Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Look For the Swimming Priest

The maid at the Olive Oil Press Hotel used to live in America.

She and her husband left in 93 when the economy was bad and returned in 2010 when it was better, only to have it tank again. Her educated children can't find jobs. She has to work as a maid.

They ran a Greek restaurant in Reading Pennsylvania for 17 years. "My husband was homesick for Greece. I would go back now, but my husband says he is too old."

And so our maid becomes my friend. She tutors me in Greek phrases while she makes the bed. I try to help, but she won't allow it.

We talk about olive oil, about the economy of Greece, about the refugee crisis.

"First it was the economy, then the refugees, now the earthquakes. What will it be next?"

Our first afternoon in Molyvos, after the 6.3 in Mystenga, when a mild 5 quake hits, we run from the old hotel. We sit outside in the garden, read, calm our nerves. The next night, after we've put on our pajamas, we again run from the hotel and wait it out. We walk around the pool, watch the stars, talk about anything but the earthquake.

The next morning the maid asks if we felt the quake that morning at 7:45. Somehow we slept through that one.

How does a person adjust to such stress?

As I lay in bed that night wondering if I'd ever sleep again in the quaking village of Molyvos, I said a prayer surrendering my worry to Heavenly Father. I don't remember anything else, because I was fast asleep within seconds after giving my burden to God. My life as always, was in his hands, therefore I was free to sleep.

Now the part about the swimming priest.

I've gotten in the habit of packing my suitcase with clothing I intend to leave behind. Most often it is clothes I am tired of, or clothes my daughter handed down to me, but I also try to include something I would have kept if not having made a conscious choice. I had intended to leave the clothes at Kara Tepe, but we'd helped sort a warehouse of clothing donations, and they didn't need any more clothes. I would find a place in Molyvos, and our maid might know who would need them.

"I have a small bag of clothes I brought for the refugees. Do you know where I can leave them in Molyvos?"

"Ah yes," she answered. "You can take them to the priest. Did you hear the singing this morning?" I nod my head when I remembered the music through our open door.

"After services, you can find him at the cafe (she names a cafe). But it will be easier if you just walk to the beach. He goes swimming every morning after his coffee."

It would be easy to identify the priest at the church, and with his Greek Orthodox long black robe and cap, it would be easy to find him at the cafe, but swimming? What would distinguish him from all the older gentlemen at the beach? Why do I assume he's old? I'm sure he wears swim trunks--, but if he's young and fit, maybe he sports a traditional European speedo; maybe he wears a speedo if he's old and portly.

The maid realizes the conundrum, or maybe she sees the flash of humor in my smile as I think about searching for the swimming priest, speedo or not.

She offers to deliver the clothes herself. My gratitude is profuse and sincere.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Molyvos

After WWII, when people tried to applaud the village of Le Chambon for saving Jews, the Chambonnais were modest and tried to convey why they didn't need praise, "It's just what we do."

I finally understood their modesty, their refusal to be labeled heroes, when I met  and listened to Melinda McRostie, of Molyvos Greece, who has been applauded after she found at her doorstep refugees who sought asylum by trekking to Turkey then crossing the Aegean Sea.

"I didn't ask for it, it just landed on my plate." She could have finished her sentence by repeating what the Chambonnais said to safety-seeking Jews, "Naturally, come in, come in."

Melinda's story begins as a restaurant owner, The Captain's Table, port front, in November 2015. Having been the recipient of charity after a pipe blew up and destroyed her restaurant, the coast guard called and asked her if she'd be willing to help with some people who just arrived by rubber dinghy.

She hurried to the port to find 60 wet and shivering Syrians huddled together. She found blankets and dry clothing.

As word got out, as smugglers increased their service, the people came and didn't stop. The coast guard had to quit greeting boat refuges on the seas, but had to let them land on their own. They saved their resources and only embarked to save the boats with broken motors, boats that had split in half from overloading, and boats that had capsized in rough seas. The day came when 10,000 people arrived on the coast around Molyvos in one day.

After two and a half years and 600,000 people who landed safely, and 32,000 people who didn't, the people of Lesvos have a system and lots of assistance to deal with refugees still coming.

"What did you do before you had an infrastructure?" I ask Melinda.

"We'd give them blankets and they lived in the streets. We tried to put families with babies and the aged in hotel rooms. I got the key to the port bathroom and set up living space on the hill above the restaurant."

