How being a lunatic has left me bizarrely prepared for the apocalypse and some un-requested advice

I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. It was my first migraine (those real ones with partial blindness and vomiting) when I was in primary school; a panic attack in maths in secondary school because I was sure my house was burning down because my straighteners were plugged in (I hadn’t used them); it became spending a lot of time in bed in university; then working all the hours god gave once I’d left uni – heaven forbid I gave myself time to think. It’s checking and re-checking that the door is locked and going back to check again. It’s time-consuming, I’m not going to lie.

I’ve convinced myself – at one time or another – that almost every important person in my life has probably died. I went through a phase of about 3 years when I thought if I didn’t say “take care” at the end of a phonecall then the person would certainly die and it would be my fault. If I called someone and they didn’t answer – dead. If they were late to meet me, especially if they were driving – definitely dead. Someone I love getting on a plane? You could swim in my palm sweat and power a washing machine with my palpitations.

One way my stress manifests itself is by cleaning and tidying. I think it’s sort of a bid to control my external environment when my internal environment is just unmanageable.

So anyway it SUCKS. Being an anxious person SUCKS. But… after a few days of thinking I CANNOT DO ISOLATION OMG AND THE WORLD IS INFECTED AM I INFECTED IS HE INFECTED AHHHH …I realised – hell, I’ve been preparing for this my whole damn life.

Firstly, everything is clean – so I am winning at this Covid 19-fighting game. And my life has been one fit of imagining the worst case scenario after another so this is no different, except that, well, it’s real. But I don’t know at the time – when I’m panicking over nothing – that it’s not real. I genuinely worry about them, cry about them, panic attack over them, completely lose all damn control over them. But I’ve learnt how to deal with these feelings so normally I can cut them off before they blossom into something ugly – and now I feel like I am dealing with this scary situation quite well.

So, from one lunatic to another and maybe to some potential future lunatics (isolation, ooft) – what would I suggest?

1. Breathe. (I shouldn’t start with that, I’ve probably already lost you) but it really is so simple and powerful. Take a deep breath. In that moment it’s just you and your body. You might realise that you’d forgotten to breathe properly for a while if you’re tense, so you’ll feel the oxygen race through you. A wee pick-me-up and a welcome moment to centre yourself.

2. Do and be what you love. Panicky times are not times to force yourself to do anything you don’t enjoy (okay, if you’re working from home, you might need to force yourself to do that). In your free isolation time, do what you love. Read a great book – not a book you should read. Listen to the music that makes you glow from the inside – not the music you’re told you should enjoy. You’re in your house, maybe alone or maybe with some people you’re close with, so you can really just be you. All day every day. How beautiful is that?

3. Move. Also basic. But again, do the exercise you love doing. If that’s walking, do it. If that’s lifting weights – maybe you have some in your house or maybe you can just lift some heavy shit you’ve got lying about. Body weight exercises, yoga, Pilates… there are videos for everything on YouTube and many people are doing free online classes. Do the ones you love. Try something new – if you don’t like it, stop. I went for my first run in a year today – I walked a little but ran most of it – and afterwards it was like someone had switched the light on in the dark room that my head had become. Please, keep moving. (It will obviously help your health too, which, let’s face it, can’t hurt right now…)

4. Let yourself be sad. Let yourself be scared. I’ve cried a lot these past months. A lot (Let’s not forget the shit had already hit the fan several times over in Greece before corona came here) And the worst moments have been the times I tried not to cry. Pushing your feelings down is not going to help you, and they’ll come back bigger and stronger later. Let yourself feel. Let yourself feel … but limit it.

5. By limit it, I mean don’t ruminate. Try not to let your fears turn into a swirling ball of repetitive panic. That’s not useful and really starts to wear away at you. When you feel it starting, change location. If you’re watching tv in the living room, go to the kitchen and make a cup of tea. Go out in the garden. Go for a walk. Once you return to your initial position, it should be like starting afresh. One cognitive behavioural therapy technique is to tell yourself “I’ll worry about this tomorrow.” With small problems, it can mean you never worry about it again. With big ones, you at least buy yourself a bit of stress-free time.

