Surrounded by like-minded people

After almost 24 hours of travel, I’m settled in my home-away-from-home for the next three weeks. SCM is so well-organized that the travel was smooth and trouble-free. I flew through Athens to Mytilene, the airport at the south end of the island. There I was met by the mission manager, Jamal, who happens to be the charming, efficient and competent nephew of Rita, the fearless leader of SCM. I traveled part of the way with another Seattleite, Tawfik, who is originally from Jordan. I am surrounded by like-minded people all here with one goal: to help where needed and buoy up these weary refugees as they pass through.

It was a cheerful and energetic crowd in the SCM van traveling from the Mytilene airport to the Molyvos hotel—six European young people several of whom are spending their “gap year” volunteering here with Starfish which is a wonderful organization helping and coordinating with SCM. The Starfish volunteers were brimming with sugar-induced energy and cheerful friendliness until they all fell asleep in the van like a pile of puppies who have been playing and working and going non-stop. I can tell I’m going to have a lot of fun with them when our paths cross. I could definitely see my daughters doing something like what these admirable young volunteers are doing.

Today conditions on the island changed—again—because the ferries transporting refugees from Lesbos to Athens are closed to refugees for the next ten days. Athens has been deemed overcrowded with refugees, so as they arrive, the refugees are stuck here on the island for at least a week and a half unless something changes. This means that we’ll be doing some work in the camps on the south end of the island. Usually the camps are temporary and transitory, but this will keep people there longer with a developing backup unless the policy changes before the 10 days are up.

It is definitely a bizarre contradiction of realities—this beautiful tourism paradise overlaid with the flow of refugees passing through.

Here is what I saw as we drove into the beautiful town tonight:

molyvos castle
Molyvos Castle

Tomorrow we will see more in the daylight, and on Monday I expect to be working in the camps which will bring the harsh reality slamming down.

Almost there and where are the refugees?

Conditions on Lesbos continue to change on a daily basis. While I have been passing my CPR test at the local fire department and learning to say “bheb ishrab shuayet ahuey ou shuayet shai (I would like to drink some coffee or some tea),” NATO moved warships into the Aegean Sea to “stem the flow” of refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece.

NY Times Feb. 16, 2016: “Concern for refugees’ safety was not, however, the reason Germany, Greece and Turkey — the three countries most affected by the crisis — asked NATO for help. The main concern is political: public dismay at the prospect that the tide of refugees shows no sign of abating. Last week, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to send millions of refugees on to Europe. Turkey has already taken in three million people and is under pressure to take in more.”

We can all certainly agree that Turkey has more than its share of problems. At the same time that it is responding to pressure from the EU and is dealing with the mass of refugees on its border with Syria (and distributed throughout the country), it is also facing increasing violence from entities (ISIS and/or PKK) within its borders. The very recent bombing in Ankara was even more distressing than the one back in November.

It sounds as if the presence of NATO ships, while ostensibly not there to turn back refugee boats, may be severely reducing the number of boats setting out for Greece.

The other very interesting development this week was the continued tightening of Macedonia’s borders. For anyone not up on Balkan geography, here’s a visual of how the countries are laid out:

balkan map

Back in December Macedonia began this closure process by limiting who could pass :

Al Jazeera, Dec. 5, 2015: “An estimated 3,000 asylum seekers remain stuck at the Idomeni border crossing in Greece because of Macedonia’s refusal to allow entry for those who cannot prove Iraqi, Syrian or Afghan citizenship.

Among those Macedonia has classified as ‘economic migrants’ and barred from entry are Moroccans, Tunisians, Iranians, Algerians, Yemenis, Eritreans, Pakistanis and Somalis.

Macedonian President Gjorgje Ivanov has said the move was designed to prevent tension between Macedonians and those entering the country.

Ivanov said that any more than 2,000 refugees crossing through the country at any given moment would cause ‘permanent and direct threats and risks for national security’.”

Now the Afghans are being prohibited from passing into Macedonia because the Serbian border is closed to them. Macedonia does not want to get “stuck” with Afghans who cannot depart from inside its borders.