When the hill wasn't enough, she acquired land used as a parking lot for a large nightclub between Molyvos and Petra. She hired buses, loaded and drove refugees for the next part of their journey: passage to Athens where they would continue the process to relocation. The opposition continued, but it became more diabolical--criminals moved in to take advantage of a displaced people. They charged refugees hundreds of dollars for a ride to the port, made promises and took their money.

Molyvos' economy depended on tourists, and at the beginning of the refugee deluge, startled tourists pitched in. They'd be eating their dinner under the veranda, a boat would land, and they'd ask "What can we do to help?"

But vacationers come to the Greek islands for rest and beauty, not to walk the charming streets of an ancient town to step over Syrian families living in the streets. Tourism stopped. The people who'd witnessed the crisis gave money, sent money, got the word out. Melinda set up an NGO, the Starfish foundation.

 For eight months Melinda and the people of Molyvos worked on their own with individual volunteers who came when they saw what was happening. Then the NGOs came. Doctors sans Borders, the UNHRC, and the US based IRC were the first.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Molyvos and Le Chambon helped. Some people closed their curtains, their doors, their hearts. Melinda suffered from rumors, from people who resented her utter devotion to refugees--even her own children.

For most of us, such dire needs rarely end up on our doorstep, at least not on such a large scale as Molyvos or the Haute Loire Region of France in the 1940s. We have to go out and search for ways to contribute, for ways to lighten the load of humanity.

These two great villages were able to do what they did because of values and attitudes put into place long before they were needed. What gave some people the strength to respond with vigor and compassion when others didn't? What do we need to do to prepare for our own boat refugee crisis should it come?

It will come, but on a much smaller scale. It will be the neighbor who needs a ride, the child who needs patience, the person in the grocery line who's short of money.

My friend Jean emphasized we must do what we can now. We may not be able to help in a refugee camp or find shivering, wet people at our door, but we can send socks, or volunteer locally to help people in need.

Melinda believes strongly that service saves not only the recipients, but the people who serve. She speaks fondly of the drug addicted alcoholic whose help, she hesitated to accept. But she did, and he broke free of his addictions.

Ask yourself: If my city was suddenly and unexpectedly inundated with needy people, would I rush port side with sandwiches and blankets, or would I draw the blinds?

If the answer is the latter, you know what to do. Begin today.

Begin today to save yourself.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Our Last Night At Kara Tepe

Our shift starts at 10:00 p.m. but we go early to mingle among new friends. When we knock on the door of the ISObox, curtains part and three children shout with delight, "Tony and Pat, c'est Tony and Pat."

That we have evoked such a response is a surprise, since our encounters have been so few. It reminds me how important genuine care and friendship under such circumstances are, no matter how few or how simple the kindnesses are.

"We've come to say goodbye," Tony says with sadness.

The children hug us again and again. "We will miss you."

Patricia, worn out, her eyes telling the story of her husband's imprisonment in Africa, lumbers over for a hug. The children take turns in the photo she has them take with her iPad. She wants one with just her and us.

We are the three Patricias. Divided by circumstances and country, yet we bear the same name, mother, daughter, volunteer.

On our way to the next ISObox, a group of five toddlers we have never seen before, swarm us with hugs. We bend over, pick them up, adore them for five minutes. A mother emerges and has the children say goodbye and blow kisses.

How do they know we are leaving? Ah...it is the pattern. It is Sunday night. A new batch of Europeans come in, the old batch leaves. Once in a while, an American or two. An older American couple is the exception. The Kara Tepe family are expecting volunteers who have made friends to walk through the five sections ISOboxes.

We stop and see Guy and his family, Tony's friends, and together their French is more rapid than I can follow. They exchange numbers, best wishes, promises of prayers for one another. Guy promises to show up on our doorstep one day. Who could doubt such a promise?

We pass the homes, the hearts of the women who taught me about connection and love. So many nights when they opened their doors to receive, we would look at one another, and in the looking, in that split second of acknowledgement, came a knowing, a surety that we are sisters, of the same DNA, of the same Heavenly Parents who for reasons not understood, have placed us in such differing circumstances. Yet, our human circumstances are more common than we may have first realized. Our houses may be different but we share hopes, disappointments, we love our children, we want peace.

With soft hearts, we make our way to the food truck and food prep area. We begin to assemble suhur for our last night. It is more than likely we will never again participate in such an activity. We work hard and fast to complete this monumental task.

