Helpless. Not the kind where you feel unable to do something, but the feeling that you haven’t done enough and don’t have the power to do more. That’s the word I heard most often from my fellow volunteers working this summer with refugees in Europe.
It was my second summer with IsraAid, Israel’s largest nongovernmental organization for global humanitarian aid and international development.
I was excited to spend two months on the island of Lesbos in Greece, where IsraAid has been an active since the peak of the crisis in 2015. I wanted to build upon my experiences with IsraAid in Berlin in 2016, and couldn’t predict how Lesbos would be different.
As it turned out, I felt more helpless than I had in Berlin.
It was probably due in part to the fact that I was on a sparsely populated island off the coast of Turkey rather than one of Europe’s most bustling and cosmopolitan cities. But it also was because none of the refugees in Lesbos wanted to be there. Lesbos is the first stepping stone to Europe, not the happily-ever-after. These people wanted to be in Berlin, Athens or Stockholm.
The desire to move on to the mainland was so strong that news of one refugee’s impending departure was sometimes met with contempt by others. Two unaccompanied minors I became close to had their ID cards, clothes and money stolen from their rooms just days before they were to fly to Germany. It appeared that some of their peers were so envious of these two boys’ fortunes that they were willing to steal from them to prevent them from going.
Lesbos was quite bleak, but also there were many bright spots. However, I don’t believe that sugarcoating my experience does anyone justice.
Theater of the Oppressed
In July, IsraAid ran a 10-day theater workshop for unaccompanied youth refugees. The participants came from two group homes run by Greek NGOs and from Moria, the island’s largest refugee camp, which is run by the Ministry of Immigration and the European Asylum Support Office.
The goal was to provide an outlet for the boys to share their personal journeys with a wider audience, via a public performance on the last day. The two Israeli theater teachers who led the workshop used a method of turning everyday people who have experienced hardship into actors, a method called “Theatre of the Oppressed” — or, as one of the teachers renamed it, “Theatre of the Liberated.”
We quickly realized that our goal of having 15 boys report for at least six hours of rehearsals a day for 10 consecutive days was naive. Each day, different boys would show up. The first day, there were 20, then eight, then seven, then a dozen.
These boys seemed like your average adolescents, except they weren’t. Some hadn’t seen their mothers in seven or eight years. Some didn’t even know their mothers. One, a Yazidi from Iraq, having become a soldier at 14, had lost part of his index finger while fighting for the PKK (the Kurdish defense forces). Another I would often see around town at night, drunk, stoned and aimlessly looking for something to take his mind off his past.
Suffice to say, the odds were stacked heavily against them. But as I began to gain their trust and see their creativity unfold throughout the workshop, I saw the compassion and empathy they carried. They wanted to create scenes based on topics like discrimination, never giving up on your dream, a mother’s love, benevolent leadership.
On the night of the performance, I saw firsthand just how much the workshop meant to them. They wanted their friends to come and watch, and they kept asking for videos and pictures of the performance so they could send them to their friends and families. They told stories of cherished objects that reminded them of home, of off-the-path teenagers making bad decisions, and of realizing a mother’s impact on their lives after it was already too late.
Every day during rehearsals, one of the boys from Ghana would close the day by leading the group in prayer. It was a sight I’ll never forget: Israelis, Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians, Ghanaians, South Sudanese and I, the lone American, holding hands for a moment of reflection.
Helpless and guilty
The main camp in Lesbos where IsraAid operates is called Kara Tepe. Various NGOs from around the world, working in close cooperation with one another, made sure that the place was always full of activities for residents of all ages.
I became close with the members of a Portuguese NGO and began to help out with the youth group they held three times a week. We joked that I was actually a participant, as some of the “youth” (ages 15 to 22) were older than me.
I was scared that I would be intruding on the group, that I wouldn’t fit in. I feared a language barrier would arise, as most of the youth were from Afghanistan and spoke Farsi. (Nearly half of Kara Tepe’s residents were Afghan.)
