Election Day 2016

I have so many thoughts on the refugee crisis – on volunteering, on current events and on what to do with the things I’ve learned throughout the process. Things I am still processing and plan to continue to write on, but today is Election Day and it’s been an interesting time to be both outside of the country and working with refugees. Everyone seems to have an opinion on our election regardless of the fact that they do not get to vote in it. Which in many cases makes some level of sense since it does have significant impact in many areas outside our borders as well.

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Belgrade and the Sava river, because it felt like this post needed a photo!

Oregon votes entirely by absentee/mail and this is the first year I’ve been away for the duration of the vote by mail window. I love our little county and a quick email to the elections office resulted in a near immediate reply back in August with us getting set up for vote by email. The logistics of that meant we were emailed our ballots in mid-October, printed them in Athens, carried them to Belgrade where we used being sick and cold to procrastinate on them and took them north again to Berlin. There we took advantage of our great hotel lobby to drink tea and research state measures and finish our ballots. Then with a little help from the front desk, scan and send them off to the county who almost immediately acknowledged their receipt. A slightly more cumbersome than usual process for an election that felt particularly important to participate in even from afar.

It’s been nice to have a little space from the election and surrounding news. In keeping with past travel experience, American politics are a popular topic outside the country, particularly in an election year. But not speaking the local language means that outside of catching key names, we understand little of passing conversations on the topics. Most of my intentional news reading has surrounded other world news and more specifically following the refugee crisis. I haven’t hidden from it, and it’s everywhere of course, but it’s been nice to have a little space from the ear mongering and disparaging comments that make up so much of the advertisements and commentary. It maybe let the voting process be a little bit freer of the irritation I usually have for everyone on every side by the time I get to voting.

Thanks to time zones, our day will end much ahead of polls closing instead of our usual position on the west coast of watching it all unfold.

My choices are made and submitted. Now what I hope and pray for is tomorrow. I love that I live in a country where I have the right to participate in choosing our laws and leaders. And I love that I live somewhere that come January, no matter the outcome today, a peaceful exchange will occur with no fear of blood loss or violence.

What I hope for though, feels like a bit of a miracle from today though. That the next few years would involve the parties working together instead of endlessly blocking each other. I think that’s where the power in democracy really lies. Neither party has entirely correct, but rather I think, needs the other. That tension is important to measure and check each other as we move into the future. I, for one, am praying what feels like giant prayers for miracles today, that we might work together tomorrow.

And also being incredibly thankful that the campaign ads will be over before I land back in the US.

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Weekend Adventures in Athens

Thanks to a called off trip to one of the camps to install new network equipment in an effort to fix/improve their WiFi, we ended up with almost the whole weekend off! We were both fairly exhausted and had decent headaches so ended up spending most of Saturday alternating between walks exploring different areas around us and nap/reading breaks in the air conditioned apartment. Tonight is our last night in this apartment, which we’ve called home longer than anywhere else since we moved out of our house in July. It’s been nice to land in one place for a while, have easy access to laundry and to get to know a little neighborhood for a bit. We’re out of the tourist areas a little in a residential area that’s somewhere in the early stages of gentrification complete with tons of cafes, workshops and street art. It’s vibrant with a handful of little squares packed with restaurants, but plenty quiet enough to sleep well. Tomorrow we move around the corner to another apartment managed by the company until we move on from Athens. Not sure yet when that will be.

Sunday we played tourists with another couple that’s been volunteering at one of the center’s we’ve both been working at. Ironically enough, they’re also from the NW (Idaho) and it’s been a blast to get to know them a bit – particularly her as we’ve spent a lot of quality time in the women’s bathroom at the center doing laundry together. They’re traveling for a few months and moving on from Greece next week. If you’re interested in reading about their adventures check out their blog: regretless.life. I’m looking forward to seeing what they write about Athens and volunteering.

