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Monday, March 7, 2016

On the Front Lines (2)

A guest post by Mark and Jolee Zola:

Below are the final two reports from Shellie Corman on her experiences helping with the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

March 3, Thursday

Last night, there were heavy rains and since there is no sleeping area, many refugees were soaked in the morning. The UNHCR had handed out sleeping bags and blankets, but they were all soaking wet. We went to the old fish market where some of them had slept and began a cleanup. Luckily, the sun came out, so we, with the help of a few refugees, hung out all the blankets and sleeping bags to dry. Two of the men were really helpful and we asked them, with the help of a translator, to join us for dinner. There were 2 couples, one of them with a young boy of about 9 always smiling, and another couple with a few-months-old baby. One of the women said something in Arabic about Syria and began crying and we hugged and both cried over the horrible situation they find themselves in.

After hanging out the wet things, we the volunteers, all embarked on a garbage cleanup. A few of us went to the police station, where all the arrivals must register and from what I have heard, many of them are sleeping there. They are almost all willing to help clean up their area as long as we ask, and provide large garbage bags. The rest of us went to one of the bays and collected life jackets and wet clothes left behind as well as garbage. It seems like a good idea for the locals to see us and the refugees trying to help clean their island.

Tonight, the families came for dinner and it was a really warm and wonderful evening. They were so appreciative and we laughed a lot and I think they knew that we really could sympathize with their terrible predicament.

We got the news tonight that all the European borders are all closed. Many of the refugees are arriving here with no knowledge of what is happening in Europe. The group that arrived yesterday had been waiting for 3 days in the woods in Kaş, Turkey, no food or water, and some of them were totally traumatized by the time they arrived. Then, they hear the news from volunteers that they cannot even get to Athens much less Germany, or Sweden or wherever they think they are going to start their new lives. One Palestinian Syrian family said that if they had known how difficult the trip was going to be, they would have stayed in Aleppo. No one seems to know anything about what to do, where to go, or how to go about it. Some of them even think that when they get here, they are already in Athens or Germany. Then there are the Afghanis, Pakistanis, Moroccans, and anyone else that is considered an 'economic migrant' who are totally screwed because nobody wants them and many of them are unaware of that until we tell them. It is heartbreaking to see their expressions when they are told that only Syrians and Iraqis are able to get through the borders and that they will be either arrested or sent back home. They have paid a fortune to smugglers and risked drowning at sea to get this far. I wish that somehow there was a way to get this information to them before they set off from home, or at the very least, from Turkey.

Final notes from today. . . . I exchanged whatsapp messages with one of the men from the group that came for dinner. I sent the photo below of the group to him and the message he sent back, translated by Karam, my lovely Syrian friend who made it to Belgium, was "Thank you so much. People like you made us feel that life is still okay." This is the reason I came here. Just to show a bit of human kindness and caring. It means a lot for me and I think for them.

Special thanks to Amer, the great cook and economics student in Istanbul for acting as translator today, first to scold the naughty children in Arabic. He told them that if I had to call him again, he would have to come here personally. That seemed to do the trick. Then to explain to tonight's dinner guests that we invited them and to thank them for helping with the cleaning up of the market and we had to keep it secret since we can't feed everyone. Also, Karam sent a voice message to the naughty kids in Arabic so I can play it whenever they get out of hand. These kids are the family of 15 that I have previously written about that we have in some way become a surrogate family for. The update of this family is that the UNHCR has put them in a hotel and I believe is working on tickets to get them on their way from here. They took showers, washed clothes and seem to be much more comfortable compared to the first day they arrived, shoeless, lost and scared.

What will happen to all these people from here, I wonder. Who will help them, care about them? Understand how awful things had to be at home to embark on this difficult road.

March 4, Friday

Last full day here on the island. The ferry that normally arrives on Fridays to take people to Rhodes and then on to Athens was cancelled due to bad weather. The over 300 refugees on the island are now all stranded until next Monday. There was a general feeling of despair among them. As for us, the volunteers, there was sort of a feeling of wanting to do something but not really being able to do much. It rained off and on all day. I walked by the fish market area to see how the people sleeping there had managed. Everything had been neatly folded and cleaned in there. The families that we had shared dinner with the night before were up and sitting and waiting. At that point, they weren't sure about the boat arriving or not. I asked if they had eaten breakfast and they had not, so I asked the men to come with me to the bakery. We choose items such as cheese, bread, etc. and they asked me to come back together to give it to their wives and children. One small memory I will keep is the look of one of the women when we came back. She smiled and seemed to me to be as happy about seeing a familiar face, in this strange country full of strangers, as she was about getting fresh bread from the local bakery.

Now, I say this to explain a bit about how humanitarian aid functions as I see it. Aid workers that I have met or seen here are working to help large groups of people.  They try not to get involved with individuals. This cannot be effective in helping large numbers of people. They keep a distance. There are so many political issues to consider. Not stepping on the toes of the locals, the other aid organizations, and other factors that I have yet to understand. I am a volunteer with no background in this arena, as I am reminded of from time to time by the people who have worked in aid. I know now that I could never do that sort of work on a professional level. I get so frustrated when I feel as if there is the obstacle of 'we can't help clothe or feed them all' leads to inaction. This is from a purely subjective point of view that also goes along with the inexperience of not having done this type of work before. I feel satisfied to know that as a volunteer in an unprofessional role, I made some personal contacts that were slightly helpful to a few people. This is not the answer to solving the major problems of this humanitarian crisis. It is so much  bigger and complex than giving breakfast to a few hungry people along the way.

* The high point of the day was the news that the sleeping hall reopened. For how long it will remain open is unclear. Most of us think that with the closing of the hall and the burning of the clothing distribution center, the refugees were visible everywhere and it became too difficult for the locals to face. Especially children sleeping outside in the rain. I think that the refugees were also fed at the hall, although I am not sure. I was told that I couldn't know or ask since that job or responsibility belonged to another group helping. This baffles me, not being allowed to ask the other people helping out if there was time to organize a meal. Once again, feeling very frustrated.

* The other note I want to be sure to mention is the Moroccan woman that came to tell one of us that the toilet was dirty, but if someone would provide a hose and a bucket, she would clean it. And from what I hear, it was filthy. She and what I assume was her young daughter, cleaned the toilets. This was to keep their dignity I suppose and not be reduced to animals simply because they were forced out of their homes by war.

 * There are quite a few Albanians, Serbians, and other nationalities living on this island. One of them told me that she knows very well this sort of running away from bombs falling on your home. They seem to be extremely sympathetic to the people moving through this island. The same Albanian man that had cooked spaghetti the other night for a family, brought them homemade sweets today. These are just small vignettes I wanted to share with you all to give a sense of daily life here.


[On the Front Lines (1)]


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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.