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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

On the Front Lines

A guest post by Mark and Jolee Zola:

The world's worst refugee crisis since World War II is being played out all over Europe today and it so happens that our dear friend Shellie Corman has spent the last few days helping to provide aid relief to refugees on the Greek island of Kastellorizo, about a mile off the southern coast of Turkey. Luckless Greece, battered first by economic crisis and now dealing with an unprecedented number of desperate refugees, mostly from Syria, is the usual first stop for refugees heading to Europe. We want to share with readers just three days of Shellie's experiences, in her own words, providing aid relief on the front lines.

February 28, Sunday

Arrived yesterday morning on the boat on a clear calm day. Everything was so calm and quiet it was hard to believe that 2 weeks earlier there were 900 refugees on this island of 250 residents. I heard that a few of the previous days' arrivals were around, but there were very few. I spent most of the day in the clothing distribution center organizing the donations that had arrived from different places (Athens, Rhodos, Kaş, etc.). Tons of socks, gloves, pants, jackets, underwear etc. all put on different shelves and hanging racks according to size and gender.

There were a few members of MSF (Doctors Without Borders) that met with us to discuss needs and also how to deal with the local population and their attitudes towards the refugees. They will call a town meeting. The generosity seems to be waning. They have closed the hall that was being used for sleeping and generally feel that the more they provide for the refugees, the more they will encourage new arrivals. The MSF team knows well that the refugees will keep coming regardless. . . .

We went to bed. At about 2:30 am, there was a knock on the door from one of the volunteers. A group of 14 had arrived, they were wet and needed dry clothes so we all got up and went to the center. They were there waiting for us. Mostly women and children ranging in age from 2-12. They were so calm and sweet and we chose full sets of outfits for all of them, gave pampers, juice and even aspirin to the teenage girl in agony with a toothache. They had to sleep outside since the sleeping hall had been closed by the municipality. They were given blankets and sleeping bags and left in an old market area to sleep on the cold concrete floor.

This morning we woke and learned that during the night, 150 new refugees arrived. They are at the coast guard station being processed. There are rumors that the boat that normally arrives on Monday, tomorrow, will not allow refugees to board in order to get to Athens. Athens is now overrun with people who can no longer cross the border to Macedonia from northern Greece. There seems to be a complete bottleneck at each step of their journey. Thousands of people blocked and stuck at various borders. Syrians being separated from other nationalities, such as Afghans, Pakistanis, Africans, etc. Some countries have agreed to take Syrians, but no one else. It is a complete disaster for humanity and it is easy to understand both sides.

February 29, Monday

Yesterday we met with quite a few of the arrivals. They are a varied mix of people ranging from very well educated and English-speaking to extremely low income rural people who seem to be in very poor health and must be low on funds. There are a few disabled people, even in wheelchairs. How can they possibly expect to make this long, arduous journey? A boy with a limp, the mother with a limp, no shoes when they arrived. The refugees with some money can stay in hotels and guest houses, eat in restaurants, buy the boat and train tickets, etc. The others, . . . I am not sure what they do. They have to rely on aid along the way, I suppose.

We spent 2 hours giving clothes, shoes, jackets, gloves, hats, underwear, etc. to a very poor group. Two women and a total of 13 kids ranging in age from 12 to a few months old. At one point at least 9 of them were HOWLING in unison and it took great fortitude to keep on trying different jackets and shoes. We managed it and all drank a few glasses of wine as a reward to ourselves for managing to get them ready for their journey. But today, when the boat arrived for Athens, they realized they didn't have enough for the tickets so they are stuck here for now. It was a bit heartbreaking to see all the hundreds of refugees board the ferry thinking they were going to Athens. We heard that due to the backup in Athens, none of them are being given permission to go there. They are sold full price tickets to Athens, but forced to get off the boats and put into camps on Rhodos. Everyone is making money all along what is called the Balkan road. There is a huge backup at the Macedonian border with Greece. The situation there is rapidly deteriorating and I don't know what these poor people making it to this tiny Greek island are going to face as they make their way to what they believe is a better life.

As I see things, the world will look back on this period as a dark time in history.

March 1, 5:25 am, Tuesday

It is 5:25 am. We were woken up at 3:30 am and told that the clothing distribution center was on fire. We all ran to see what was happening, although from the window of our room we could see the flames. When we arrived there was a small group of refugees and locals standing in front of the building watching the fire, which had by then completely burned out the center. The large palm trees behind had caught fire, and there were a few people with a small hose and a few buckets. A futile effort to quell the flames. No firetruck, no military, no police. After the building was completely destroyed, maybe an hour after the fire started, we finally saw a fire truck. It was obvious that they waited until the building was completely destroyed and the home behind was in danger of being burned to intervene. This is an act of violence and a clear message by some of the locals to let all of us and the refugees know that we are not welcome.

This followed a night in which our faith in humanity was a bit restored. The family of 15 that was left here due to the fact that they couldn't pay for tickets was fed a big pot of pasta, made by an Albanian living on the island. They came to Damian's restaurant and all sat quietly waiting for their food. They ate and left but left behind 2 of the small boys who stayed behind, played gently with the cats, and helped when we began cleaning up. Lovely children with a shitty world out there to deal with.

No money for the boat to Athens. Stuck here. Two mothers and thirteen kids.
Resigned to the situation. No money, no way to move on.
The refugees were sold tickets to Athens but weren't told that they will be forced off the boat at Rhodos. The ones given permission to move on to Athens will once again have to buy a ticket. Everyone making money off these people along their journey.



LJansen said...

But I must apologize to Linh. Read on to see why.

If you read the NYTimes today, you will see that my town (Seattle) has had its "underbelly exposed." We have a very dire homeless problem here.

