Rahullah and the Humans
The window of my hilltop apartment in Molyvos looks out over the harbor. In the early light of morning, I can usually see a faint glittering of the gold I know to be emergency blankets wrapped around clusters of newly arrived refugees. The rhythm of their arrival is constant, boat after boat bearing down on the island. About 30,000 refugees arrived in January alone, and that is a low-ball estimate. Sources on the island report that upwards of 2,000 refugees arrive in Greece every day, the majority of them travelling through Lesvos.
But the experience of being a volunteer is not crushing; you are never drowning under a tide of people. Your interactions are with individuals, or boats that have become families through their experience on the sea the way young men become brothers through fraternity pledging. You can walk through crowds in the camps handing out 1,000 pairs of dry socks, but the questions you get are personal; the stories you hear are intimate.
Because of this rhythm and routine, it is easy to forget that we are the refugees' first point of contact in Europe. Many have been travelling for a month or more, crossing dangerous borders on foot, young men carrying the children of other families as they walk 8-24 hours over mountains and through forests. Some have money. Many Syrians are able to fly into Istanbul where those who will arrange their passage meet them at the airport. But they are all shoved into tiny rubber dinghies just the same. They all feel the crush of cold and fear when their boats take on water, or are chased by the Turkish coast guard to the border.
Some refugees arrive in shock, their emotions raw and uncontrollable. Some have been living in a looming smog of fear for their entire lives. It is extraordinary to bear witness to the first moment when they realize they are safe. We don’t tell them about how hard the journey will be when they leave the island, say little of the camps along the Balkan route, the constantly changing border situation, or the blockades where thousands get stuck for days waiting to cross. What can we really tell these people about struggle?
On Monday I was working in the harbor when a boat arrived filled with Afghans. A few men identified themselves as English speakers, and came forward to help translate for the rest of the group. You are in Molyvos, on the northern shore of Lesvos, Greece. First, you need to form a line so that we can register you for the Coast Guard. You will receive some dry clothing, food, and water. After, we will take you to the buses to Moria Camp, where you will receive your papers.
I assigned one of the English-speaking refugees, a boy named Rahullah, to work with me at the registration table. He translated my questions into Kurdish, asking everyone for their information and welcoming them to Europe. Afterwards, we furnished Rahullah with a sweater and new jacket; his had been thrown overboard when the boat started to take on water. All he had with him was a fraying fanny pack filled with a little cash, a cell phone waterproofed in tape, and a tightly bound bundle of sandwiches. (Let it be known that a boy who uses 70% of his luggage space to bring food is a boy after my own heart.)
Later, I asked him if he was travelling with his family. Rahullah told me he was alone. That one night his father had come to his bedroom in Kabul and told him now that he was almost a grown man, it was no longer safe for him to stay. That he needed to leave them behind. He told me how they took everything they had, everything his father had ever saved, all the jewelry from the wives of his two brothers, and used it to buy his passage.
The decision to leave is not taken lightly. The border crossings are dangerous. If people are apprehended by the Taliban trying to leave Afghanistan, they are executed. Those that stay often suffer the same fate. There is no looking back.
We are fearful when we hear statistics about the number of single young men arriving in Europe. The fact is that nearly 70% of refugees are men. Among the 15-30 year olds, the percentage is much higher (the New York Times reported it to be as high as 11 men for every 1 woman). However, instead of viewing these men as a threat, maybe we can learn to see them as boys like Rahullah. Young men sent from their homes by terrified fathers who want something better for their sons; parents who want their children to grow up, and grow old.
It took Rahullah one month to reach Lesvos from Afghanistan, with six days spent in Turkey-- just long enough to learn how to say, “How much?” “Where?” and “Bathroom,” in Turkish, he told me.
When he was finished, Rahullah looked at me and said, “I told my group-- I said that when we leave Lesvos, we will leave as humans. Finally, we will live as humans.”
In Afghanistan, he said, shaking his head, they are not humans, but terrified, expendable bodies to both Taliban and government wars. In Turkey, refugees are second-class citizens, prevented from working. To make the journey to Europe, they are sold life jackets filled with paper that become so waterlogged and heavy in the sea that they sink the refugees more quickly. To the smugglers, they are dollar signs and years on prison sentences.
