to Naxos (another island) for my last two days here, so that I could let everything sink in and decompress. I booked everything in advance because I thought I wouldn’t want to waste the money, and that would force me to take those days to transition. I knew I wouldn’t want to but I’d need it.

It didn’t work. I think my flight there left a few hours ago.