6. Take action, don’t just obsess. There’s no point in driving a car in the rain worrying about crashing – you need to just drive to try to avoid crashing. Right? Follow the rules you’re supposed to and know you’re doing everything you can. Don’t read the statistics over and over. If you’re finding it hard to limit how much you read about the situation maybe ask a less stressy friend to update you on things you HAVE to know – or limit yourself to reading the headlines for a few minutes a day. Keep clean, keep your distance, know you can only control what you do – you can help the situation or make it worse and your effect on the situation is entirely in your control but the situation itself is not. And that’s shit but you need to accept it.

7. Don’t stay in bed. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. When this all started and I found myself with nowhere to be, I stayed in bed a lot. I mean, a lot. And the longer I was in bed, the worse I felt. Bed should be a happy place, a place you go when you’re tired from a day of doing things. It’s really shit when it becomes the place in which you’re just in a constant state of drowsiness. And it’s really hard to break out of it once it starts.

8. Give yourself some sort of schedule. Work might well be out the window for now, or maybe not but this is still relevant for your free time, and I think although we moan about it sometimes we all quite like some sort of timetable by which to live. It could be as rigid or as flexible as makes you happy. Getting up earlyish and going to bed earlyish is a good place to start. I feel great when I get up at 7 and go to sleep at 10. It really helps settle me in the evenings when I feel tired and know I’ll be able to sleep easily – night-time has always been my most panic-filled times. But we’re all different. Do what you know deep down is best for you. I read that it’s good in these corona times to make yourself a schedule that’s different from your normal everyday schedule so as to encourage you not to “mourn” your old life. So mix it up and find a schedule that suits you.

9. Get some daylight. Getting up early will help you to see the sun, apart from anything else. The daylight will make you feel more relaxed, more awake and generally more positive. If you stay indoors all day or sleep until the evening and stay up all night, you are not going to feel great.

10. Speak to people. Speak to the best people. Phone that friend who always knows how to make you feel better. Or maybe it’s a parent who manages to do that for you. My parents both calm me in different ways, even when they don’t realise it so I call them a lot when things feel too much – not for advice or anything, just to hear them. Maybe don’t speak to that one friend who panics about everything too – not when you’re panicky. Or speak to people you haven’t spoken to in ages; catch up. Speak to me! I’m always available to anyone who needs me (@melijoybee on instagram)

11. Eat – eat right. This is difficult. This is what I’m worst at but I know what I should be doing. Depending on the kind of panicked I am, I want to either over eat or under eat. So now – especially since I’m inside and totally in control of what I eat – I try to stick to 2-3 meals and one snack if I feel I really want it. I don’t let myself think about food because I know then I’ll overeat and feel rubbish. I try to read my body and find the balance. If you’re working from home, you’re not restricted to meal-times anymore so now could be a good time to really listen to your body and eat only when you’re actually hungry.

If none of this helps, then just know that everyone is freaking out. None of us knows what the hell tomorrow will look like – so at least, although all our lives are different and this is affecting us in different ways, we are in it together.

(I don’t mean to downplay mental health issues – part of how I deal with things is also making fun of them. I know that there will be people who were already struggling with their minds and this situation will be killing them. I’m sorry – and, again, I’m here for you, truly. Everyone else, remember your most fragile friends at this time.)

Love you all. Take care out there.

palmolive, paranoia and preventative measures

“The island of Lesvos has gone into lockdown, and with no known active coronavirus cases currently on the island, am I mad about the fact that I’m stuck inside? The short answer is no.

“There was one positive case a few weeks ago, a local woman in a village in the south of the island – she had recently travelled to Asia – and she is now out of hospital and is said to be recovering fine at home. It seems impossible that there could really be no more cases but that is what we are led to believe”

…That is what I had just written, intending to write a “it’s good to follow the rules even if it doesn’t seem necessary” kind of thing, when my phone beeped. Another coronavirus case was announced – in Mytilene, where I live.  A man who had been in Thailand has tested positive. His wife is now also showing flu symptoms. The man is in quarantine at home while his wife is in hospital.