As someone with strong ties to Albania, I’ve been watching and waiting for the refugees to begin using Albania as their pathway to Serbia and northern Europe. Like Macedonia, Albania shares a long border with Greece, but unlike Macedonia, that border is almost exclusively mountainous. Additionally, Albania itself is extremely poor and relatively lawless in some areas, both factors that I assume have deterred the refugees until now. Will that change as more and more of the other borders become impassable? An article in Ozy, while sprinkled with journalistic generalizations, gives a good perspective on how a border country is trying to prepare for and anticipate an influx of refugees.

My friends tell me to be safe and praise my bravery. I am not brave. The refugees who are traveling for days, weeks, months trying to find safety, they are the brave ones. I am inspired by others who are taking it upon themselves to help the refugees passing before their front doors. Here is one such story of a brilliant, big-hearted young Macedonian woman. Watch it.

Knit Scarves vs. Bombs

Feb. 5 – I think Russia and I were working at cross purposes today. While I was in the SCM office in Seattle picking up suitcases of Anacin, hygiene kits, Mylar blankets and children’s hand toys, Russian jets were carpet-bombing Aleppo. Tens of thousands of NEW refugees are amassing at the Syrian/Turkish border trying to escape the violence. Where will they go? I just want to cry.

From today’s NY Times: “The United Nations said 20,000 people were stuck at the border fence between Syria and Turkey, and aid groups said as many as 50,000 were expected. Turkish officials have said they will allow refugees to cross, but it was not clear when they would open the crossing or how many would be allowed through. A few people requiring urgent medical care are being taken to Turkish hospitals.

The United Nations’ director of humanitarian operations, John Ging, told the Security Council on Friday that the situation around Aleppo, and the closing of an important border crossing with Turkey, could prevent food and medicine from reaching 325,000 people caught in the fighting, according to two diplomats who attended the closed meeting.”

In the meantime, I continue with my Arabic and my CPR and my plans.

Here’s what I’ll be carrying in checked baggage:

  • 2016-02-07 11.07.09
    Warmth hand made by Rachel and Barb

    18 adult and 18 child hygiene kits

  • 2 boxes of KIND bars
  • Hand-knitted items: 2 vests, 6 hats, 11 scarves, 4 neck gaiters
  • 8 warming blankets
  • 40 Mylar rescue blankets
  • 100 pair hand/toe warmers
  • 26 pair socks
  • 3 fleece jackets
  • 200 individual doses Anacin
  • 21 hand-size toys


I will also carry a letter from SCM as well as letters from Governor Inslee and Senator McDermott asserting that I am a legitimate humanitarian worker carrying badly needed supplies. Apparently the airline employee at the check-in desk has the authority to decide whether or not to charge me for checking two bags—it all depends on whom I get on that morning at the AirFrance desk. I’m optimistic I will sail through—why not be optimistic in the face of uncertainty? That is what the refugees are doing on a daily basis, no?

Migrant Crisis by the Numbers

Feb. 4 – From the New York Times today (Your Thursday Briefing online): “One day after the peace talks in Geneva broke down, world leaders today are seeking $9 billion to help Syrians inside and outside the country suffering as a result of the civil war, now entering its sixth year. By comparison, $50 billion was spent on the Sochi Olympics. And Germany’s cabinet has toughened asylum rules. We measure the staggering toll of Europe’s migrant crisis in lives and dollars ”

The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean seems to ebb and flow day by day, week by week and month by month. It is not surprising that the number in December/January is the smallest since the upsurge began last spring. The cost to cross is also lower in the winter months; smugglers gouge desperate migrants as much as they can depending on demand. It is, like everything else at base, an economic system based on supply and demand. But unlike some other economic systems, this one is truly a life-or-death situation.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is the international body in charge of refugee issues across and between nation states, puts out numerous data resources including a daily bulletin tracking the movement of migrants generally and specific numbers for Lesbos. For example, yesterday’s bulletin showed the following:

  • Total arrivals in Lesvos (01 Jan 2015-03 Feb 2016): 540,348
  • Total arrivals in Lesvos during Feb 2016: 4,155
  • Average daily arrivals during Feb 2016: 1,385
  • Average daily arrivals during Jan 2016: 1,167
  • Estimated residual population staying on the island: 1,984
  • Estimated departures to Mainland: 2,572

We expect the Lesbos numbers to creep back up as the weather improves, but migration is affected by border closures as well as climate issues. And, not surprising, in today’s world there is an app used by the migrants updated in real time to help those at each step along the way find the safest and most open route possible.

