4 months

It’s coming up to four months that I’ve been here. Four months, and what have I seen?

Aside from the obvious – the dire state of the camp; the people still wearing summer clothes when I’m now wearing four layers each day, the little kids clinging to strangers (those traumatised don’t know much of boundaries).

I’ve seen the change, and that’s what’s struck me most. The worst thing about staying here long-term is seeing the change in people as they’re worn away by the situation. The redness darkening their eyes. Happy people turned miserable, angry, as their families are torn apart. The tired turn exhausted as months pass in Moria and the weather worsens. I’ve seen scars and wounds – visual representations of a situation my sheltered mind can’t really wrap itself around. I’ve held them as they mourned their loss; I’ve fought back tears as I’ve heard stories I didn’t want to hear.

“Take me to your country with you. Otherwise kill me because I hate it here.”

I’ve stayed silent while people have told me of their plans to go to one country or another – who gets to be the one to tell them how improbable that is?

But the worst thing has been seeing their hope fading. Four months, and I know many people who arrived here the same time as me and they’re nowhere even close to any kind of a conclusion. Four months, and the camp has gone from around 12,000 to around 19,000, and hundreds of people still arrive every week. Four months, eight months, two years, whatever – there seems to be no end in sight.

A home away from home – Christmas at OHF

With the main hall lined with fairy lights, the building sprinkled with stars, and enough glitter everywhere that we’ll probably still be finding it next year, Christmas began.

Though few of the visitors celebrate Christmas, they got into the spirit like Christmas cheer professionals. Everywhere I walked, I heard “Merry Christmas!” and people lined up to get their photo with Santa or those wearing reindeer headbands. Our 2D Christmas tree, made by one of OHF’s carpenters, attracted family photos just like it would have back home. Covered in lights and OHF-made ornaments, it was a perfect encapsulation of what OHF is – everyone coming together to make something beautiful out of very little.

Lunchtime had a special buzz to it, with chocolates and cookies being given out along with the chicken and rice, and the cries of Merry Christmas really erupted as I replied “tashakoor! No shay jan!” (Thank you, enjoy your food – in Farsi)

Music floated through the air everywhere, games were played around many dinner tables, and the food portions were that bit bigger – “we’ll all get fat!” said one member of the kitchen team, “that is exactly what Christmas is about,” I assured her. The whole day was, in fact, just a giant version of what Christmas is all about – giving, sharing, dancing, being merry, forgetting your troubles just for a day, and, of course, eating.

Christmas Day reminded us that although many of us – helpers, visitors and volunteers – don’t have our families with us right now, we’ve got this awesome second family – this One Happy Family.

**********

Thank you to everyone who donated to my JustGiving page! I made and exceeded the total just in time for Christmas, and it was the best present I could have asked for. 🥰

stay

Today, it became official that I’m extending my stay here. My original leave date was going to be this Friday – I can’t even imagine leaving now! Then it was going to be December 27. Now? I don’t know. Longer.

This place – this town, this island, this organisation – has captured me completely. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so at home. And how funny – or perhaps not at all surprising – that I’ve found myself feeling at home in a situation where no one is at home.

This is a place where the smallest act of kindness can make someone’s day; where being smiley is really, truly valued; where a busy day means you’ve made a difference to maybe 1,500 people.

This place – here – is like nowhere else; the people – the people! – like no one else. I chose love and, every day, I’m surrounded by it.

R4R and a Europe that’s not mine

There’s nothing like that post-workout ache that you have when your body knows it’s really done something – and I had that on Sunday morning, following a day of helping Refugee4Refugees put up tents inside Moria Camp.

Putting up tents might not sound that hard – that’s what I thought when I volunteered to help that coming Saturday. Cut to us (me and three other One Happy Family volunteers) arriving at 8am to be handed a shovel and other tools I don’t even know the names and being told we had to level the ground first.

