You Can Take It With You
I want to run you through an exercise.
Imagine for a second that you are going on a journey. You are leaving your home with no intention of coming back. For all you know, your house will be burned to the ground with everything inside it once you leave.
What do you bring with you?
Close your eyes and consider: what do you pack? Lay everything out on the table. Are you reaching for clean underwear? Your photo albums? Your laptop? A favorite book? How many articles of clothing are you bringing?
You know your journey will take at least a month, maybe much longer, and you don’t know if you will be stopped somewhere along the way and forced to sleep outside in a field or not. You don’t know if you will have access to adequate shelter or proper hygiene.
Do you pack a toothbrush and toothpaste, or is that space you need for your grandmother’s necklace, your grandfather’s bible, or your mother’s medicines?
Visualize everything you have laid out, your bare necessities and the things from your life that you cherish too much to think about leaving behind.
Now, imagine that you can only take one backpack, about the size of a child’s school bag, with you on this trip. Anything else is too big, too bulky to fit inside the boat you will need to use for your passage.
What, then, do you fit inside? The toothbrush? The clothing? The jewelry? The diapers for your baby? The change of underwear? The computer?
Now, imagine that no matter what you put in your backpack, at some point it will be submerged in water. Does this change what you pick up off the table to travel with you? Do you take some things out, put some things back?
What if there was no promise that any of these things would make the journey with you at all, that you would be forced to abandon them to save your own life, or they would be stripped from you at gunpoint at some mountain border in the middle of the night?
Think about your backpack, and everything you’ve put in it, packed so tightly that the zipper is straining at its seam. Pick up your backpack and put it on your back. Feel it in your hands, and on your person. Is your backpack knobby with solid objects, or soft and durable? Is it light, or is it heavy?
This is what you choose to bring with you, the only things you own as you begin your new life, and they have absolute mass.
There is a material weight to life.
We all know the romantic immigrant narrative about coming to a new country with just the clothes on your back and three dollars in your pocket and making it in America or wherever your particular boat docks. Rarely do we stop to consider the weight. When I moved across the country for work, I stepped off the plane clutching bags, bottles of water and magazines from the flight, and pushing a trolley with everything my mom insisted I needed with me to restart my life. Usually when I walk out of an airport, my shoulders are screaming for me to throw my bags down in the back of the taxi, or my apartment entry, or the kitchen floor of my parent’s house while my dogs jump up and try to lick my face.
I am sitting here, trying to imagine the unbearable lightness of stepping off a plane, or a boat, or a raft—with nothing.
I am trying to imagine the weight of my backpack.
When refugees arrive with nothing, because they started with nothing or their possessions were tossed overboard, stolen, or ruined, we try to provide them with new things. I have spoken before about the complicated work of giving donated clothing to people who have never had to ask for handouts in their lives. Some have distinct styles and tastes, others are grateful for whatever you hand them. More than once I have had to swap shoes off of a refugee who was having difficulty walking because they were too shy to say the shoes they were previously given are several sizes too small.
Every camp on the island has a storage facility with clothing donations organized into cardboard boxes with taped-on labels indicating the contents. Some of these facilities have charming, boutique-y names like, “the store,” or “Anastasia’s.” Some are massive, like Attica, and others the size of a small bedroom. Some are run out of the backs of cars in the harbor, or tents with winding alleys of shelves.
Looking around these spaces, trunks, and tents, it is shocking to recognize the quantity of clothing that we consider essential to be ‘complete’: Socks, pants, underwear, undershirt, shirt, sweater, fleece, jacket, hat, scarf, gloves, shoes, bag, toothbrush… the list goes on.
Clothing has a weight. Imagine your backpack. Does it have room for more than one set of these items? To possess non-essential clothing is a privilege.
There is also a unique weight to being female on the refugee trail: the extra fabric of a dress or the long, modest jackets the women prefer, and a hijab or headscarf for those who require them. Changes of underwear. A bra.
While a male body is linear, a female body is cyclical. It is a body that requires. For one quarter of every month every woman requires sanitary napkins and maxi pads. Many are too embarrassed to request them at the distribution tents. This is understandable, how would you indicate needing a pad to someone who doesn’t speak your language? Even though I’ve handed out hundreds, I am always surprised when I realize what the women are asking for. Why do the cycles of the female body not pause for such a crisis? Why can’t it understand things are complicated enough?