After the food distribution, after I scrub the 80 liter rice pudding pots, it's time to go. I look into the eyes of each of our helpers. The Syrians, the Iraqis, the Kurds, the Afghans. To most of them I haven't spoken more than a sentence, but I stood side by side, I walked with crates in the dark, I cared. We embrace each one. Each one matters.

Amir insists on walking us out to the car, and before we leave we must stop and see Hoda. They want us to come in, but Hoda's children are sleeping and her husband has risen to say good-bye. It's is almost 1:00 a.m, so we insist it is late. But first they must feed us--Arabic version of grape leaves.

Hoda and I embrace. She kisses my cheek, my neck; I kiss each of her cheeks. I know my future, I am uncertain of hers. If I could, I would trade that uncertainty with her--yet I know I am telling myself a lie. I can think of few things worse--without a country, a home, separated from family and certainty.

As we climb into the car, Amir calls out to Mama and Papa. We start to drive away, but I have to unroll the window and call out to him one more time.

I can only hope there is a profound reason for this Muslim diaspora--I can only hope it will bring peace to our world.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Brothers and Sisters

My Dutch sisters, have a flat tire, and while they are waiting for help, two Spanish firefighters come to the rescue. We learn from their gratitude and animated re-telling, that the Spanish firefighters came to help at the height of the refugee crisis in Lesvos.

Two come at a time. The other firefighters cover their shifts and they come and live in Lesvos for two weeks.

We all gather for dinner at Nikolys, a crossroads for boat refugee volunteers. One of the Spanish firemen comes to our table when he recognizes the women with the flat tire.

He explains the routine. How they sacrifice, leave their families, how they work longer hours to help. How they pretend to train at night, in case there are refugees, how they have been forbidden to train since it was a ruse to get out and save and bring to a new shore in hopes of a new life.

Since March, when a deal was finally struck between the president of Turkey and the EU, the sea between Turkey and Lesvos, is patrolled. If the refugees make it past the half way mark, they are free to board a Greek rescue ship; if they are stopped before, they are taken back to Turkey.

It reminds me of our own wet foot-dry foot policy that allowed Cuban refugees to either be an American with the advantages of political asylum or a returned-to-Cuba, Cuban. If the refugee made it to shore, he was free. If he was 20 feet away still in the water, he was forced to return. The policy ended with the changes implemented by the Obama administration.

I want to ask a Florida Coast Guard member who worked during the wet or dry foot policy: Did you really take someone back who was 20 feet from shore? If they were swimming fast? Did it break your heart? Sometimes?

My Spanish brother makes it clear. It breaks his heart when refugees don't make it within inches of a line that divides the sea.

My Dutch, Italian, and one American sister=Team #86 BWC. Tony is the sole male in our BWC team. He is well trained to work with women--I would consider him an expert.




Friday, June 23, 2017

Moona


On a dry, lava rock bluff above the Aegean sea, very little vegetation exists, except for a few treacherous, noxious weeds, that stick and sting with vengeance.

It takes some hardy weeds to live in this environment; only the toughest survive. Perhaps their steely tips were fundamental to survival.

In Kara Tepe are children who have survived tough circumstances: war, leaving familiarity of home, country and people, possibly a parent; trusting smugglers; a sea crossing in a crowded boat; being arrested upon landing on Lesvos; the fright of the unknown; worry beyond their years, possible loss of family members or even a parent; then life in a camp. School is not mandatory, so imagine a pack of high spirited little boys with very few responsibilities clumped together in a pack. Sometimes they grow steely tips to survive.

Imagine the boys with prejudices against a Kurd, or a Congolese, or a non-practicing Muslim. Imagine the fistfights that break out with regularity.  Or picture the adults chasing them away from the food prep area every night. Negotiating at the pavilion was regular and so was keeping them from "borrowing."

Imagine the exclusion on the soccer field. Imagine my surprise when they refused to let me play soccer with them, yet no group of ten year old boys in the entire world would gracefully allow a grandma to play in their soccer match.

Here's the catch: the soccer ball belonged to the BWC team, and it was only to be used under a team member's supervision, so when the boys came to activities and caused discord, when they snuck the soccer ball, the only way they could take it and play, was if an adult came along. On this sobering day, I was the adult, and I expected to play...silly me.

Now imagine me arguing with a ten year old boy when he wouldn't allow me to play.

"I can play!"

"No. Not even!"