I can count on one (still fairly achey) hand the number of times I’ve used a shovel, so I instantly felt a bit out of my depth, but after a few minutes, I got into it. We levelled several individual spaces in between the olive trees, and around the edges we created ditches. There were loads of us that day, as R4R had called in favours from all over to get the work done before the weather turned and winter truly began.

I had been in the entrance to Moria several times – where people line up for their cash cards or to see a doctor – but I had never been deep in amongst the tents that thousands of people call home. That morning, the first thing that struck me was the noise: silence as it was still early but punctuated by coughing all around; everyone is getting sick. My heart broke as I thought of being ill in these conditions – I just don’t know how they cope (you might think of Greece as always warm, but now it’s winter I’m sleeping wrapped in blankets and spending the days wearing a hat, scarf and coat – inside and outside – the wind bites right through you). Whilst my ears tuned into the suffering, my eyes widened. I knew that rubbish was an issue in Moria – and even more so in the part that I was in as that is the overspill which has no facilities – none. There are no bins, no toilets, no showers. All there is are tents and a few makeshift structures imaginative people have fashioned from pallets and other scraps. This is where new arrivals are directed to, with a tent in hand if they’re lucky.

R4R received a donation of teepees, which is what we were putting up. Sturdy tents – a thousand times better than the flimsy summer ones most people have – they promised to sleep at least 10 people per tent, and with the foundations we laid for them, they stand a chance of keeping people dry through the winter.

First the ground is levelled; then pallets are laid on top; then scrap rubber from the dinghies that people have arrived on is cut up and puzzle-pieced together and screwed down into the pallets. It’s genius. New, stronger guy lines are attached to replace the old, flimsy ones – and then usually a male resident grabs the hammer and shows you how to drive the pegs in properly. A little infuriating for someone like me (always wanting to show that I can, thank you very much) but I appreciate the sentiment.

It was so beautiful to be a part of this – to arrive in the morning as the sun was rising to bare land and leave after sunset with that same land full of homes for more than 100 people, most of whom were already moving or moved in, ready for a much more comfortable night than the one that came before. R4R had also provided them with mats and beddings.

It was beautiful madness to be somewhere so awful – with rubbish piled everywhere, more rubbish filling the stream, human faeces all over the place, slippy slidey muddy slopes connecting this awful campsite to more awful campsite and the outside world – but to see people actually quite happy, wanting to help and be part of the work, wanting to talk to us with whatever English they had, dancing to music outside their tents, kids playing in that river of rubbish as if it was a ball pit in a softplay back home. Then, you remember where they’ve come from – imagine how awful it would have to have been for this to be any kind of a happy time for them. And while we’re remembering things, let’s remember that this ‘outside world’ that I mentioned is not some far away third world that might seem alien to us – this is Europe, but certainly not my Europe.

a day in the life…

Today is Tuesday. On Tuesdays and Fridays, I work at the Lava Project laundry in the mornings, so I walk about 15 minutes to the main road and get picked up and taken to the laundry for 08:00. Once we get there, we sort the laundry that has been left over night – drying, folding, packaging it all up ready to be taken back its owners. At 09.30 it’s time to head to Moria to pick up the washing of the MSF patients – those people with scabies who are starting their treatment; washing their clothes and bedding at 60 degrees and drying them in a hot, hot tumble dryer is crucial to their recovery. Their bedding is returned that day (I can’t imagine there’s anyone in Moria with more than one set of bedding so this is vital) and their clothes the next day. We then collect and deliver clothes from the Rubhall – where new arrivals are located – and the “sections” – where you can find the most vulnerable people, young families and unaccompanied minors.

The unaccompanied minors are the ones who break my heart the most. Children, here, alone. Do you know the British government voted against accepting 1,000 unaccompanied minors into the U.K.? Can you imagine actually voting against that?

Anyway.

Once we collect from the Rubhall and sections, we get those clothes back to the laundry as soon as possible so that they can start to be washed – you never want a still washing machine or dryer! – and then it’s back again to collect more washing for scabies patients, and drop off clean clothes for them too.