We try to offer pads the best we can. New underwear, too. They go in the backpacks.
Many women come through Lesvos heavily pregnant, their bodies burdened with the weight of another person. Again, I am always surprised that something so normal and biological can happen in a time where the natural order of life feels disrupted and distorted by war. We struggle to find them clothing, offering them men’s sweatpants when they need a change of clothing. Some have wet themselves on the journey, from fear, or from desperation while a baby sits on their bladder. The female body is a difficult thing to carry.
Then there are the children, as attached to the female body as if they still lived inside it. About half of the refugees who have registered on Lesvos have been children. Many women are travelling alone with their babies, toddlers, and young children who still need; need food, need clothing, need comfort, need diapers, need shelter, need breast-milk, need pacifiers, need blankets, need distractions, need mothers.
“Where’s baba?” We ask a woman struggling to carry a bag for her and her children, and she shakes her head. Often, he has gone ahead to settle them in Germany or elsewhere. Still more often, he is a casualty of the war.
Women with babies have different needs: nursing bras, baby bottles, onesies, baby socks and shoes, baby blankets, little snow suits, baby wipes. Diapers, diapers, diapers. Babies don’t wear backpacks. The material weight of their lives is inextricable from the mothers. The weight of their little bodies, strapped into donated Baby Bjorn slings on her front, is hers to carry.
Most camps also have two other tents. The first, a children’s safe space tent, is filled with toys and mats and coloring books, a place reserved for children to play and leave behind the anxieties of their journey. No adults, especially no men, are allowed. It is also a place to help identify children who are being trafficked.
The other tent is a women’s safe space tent, a protection measure for women who are travelling alone and are considered particularly vulnerable to abuse and violence. The female body is a target on this journey. The women’s tent also provides formula and breastfeeding support for those who have become too stressed, or malnourished, to produce milk. A female body requires extra protection on this journey, and aid groups often respond in turn by telling women what their bodies require, where they need to sleep, where they need to go, what they need to take with them in their backpacks.
Last summer and this fall, before there was adequate transportation from the beaches in the north to the ferry in the south, refugees used to walk. In a car, this journey takes over an hour of shifting gears over steep hairpin turns. On foot, it can take several days. According to volunteers who bore witness, the scale of those making the journey was unfathomable. People slept on the roadsides, lining the asphalt for miles. The trees along the route were blanketed with clothing and other discarded belongings: the things people packed in their backpacks that had become too heavy or damaged to carry. Items deemed so valuable that they couldn’t be left behind at home were reconsidered and so became part of the landscape of Lesvos.
The road from Molyvos and Skala Sikamenias has been cleared over time. Just one tree has been left alone: a monument to struggles past and future; a memorial to those who went unaided in their journey to Europe. It carries the burdens of dozens of discarded lives, wet shirts and pants and shoes, now weathered by time and bleached by the sun.
These past weeks I have been spending my days cooking in the kitchen inside Pikpa. I peel hundreds of potatoes and onions and garlic cloves while we make food for the Moria family compound, the Afghan Hill camp, and now, the Mytilene port. We send tubs filled with curries and rice out in the backs of vans, and package hundreds of individual tin dinners for volunteers to distribute to refugees leaving on the ferries.
On my way home to Molyvos from Pikpa, I stop at the port to help, and watch the refugees gather before they leave for Athens. Usually I help families carry their luggage — sleeping bags and blankets, mostly, — onto the boat while parents grip the squirming hands of their children. Volunteers pass out the meals, but many refugees turn them down because they simply don’t have another hand to carry them. Last night a four-year-old was walking behind his family, tottering under the weight of four meals for his three younger siblings, his tiny hands unable to keep the spoons from slipping off the lids onto the asphalt. He left them behind.
Nowhere are the things they carry more visible or striking. Their bags are often startlingly heavy when you help them drag them to the boat. When you reach the point inside the ferry where you have to leave a refugee, you have to hand over their luggage. Women juggle babies between arms as we slide them into backpacks, the men try to keep hands on all the bulky UNHCR blankets they will need in the shelters on the mainland, and we help the children try to pick up the rest.