As volunteers, we are tasked with preserving as much of the refugees' humanity as we can. It is easy to get sucked in to the routine of the work, to forget that we are dealing with people and not tasks. New clothes, check. Food, check. Yes, we can give you gloves, diapers, underwear. No, we have no new shoes. No, you cannot have a different color hat. No, we don’t have jeans in your size. No, the trousers you have are good enough. We give children outfits that they protest the same way I did when my mother tried to pick clothes out for me in elementary school, hissing, I hate it. It is easy to get frustrated with what we see as outsized demands; when we think they expect too much from us. It is easy to forget that most of these people are not used to asking for charity.
The people who make this journey are those who can afford to. Skilled workers, doctors, lawyers, shop owners, teachers. Many of these people, especially Syrians, are middle class. These are people who are used to shopping, and picking out new clothes. They have a sense of personal style. These people who own their own houses and cars, have degrees, are the same people we are assigning 25-30 at a time into the windowless containers called Residential Housing Units (RHU’s) in the Moria Camp. The same people sleeping head to foot, packed in tighter than an after-work yoga class in New York City. The same people we dress in outdated and ill-fitting donation clothing, who wait in line in the cold for plain cheese and Wonderbread sandwiches. Who listen as we tell them they don’t have a choice about what to wear, where to sleep, what to eat; who don’t know what lies ahead for them on this journey, who just want to know how they will buy a ticket to Athens, to Macedonia, to Germany, how to find their husbands, wives, and family.
The emergency needs of the refugees are often at odds with the way they are used to living. It can be difficult to provide them with what you think they need without taking away the agency of those you are trying to help. Starfish manages the clothing distribution at the IRC, a transit camp run by the International Rescue Committee. We try and give them everything they will need to stay warm, but sometimes we do not have clothing women consider modest enough, and they try and stay in their wet dresses and jackets at great personal risk. Many women will wait in freezing temperatures and harsh winds in order to use the single occupancy toilet to change out of their wet clothing into the dry donation clothes. We try and set up as many private areas for them to change as possible, to preserve their traditions and dignity, but often the crush of people is too much and there is simply not enough space.
This week at the IRC, a woman arrived at the clothing tent with her young daughter, wet from her headscarf to her shoes. She was shaking, and seemed to be in shock. We ran around the tent grabbing underwear, tights, pants, a new shirt, sweater, jacket, headscarf, hat, gloves, dry socks. Without a word the woman began to take off her shoes, pants, and underwear in front of the distribution counter, unable to fathom the short walk to the changing area.
The women’s tent is removed from the rest of camp, but there were men nearby, receiving their own clothing not 50 feet away. It is difficult to understand or explain what this must have felt like to a muslim woman. This is desperation. This is how raw this journey can strip people down, how far it can take them from themselves.
We tried to hold an emergency blanket up to shield her, but the women’s hands were so disabled by the cold a volunteer had to change her the way we dress the hypothermic children. When the woman was finally in dry clothing and the commotion stopped, everything caught up with her. She fell into a chair and began to sob onto a volunteer’s shoulder, pulling her young daughter into a tight three-person embrace. They sat there for a time, until she was calm enough to draw steady breath. She thanked us with a nod and slowly walked her daughter (or maybe it was the other way around) back to the center of camp.
It breaks my heart that I do not to know how to help. Sometimes all we can do is give them dry clothes and try and let them feel human again.
Later, I was working in the IRC tent with a lovely Palestinian woman who made a remark about the Afghani refugees, wondering why they are seeking asylum in Europe. “They do not have war,” she said, shrugging. Indeed, with Palestinians making up about 50% of the world’s refugees, this world must look so different through her eyes than mine.
But how do we define war? The Afghani men arriving in the harbor have never known peace. Those born after 2001 have never known their country without American soldiers. Many of the English speakers on the boats have either worked as, or are the children of, combat translators. They say, “We have government, but only in name. We have police, but they are only police to the poor.” The Taliban still terrorize their homes, the government conflict is open warfare in the streets, and now ISIS has arrived in full force. If it is not war, then what can we call it?
An Afghani man on the boat made a joke over his cheese sandwich that he didn’t want to be housed with any Pakistani refugees in Moria. I have just skimmed the surface of understanding the complicated politics of Pakistan’s deliberate destabilization of Afghanistan through the funding of violent rebel groups in addition to their participation in global peace efforts, but what I thought about was how the previous night I had spent an hour with three small Pakistani girls, running up and down a hill and swinging them high into the air while they howled and laughed.