Could there be a more perfect example of why lockdown – or isolation, or whatever you want to call it, whether you choose it or it is chosen for you – is necessary? I was following the rules (social distancing, a lot of isolation apart from outdoor walks, endless hand washing, etc.) partly out of paranoia (already being a bit of a germaphobe), partly out of a disbelief that that one case could really be the only one, and partly to get used to living a certain way before it became seriously necessary (it seemed inevitable).

And now we’re here. There’s those two, and we don’t know who they came into contact with before going into quarantine, or who the people they came into contact with have been in contact with…

Everyone should already be behaving like the virus is everywhere, and now, here, we have to assume it is.

While I feel physically sick at the thought of what this could mean for the vulnerable people here, the locals and the refugees, my heart aches for the Hebrides, too. I live in dread of the day I read that the virus has made its way there – but it will, if it hasn’t already.

So, please, for yourself, for your family and for mine, stay inside, avoid close contact with anyone, wash your hands more than you think is necessary, and then once more. The more careful we are now, the shorter this painful period will be, and the fewer lives will be loss.

Take care, everyone.

At time of writing, the UK has 5,018 confirmed cases of covid-19 and 240 deaths. (Population 66.44 million)

Greece currently has 530 confirmed cases and 13 deaths. (Population 10.74 million)

tragedy & apocalyptic Mytilene

Today, Moria burned, fatally, again, killing at least one child, though rumours suggest more. This comes after weeks of horror stories, volunteer evacuations, cries – pleas – for help. Fallen on deaf ears for the millionth time.

Here’s my not-so-little account of the last few weeks on Lesvos and Samos, in some kind of chronological order, containing everything I can remember and probably missing lots of important things, but there’s been so unbelievably many horrible things happening that it’s a challenge to remember them all…

I left Lesvos 5 weeks ago, just after a peaceful protest was met with tear gas for the first time in what would become the first in a series of violent attacks. As I left, I naively thought that would be it – the police had flexed their muscles, the angry locals had displayed their displeasure by attacking a volunteer house and threatening some volunteers and refugees. Things calmed down a little after, and I assumed it had just been a bad couple of days, and that it would all blow over.

While I was on Samos giving clothes, baby food and nappies to the residents of the smaller but arguably equally awful Vathy camp, things on Lesvos escalated beyond anyone’s imagination. The night I was originally due to return (but had already changed my plans due to personal reasons) was the night 200 refugees walked from Moria to the ferry terminal, after a rumour spread that the borders to the rest of Europe had opened. My heart broke as I thought of people dismantling their “homes” to start this new life – only to be aggressively pushed back on the two-hour walk to the camp.

Hundreds of riot police descended on the island and were attacked by locals. More and more volunteers and refugees were attacked, until eventually almost all volunteers were evacuated from the island. They were flown or ferried to Athens or Samos, with the option of working with NGOs there or just continuing their journeys home. Exhausted and broken, many chose the latter option. Some Lesvos volunteers came to join us on Samos, with stories of the trauma they had gone through. I remember the first meeting we had with them as they spoke about the state of Lesvos – myself and Julia, who I went to Samos from Lesvos with, broke down in tears. How could our beautiful Lesvos have become this way? How could we live with ourselves knowing all the people we loved there had been left to fend for themselves? It wasn’t news to us, of course, but there was something about hearing it first-hand that we couldn’t quite handle. I wanted to go back, but at that time there were blockades everywhere, especially at the port and airport. Anyone who was clearly a visitor – be it a volunteer, a photographer, journalist, doctor – was at risk.

