Today I cried for the first time since I got here. It wasn't very cathartic but it was something. I'm learning that grief comes in many forms. These days, for me, it's not in the form of tears. The pain is manifesting itself in my physical body. I feel like I'm under water. My legs are heavy. My mind is slower. All of my strength is leaking away. I feel trapped. Like I'm starting to go crazy. I have so many layers of emotion bearing down on me I can't distinguish one from another.
We took a bus to Molyvos and hiked along sparkling blue water, the richest shades of azure and cobalt, through green rolling hills speckled with terracotta roofs. The air was hot and breezy and the afternoon sun kissed my already sunburnt face. As the paved road turned to dirt, we rounded a corner and there it was. So abrupt. Tragedy draped across the lush landscape.
Emotions washed over each of us in rhythm. We stood stunned. We wept. We sat in reverent silence, honoring each life in that graveyard.
I thought about the lives behind each of the lifejackets. I thought of the people I've met at camp. The young parents from Afghanistan. The student halfway through dental school. The pregnant mom. The 17 and 15 year old sisters from Syria. The law school student. The wife who wonders if her husband is alive or dead. The young man who was tortured for daring to educate girls. The grandmother celebrating after her whole family made it safely to shore. The teenager who lost everything. The boys whose faces are aged beyond their years, until they crack those mischievous grins, those certain expressions that look exactly like my younger brother.
My mind flashed back to the moment I sat on the floor of an ISO box with Anna, gathered around a big dish of spicy chicken a couple of minors from Pakistan cooked for us to celebrate her last day as a volunteer. We scooped it up with warm bread, laughing and talking in between bites. I remembered when one of them walked up to me with a mischievous glimmer in his eye and said, "hold out your hand" then proceeded to hand me a baby turtle, his new pet.
I remembered the time another friend told me about his childhood in Afghanistan and how he got in trouble as a kid for stealing pomegranates and blueberries from the neighbor's garden. His story of childish mischief reminded me of when my brother got in trouble for shooting blueberries out of a nerf gun in my parents newly remodeled kitchen.
I thought of the people I now call friends running from home, leaving their best friends, their pets, maybe their families. I thought of them passing their favorite childhood spots, their schools, everything familiar. Risking it all to maybe survive a treacherous months long journey. To endure beatings and robberies. To be stripped of their possessions. Stripped of their dignity. To walk for miles barefoot. To give their kids sleeping pills so their cries wouldn't give them away to the police. To cross borders. To cross oceans. To maybe make it.
I thought about how they left in the middle of their lives. In the middle of their careers. Halfway through school. Or about to retire. Maybe they were cooking lunch when they knew it was time to flee.
Among the piles of black rafts and faded orange lifejackets, there was a little neon pink arm floaty with cartoons printed on it, the kind my parents used to fasten onto my arms for swim lessons at our neighborhood pool or when we went to the beach each summer. I thought about the parents who fastened that pink floaty to their child's arm before getting on a crowded raft to cross the ocean. I wondered if that family made it.
I looked down, opening my purse to get my camera out, and saw my U.S. passport. A tangible piece of my privilege.
I don't know why I was born into privilege and opulence while others were born into war and danger and uncertain futures and a world that sometimes seems to turn its back. To reduce their human experience to a purely political issue. A topic to be avoided at the dinner table because it's uncomfortable to talk about. Why does it have to be this way.
I thought about how as humans, we have the ability to make ugliness out of beauty. But we also have the ability to make things beautiful again. To build a monument of lifejackets. To rebuild a life from nothing. To blast music and dance the night away and drink tea in a camp filled with ISO boxes and barbed wire and concrete. To engage. To care. To use our gifts and spheres of influence to shape the world into what it's meant to be. To see the divine light in each human life and honor the glorious reflection of God in each other.
Over the past few weeks, I had the honor of spending some time at a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece. I want to convey my experiences in a real and raw way, so I've chosen a few excerpts from my journal to share. I hope they give you a glimpse into the difficult and beautiful moments I witnessed, and the resilience, kindness and generosity of the people I met.
May 6th, 2017
Today was my first day at camp. After orientation I helped with the women's clothing “shop.” Each refugee is given tickets redeemable for donated clothes. I loved being able to help restore a small sense of normalcy as women picked out clothes they liked. I helped a mom and her two teenage girls, probably 13 or 14, shop for jeans. We were having trouble finding jeans in one of her daughter’s size. I brought her a pair to try on and she politely told me, “I think those jeans are for moms.” And they totally were – stretchy spandex blend, modestly cut, non-trendy mom jeans. It was a funny, lighthearted moment in the midst of a lot of heaviness. And we did end up finding a pair she could feel a little more like herself in.