"Yes, it is!" They'd side-lined another boy. I motioned to that timid boy sitting on the sidelines.

"It's two on two," the little boy held his ground.

"Three on three!" I retorted. "Let him play!"

"No."

There was no way I was going to win this fight, so when the ball rolled to me, I kicked it into the goal." They were furious.

Time to back off. I was the adult.

A group of older boys came along and wanted to play. They took the ball and excluded the younger boy ringleader.

I interrupted. "You have to let him play." If I couldn't advocate and win for myself, I'd advocate for the little boy who'd excluded me. I'd show him the way.

"Why?" the ringleader asked.

"Because the ball is for the little children and if you want to play with that ball, he has to be included."

He spoke in Arabic to his friends. Another ball appeared. The game went on without my young friend.

After sitting on the side line for a few minutes, he walked away with the charity team soccer ball. I was obligated to follow and protect the one soccer ball. He started kicking the ball against a wall. I was patient. I watched.

He started kicking the ball to me; I kicked it back. After a few rounds when I thought I'd proved my soccer skills, he kicked it beyond me and it rolled down the hill. I dutifully chased it. He did it again. And again. Intentionally.

I took the ball and left.

Then there is Moona and all the children who are like her.

I met Moona on my first breakfast round. Our job was to deliver the new breakfast items, yogurt, dates, nuts, bread, and pick up the used containers, which must be washed (maybe three out of 400 aren't). Understand, it's critical to the process to retrieve all the tupperware-like dishes. When we stood at Moona's ISO box doorway waiting for the old containers, she brought them in a bowl, dirty and food crusted.

"Oh, they are supposed to be washed," said Claudia.

"I will, I will."

Claudia tried to take them anyway, but Moona insisted. As we moved on, she carried out her two month old baby brother to show us. Moona is six years old.

Almost finished with the breakfast round, we ran into Moona who had completed the task and proudly handed us the washed dishes.

Over the next few days, when she came to the children's activities, she always had a younger sibling in tow. One time it wasn't a sibling, just another youngster she was caring for, and one time I insisted on holding the baby while she made a tissue-paper flower--but it didn't take long and she came back for her baby. When she made a bracelet, she tied it on another little girl.

When I think of Moona, I want her in my life. Everyday. My six-year-old refugee mentor.

Remember, those prickly pointed weeds often bloom the most beautiful flowers.




Thursday, June 22, 2017

The World Needs Dishwashers

Dishwashing is only my first choice if my hands are cold.

Cold hands are not a problem at Kara Tepe, so I need to choose another reason for it being my first choice. I find it.

On my second day of helping at the daily great dishwashing gathering, there is a dearth of dishwashers. We begin with enthusiasm and many hands, but as the afternoon passes, it seems we lose everyone to more important work. In the midst of hundreds of containers, we are down to three willing saints: a dishwasher, a rinser, and a dryer. The work slows, moral drops. It seems we will never finish. Never.

The world needs more people who are willing to wash dishes. It's an epiphany so simple, I hate to even call it such. But it is, I can't deny it, and I join the army of willing dishwashers of the world. So, that night when we are almost finished, when it is 2:30 a.m., when everyone is tired, Sarah walks out of the kitchen trailer and announces, "I need three people for three different jobs." She begins with perhaps the worst job, the one she knows no one will volunteer for. I have found my reason for making dishwashing my first choice.

"Who will wash dishes?"

With a pause just a fraction of a second long, I speak up, "I will." Who is this lady ? I ask of myself. For I hardly recognize the voice from which it came.

Yet, there is satisfaction knowing I am doing the world's most dreaded work.

As soon as our children were old enough, they were handed a sponge and a dishtowel. Ha ha, we fooled them, Tony and I conspired in delight, because, at first, it was fun playing in soapy water. It didn't take them long to wise up.

First daughter was pragmatic. She just got it done. Second daughter loathed the task so much, she was willing to trade ten nights of dishes in order to get out of the task at hand. Ahhhh, the lessons children learn at home--how not to be swindled.

On another occasion, we had asked our neighbors and their six children to come for dinner. Tony cooked and I figured the clean up would fall to me. I had no intentions of letting our guests help with  dishes. But the mom of the crew did a great service; she looked me in the eye and said, "We are helping." I spent the next half hour in the company of happy, helpful people that taught me an important lesson. People always say "No," when you offer to help with the dishes, but they always appreciate the help. If they're like me, they remember the moment when you insisted and when love burned in their heart for you. Forever.