I have to be back in One Happy Family for 13:30 to get ready for lunch. Arriving at that time has become one of my favourite things. Normally, when everyone arrives at 08:45, we arrive to an empty building to get ready for the day. Arriving at lunchtime, I’m greeted by hundreds of smiles and “hello my friend”s – you dive right into the action. I don’t think I’ll ever go to a more welcoming place than OHF, honestly.

Every day, at lunchtime, I distribute spoons to the men – I’m a “spooner” – and I’m also in charge of keeping track of the number of spoons used each day so that we know how many meals have been provided. It’s generally around 1,000, sometimes as many as 1,300, but the past couple of days the weather has been so bad it’s been more like 400. People have to walk for an hour to get to OHF from Moria, and they tend to stay put when it’s raining – they don’t have nice warm homes to go back to when they get wet. Lunchtimes can be tense so the happy, smiley atmosphere of OHF becomes even more important. I try my best to smile, make eye contact and say “enjoy your food” or “nu-shey-jan” (Farsi) to each man, asking them how they are when there is a pause, and you can see in their eyes the difference this makes. Every day, I get to know their smiles a little better and really look forward to seeing them.

The afternoons can consist of anything. Today, I was designing signs to use in the OHF bank to show people the prices of the things in the shop. Each day, each visitor can collect two drachma (OHF money) from the bank, and each day fifty shop cards are distributed so that people can spend their drachma on items like shampoo, soap, washing powder, nappies, sanitary towels, toothpaste… It’s a smart way of giving the people some dignity back, and limiting it like this makes it sustainable and as fair as possible.

Some days, I’ll work in the bank – which I love as you get to speak to hundreds of people – however briefly – or the cafe, or shop, or the nest, where the little kids go. Some days, I’ll wash dishes – which is fun when you have a few huge tubs and a bunch of pals.

If we end up with a free moment, we’re always encouraged to chat to people, play games, just help to improve the atmosphere even further.

At 15:45, the visitors are asked to leave the inside of the centre, and a small group of us start setting up to teach English to small groups of helpers (refugee volunteers). I think this might be my favourite time of day as I have been blessed with the most wonderful group of students. There’s maybe six at most, and people are always coming and going, and about ten times every class I have to say “no Arabic, English please!” but they make me laugh every single day. On Friday, I had to say goodbye to someone I had been teaching for the past 9 weeks. It will never stop being hard but as I said to him “I’m sad for us but I’m happy for you.” We want everyone to be able to get off this island, especially those who are living in Moria, so although we miss them we’re so happy for them when they get to move on.

The bus comes at 17:00 to take everyone back to Moria and Mytilene. First, we go to Moria – always a strange time. The atmosphere of the bus slowly drops as we get closer and closer. Suddenly we have to say goodbye to our colleagues and just hope they have somewhere warm and dry to sleep, as we watch the camp expand each day, beyond the fences, as more and more people arrive. When I arrived 11 weeks ago, there were around 11,000 in the camp – now there are almost 17,000.

Today, we had our post-work volunteer meeting, which involved a talk from an American woman about traumatised children and also about reverse culture shock – what we are likely to feel when we go back to “normal” life. I thought by this point I’d be ready to go back to that life – maybe even desperate to – but I’m nowhere near ready. Even with long days and hard, emotional moments, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

If you can, please donate to my JustGiving page for these wonderful charities. OHF is currently very low on donations and you can’t imagine the impact it closing would have (read more about it on my JustGiving page!) https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/melissa-silver-lesvos

beautiful humans

Now, it’s weird even using the word ‘refugee’. Refugee keeps it faceless, personality-less, when these humans are far from that.

Refugees are:

The sweetest mother I’ll ever meet, who’s baby has a smile that radiates like sunshine. You’ve been transferred now but I’ll carry you and your family in my heart forever.

The sassiest boy I know – who’s dark on the outside but so loyal once he’s your friend.

The almost-silent boy, who we all manage to love completely despite (or because of?) his silence.

The one who always lights up when he sees me because I played a boardgame with him that time.