Rahullah softly countered to the group, “They are humans too.”
While I was talking with Rahullah and his friends, a small crowd gathered. Rahullah diligently relayed the stories of his group, each eager for his turn to share. An older man explained how he was the oldest of 7 brothers, all 6 of whom had been killed by the Taliban. A few months ago the Taliban had come to his house and beat him nearly to death with the end of a gun, and his skull still bears the deep impression where metal struck bone. He left to save his daughters, two precocious girls who love to play basketball, who speak giggling and self-conscious English, and who kept holding my face still to make sure my eyes weren't blue from color contacts.
This man wanted us to pass a message to the Coast Guard, to thank them for saving their lives. To save money, smugglers often equip boats with just enough fuel to leave Turkey, and hardly ever enough to make it all the way across. The engines are disposable and malfunction. The waves in the middle of the sea can rise in an instant from still water and pitch a boat over. This boat had run out of gas in the middle of the sea. The old man raised trembling hands to the sky as Rahullah explained to us that the man thought they were all going to die, having come so far and lost so much. The Coast Guard boat found them when the boat had filled with water past their knees. As volunteers it is easy to see the global politics at play on the water, the conflicts between the Coast Guard, non-profit groups, and Frontex, the EU's border patrol. But for the refugees, they see only salvation.
Before Rahullah left on the bus to Moria, I asked him how he felt to be here. He smiled, his face aged beyond his sixteen years, and said, “Today I am happy. I will remember this day for my entire life. Today is the day I am finally free.”
I gave him my email address; he said he would find me on Facebook. I don’t know whether he has reached Germany yet, or has gotten stuck behind some border. I haven’t heard back.
This week I moved into the apartment at the top of the hill that is Molyvos with a volunteer named Tim from Germany. He plays strange Austrian pop-rock and hip-hop while we cook dinner under the pretense that it will help me with my German. Indeed, I have recently come to the realization that the entirety of my social life revolves around 18-21 year old German boys.
In the afternoons our landlord walks his goat, Iliana, past the door to eat the green shrubs that grow around the base of the castle, and brings us freshly cut almond blossoms on his way back from the evening milking. Before a dinner party on Thursday, he arrived at the window clutching a fistful of green onions covered in wet earth he picked in his garden for the Spanikopita I was making. Because I care deeply about my friends in New York and San Francisco, I wont tell you how little I pay per night for our little paradise.
Walking home at night, looking up at the sky, I think I can see every one of the one hundred billion stars. On quiet evenings, it is hard to believe that anything bad could happen here. It is harder still to comprehend that on shores so close you'd bet you could skip a rock across and hit them, there are people huddled in freezing forests waiting for a van to drive them to rocky beaches where smugglers will push at their backs, loading them into the boats in the darkness. Difficult to imagine how at that moment, a refugee is being handed an engine and told to drive. Hard to understand how in countries closer than they are far away, mothers are kissing their sons goodbye in the hopes they will find something better here.
A friend from home asked me the other day if being a volunteer is difficult. My answer? It is the easiest thing I’ve done in a long time. The hours are long, the boxes can be heavy, toes get cold. You might get carsick on the winding roads to the camps, or have a day where your fellow volunteers make you crazy, or a police officer snaps at you. Your arms ache and your shoulders burn from carrying a sleeping child to their family. You go hours without eating, and get soaked to the bone from rain. But still, the work is easy. It is as easy as breathing.
Maybe the assumption that it is difficult comes from a failure of imagination. From our desks and cars and lives back home, it is hard to imagine ourselves in a place where we empathize with people as people, who share completely different experiences but feel the same things. I had no idea if I would be able to rise to it. But on the island, the structures and barricades between lives and roles have been torn down and stripped away. They reach for you and you reach back.
When you see someone freezing, you warm them. When you find someone who is hungry, you find them food. When you see someone in distress, you hold their hand. When you see a baby crying, you scoop them up. When you know that your job will make someone’s life better, whether it is driving the night shift or sorting donation clothes, you do it. It is this work, this instinct, that makes us human.
When I leave this island, I expect I will be tired, frustrated, and probably just a little bit angry at the world. But like Rahulluh, I will leave Lesvos, leave Greece, leave this life, a human again.
Keep an eye out for next weeks newsletter, expected to appear midweek.