I had a new son-in-law, who after every family meal, jumped up to help me with dishes. Between the two of us, it was usually finished before anyone else could volunteer. I proudly told him, "If the ship goes down, I'm saving you."

After years of family dinners, after time and distance when it was their chore, everyone has learned to pitch in. For now, I will not only save everyone in my family, but I will be extra careful to make sure the ship doesn't have a leak.

Dishwashers endear their souls to the cook, to the host, to the world.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ladies' Night

It was quite an ordeal setting up the indoor pavilion for Ladies' Only Night. It wasn't connecting the cords to get the music playing, or moving pillows, the ordeal was keeping away the little boys who hate to be excluded, who, if left unchecked, will tear at the plastic walls to see inside. Yet, keeping them away was crucial to the night out.

Free from male company, a Muslim woman who adheres to the strict dress and behavior codes of Islam, is free to remove her head covering, is free to dance, and that is why it was so important to keep the little boys away--a woman can only do so if no males can see her.

I was told that Ladies' Night is a treat to participate in, and the night unfolded as predicted.

"They will come in, and once their scarf is removed, they smile." Or "they let loose and dance." Or, "We never see them smile like they do at Ladies' Night Out."

The music was a rhythmical Middle Eastern rock infused with an energy that required dancing participation. The dance was a well known Syrian repetition I'd seen the young men have fun with.

I wanted to dance too; I joined hands with two young girls who went slowly in order to help me learn the pattern. An inner circle who knew the dance well, added intricacies to the basic moves.

We were all swept up in the joy of Ladies' Night. To let loose didn't require the removal of what many people consider oppressive clothing-- a view I tend to have myself.  The full Muslim dress is confusing and hard to understand for women who can wear shorts and bathing suits in public, for women who wouldn't think of covering their heads and faces in the company of men. It is a difficult subject for western countries where a Muslim woman lives. The hijab, the burka, have at times been banned, and the wearing of a burkini has even invited arrest.

Yet I am unsure if it was the removal of the headscarf that allowed the women to let loose. We all acted in the same way; we smiled and danced in the company of just women, all of us getting a well deserved break from the living and working circumstances of a refugee camp.

The only way to do this work, to serve and love women of the Muslim faith, is without judgment. Yet, this truth, this fundamental need, is at the core of all meaningful service.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sounds

The first three days at Kapyssis Beach House are all to our selves. The incredible silence is only broken by the bleating of goats in the pasture behind us, the light lap of the sea before us, and the call-to-prayer sound coming from a terrible speaker. It isn't a call to prayer, but instead the vegetable man calling the neighborhood to his truck to purchase vegetables and fresh fish. Like an ice cream truck.



When we order at one of the small restaurants lining the bay, the waiter, cook, and owner, leans over and says, "All the vegetables come from my garden."

His chubby two year old Adonis, comes to say goodnight. His mother, the waiter, cook and owner's wife says it is late and he needs his bath. When I say goodnight to Adonis in Greek, he grins at the recognition of his own language.

In the afternoon of the third day, our neighbors arrive, and they speak with the exuberance we have come to expect from the Big Fat Greek Wedding movies. They seem to be constantly in combative conversation. Soon they will fade into the other sounds we so love in this little house on the sea.

"Did you hear the horse?"

"Yes," Tony answers.

"The rooster?'

"The super-sized bee buzzing past my ear?"

Yet our sounds at the seaside villa wouldn't be our complete Greek experience without "Salam," or a child at the activity center say, "One more minute." And every time something is missing, our Middle Eastern friends shouting, "Ali Baba!" In the past week I have only heard "good," with a Dutch accent so it sounds like "Goot." For now, it only sounds proper when I too say "Goot."

I tend to think the most important link to memory is the visual, the photos, or the writing, that creates visual images in my mind. When I evoke memory through smell, it is most often unpleasant. Touch is vague, feelings are but a few. Sound however is strong, and best of all, it brings back the voices, the endearing words, of  the people I love.

Not only do I feel intense gratitude for these senses, but that each one provides a unique way to store  and relive memory.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Old Souls

Each day we walk past hundreds of olive trees; we drive past thousands.



A kind of solace emanates from the old groves.

As we walk through a pine forest below Mytilini castle, I feel immersed in its beauty, but it lacks the same peaceful feeling as the old olive trees.