The one who shouts ‘enjoy your food!’ every time he sees me as that’s the one bit of English he’s learnt, from hearing me say it in the food line.

My favourite OAP, who calls me his ‘favourite spoon lady’ – he’s fluent in three languages and yet lives in Moria.

The little girl who runs up and hugs me every time she sees me and refuses to let go no matter what I’m doing. I haven’t seen you in a few days – have you been transferred?  

The little girl who sings the ABC more sweetly than I knew possible.

The little boy who always makes me play this one game with him, and always wants to practise his English, and who has the meanest dad I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting.

That minor who wants so badly to learn – he sees education as the key to freedom.

The laziest boy I know – I’d be lazy, too, in your situation.

The sweetest young woman I’ll meet. Dimples, smiles and sad eyes.

The smartest teenager I’ll probably ever meet – I believe it when you say you’ll be a doctor.

The worst student I’ve ever had – please start revising or confine yourself to a life of mixing up the words ‘do’ and ‘make’. (Sounds meaner than it is – you make me laugh every single day).

The toughest woman I’ve met – you scare me and I love you for it.

The most genuinely nice man anyone could meet – I wish life would treat you as kindly as you treat everyone you meet.

The face of sunshine and storms – it took us a while to click, but we got there and now I respect you more than almost anyone.

The happiest little lady – you are my inspiration.

The angriest yet most chilled yet most confrontational person I’ve met – you’re hilarious and aggravating in equal measures.

I came here to help you but I can’t help but think you’ve helped me more.

Backpfeifengesicht

This week, I am angry. I’m properly, bloody angry. So angry that I want to cry because I don’t actually know what else to do.

It was triggered by a woman whose name I don’t even want to write. An English woman, famous basically for her vile opinions and prejudices. I will call her Backpfeifengesicht – a German word I just learnt, meaning ‘a face that invites a slap’. There is a video being shared of hers on Facebook, which I saw when I was awake in the middle of the night. It was all about the cost of asylum seekers for the UK government. It was all numbers. Humans being represented as numbers, as a cost per week for British taxpayers. Humans who are FLEEING WAR and PERSECTUTION being described as a cost to a country, which (despite the ridiculous cost of Brexit) is (in the grand scheme of things) doing alright. The video has been censored so that you have to click it to see it – I don’t know if this was done by someone who sees that disgusting woman the same way I do or if it was done because they know that people cannot resist. I naively thought the person sharing it was horrified by the contents, too. There’s surely a message of outrage above the video, I thought… no, no message. Then I saw the comments of “hear hear!” below. Oh wow, these people agree.

Already I’ve been surrounded by caring humans who see other people as humans and not as numbers for too long, I’m forgetting the horror. The horror that is an ever-growing part of the British culture (and many others) – the us and them culture; the ‘because I was born here, I’m better’ culture. This culture that is being provoked by Westminster.

I want to cry. I want to cry for all the people who are being ignored on the Greek islands, as the rest of Europe chooses not to see what is happening in Greece. Winter is coming and all people seem to think about it ‘their’ tax money. Winter is coming and Turkey is wreaking havoc in Syria; havoc that is only going to make the crisis worse.

I want to cry because every day I say good-bye to my peers as they get off the bus at Moria. I want to cry because although I felt a lot of compassion before coming here, I know now how hard it is to feel true, proper compassion before you’ve put a face to a number. These people, number 1, 2, 3… 20,000, 50,000, they’re people with senses of humour and dreams; with banter; with so much love; with sparkly eyes and smiles that make you smile too; they’re people with kids, with families scattered all over the world. They’re our friends here, and you don’t want them in your country because it will use part of an enormous budget that you – let’s be serious – can’t even begin to understand.

I’m so angry. I’m angry at every single person who voted for Brexit for any reason related to this “us” and “them” culture. We’re all the same. Come here and you’ll get it; talk to these ‘numbers’, and I promise you, you’ll get it.

“I’m absolutely wonderful”, the lie

When you ask me how I am, I’ll always say I’m good. I know someone who will always say she’s wonderful even when she feels like the world is imploding. Is it that British “I’m fine, you?” thing, or is it that it’s just absolutely bloody impossible to really explain how you feel here?