Camp is a difficult place to process trauma. Everyone has so much idle time and there's no certainty about what the future holds. Everyone is waiting for an answer. It seems like even the timeline for getting an answer is full of uncertainty. Some cases are processed in a few weeks but most people have been here for months or even over a year.
I was really struck by the ingenuity I saw walking around. One of the refugees opened a coffee stand under the shade of one of the public tents. He makes a signature coffee. (It's really good.) And a couple “barber shops” have sprung up too. Of course, people are all at different places in grieving and processing trauma and there is a lot of desperation too, but seeing those pop up shops lifted my spirit and gave me hope.
May 9th, 2017
Today we were picking up trash around camp – no matter how many trash cans or dumpsters you have, when there are thousands of people living in tents and ISO boxes, it gets dirty quickly. I was emptying a trash can into the dumpster when two women hurried over to help, freshly picked wildflowers from the side of the road in their hair and colorful scarves blowing in the wind. I couldn't believe their kindness. We had gloves and hand sanitizer and work clothes on and here they were, offering to help us pick up disgusting trash with their bare hands.
I've only been here a few days and I've received such an outpour of generosity from the refugees I’ve met already. My friends from Sri Lanka shared their chicken with me at lunch. Another man shared his home cooked dinner, an aromatic dish with rice, chicken, tomatoes and onions. It was so good. Another made us quesadillas. Others have brought me ice cold Monster, hot coffee, cookies and tea. Yesterday, Sasha and I were having fries and coffee at a little cantina right outside camp. A few refugees saw us and paid for our food. It's such a cliché thing to say, but oh my gosh, what an honor it is to be here, to serve even in a small way.
May 10th, 2017
It hurts. Oh my gosh it hurts. My whole body aches. Everything is nauseatingly unfair. It's unjust. There's a constant aching in my bones. A knot in the pit of my stomach. It hurts. It hurts like hell.
I feel a little like I'm starting to go crazy. Walking through camp, I had a weird experience like I was losing control. I had to remind myself to breathe.
The word that comes to mind is powerless. I'm trying to imagine myself in the place of someone living at camp – even though I know I can't. To feel powerless over my circumstances. To be idle all day. To feel like my fate is at the whim and mercy of people in power. Waiting. Waiting for my papers. For interviews. For a decision.
I'm piercingly aware of the depth of privilege (and responsibility) that comes with holding a U.S. passport. I'm painfully aware of the sheer scale of pain in the world, layers and layers. The world is throbbing. I am only one. But words have power and I will use mine.
May 14th, 2017
Another boat arrived this week. I got to hold a precious baby girl from Syria just days after her boat landed safely. It was one of those moments I wished I could slow time for just a minute.
We served tea in the new arrivals section (new arrivals have to stay in a contained area until they're evaluated and cleared by the doctors and receive their initial papers) It can be a really chaotic. Anyway, I served tea to a grandmother in a wheelchair and her small granddaughters – their whole family made it safely all the way from Syria!
We could barely communicate but she pointed to her wedding ring and showed me which of the children running around were her grandkids. We sat in the chilly evening air, chaos swirling around us, holding hands and laughing and sipping our tea.
May 16th, 2017
I've met so many interesting people. A personal trainer and a doctor, an actor, a lawyer, a driver, and college students. People who were studying international affairs. Who were in dental school and law school. They're not “other.” They're like people I know at home. Like me. And right in the middle of life they had to flee. They've been robbed of their work and everything that goes along with it: a sense of purpose, fulfillment, livelihood, even identity.
They're so strong. Most people are learning new languages – usually their 3rd or 4th or even 5th languages. I've met refugees who run 15 miles a day. Who've made bench presses and dumbbells and pull-up bars with rocks and broken mops and empty water bottles and rubbish around camp. I've met refugees with such rock solid faith it astounds me. The people here are incredible.
May 17th, 2017
WARNING: this excerpt has references to violence.
I woke up this morning and the blankets on the bed next to mine looked like a pile of bodies. I was half asleep but awake enough to know it wasn't real. Still, I saw faces.
I met a woman from Congo the other day. She told me about her husband and how she doesn't know whether he's alive or dead. She knows her kids are safe. She showed me a photo on her phone of home: bloody bodies scattered across the earth.
For her, it wasn't a dream.