Turkey opened its border, encouraging anyone who wanted to go to Europe to go, while people on Lesvos gathered by the sea to push the refugees back. Any volunteer found on the shore was arrested, so people trying to find safety were left with no help. The Hellenic coastguard was filmed tormenting migrant boats, and refugees were left floating for hours, watched but not helped. Greece announced it would accept no new asylum claims for a month. News reached us that hundreds of people were being held at the port in Samos with next to nothing, and on Lesvos anyone who managed to make it to the shore was being placed on a ship and held there with hundreds of others.

Samos then started to show signs that the tension was spreading. It was the night that I couldn’t help but go to bed super early. There were about 16 of us staying in the weirdest house you can imagine, but it was a happy place, filled with laughter, dancing and endless hugs and support. I left the rest of them playing guitar and singing in the kitchen. I crawled to bed straight after dinner at 9pm and immediately fell asleep. I woke up to Julia’s eyes wider than I’d ever seen – she was screaming at me to get up. I didn’t understand. Why was everyone running everywhere? It sounded like we were in a war zone. What’s happening? I asked her. She said she didn’t know but I needed to go and hide in the kitchen. Suddenly I knew, and it seemed likely that we were going to need to run – so I grabbed my bag, which I knew contained my passport and purse, I grabbed a jacket and slipped on my flipflops (not fantastic escape shoes but easy to put on in a hurry).

Hold on, I’ll explain the layout of the house a little… It’s on a hill, so by the front door, which went out onto the street, was our bedroom, then two floors down is the kitchen where the backdoor is, leading you out into the back garden.

I walked out of the bedroom with banging echoing through the house, the doors shaking. I ran down the first set of stairs, my legs shaking. I realised I had forgotten my phone – I couldn’t leave it. By this point, I had realised that people were trying to break through the door and as I ran past it again I wondered if it would happen at that moment. It didn’t. I grabbed my phone and made my way to the kitchen. We sat there in the dark for what felt like hours – it could only have been minutes. We weren’t all there and I didn’t know where the others were or what was happening upstairs, but I was frozen in this sleepy-adrenaline-filled state. I could hear people coming down the stairs – don’t be them – and I’ve never been so happy to see the beautiful face of our volunteer coordinator. She fell straight into my arms, and it will forever be the nicest hug I’ve ever received. It turned out the neighbours had seen the people – whoever they were – throwing rocks at our house and had called the police. Spooked, they ran away. They had managed to hit one volunteer in the head with a rock that went through the one window that didn’t have the shutters closed, but he was okay. The thing is, now, I don’t think they really wanted to hurt us, just scare us; just let us know that they didn’t want us there. It worked.

That night, at about midnight, we were evacuated and sent to different houses all over the island. I spent the night in a small double bed with my two best Samos friends, restless, tearful, knowing we were safe then but wondering what could happen next, having constant dreams of running. We never went back to stay in that house. We went back to get our stuff a few days later and the noises of the stairs rattling as I walked took me back to that night, and as my heartrate quickened, although I missed the comradery that the eclectic space had encouraged, I couldn’t help but be grateful not to spend another night there.

From then on, we changed a little as people, I think, all a little more frayed around the edges, but things didn’t escalate. We got a stern “you need to go home because we don’t want you here” from a lady one morning, and I found myself looking down more and more as I passed people on the street, instead of smiling, but other than that, things were fine. Samos hasn’t had the massive influx of refugees that Lesvos has, nor has it had the media attention nor the deployment of hundreds of riot police – things are tense but less-so.

And then there’s corona. We had already had what seemed like a really premature warning of what could happen if things with corona escalated – we were told 2 or 3 weeks ago that if we wanted to leave, we could and should do it then, to avoid getting stuck. The thing is that any health system will be pushed to the point of breaking, but here it is already stretched. But still it seemed mad at the time – there was just one case in Greece at that point, and I was still in the ‘avoiding thinking about it’ phase. There’s already so much to think about here that I just don’t let myself think about anything much outside of this bubble. But some people left, including a statistician who was convinced the whole thing was about to explode and he didn’t want to get trapped here – I’m sorry, man, that I rolled my eyes at you thinking you were a bit crazy. Of course, in the last week, it’s been impossible not to think about our dear Covid-19.