We met up at a church offering English translation via headset Sunday morning that turned out to have a British guest speaker. After a quick gyro pita we hoped on the metro south towards the coast then grabbed a taxi to Lake Vouliagmeni. img_20161016_161802047 It’s an interesting little lake just across the road from the coast, nestled up against a rock face that drops into it and creates a handful of apparently quite deep caves that haven’t been fully explored. You can dive, snorkel, sun bathe, eat, swim, etc. It’s fed by a hot spring and has a pile of minerals in it that they claim cures everything from “post stress disorders to gynecological disorders.” It’s also quite full of those funny little fish that show up in “fish spas” around the world and supposedly eat the dead skin off your feet and completely creep me out. Thankfully they don’t nibble on you if you’re moving so I just made sure to always keep moving, which is a better work out anyway right? I’m pretty sure they didn’t get me even once and I’m creeped out just thinking about the people sitting at the edges letting hundreds of them gnaw on their feet!

We came back to town, meandered a bit, grabbed dinner and wine with a rooftop view of the Acropolis and then grabbed a table at the always busy dessert place in our neighborhood, which turned out to be rather an adventure in how much chocolate 4 people can consume in one sitting! We ordered what turned out to be 5 LARGE chocolate themed desserts served around the edges of a metal platter roughly 16-18 inches across with about ½ gallon of odd tree sap flavored ice cream in the middle with pools of chocolate and mounds of whip cream filling in every possible gap between things. Just in case you need proof I’m including a rather poor picture of the monstrous dessert. It was a blast to both play tourist for a day as well as to spend a day hanging out with people! Here’s hoping we cross paths with Jared and Erika again soon – I already miss having her around the laundry room today at the center!14753727_10153779360631736_5750580497116526920_o

Today I was back volunteering at the center and hanging out in the laundry room, but with a few much appreciated breaks to chat with people and a couple good moments of laughter. Now that we’re a bit better rested AND have internet at home again now I should hopefully be back to writing a bit more again and a bit more about the work I’m doing.

 

Meteora

I feel like I’ve mostly been describing days instead of any great reflection or insight into what I’ve actually been doing or learning. There’s so much to learn, process and think about and I am very much still working through my thoughts on it all. Add in the logistics of normal life in a new place with all the housing moves we’ve done and I’ve been more eager to sleep then contemplate and write. Which is also, what this has turned out to be, but there’s pictures at least!14525235_10153758040991736_1584701461772033392_o

It somehow feels like I’ve been on the run constantly since last Thursday and I’m pretty well exhausted. I think it’s mostly that I’ve started making connections and those take time and are in different parts of the city combined with it just taking longer than at home to take care of life logistics. Without a nearby Fred Meyer (and a car to drive to it) where everything is in my native language and makes sense to me, things are a bit more adventuresome and time consuming. Which is a good lesson in many ways for us. We’ve managed to cook several meals, successfully grocery shop and are very comfortable getting around the city on the metro. I’m really impressed with how clean and efficient it is. Much cleaner than any public transit system I’ve been on in the states for sure.

We ended up with about 36 hours free between various work/volunteer commitments this weekend and after much debating between staying in town and getting out of the city decided to go for the adventure route. We picked up a rental car Saturday morning and successfully drove across the city and north to Meteora. It’s a region of Greece in a central plain near mountains where there’s a grouping of rock pillars that monasteries were built on the tops of beginning in the 13th century. Six monasteries remain and are much more accessible now than they used to be. In the 1920s stairs were added to the remaining 6, replacing previous wooden ladders and a rope/sack pulley system. Today there’s a road that winds close to most of them making the area easy to explore. It’s a climbing destination and has lots of great hiking trails and is a great to catch the sunset/sunrise.14566347_10153758047241736_3439097756995133736_o

We drove up Saturday after making it through Athens, checked in and took off driving the 15 km road around the monasteries. We hiked the steps into one of the 2 nunneries, which was bombed by the Nazis and then rehabitated and restored in the 1980s. After catching sunset we meandered back to the village and walked into town for dinner. The next morning after the usual breakfast of honey, yogurt and bread we took off on a guided hiking trip. We meandered around the valley and slowly made our way up to the Grand Meteoron monastery – the largest, which ironically has I think he said only 3 resident monks. It was a great tour, just 3 other people including a Dutch couple and a man also from the outskirts Portland.