At the port, there is also clothing distribution, run by Starfish. Just walking beside the distribution van you get asked from all sides if you can help a refugee find something. Usually they are anxious to get in the line to board the boat. The most common request we get is for shoes, the most essential item, which bears the weight of the body.
The second is for bigger backpacks.
When the ferry is loaded and the horns sound, the volunteers begin packing their wares away. Boxes filled with more clothing, homemade packs of diapers and baby wipes organized by size, bagged breakfasts, more socks, more gloves, more hats, children’s jackets, children’s toys. More things to stuff into or tie onto backpacks.
Other volunteers walk to the waiting area, and begin to clean the things left behind; clothing pulled out at the last minute, trampled amongst the refuse of quickly eaten meals and plastic water bottles.
We don’t really know what they will need to take with them, or where they will go. The path to Europe has now slammed shut for every nationality but Syrian. In all likelihood these people are boarding the ferry to be turned around and deported back to Turkey, as per the EU’s most recent compromise.
A number of refugees who come through Lesvos are fluent in Turkish. They are fluent, because they have been living in, and seeking asylum in Turkey for years. And still, after all that time, they have no life there. Conditions are so poor for refugees in Turkey that they are still willing to risk their lives and pay smugglers for passage to Europe. Some children that left Syria at the start of the conflict, as early as 2011, are arriving in Greece having never been to school a day in their lives. We meet eleven-year-olds who have taught themselves to read, because Syrians in Turkey cannot go to Turkish schools, and they arrived there when they should have begun kindergarten. What’s worse is knowing how many eleven-year-olds seeking asylum cannot read, how many are working in Turkish factories, some even manufacturing the defective lifejackets worn by other Syrian refugees.
Well-funded camps in Lesvos received orders yesterday to lay-off all unnecessary staff, and many are being shut down because the refugees won’t be arriving. These camps have spent months preparing for an influx of people. There are resources here that Turkey does not have, at least not yet.
Why does Europe allow deplorable conditions like the current chaos in Idomeni to exist, for just a relative handful of refugees European governments are afraid to allow into the Schengen Zone, while they force Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Iran to house millions?
It breaks our hearts to know that the only explanation for this is a question of belonging. As though Turkey is somehow a more acceptable place to house refugees while they wait for asylum than Europe because it is ‘more Arab.’ If it is not on our front lawns, the West won’t have to deal with the issue every time we walk out the door.
Why aren’t we setting up hotspots in Europe for refugees to wait safely while they await decisions? Isn’t #safepassage — the right to bodily safety, to a life — the humanitarian right we are all fighting for, even at the local level? Isn’t that fundamentally what every Junior League meeting about raising money for their town’s needy, or every protest against a new Target opening just over a town’s border because residents fear it will cause traffic near a school, or every college campus protest about racial injustice and unchecked police violence is trying to achieve? Isn’t this the same right we fight to protect for our friends and neighbors and fellow humans? The basic protection of their humanity and safety of their bodies?
Why are we pushing refugees back? Why do we say, you can apply for asylum, for a better life, but not here, not yet?
The life of a volunteer is a good one. You have work, you feel useful, and the people you work with are some of the kindest in the world. But watching as the world pushes refugees back through the doors they fought so hard to open, while we wave safely from the other side, is enough to break your heart.
There is a weight to being a volunteer. Instead of clothing, we are burdened with a sense of futility as our work is made pointless by the political power plays of distant forces. But we also collect friends, laughter, photographs, memories, and knowledge of the world that will change us forever.
Today is my day off, and I’m going fishing with my neighbor, Miltos. The ocean from my window is the same milky white color as the sky, and perfectly still. I am grateful that today the only things I have in my backpack will be my cell phone, wallet, jumper, chewing gum, Dramamine, notebook, camera and a few bags of potato chips.
My bag is not so heavy.
UPDATE: Upon going to press, mass evacuations of refugees to camps on the mainland have started across the Greek islands. Volunteers are already in the port to provide aid, others are organizing to head down to Mytilene with supplies and food. The Kara Tepe transit camp is being emptied as I write.
More to follow.