It took time, but I gained their trust, just as I had with the boys in the theater workshop. It wasn’t long before I earned the honorific of pashmi, the Farsi word for body hair and a title given to every male volunteer who worked with the group.
Despite their warm acceptance, I still felt helpless at times. During my two months, four of them were granted permission to leave for the mainland, which was something to celebrate. But as happy as the others were for them, I could tell there was an unspoken envy. The selection process seemed random at times. One of those who left smuggled himself illegally.
I felt guilty when I told them that I, too, would soon leave to return to school in the United States. For me, it was so simple, a mere choice to come to Lesbos for the summer. But not for them.
I felt even guiltier when I missed one youth group session when I took a ferry to the Turkish coastal city of Ayvalik for the day. Refugees had paid hundreds or thousands of euros for a dangerous one-way journey on an unreliable inflatable raft, while I, with my U.S. passport and all the privilege that accompanied it, paid eight euros for a round-trip journey on a comfortable boat. Upon my return, when my Afghan friends asked where I had been, I didn’t have the heart to tell them.
In conversations with friends and family back home, I often used my experiences at Kara Tepe as a baseline metric when comparing it to other camps I had been to in Lesbos and on the neighboring island of Chios. I would say, “Compared to the others, Kara Tepe looks like a five-star resort.” It had a 24/7 medical clinic, a full daily schedule of activities for children, multiple safe spaces for men and women, as well as recreational areas.
But it wasn’t a resort. The stench of sewage from communal restrooms was amplified in the summer heat, as residents baked in trailer boxes that weren’t air-conditioned. Mental health issues were widespread, and there was a lack of capacity to make sure every case was monitored properly. It was, ultimately, a place of transitional housing for traumatized refugees who did not want to be there.
Conditions in Moria were also dismal. Since it was run by the Ministry of Immigration and had soldiers and riot police always on call outside the gate, it looked more like a prison camp than a place of shelter. IsraAid does not operate inside the camp, so I never actually stepped foot inside, but anecdotes from residents and my experiences outside the gate were enough for me to get a glimpse.
Nearly the whole time I was in Lesbos, there was civil unrest in Moria on a weekly, if not daily, basis. In late June, a few refugees in administrative detention — basically the camp’s jail meant for people who were soon to be deported — began a hunger strike after nearly three months of imprisonment. It lasted more than 30 days. At the end of July, African refugees demonstrated in Moria for two days. On the second day, amid reports of damaged vehicles and riot police using tear gas, our IsraAid team joined other NGOs in going to Moria to provide medical support to refugees who had been evacuated from the camp.
That was the first time I ever felt like I was on the frontlines.
As we walked past the gate, I experienced the burning sensation of tear gas for the first time in my life. We made our way to an olive grove where Arab families were huddling under trees on a blistering hot day. We were greeted by a man who looked like a firefighter and who was yelling at the refugees, telling them and our team to clean up after ourselves, as we were on private property. Then we were shooed away by a Palestinian man from Syria who, after hearing that our staff was from Israel, didn’t want us to help his family. For the most part, there were no serious injuries. Most people just looked frustrated, waiting for the demonstration to be over so they could go back inside.
When I drove the Ghanaian boys from the theater workshop back to Moria a couple of days later, we saw two soldiers and a Greek civilian twirling batons and sticks as a trio of African refugees walked by, trying to incite them enough so the soldiers could lawfully retaliate.
“They hate the blacks in Moria,” one of the boys told me bluntly.
Not enough help to go around
It’s often hard for me to describe what I did the past two summers. I usually say, “I just met a lot of people.” In reality, that was the most important part of my work: just meeting people and sharing experiences with them.
One of the people I met in Lesbos was Leila, a woman in her mid-20s from Herat, Afghanistan. Leila worked in the medical clinic as a Farsi translator for the IsraAid medical team. I drove Leila to the hospital one day and she shared her story with me. She was in Kara Tepe with her mother and younger brother; two other siblings were already in mainland Europe. Her father had stayed behind in Afghanistan, hoping that his position in a foreign embassy would provide refuge.