There has been a lot of grousing and organizing of the "haves" against the "have nots" (housed versus unhoused). Some of the unhoused are living in their vehicles and ramshackle caravans (see, just like gypsies) in residential neighborhoods, which irritates the housed people who can't take the chaotic living and trash, etc.

There is a big ex-navy base across the street from me which is now a park that borders on Lake Washington. Many of the anti-homeless have been suggesting the park as a place to put the homeless (it is a huge expanse for something in a city). But up to this point, it hasn't happened.

To my apology: In a previous comment, I cast aspersions on Linh's characterization of the gypsies.

But what happened when I woke up and looked out my apartment window and saw an RV (caravan) parked across the street for a few days? I got a bit churlish and griped to my husband about it. The people hadn't done anything, but sit there in their camper. But I didn't exactly get out the welcome wagon.

So I apologize for my hypocrisy about Linh's attitude.

No one is bombing the unhoused people of Seattle, but there is something wrong in each instance when the riches of the earth are used to exterminate or make miserable so many, either by commission or omission.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi LJansen,

There's no hypocrisy. We're all just trying to learn. I learn as I write. After my article, a couple of Americans pointed out that Gypsies have also become notorious for crimes in the States, which I didn't even know about. Researching a bit, I found this recent incident in Philly:

PROSPECT PARK, Pa. (CBS) – A woman who is a member of a self-proclaimed “Gypsy” community has been arrested and charged with stealing the life savings of an elderly man.

Sylvia Ristick, 45, of Prospect Park, is charged with stealing $44,356.87 of an 84-year-old man’s money and effectively putting his home into foreclosure.

Authorities say the man believed he was in a romantic relationship, and they say Ristick claimed she had colon cancer and was in need of money for treatment.

Over the years, Ristick reportedly made multiple unauthorized purchases using his credit cards.

Apparently, Ristick was arrested in 2012 in Whitpain Township, Pa. for a similar “sweetheart swindle” at the same time as she was scamming this recent victim.

And a Philadelphian wrote me:

Back in '82 or thereabouts I was opening my first new-car dealership and had my first and only encounter with Gypsies. We'd just gotten our initial shipment of new cars and were arranging them throughout the building when a station wagon pulled up on the front lot and seven or eight of the most evil and disreputable-looking characters I'd ever seen jumped out, all grinning evilly, and starting running from car to car, apparently looking for loose ignition keys. It looked like the invasion of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Fortunately, my sales manager, who was an old Philly hand, came running out, yelling at them to get out, that the cops were on their way. They re-crammed themselves into the car and left hurriedly.

Thus went my first and only experience with gypsies.

Linh Dinh said...

At Unz, szopen (a consistently even-tempered, thoughful and obviuously very well educated commenter) wrote:

From time to time, some Polish news site posts about Poles comitting crimes in Netherlands, UK, or Germany. And then, some time after that you can find out that in quite a few cases those “Poles” are gypsies.

A gypsy family lived in my house. They were removed by anti-terrorist brigade (kid you not), and we had to renovate the entrance to the house, as the gypsies break the glass door during some commotion. Other gypsy family hired a flat in a house next to ours and once the husband was throwing something from the window, down at his lamenting wife.

A gypsy once entered my father’s shop and asked for money. My father told him that if the boy would swept a sidewalk in front of our shop, my father would pay him. A boy SPIT on my father and left. Next day we had dirty window to our shop, as someone thrown some stinky mixture on it, fortunately without breaking the glass.

Some time ago a gypsies beat a women journalist. I discussed the case with an educated gypsy on internet. He assured me that it was all police and journalist work, because actually the beating was a just punishment, according to gypsy laws. He couldn’t quite grasp my point of view, that in Poland only Polish law should be obeyed, and no people can be exempt from the rule of Polish law.

I really wish some stupid politician in Canada or USA would invite all Polish gypsies, that he would give them free citizenship and free accomodation, plus some hefty welfare cheques.

Linh Dinh said...

What we're talking about, then, is a group of people with a significant percentage that have embraced crime as a way of life. I mean, one can't discard the extreme reactions of Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians, etc., as baseless racism. They are grounded on prolonged exposure to, frankly, a terrible group of people. The Gypsies who don't steal and beg are not hated, and I suspect they are even more enraged at misbehaving Gypsies than other people, since they cast a negative light on them as well.

By the way, most Gypsies no longer live in caravans.

Linh Dinh said...

A German friend, right here in Leipzig, told me of a friend who was tricked by a Gypsy on the highway. The Gypsy flagged him down and claimed some emergency. Acting very desperate, he begged for some money and offered his gold chain as collateral. It turned out to be fake gold, of course, and his business card was just nonsense. Also, the Gypsy didn't dress like a stereotypical Gypsy, but had decked himself up to appear like a respectable businessman.

Linh Dinh said...

Jolee just alerted me to an interesting interview of a Gypsy candidate for the Turkish parliament. He certainly sounds impressive, and best of luck to him, but as you can see from this answer, he's an exception to the rule:

They say Roma do not care about education. We see in you that there are Roma people who do care about education. Your parents have supported your education. You are a university graduate.

I’m a bit marginal. I was struggling against poverty on the one hand, while on the other hand I rejected the traditional Roma cultural practice of marrying young. They were going to marry me when I was 13, but I wanted to go to school. While I was studying in the tent, they betrothed me in the adjacent tent. They told me to kiss the hand of the girl’s father and say, “Kiss his hand, we asked for the girl’s hand.” Instead, I took his hand and cried, “Do not give your daughter’s hand to me.”

So there's another factor why they're generally so messed up. They have arranged marriages at 13 or 14!!!



About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.