While driving the familiar winding road to our little house, I have an epiphany, "I know why I feel peace amongst the olive groves. The trees are old souls!"

Trees grow, inhale, exhale, bear fruit. Can they be anything but alive? Does not every living thing have a soul?


Olive trees can live to be 2000 years old. I guess that many of the trees on Lesvos are at least a hundred years old. Back in the 19th century the olive trees were affected by a pest the islanders couldn't combat. They had become so dependent on the trees as a way of life and industry,  a concerted effort was made to replant, replenish and multiply what previously existed. Hillsides were terraced and empty ground filled with olive trees.

We read there are 11 million olive trees on Lesvos, but when we ask the cafe shop owner and his wife  about harvesting olives from the 11 million trees, he swiftly corrects us, "Twelve million trees."



"How do you do it?" Tony asks. He has been quite curious because there are only 90,000 island inhabitants.

"Everyone on Lesvos harvests the olives! We work together until the job is done."

The wife of the cafe owner tells us how she builds her arm muscles during the harvest. Everyone works, everyone benefits, even us. A waiter sets down a plate of black shriveled olives, "From our orchard," he says with pride.

When our friend rents an apartment, the owner presents her with a bottle of olive oil from her own vineyard.

I fully appreciate the olive oil industry when we sit at a neighborhood seaside restaurant and pour the most scrumptious tasting olive oil on our bread. My olive oil tastebuds come alive. It's in a cruet, and I suspect it too, is harvested by the owner of this taverna. I need to return and ask if I can buy more. I even suspect I could knock on anyone's door in Mystenga village and ask to have my bottle filled with oil.

The biblical story of the ten virgins hinges on the importance of oil. Though I have no idea what kind of oil was required for the lamps, its age old importance is clear. It's important to the culture, to cooking, to the coming together of everyone on the island.

There was another time when the island residents were overpowered by number and the need for life-saving work. When the first refugees came, the population of 90,000 was overwhelmed by thousands landing on their shores. Help came almost immediately, but the brunt of the responsibility fell on the people of Lesvos. So much that they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016--the whole island. Like the olive harvest in the fall, they came together, and like the five virgins in Jesus' parable, they were prepared and ready to meet the bridegroom who this time came in the guise of refugees.




Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Invitation

It's the kind of place that dares us to do nothing. The rolling lap of the sea, the mountain view from the upstairs balcony, the occasional fishing vessel trolling at a distance. Even dinner at the harbor invites, rather forces, us to fold into the much needed state of do nothingness. After a quiet meal (we were the only patrons), of stuffed squash blossoms, potato balls, white beans, vegetable pilaf, our waiter departs on a motorcycle. No one seems concerned about our bill. When the waiter returns to drop off a package, he waves and takes off. We finally flag down another man, perhaps the owner, who in a deep Greek gravelly voice, guarantees a forthcoming check.





It is the contrast between this seaside sanctuary and Kara Tepe that enhances our joy at both sites. The juxtaposition of hard work and relaxation increases our ability to do both better. Knowing we only have thirty minutes left to swim and ten minutes left for the Mediterranean sun to warm and dry, increases its enjoyment ten fold. Knowing in just an hour we will be home in bed, pushes me to wash one more dish or volunteer to take the garbage to the dumpster.

It is the contrasts that differentiate light from dark, comfort from discomfort. Contrasts magnify our understanding and our immersion in joy when we've known otherwise.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Sarah From Dubai

For two days I work next to a woman named Sarah from Dubai. A former Muslim, schooled in Syria, in France, she is a hypno-therapist specializing in discovering past lives to help people overcome their fears and phobias.

I love Sarah.

She leaves  a profound impression on me.

One day, I confess to her, that I fear telling refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan that I am from America. She looks puzzled.

"You know, because we've bombed and invaded both countries."

"No! You must say where you are from. You are here to show them a different side of America. That is why you're here. To change the world's perceptions. It is why I am here. To show there is a better way besides hate and war."

Her perspective is freeing and duty binds me to present myself for who I am.

"Last time I was here, there were two girls from Israel. Do you think they hid their country? NO! That is why they were here. We need to change. People are people."

The next day, I hurry to the kitchen camp to tell Sarah I will drive her home tonight when I get a break. She is gone. She found a different volunteer job that will utilize her Arabic, French, and English skills better.