Learning to Save a Life and to Talk About it

Feb. 3 – Today I finished my Basic Life Support for Providers course online. I am actually kicking myself for not taking it years ago. Somehow after having babies, the need to be CPR-certified seemed less imperative. I’m so glad that this mission has given me the opportunity to become skilled again in case I need to save someone from choking, heart attack or breathing difficulties. My first aid course is next week at the local fire department, and my final exam will be just before I depart—also at the local fire department. I can’t imagine the portions on using an AED nor the mouth-to-mouth that is really mask-to-mouth will apply on Lesbos, but perhaps there will be more equipment available than I anticipate.

I also continued with my Arabic lessons today, both audio and in person. My lovely neighbors Nahed and little Nora are infinitely patient as I bumble my way through the most basic of phrases and concepts. I have definitely mastered “I do not understand Arabic (Mabaraf Arabi)” “How are you? (Kifak?)” and “Good morning (Sabah al khir)” (the response (Sabah al noor) to the latter directly translates to “Good light to you”—so lovely!). But today I wrestled with “would like” as in “You would like to eat something (Bithibi takli shi).” I have learned that Arabic is based on many sounds where consonants seem to be butted up against one another as in “bithebti” and even more troubling is the fact that I’ve now discovered what sounds like four different “h” sounds, one of which is essentially a growl and another which sounds like I’m trying to remove something solid from my throat. Nahed just chuckles and encourages me as I try to create guttural sounds that are actually part of the language. As my mother says, onward and upward!

Hot Soup Because “Baheb akol shi (I would like to eat something).”

Feb. 2 – Tonight I made Avgolemono Soup. It is one of our favorites, and just happens to be Greek. As I was carefully incorporating the eggs and lemon juice into the hot broth, I anticipated the Greek food I will be able to enjoy at the end of long days in Molyvos. Unlike the others arriving there from across the sea, I will have a warm bed to sleep in and the funds to eat hot meals at local cafes. And, as I watched the swirling soup, trying to keep the beaten eggs smooth as they joined the lamb broth, I couldn’t help but think about the foreign refugees streaming onto the Greek roadways and from there to the ferries as they move northward trying to integrate into the larger masses of European citizens.

My imagination runs wild as I consider what I have seen in photos and videos about conditions on Lesbos where locals try to continue some semblance of a normal life while having such an influx of foreigners arriving daily. The best overview I have seen to date was put out by the Washington Post and is called “The Waypoint.” Note the scene with the staff/volunteer burning trash in the Moria camp on Southern Lesbos; when I voiced nervousness about being able to handle my upcoming duties as a volunteer, Sam kindly pointed out the fact that I am an expert at managing burn piles so I will certainly be able to help out in that department.


Keeping Warm and Dry

Jan. 28 – I’m worried about being cold. Of course, when we hear “Greek beach,” we all think of a sun-drenched island paradise. Me, too. But, the beach on Lesvos in February/March is not sun-drenched, and I’m told to expect rain and cold. January even saw some snow at the beach. Yeesh! So, going on the advice of a recent mission returnee, I’m thinking Seattle winter hiking gear which means layers and rain barriers and more layers. I’m already set for under-layers, but I’m going to have to purchase waterproof gloves, waterproof pants, and maybe even a new rain jacket as mine is intermittently effective. If I buy all that, we’ll be guaranteed to have 21 unbroken days of sunshine. Good plan. SCM advised bringing waders, and I had lined up a loaner pair, but my returnee information source said that my insulated muck boots would likely be fine and that we really are not supposed to be the ones pulling people out of deep water. That duty goes to another NGO (non-governmental organization). It sounds as if it is all very well organized and duties pretty clearly assigned. There is even a group that launders all the left-behind clothes and readies them for the next wave of migrants to change into when they arrive wet and cold; this volunteer group is aptly named Dirty Girls.

None of this speaks to staying warm while I sleep though, and I’ve heard from multiple sources that the hotel in Molyvos while quite comfortable and safe and convenient is also rather cold. So, I’ve purchased an old-fashioned hot-water bottle to schlepp along so I’ll have a warm companion at night. And, again, layers, layers, layers.