Leila studied English literature in university and began working as an English teacher, but she and the rest of her family were forced to leave Herat after the Taliban threatened to kill members of her family if her brother would not join their ranks. She expressed her love of English and gratitude for her role with IsraAid and the small stipend that accompanies it, saying it provided for her sick mother and younger brother, who was exhibiting symptoms of trauma.
When we arrived at the hospital, to schedule a psychiatric appointment for Leila, we were met with disdain. Locals were clearly fed up with the public health complications that accompanied the migrant crisis. There simply weren’t enough doctors to go around. We gave the receptionist Leila’s referral note and were told that the next available appointment was not for three months. We booked it anyway.
Then there was Simone, a single mother from Ivory Coast with a 2-month-old baby. Simone lived in a shelter that was a 45-minute drive from the city. It was a lonesome life, with little to do and few options to keep busy besides sleeping and being on her phone.
I went to the shelter a couple of times with some tablet computers with preloaded apps in multiple languages that I thought would be useful. At first, Simone and I sat and talked — except she was illiterate and didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak French. We used Google Translate’s voice recognition feature to introduce ourselves. I thought it was a mistake when her sentence translated as, “I’m 18 years old.” I was sure she was at least 25.
She wanted to learn English, so I attempted to teach her some with the help of Duolingo. Over two sessions, we barely managed to cover “man, woman, boy, girl.” I, in turn, learned “homme, femme, garçon, fille.” The cartoon representations in the app were of little help to Simone, as she didn’t seem to realize they represented the words we were trying to learn.
The experience taught me that every small victory is still a victory. Simone came to Europe from Africa alone and pregnant, but her body language conveyed to me that learning those four words was big accomplishment.
One of the major things I learned is that working with different cultures is easier said than done.
I remember meeting a little girl one day. I asked her in Arabic if she was from Syria. She looked at me and said, “No Arabic. Farsi.” I didn’t believe her, so I kept trying to have a basic conversation in Arabic. “No Arabic. Farsi.”
I put her to the test. I had learned four or five phrases in Farsi during my time in Lesbos, so I asked her, “Tashakur” (how are you?), making her believe I really knew Farsi. She looked at me with a blank face and then smiled when she realized that I had caught her red-handed.
My intuition was right — she was Syrian — but something about that back-and-forth encounter struck me. It was as if she was trying to shed her identity and get rid of her past. She had wanted to put up a facade and convince me, and maybe even herself, that she was somebody who she wasn’t. Why, I will never know.
Many of the experiences I had were quite awful. There was the time a mother at Kara Tepe tried to throw her 2-year-old in front of a moving truck. And the time a teenage boy was struck in the chest by a tear gas canister. And there were the many times I didn’t know how to, or if I should, intervene when young kids punched, slapped and threw stones at one another. Those were times I felt helpless.
Still, I believed that one day, everything I had done in Lesbos would finally make sense. One day I’d realize just how much I missed being called “body hair” in Farsi by the Afghan boys. And I’d miss being affectionately called sharmoota (Arabic for “whore”) by my adopted younger brothers from the theater workshop. Maybe “man, woman, boy, girl” would one day transform into English fluency for Simone.
I am hopeful for the future, as cliche as it sounds. Not because time heals all wounds, but because I genuinely cannot wait for 10 years from now, when I know I’ll reconnect with the many people I’ve met. Some will probably be well into their new lives in Europe, while others will have returned to their countries of origin. I’ll track their progress on Facebook; I’ll keep in touch.
I see us one day meeting in America or Portugal or Germany or Greece or Afghanistan or Syria, or even Israel. We’ll sit together, reminisce, and say, “Remember that one time in Lesbos when …” as if it were some distant memory and not the reality of today.