Friday night was my last night on Samos before returning to Lesvos, and it also was, it turned out, the last night for a while that I would spend in a tavern as all bars, restaurants, cafes…anything that encourages people to gather, have been closed.

The port was intense as I arrived in Mytilene. Ushered along by men in black wearing masks, whilst looking towards the edge of the pier where I could see that refugees had been let off the ship they’re currently being held on  – just for a break to get some food and water. It was hot and loud and a bit of an attack on the senses.

If you’ve never been to Mytilene, you should go one day. Not now, but one day. It’s by far my favourite city. Within weeks of living here, it felt like home. It has a population of 30,000 people, a long street of shops and an array of bars, taverns and take-aways. It is always buzzing. Drinking and eating are such huge parts of Greek life that the cafes and bars always have people sitting inside and out. There’s chatter and cars and people walking; there’s coffee and cigarettes everywhere, all times of day and night. The sky is almost always blue, the sun shining down on the port. You can walk alone just smiling to yourself, it’s so pretty, and warm in every way. I returned on Saturday morning to a ghost town. All tables and chairs in every café were piled up so as to display the fact that the establishment was following the new rules. I kept thinking of a quote from the Sex and the City movie “Our pre-war apartment looked a lot different post-war.” I don’t like the word war being used so flippantly but that’s how it felt: post-war Mytilene, although physically unchanged, seemed so completely different.

As soon as I had dropped my stuff at my new temporary home, I made my way to One Happy Family, or at least, what is left (read my previous post about the night OHF went on fire). It took my breath away. I had accepted that the school had gone, it was clear from the photos, but the damage to the main centre was so much worse than it seemed in the pictures. My eyes welled as I remember all the happy days spent there – and they really were all happy days. People look at me perplexed when I say I left OHF for a bit because I was too happy. “I’m sorry?” Well, I didn’t come here to be happy, I came to help. If I’m having a good time – then surely I’m not doing enough. I went to Samos to do some hard graft because that’s surely what I should be doing. But I realised I’d left my whole heart behind in OHF and had to go back and get it. I had been waiting to hear when it would reopen so that I could return, when I got the news that it had burned down. Now there’s certainly some hard graft to be done, and I have no idea where we begin, but it won’t happen now. We planted a couple of almond trees and said goodbye to old OHF and hello to the future, trying to focus on the positives as is always the way in OHF. It was hard and it will continue to be hard for everyone for as long as OHF is closed, but the trees represent hope, and as the sun beamed down on us, the hottest it’s been this year, things felt more optimistic.

That night, however, we were told of rumours that suggested it was best to stay inside. So, I locked my doors, closed my shutters and curled up in bed watching Friends – forever my go-to in times of stress. I heard noises outside, banging, and I froze. There’s no way anyone could know I was there, but my paranoid mind took me back in time. The banging continued for a long time and I realised it was someone doing – for some unknown reason – some night-time DIY in the garden near to mine. I do think that it’s more or less safe here now, and we’re well supported, both by the NGOs and our landlords, but it will take a while for everyone to shake this feeling. Most volunteers have gone for now, at the advice of the NGOs given that they could at that point no longer guarantee their safety, and now due to corona it will be a while before anyone new can or should come.

Today, we were just outside Moria for an hour or two greeting some of the OHF helpers. I hadn’t seen them in 5 weeks, and it was so nice to see them again, and to see them see us, still here. I cannot stand the thought of them thinking we’d all gone, even though many people had no choice – the refugees really have no choice but to stay, no matter how dangerous or dire the situation is. It was a true moment of solidarity. Everyone seemed so chilled, so happy. We left, a little chilly from the cold wind (yesterday was summer but today is winter) but happy to have seen them. Then we saw the fire engine pass us. I knew it was going to Moria, but assumed or hoped it was just small fire gone a little wrong. Then we saw the videos. Flames towering over the camp and smoke billowing. I still don’t know how many people have died, but I know one child has. I don’t even have words for this anymore. The camp was made for 3,000 and now has 20,000 and absolutely no evacuation plan. This is I think the third fatal fire in a Lesvos camp since I arrived, and now corona is chapping at the gate, but still Europe refuses to act. Still these people are left with beyond insufficient support.