There is so much more I wanted to learn from her---but perhaps, I'd learned the most important lesson already.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Arabic Lentil Soup

It is 11:30 p.m, the blue, pink, and green lid plastic containers have been packed since 11:00, but we are waiting for the soup to cool. Kate, the 22 year old volunteer chef and college student from Scotland, hasn't had a day off in a string of 11. Together with the volunteer Syrian chef, and many other volunteers, we've made soup for 900 people. Pots larger-than-I-knew existed, don't cool fast.

Doh, one of the young Dutch women capable of running the world, pulls us aside and instructs us on tonight's delivery. I will have area 5, Tony will lead area 3. We couldn't do this without our team of Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghan young men and women, and teenagers.

Doh explains our assignment while we sit on a bench. When she finishes, it's difficult to stand up. Amir sits down next to us. He is a 31 year old single man, and to understand his heavily accented English requires total concentration.

At first we talk about light things. About his sister whom we met yesterday. When we ask where he was born, he doesn't understand the word "born." When I dramatize with hand motions, his mother's stomach, he understands.

"Baghdad. My entire life I live in Baghdad."

One must tread slowly when discussing Baghdad.

He allows us to tread slowly, even encourages us to ask questions. We learn he served in the Iraqi army and worked with the Americans. When he learns we are Americans, he puts his arm around me. He likes Americans.

It was us, the Americans in 2003 who invaded Iraq on the erroneous assumption there were weapons of mass destruction. Since that time, Bush, Rumsfield, Rice, Powell, have all publicly agreed there were no weapons of mass destruction.

Before tonight, that we had invaded Iraq was merely a fact, before I was sitting on a bench, waiting for the soup to cool, with Amir.

"Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was good. But everything else was bad. There are so many women and children. Very few men because they died."

At 1:00 a.m., the beautiful American Lebanese coordinator from Boston who speaks Arabic makes the decision to start pouring hot soup into the orange-lid containers. Will it melt the plastic? It doesn't, but the expansion from heat makes the lids difficult to fit. I work them with my fingers until it seals.

Close to 1:45 a.m we are ready to start moving the Ramadan breakfast meal to the people. Amir is part of my team. Tony has returned from section three and joins us for the last delivery of the early morning dark. Amir hangs close and starts to call Tony and me Mama and Papa.

When we finish, as we walk back, Amir shows me photos in his Iraqi uniform. He is a different man. So thin now. When I notice, he explains he has trouble sleeping and eating. So many worries.

At 3:00 a.m Tony and I gratefully drop into bed. I have yet to process, the events, the conversations, the sorrows. But somehow in the night, I do, because when I awake, the first words to Tony are, "I'm heartsick."

"About what?"

"That we invaded Iraq," and the tears begin to flow--all because the Arabic lentil soup needed to cool.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Little Sandal

Upon learning we'd be spending time in Lesvos, a woman asks if I will be visiting the Life Jacket Graveyard. I don't know what it is, and so she shows me photos on her phone. She speaks gravely of thousands of abandoned life jackets worn by refugees who crossed the sea and landed on Lesvos.

In the past three years, over 500,000 refugees came in rubber boats, in rickety wooden rafts, in boats made for 15 passengers but often carried 50. At the height of the crossings, six to seven thousand people landed on Lesvos Island. The consequent stories are mildly tragic to heartbreaking. The intercepting Greek villages did all they could to help: boat patrols, immediate medical care, feeding, housing. In the aftermath, life jackets, water bottles, boats were abandoned on the island shores and when Tony and I emerged from a rocky sea-edge trail, we came upon one of these tragedies.

In the distance was a stack of color on the weathered volcanic rock. At first, it looked like a squatter's village, but as we drew closer, it was the leftovers from a rubber dinghy wreck. It was a rocky shoreline, so I imagine the boat was shredded when it hit. Perhaps it happened in winter when the seas were rough and the waves would have smashed it into the island.

There is an organization who trolls the island to clean-up the spoils of the refugee crisis. They had been here and had gathered what was quickly left behind, but the place was remote, found only after a short hike through rough terrain. It will probably remain where it is until it all disintegrates or becomes an archaeological or anthropological study sight. At some point in the future, it will be illegal to remove the artifacts. It will become valuable in what will only be looked back upon as history, as the remains of a Middle East diaspora.