I’ll say I’m good but I’ll find myself drifting off, spacing out, my body sinking slightly. I’ll say I’m good but it’ll take someone looking at me for a second longer than normal, questioningly, to make me realise I’m not smiling – I should be smiling. I’ll say I’m good but I feel heavy, actually. Today, I feel very heavy. My heart is going just that little bit too fast, and I’ve been kind of sick for maybe 4 weeks now. I’ll say I’m good but the anxiety I thought i had more or less conquered has come back in full force. “I’m good,” no, actually, I feel like I have the best intentions and I’m doing everything wrong, or not well enough, or not cheerfully enough – or it’s just plain not enough. I’ll say I’m good because, in comparison to what I’m seeing around me, I am.

We’ll say we’re fine but actually someone with kind eyes has just shown us the bullet wounds on their body – caused by the police in their home country. Or we’re talking to a 14-year-old boy who’s here alone while his parents are in one country, one sibling is in another country, and another sibling is in yet another country – and he’s sick and he has no one to take care of him. We’re driving someone to the doctor because their scabies is getting out of hand because they’re living in such dire conditions. Then we read the news and see that our own countries are rejecting exactly these people; these wonderful, intelligent, kind people.

You’re talking to someone back home, and you’re trying to find the words that aren’t just “I’m good” but are maybe the words that you so desperately need to say to them – but you pause, and they don’t realise how big a moment it was about to be, and they just keep talking. So you vow to yourself to, next time, stick to “I’m fine”. Save the big words for the people here who get it.

That’s why it can be so hard for many people volunteering here to really answer the question “how are you?” when asked by someone back home – there are so many little details to it. And not only does it feel weird saying you’re not okay, but also maybe there isn’t time, or you’d rather just go to sleep by the point that you actually have the chance to talk, or you’re tired from talking all day, or you know you might get the response “well, you could just come home,” and that doesn’t help either.

I wrote this three days ago, and thought I’d leave it for a bit to see if I really wanted to post it. “Are you being a bit dramatic, Melissa?” I asked myself. No, in the end, I decided it was important. It’s been a hard week. It wasn’t just one of those emotional moments that can be cured by a cup of tea or a gin or a good sleep; this week has been almost too much. Or the build-up of 6 weeks culminated in this week being too much.

Right from the start at One Happy Family, they told us to talk. Whatever the problem, big or small, talk. I thought “how lovely of them”, because you could see they really meant it. But your tasks take over, and especially as a long-termer you find yourself busier and busier, and everyone around you seems so busy. Plus everything is so serious; people’s problems are so serious that it seems insane to bring yourself into the equation at all. But honestly, it’s hard here. For everyone. Everything is extreme here. I said before, the highs are higher than you’ve ever known and the lows are even lower than you can maybe imagine. We’re seeing the same news – and more – as everyone back home, but any bad news to do with the refugees hits the very heart of everything and everyone here. When a refugee dies, or people die in their own country before they’ve had the chance to flee, you know it could have easily been the person you just played cards with or just served food to, or it maybe was their brother, mother or cousin – it adds an extra sense of reality to it. As the number of people in Moria builds up and up, you feel the tension here. And you don’t really get to escape, no matter where you are – and you get the added bonus of feeling guilty for wanting to escape.

So we have to talk, we really do. And while talking to people outside of this situation will always be challenging, volunteers have to stick together, stick by each other, and say what we’re feeling. Sometimes we have to say “actually, today, I’m not absolutely wonderful.”

sickness, guilt & a side note

Everybody is sick right now. International volunteers, refugees, locals. Those who live in Moria, those who live in Mytilene. The flu has spread through Lesvos like, well, wild fire, though I’m loathed to use that expression in Greece.