It’s such a bizarre time for the whole world, when we really don’t know what we’re going to wake up to – another 5,000 corona cases and hundreds of deaths? Another border closed? Further clamp-downs, lockdowns, shutdowns? For now, in Greece, we’re being advised to stay in, avoid gatherings, queues aren’t allowed to contain more than 5 people inside, but so far we’re still pretty free. As for tomorrow, who the fuck knows. And for the refugees it’s a whole other level of uncertainty that we can’t even begin to imagine.

One Happy Family. I’ve written a lot about it over the months. I spent five months there, and left for “three weeks” to have a change of scenery and to do something a bit more physical, some dirty work. I left with a smile saying “see you soon!” The happiest place on earth, my home, I’d be back in just a moment. None of what has happened in the last few weeks ever crossed my mind. It never, ever crossed my mind that OHF might not be there.

But yesterday, OHF was found in flames. The School of Peace, the most colourful and happiest of places – every afternoon, you could hear dozens of kids chanting and laughing – was already gone by the time the fire brigade got there. The school – of peace – reduced to nothing. As for the rest, we wait and see.

Once you become part of OHF, whether you stay for 3 weeks or a year, and regardless of where you then go – you never really leave. OHF steals a little piece of your heart and keeps it there with those of all who came before you. OHF is a place of solidarity, a place of love and laughter, a place of dancing, of sharing. This attack on a building was an attack on the whole concept of this. But while my already broken heart breaks further, I remind myself and those hurting around me, that it was just a building. No one was hurt. And the idea and the love and the laughter, that all came from within us – the hundreds of people who put their heart and soul into it every day. And they can beat us and they can scare us and they can burn our buildings and our cars but they will never take that.

Yesterday, I was full of hate for them – I fell asleep angry – but today, as I wake up with a bang as my whole body remembers yesterday’s events, I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry that they don’t have enough love in their lives, that they have to spread hate and destruction.

OHF represents a love like no other – it’s a love of every single person no matter who you are, what you are, where you’ve come from or where you’re going – and this love will win.

updates & heartbreaks

From this afternoon, most NGOs on Lesvos have ceased to function – at least for the time being. It’s no longer safe for anyone to operate. Volunteers have been flown off the island to Athens while riots continue in the centre of Mytilini.

I spent a lot of today crying and the rest of the time trying not to cry. Mytilene is home. The people there, the majority, are just beautiful – when I start to think that every local hates us, I think of my hairdresser’s, the giggling ladies there who make me feel so loved and nurtured each time I go … it’s the minority who are bad but that minority is loud and vicious. The refugees – all the thousands of people I have met, and the people I have become close with, are now left with nothing – no One Happy Family to escape to, no distributions, little to no medical care – surrounded by anger.

I hope they remember that we love them, that we care, that to us they are humans, equal, more than deserving of being here – I’m sorry not everyone feels that way, but we do, and we’ll keep fighting in whatever way we can.

If you can do one thing for me, let it be that you read a little more about the situation and talk to people about it. Remind people that these are humans just like me and you – they’re mums and dads, babies, they’re annoying teenagers and lovely people and total dickheads, they’re people who dream of being doctors or are already doctors, they’re artists and carpenters, they’re people who don’t know what they want except to just be safe, they’re beautiful men and women with the potential to break our hearts, people who love dancing and singing, they’re ordinary, they’re boring people and interesting people and annoying people and fantastic people. Do you get it? They’re people.

I feel guilty not being on Lesvos and scared to go back, but happy that I can at least help on Samos, where hundreds of people have arrived in the last week and more are expected to arrive since the Turkish border was opened.