We made it back to Athens and the next morning returned the car in the heart of downtown with only minor traffic confusion and even mixed up the running routes by running back to the apartment from the rental company.

Since then, we jumped back into volunteering and working. It’s been nice to be in one place for a few days – 8 days in this apartment will make the longest we’ve slept in one place since we left the house in July!

I spent my first day at the second center I’m volunteering with and enjoyed the chance to connect with new people, see how a different place works and continue to learn. They have someone on staff who works with immigration law/services and provides assistance linking refugees to other services, answering questions about the asylum process, etc. Since today was both pouring rain and a Shia Muslim holiday the center was pretty quiet, which provided a good chance to learn about how things work and get to know a people. It also meant I could head out when the husband left to work and sneak in a couple hour nap this afternoon and we even got a chance to go out to dinner tonight!

thursday: Elliniko

Today I met with another organization working with refugees in Greece. Faros was started by a couple Danes, but is strongly linked with several Greek churches and has been working, focused mainly on unaccompanied refugee minors since 2013. They run activities in a camp I visited today (more on that later) for children, a shelter with space for unaccompanied minors to stay and 2 centers for women and children only that provide showers, children’s activities, snacks and tea, etc. They take shorter term volunteers in the centers and I’m planning on volunteering there a couple days a week when the other center is really slow. They’re a UNICEF blue dot facility and I was impressed in their orientation and materials and am excited to learn more and participate a little next week. The husband will even help a little, but in the kitchen preparing and serving. By not allowing men at all (other than in the kitchen) it creates a culturally appropriate gender appropriate safe space for women and children.

Following the meeting with their volunteer coordinator we sprinted (or rather rode the metro) across town back to the other center. Another couple who have been volunteering for the past several weeks in the center and goes home this weekend, had voiced interest in visiting one of the camps that the guests at the center come from before they leave. Today one of the Iranian guys (early 20s I think?) that volunteers/translates at the center and just moved out of one of the camps offered to take them for a couple hours today. We tagged along to Elliniko, which is really three semi separate camps grouped together on the grounds of the old airport that was closed when the new/current one was opened in preparation for the Olympics in 2004. Greece then built a handful of Olympic Stadiums on the grounds (baseball, soccer, etc.) that are now unused. One of the camps is in the arrival hall of the abandoned airport, the other two are each in vacant stadiums, with a few larger platform tents outside. It’s a pretty otherworldly site – the abandoned airport complete with jet ways, departure/arrival signs, runways, etc. The stadiums with concession booths and signs, bleachers in various states of decay and then the reality of the refugee camps in rows of tents, clothes hung to dry, food smells and piles of children everywhere. If you’re interested, googling “Elliniko refugee camp” and looking at the images shows you a few. I didn’t take any (they’re not allowed of course) and have mixed thoughts about posting them here so am going to refrain.

From what I can tell, it’s still an ‘unofficial’ camp, but that’s just my best understanding. We ran into few people seeming to be official, staff or really even volunteers. Faros runs a children’s organization and there was a locked classroom (we were there earlier then they are today) with children’s art in the windows and there was a mobile medical vehicle each from both MSF and Doctors of the World. MSF has a team of midwives, a primary care physician and psychologists that provide care on site at certain times and Doctors of the World has I believe a physician, psychologists and a dentist providing care on site. I believe at least one of them has a couple volunteers in off hours for emergency purposes as well. Other than these two organizations we didn’t come across anything in the way of services in our time there. However, we were only in one of the three parts of the camp. Additionally, it looked like the camp had just received a food delivery of some sort, several people had boxes with yogurt, prepared food and water and we saw a truck that was labeled as Halal.

Still processing the visit, my thoughts on it are percolating still. I’ve written a bit more about interacting with people there, but it’s fairly raw still so will wait as I process and mull it over before I share more here.