I touched on “volunteer guilt” before, and I’ve been thinking about it more and more. It’s something everyone seems to struggle with – ‘I can’t complain, no, I shouldn’t even feel this way because others have it worse.’ And there is the odd person who will niggle at you to put things into perspective – ie compare what your problem is with what the people around you are going through. And this is necessary – absolutely. Do not complain you don’t have the latest iPhone when you’re standing next to someone who has no shoes, and winter is on its way. Do not complain your bed is uncomfortable when you’re surrounded by people who don’t have a bed.

But equally well – it’s important to be mindful that whatever the worst problem I’ve ever had is seems pretty hellish to me. Whatever is the hardest time you can remember is the most difficult thing you can really, truly comprehend. So when I see someone looking sad, and they tell me that it’s nothing compared to what other people are going through – I just can’t accept that. I want to hear if you’re having relationship troubles or you’re just tired or you’re homesick – it’s valid no matter where you’ve come from or why you’re here.

And I’ve received so much love and support from refugees while I’ve been coughing my lungs out, and I’m aware that I’m lucky because I go home to a warm bed and I have money for medicine or a plane ticket to go home if I get really sick, but I also appreciate the simple, human kindness. No refugee has made me feel like my problems are nothing, or that any issue that another volunteer has had is nothing. And yet some volunteers beat themselves and others up over having any worries at all. We’re so lucky – yes, we are so fucking lucky – but we’re only, merely human.

Looking out for your and other people’s health is human. Looking after one another’s mental health is vital, and even more so in this type of situation, where things can easily get too much for people.

Side note: I thought I would be writing so much more than I have been. It’s difficult because every day I have felt a little different, and then I fear I’ll contradict myself. But I have so many conflicting and contradictory thoughts it’s hard to keep track of them all. I also underestimated the influence having my colleagues at OHF on my social media and therefore possibly reading this – I’m paranoid I’ll get myself into trouble; I’m paranoid they’ll think I’ve misrepresented something; I’m scared to go too personal, which is not an issue I have ever really had. And in avoiding going too personal, I’m worried everything I’m writing is cliché or just a bit empty. I have a lot of mental blocks. But I’ll try to find a balance. Within this experience are so many stories to tell, and I’ll get there.

three weeks

Three weeks have passed and, already, I have said too many goodbyes, mostly to volunteers – short-termers who started at the same time as me and have completed their three-week stint, long-termers who were here long before me, and now, a family, who will leave a big gap in One Happy Family.

Although it’s a family who has left, it’s their little girl who I knew, and who I’ll miss. As I spend a lot of my days in The Nest – an area for kids aged two to seven, a peaceful place for them to come and just be kids – it’s the children who I’m getting to know most. This wee girl is sweetness and light – I’ll always remember her little smiling face below her wee pineapple-style hair, gathered into one bunch at the top of her head. She takes a while to warm to you, but once she does, you’ll find her crawling into your lap for a hug or grabbing your hand to take you somewhere to show you something. She’s responsible for my watch now beeping on the hour, every hour, after she and her wee pal spent about 15 minutes climbing on me and pressing every combination of buttons.

Three weeks. Three weeks, and, of course, you move on from all these things. The person I was saddest to say goodbye to still crosses my mind some days, but time moves, everything moves; OHF is like a whirlwind so you can’t stay stuck in one moment for too long. There are people arriving all the time – new visitors, new helpers, new volunteers. Always someone new to shake you out of a stale moment, someone new to explain my “but you don’t sound Scottish” accent to. There’s always something to do, and as a long-term volunteer, your time fills up more and more as you gain more responsibility.

Three weeks, and I wondered how I would feel if I were leaving now. If yesterday had been my last day, and I was heading back to Scotland or Spain, how would I feel? I think that after just three weeks, you don’t have a real sense of anything. I think that in two months, I’ll look back – much as you do when you’re older, looking back on your younger self – and think ‘ha, I thought I knew everything, I had no idea.’ I try to remind myself that I have no fucking clue, really. I think that three weeks gives you the easy bit; you aren’t yet rooted; you haven’t had time to get truly attached to anyone or anything. I think three weeks is probably the amount of time when everything stays mostly fun.