May 18th, 2017
I sat outside on the concrete ground with a 17 year old from Syria and her mom and 15 year old sister. We talked about how she loves school and she showed me photos on her phone of her favorite Syrian food. I told her about Mexican food and we rolled our rice and feta and pita up to make “burritos.” I asked if she had a boyfriend and she laughed and told me she was too young. She asked if I was married. I said no and we laughed some more. A couple of the men brought us tea and we made a makeshift table using an upside down bucket, chatting and laughing and sipping our tea as the sun set over another day.
May 20th, 2017.
Yesterday I helped a young family from Afghanistan print documents for their interview. They've been here two months and have a beautiful 10 month old son. They told me it felt like the day before a big exam as they triple checked their documents, making sure they were all set. After we were finished, they asked if we had enough ink and paper to print a photo or two, to tape to the wall to make their stark room feel a little more like home.
Their eyes lit up, faces cracking into smiles as we printed their wedding photos. It's such a small thing, printing photos on copy paper with an old printer but it's moments like this I wonder if my heart can hold this much joy and pain at the same time.
May 22nd, 2017
We were emptying trash when a man from Ghana joined in to help. “You shouldn't have to do this kind of work. At home, I wouldn't let my wife lift a finger. I'll do this.” He stayed with us for probably thirty or forty minutes, emptying trash can after trash can.
Two refugees from Afghanistan invited us into their ISO box for tea to say thank you for cleaning. They offered us hot chai and apologized more than once for not having any fruit or sweets to offer us. They needed to go shopping in town to replenish their supply of treats for guests. We sat and chatted for a while and drank our cups of tea…and had seconds. When the tea ran out, they offered to make another kettle. Even in the midst of their current circumstances they were so warm and hospitable and generous.
Later, I was carrying some mats from one end of camp to the other. A group of guys from Iraq and Syria saw us walking and ran over to help. They barely spoke English but motioned for us to let them carry the mats… They carried them the rest of the way for us. It was so sweet.
I've encountered such generosity. People who jump in to help us do the dirty work. Who buy us coffee and Monster and snacks but are denied service at restaurants. I've heard story after story. Tragic stories of loss. Brave stories of miles walked and oceans chartered. Honest stories of challenge I can't fathom. Childhood stories of beloved places and family and beauty. Of pomegranate trees and childish mischief. The truth is, I see people I know in the people I've met. I see my brother. My classmates. My community. Most importantly, I see people I now call friends.
On May 9th, I journaled: How do I tell stories that aren't mine to tell? I can only share from my vantage point. I don't have the experiences of the refugees I’ve met and I don't want to stand in their places. But I want to join. I want to offer my voice, to join the crescendo of voices rising up.
I'm really excited to share that one of the refugees I met has started OHF Radio, an internet radio station run by refugees in Lesvos to share stories, be a source of information, and celebrate culture. It's still in the works, but check it out here! www.ohfradio.org.
For a split second, he had that nostalgic look on his face, like he was somewhere else, like he was remembering something.
“You look like my mom when you stir the chai like that.”
“Aww, thank you!” I grinned back as a stirred another paper cup. My heart was bursting. I can't think of a better compliment.
At a refugee camp, it's easy to feel powerless. And the past few days, I've been feeling exactly that. Powerless. Like my work here is futile.
But his words were refreshment for my soul. In that moment, I was reminded what an honor it is to be here, serving even in a tiny way. To pass out a cup of hot tea. A small, tangible piece of comfort. To remind a gentle, middle-aged man of his mother.
I'm reading Garden City and the epilogue is about redefining greatness. It talks about Mark 9 when the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. And how Jesus told them that to be great, they should be servants, disakanos, which is also translated “waiter.”
As I read those pages I thought about how I felt serving chai. I wasn't thinking about being impressive. It wasn't particularly glamorous. But I felt connected and fulfilled and at peace. I experienced God in the middle of a barbed wire, concrete camp.
A simple cup of tea is ordinary and small but it matters. I hope I always remember that. Small things matter. Being great is not about being impressive or making a show. It's such a beautiful paradox. We find life by giving life and time and effort away. We become great by humbling ourselves. I hope each time I drink tea (which is pretty much every day, let's be real) it takes me back to that moment.
Thanks for stopping by. A little about me — I have a latte each morning and drink about 7 cups of tea a day (I'm not exaggerating.) I live in Atlanta where I'm going to law school. I like long distance running and I love my city and I love exploring our beautiful earth. I believe in being vulnerable, following our passions & being free.
I started this blog to document and share my favorite moments while traveling. This is a place where I process my ideas, share the aches and joys of my heart, speak truth, and shine light on the beauty I see in the world.
I've realized that what I probably love most about traveling is the same thing I love about writing — the way it connects me to myself and other people. I hope as you read my words, you feel connected to our shared humanity.
Thank you for reading. :)
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