For now the landing sight is very recent history. It shows a desperation few of us can relate to. Yet, even now, things have changed. Boat patrols manned by the Greek coast guard and volunteers who come from European countries, will find the refugee boats and intercept. Will bring them to shore. They will be brought by bus to be processed by Greek authorities and volunteers who speak the languages of these people.

There was a day, when refugees had to walk 60km to the camps. It was illegal for islanders to participate in the transportation of of illegal immigrants and they faced arrest. Since the crisis, the law was changed.

This is how the organization we are helping came to be. Three Dutch woman brought 3000 donated baby carriers to Lesvos. After the rough sea journey, at least they could strap their babies on their backs or around their waists.

After the initial shock of finding the pile of life jackets, water bottles, shredded rubber, we stepped away to process the hard evidence of what we had only understood through story. Here was the real life remains of hardship. When I dared to look closer, the artifacts seemed to tell a different story.

In this landing, there was turbulence and tragedy. Life's necessities were left behind or were lost at sea only to surface after the tide had washed the rest ashore. For people who had left their lands with so little, many of the objects wouldn't have been intentionally discarded: shoes, jackets, bags with personal objects. The pile became a sacred testament to human suffering and loss.

The little sandal at the edge of the pile made it all too real.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

 It is 3:56 p.m. in Lesvos, and our friend Anna just walked down the beach to let us know another earthquake has been predicted to hit by 5:00 p.m. The warning comes from our Dutch director, and though it seems strange an earthquake could be predicted by a specific hour, we have again packed our backpacks and are waiting on the beach for our Big, Fat, Greek Earthquake.

5:00 p.m. update: We packed our backpacks, dutifully waited on the beach, and now we go to dinner. All is well again.

Uncertainty

I experienced two light earthquakes while living in California--both were minor. To experience dependable mother earth, showing her muscle lightly, even playfully, is kind of fun--especially when the shaking stops without incurring damage or hardship.

So when yesterday's quake was 15 seconds and the jolts were strong, I had a much different earthquake experience. When I learned the quake had done extensive damage to twelve villages south of us, causing one death, 15 injuries and displacement of 800 people, I felt vulnerable. I had escaped the worst of it, but others didn't. This seems to be a constant in our world.

Had it been worse in Mystenga, I would have been at the mercy of compassionate, hardworking rescuers; I may have had to seek shelter at the mercy of others. I almost knew what it was like; I'm so thankful I didn't. Yet, it gave me the slightest insight into what our refugees in the camps must have felt like, must feel like still--everyday. The sincere "Thank you," when we drop off the breakfast meal has its root in the vulnerability that preceded reaching the refugee camp.

Mosul Iraq is the last ISIS stronghold in that region. The extremists have terrorized the city for six months, and now that US backed Iraqi forces are pushing them out, the people are fleeing out of desperation. Video footage is available through an internet search, but the images, the voices, are traumatizing.  When Iraqi forces overtook a part of Mosul back from ISIS, the residents held captive for months ran for their lives. It was their chance at freedom. The feelings of vulnerability from fleeing one's home with hope of preserving life, must be insurmountably difficult. Now they must depend on others. The good guys. Where would they be without the good guys?

Not everyone made it safely out of danger. The mother of an infant is shot dead. A child hides under her dead mother's burka for two days before she is rescued.

I am surrounded by the vulnerable, surrounded by people who care for the vulnerable.

While counting cheese slices one night, I stand next to Neema. Part of the initial conversations between aid workers always includes the question, "What brought you here to Kara Tepe refugee camp?" For Neema, the answer was that he had once been a refugee from Iran who was settled in the Netherlands. "I know what it's like," he says.

"What is it like?" I ask.

"Uncertainty."

We have all felt uncertainty to varying degrees, but few of us have felt it in relationship to our country, to our home, to how the world will treat us, refuse us, or accept us.

Earthquakes are measured by the Richter scale which is a logarithmic scale. Each time a value increases by 1, it means the earthquake is 10 times more powerful than the previous number. So an earthquake at 6 is 10 times more powerful than an earthquake measured at 5. An earthquake that measures at 8 is a thousand times more intense than the earthquake measured at 5.

Now, think of the last time you felt uncertainty. Maybe it came with a new job or a loss of direction. Now think about the threat of invasion in your city and the uncertainty magnifies by ten; think about fleeing for your life and the uncertainty magnifies by 100, even 1000.

Welcome to the daily life of a refugee.

"If the sea seems like a place of safety, then earth must be hell." Quote from a video of a refugee boat rescue