But generally, I despair. I don’t really know how to live in a world like this.

Fire & sticks

If you don’t already know – and judging by the lack of information in the British media, it’s likely you won’t know some of this – I’ll give you a quick summary.

Turkey opened its border, allowing (and encouraging by providing a free bus service) thousands of refugees to try to gain entry into Greece – by land and sea.

At Evros, Greece, some 15,000 are waiting to cross the border – being met by armed police who are forcing them back.

As for the islands – more than 600 people arrived on the Aegean islands yesterday, hundreds of them to be met by angry mobs who did not want them to get ashore; pushing them back with sticks. People in black masks on a speedboat attacked one migrant boat, removing its engine and leaving it floating in the middle of the sea with men, women and children on board. Other boats were also left floating, watched by the authorities but not helped even when in visible distress.

Last night, the Greek government announced that they are suspending asylum applications for a month – meaning that those who get to Greek land after a life-threatening journey which they hoped would bring them from danger to safety, will be returned to their home countries with no consideration of their situation there.

MEANWHILE, anyone connected with an NGO is now in danger, with (a minority of right-wing) locals seeing us as the reason for all this. NGO vehicles and houses have been targeted, as well as some volunteers themselves. On Lesvos and Samos (where I still am, currently, and where there are signs of the unrest spreading) we are advised not to walk alone. They have set the islands on fire to try to smoke us out but, for now – while we are needed more than ever – we remain.

Samos, 480 shampoos & some fresh weirdos

The hardest thing about leaving Lesvos for any period of time is knowing that when I go back, some of the people I know and care about will be gone. It’s already happened. I’ve not even been gone a week and already one of my favourite people on the island has left. Maybe I’ll see him again – but I have to accept that’s it’s likely I won’t. It’s a happy thing though- everyone’s goal is to leave that island.

I’ve found myself on Samos. I was here at the beginning of January on a holiday, and when I saw Refugee4Refugees were desperate for volunteers here, I knew I had to come. I was intrigued to do a different kind of work, to meet a different team and to learn a bit more about Vathy camp – Moria’s equally sinister little sister – but mostly I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave my lovely unit of pals – my loves. I didn’t want to leave my house. The night before I was supposed to get the ferry, I so almost decided not to come. But I came. I danced until 4am, went home to get my bags then was on the ferry at 6. (I don’t know where this side of me came from.)

So, I got to Samos and I discovered that NGOs are maybe always like families. Again, as with OHF, we have bonded over a shared interest and a shared desire to help, and that makes friendship really easy. We are also all a little bit weird. I’m staying in a house with (currently) 16 other people, though it has a capacity for 20, and I weirdly love it. From my single bed in a room I share with two girls, I can see orangey rooftops and the sea, and it’s not difficult to think of this as some kind of home.

The work I’m doing right now is mostly based in a warehouse so I haven’t been in contact with any refugees – a stark contrast with OHF where I’m surrounded by 1,000+ visitors every day. I miss the interaction but I’m happy because I know what I’m doing is really worthwhile, just behind-the-scenes. Yesterday we finished bagging 480 family bags – containing everything from shampoo to a cosy snood – which will make the lives of 480 families (650 kids) that little bit better.

We’re going into day 5 of a 6-day week and my body is a little tired but in the good way. Tomorrow we’ll be distributing all the things we’ve been putting together for people, and I’m excited to see the stuff get to who needs it most. That’s what it’s all about, after all.

Helpers and unfriendly tenants: the week the shit hit the fan

There’s that meme that seems to go round after something horrible happens. It says: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s a comfort in times when it seems like evil is winning.

This week I focussed on that. I looked at the beautiful faces of the people I volunteer beside, and thought of those I’ve met these past few months, international and refugee volunteers, and thanked god that there are people like them. Because this week, things on Lesvos got nasty.