Thank you to the couple of you that have posted, proving at least a few people are reading this. 🙂

meanderings on today and refugees

I think we finally have housing settled for the rest of our time in Athens! That feels like no small feat after the craziness of last week. We’ve even managed to make a few of our own meals, mostly breakfast, but also a bit of a twist on chicken tacos (with feta!) for lunch today. Something about returning to rhythms of exercise and not always eating out feels stabilizing even if overall we really do like Greek food. It’s been particularly fun to discover thanks to a new friend here an app called ClickDelivery that lets you order from hundreds of restaurants across the city and then it magically appears 20-40 minutes later by motorbike. So far we have a favorite souvlaki place where you can get grilled halloumi cheese (yum!!), great grilled chicken, etc. for crazy cheap and one fail with a Chinese restaurant. Tonight we’re meeting up with another couple that’s on their 4th week of volunteering at the refugee center. We’re going to find out what well rated Thai food is like in Athens and are excited to learn a bit more about them. They’re in their mid-60s, from Kentucky and spent 3 years living in Kabul recently working with street children and setting up a women’s sewing project.

In other reasons why today has been a good day, I just had a little chaotic video chat with my sister and all 5 of her littles. Complete with lots of enthusiasm, a little tour of our apartment including the weird dolphin/seashell toilet seat and energetic attempts by the 2 year old to kiss the husband through the monitor.

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dolphin toilet seat!

Love those kids and my sister is a rock star for her ability to not just keep the 5 of them alive and fed, but also schooled!

Yesterday, the EU apparently made moves to begin deporting Afghani refugees back to Afghanistan, as discussed in this article from the Guardian. Most of the refugees I’ve been working with so far in Greece are Afghani. I’m only a few days in and can’t speak to their stories, nor are they mine to tell. Of this though, I’m sure: these are strong, resilient people who chose to leave the homes and lives they’ve built over generations for a reason. They’ve traveled thousands of miles and are currently living in horrific situations while trapped in limbo. And they are humans, a few with faces I recognize including little girls that made a good effort to knot my hair irrevocably yesterday.

The refugee crisis is a hugely complicated issue, one I can’t even pretend to understand more than small bits of, but sending people back, hardly seems like a wise solution. I am so thankful for the privilege to be able in some small way participate in restoring little bits of dignity to just a few of the thousands currently displaced. Clean clothes, bits of mimed conversation and games with little ones hardly seems like a means to change the world. Today though, I’m thinking of how great it feels to shower somewhere clean and have clean clothes and bedding after a long flight or dirty night camping and how that must be a tiny taste of what it would feel like for someone living in a refugee camp. Of how somewhere inside, cool and safe to spend several hours while letting your kids run and play knowing their safe may actually be a small way to recognize another’s humanity and dignity. And a way for me to learn a bit along the while as well.

I’m thankful for the privilege of serving in small ways these individuals that are just as deserving of clean, warm, safe homes as I am and just as loved by God as I am.

 

laundry

I did, or rather helped do 18 loads of laundry today. Not counting the couple loads of towels nor the load of our clothes I did after getting back to the apartment. More specifically, along with several new friends and with a lot of miming, laughter and a little frustration 18 loads of refugee laundry were done today at the refugee center I’m working at this month in Athens. That’s not including the laundry that was done on the men’s side of things. And that’s all in one little washing machine that is definitely earning its keep 6 days a week!

Today was a Farsi speaker’s day at the center, which are their busiest days. From what I learned, most guests on Farsi days are Afghani and come from multiple camps across the city. After handing over the children’s room to someone much more skilled in that arena then I, I spent most of the day in the bathroom/laundry room facilitating and doing laundry while keeping the space clean and organized for those showering as well. The woman from Idaho who rescued me in the kids room managed to somehow, magically have the several kids too old per the rules for the room stop jumping off furniture (near a couple tiny ones) and instead take too practicing English words while reading and cleaning up the chaos. I quickly recognized someone much more competent and ceded my role.