A protest was organised by refugees against the situation currently in Moria. From those I know who were there, I understand that people were sat on the road making peace signs with their hands, and calling out the word “freedom” when the first lot of tear gas was set off by the police. And that’s when the chaos began. Women and children were beaten, babies were caught up in the tear gas, people collapsed on the road.

I was up the hill from there, where I usually am, but that day instead of giving out spoons, I (along with many others) was giving out Coca Cola for people to wash with. I learnt that the acidity helps the burning effects of the tear gas. I never wanted to have to learn that. I saw kids with their eyes red raw; regular, normally-smiling visitors silent and shell-shocked. My heart broke as I handed a shaking 10-year-old girl a cup of coke as she comforted her mother, trying to get her to drink.

Things have taken a turn on this island and tensions are at an all-time high. Locals are beyond tired of the situation, and we (refugees and volunteers) are here every day reminding them of it. I can understand, honestly. I can understand that they’d want their home “back”. No one wants this. Any volunteer would love to not be needed. And any refugee just wants a safe home, like anyone else.

I will always be grateful for Greece for being a home to me these last few months, and for being a temporary home to so many displaced people. And I, like every volunteer I know, do not blame Greece or the Greeks. We blame our own countries. We blame Europe. Greece is the unlucky, beautiful front garden to a house with unfriendly tenants.

Generosity & closed doors

I will always remember the day a little girl handed me a biscuit. It was during my first weeks here, and there she was with almost nothing in her life but this packet of biscuits which she was eager to share. I told her, “no, no, no! You keep it!” She looked at me incredulous, as if to say she couldn’t eat beside me without me having one. I took it, not wanting to offend her. She beamed at me.

I’ve met the most generous people of my life here. Some with family money, some without. Some with literally nothing. All showing more generosity and care than I’m used to.

I watched a video of refugees in Bosnia today, saying that they hadn’t had food in days. I remembered an Iraqi telling me in my first days here that any visitor to Iraq would not pay for food – you would be handed food and invited in to share what the locals had. Imagine if we showed them the same generosity? Imagine if our restaurants gave out free meals to those with nothing, or if large numbers of Europeans – not just a tiny minority – opened up their homes and hearts to these people who are running from horrors we are lucky enough to never have experienced?

These thoughts come to me on a day when the Greek islands and Athens have been completely shut down in protest to the situation here. Today, we can’t work because not only are the busses not running but it may not be safe for refugees to be on the streets today- and maybe volunteers too, as we are seen as facilitators.

Hateful propaganda can be found in the streets, while others are rightly protesting the closure of Stage 2 camp (where refugees first go upon arrival on Lesvos) and the way in which refugees are being treated. Many are upset about the state of their island home and I can empathise with them – it must be awful to have seen the place change so much, and to have been economically and socially affected so suddenly and so extremely – but feeling hatred for refugees is not the answer (and I just hope it’s the minority who feel that way). We should all be angry at the rest of Europe for leaving Greece so alone with this crisis. The lack of action is the problem; the people are not.

luck & suicide

I took a little break. I took a little break, and I travelled to Samos, then Istanbul, then Ayvalik on the west coast of Turkey, then I got the ferry back “home”.

And it really does feel like home, this. I got back and almost cried as I was reunited with people I’d only been apart from for two weeks, and a few others with whom it had been a little longer. I could barely let go of my closest friends. Here, there’s always this feeling of not knowing who will still be around when you return. Everyone is that little bit more precious because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. And we’re here, weathering the storm together – that creates a special bond, I suppose.

I got back to a protest following the suicide of a man who had been held in solitary confinement despite his obvious mental ill-health. After two weeks, he hanged himself. After two weeks of banging his door and crying through the nights… Two weeks, and the Greek police ignored him so he took matters into his own hands. Every time, I think we’ve hit rock bottom, then the situation here manages to find a new low. That won’t have made the news back home, I know. Neither will the two men who were murdered inside Moria just before I left.

Is this really Europe?

So I’ll hold my beautiful friends close, and thank God/Allah/the universe every day for everything I have – most especially of all, for the freedom I was lucky enough to be born with.