The rest of the day was spent in moving laundry through the washing machine amidst the chaos of a pile of female guests and a couple other volunteers all chatting while coming and going from the rest room. The women seem to relax and speak freer in the gender segregated rest rooms then in the larger room full of tables, coffee, tea and games. They cycle in and out of the shower and bathroom, cleaning themselves and their children, combing hair, taking care of little ones and organizing and folding laundry. Really, the mundane tasks of life made challenging if not impossible while living in a refugee camp. There’s soap, shampoo, a clean shower, washing machine and safe place to let their kids roam while they chat, argue and laugh with family and friends. For the most part someone else even does their laundry for them. This, it seems to me, is one of the places the center excels in its attempt to provide services with dignity. The women sit, in chairs, on the floor, sometimes with children. They chat and laugh and get frustrated and debate who should get to shower next and if we’re following the right order for the washing machine. I’ve also learned today how remarkably and comical miming can be for making requests of all sorts of hygiene related items. One in particular caused much laughter and was repeated throughout the day for comic effect. It was a highlight of the day, laughing with these women over shared hygiene needs and mimed motions. The moment of laughter felt a great distance from my earlier fear of being marginally responsible for their children who immediately took advantage of my insecurity.

I feel like this could be much better written and eloquently composed, but I’m tired so I’m going to lean on the failed 500 words per day, no editing challenge and post it as. I learned a lot today, much of it that needs to percolate and be processed a bit.

Athens

I’ve pretty well failed at the 500 words a day thing by now, but let’s just all agree to ignore that and pretend it hasn’t taken me somewhere around 2 months to get to day 14 or whatever we’re at. Sound good? 🙂

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View over Naxos Town and the Aegean

We’re in Athens now. Came in by ferry from a week long side trip/adventure into a couple of the Greek Isles. We spent 4 days each on Santorini and Naxos. Was fun to play the tourist again and explore new places, but we had more mishaps and minor missteps then usual and landed in Athens pretty exhausted last night. The husband is back to working his normal job at abnormal local hours and trying to get in the swing of things. So far, however, we’ve had a pile of problems with the internet at the Airbnb apartment we’re at as well as a little dispute with them over logistics of the deal that has left everyone involved feeling pretty leery and uncomfortable with each other. But as of yet, we haven’t worked out a way to agree on how to part ways. I’m definitely developing a new appreciation for the day to day challenges and frustrations individuals face when trying to establish life in a new place and culture where you don’t speak the language. Our little venture here is still short in the scheme of life at a month, but just long enough that there’s a few contracts and necessities involved that I’d feel incredibly competent in handling and negotiating at home, but that here has required far more time, money, confusion and frustration.

It’s a good reminder to keep learning, have a good sense of humor and maintain perspective along the way. And that rarely is it a good idea to try to negotiate things when one party is coming off being knocked out by Dramamine and still feels like they’re on a boat and both of you are utterly exhausted, sweaty and haven’t eaten an actual meal in 24 hours. Those things might possibly impact one’s perspective on life as a whole as well. J I also suppose that after 2 months of mostly living in Airbnb’s, we were bound to have a lemon experience in the bunch. It just sure would have been nice if it was one we were only in for 2 days instead of month!

We are in Athens, predominately so that I can volunteer with a couple groups working with refugees. The primary place I’ll be participating is with a day drop in center in the city. We both went in to meet people and do an orientation today and will go back to volunteer for a few hours tomorrow. The center is located on one of the main metro lines a handful of steps up from the old Olympic venues, which is the predominant location the government is housing refugees at right now. It’s also a couple buildings down from the Office of Immigration, where most refugees come for appointments. The center is open 6 days a week with 3 days each for Farsi speakers and Arabic speakers. The focus on providing services that are either not available or not of a good quality at the government camps in a manner that retains dignity for refugees.

Currently, this involves clean, functional, hot, private showers, laundry facilities, a children’s play area, culturally appropriate snacks and mostly a safe space to rest and be. They have games, puzzles, coffee and tea and free Wi-Fi. There’s English and Greek classes scheduled throughout the week as well as opportunities for haircuts and other scheduled items.

It was great to meet some of the staff and volunteers today and we’re definitely interested to learn more tomorrow. For the moment, I’m well over 500 words and rather tired so I won’t go into why I/we’re volunteering, but maybe another day. I really am going to try to try again for building a habit of writing.