When I arrived back to Switzerland, I didn’t talk about my time in Greece because I didn’t know how. It’s not that it was traumatic, or that the topic was an emotional trigger. It’s just that it was big; too vast an experience to really wrap my mind around. Not yet.
I need a day. Or two. Then you can ask me questions. Then I will talk about it.
That weekend, the Sunday paper featured full-page photographs of the refugees in Idomeni. It didn’t feel real, sitting in our tidy, quiet kitchen and looking at the pictures—beautiful, terrible pictures— of people and places I knew to be real, all flesh and sound.
On Lesvos, discussion among volunteers is constant. If you’re not talking about work that needs to be done, you’re planning. You’re chewing over the latest news and rumors, debating global politics, the American election, island gossip, refugee stories, home stories, experiences, your opinions on the latest protocol changes, frustrations, hopes, and before you realize it, you’re talking about work that needs to be done, again.
There were even volunteers, and I’ll not name names, who didn’t have the ability to stop talking, as though everything they were learning and experiencing needed to be processed externally in real time, as though it was simply too much to take inside the body and mind undigested.
Silence, when you could find it, was comfortable. Idle chatter became a memory.
Everything was discussed, expanded, and rehashed. No subject taboo, no topic too delicate or political. There was no time to let things fester.
For the most part, volunteers were on the same page. They cared. Most of the time I was blown away by how much more plugged-in other volunteers were to the news than me. Stories I paid little attention to, stories of drownings or horrible conditions in camps across the region that I considered par for the course, they gave weight. They showed me why these stories mattered—and why the story’s subject matter should never be considered “normal.”
I came to understand how talking about things, addressing them, makes them matter. So we talked. We argued. We shared, yelled, laughed, cried, screamed, greeted, said goodbye, moaned, snored, and beat our fists against the table. We were loud.
What shocked me the most arriving home, though I wasn’t able to articulate it at first, was the quiet.
I felt as though I had suddenly been plopped inside a fishbowl. All around me the world was burning, but sight and sound was distorted, the chaos muted by the glass and still water.
A constant and frenzied news cycle felt deafening on the screen of my laptop, but the living room was quiet.
Thousands of refugees were being detained behind barbed wire fences and hunger striking, but outside it was silent save for the laughter of children on the swing set in the park across the road.
I walked to the market in our sleepy village and got home to find one hundred messages from a WhatsApp group about a protest or a frantic call for a translator to come to the port. They exist in another world, light years away, which I look at through a window I hold in the palm of my hand.
I read the news, my texts, my emails, and I wanted to yell, “Why isn’t the world stopping for this? Why is it so quiet?”
And yell I did, but only into my pillow. I didn’t want to make too much noise, you see.
I found my greatest comfort in a piece of new grafiti that appeared one morning on a wall across the street: Stoppt den Krieg der Turkei gegen die Kurdische Bevolkerung! Stop the war against Kurdish people in Turkey. The words scrawled in quiet rebellion.
There are things, so many things, that we aren’t talking about.
Europe has closed its borders. Asylum seekers, people fleeing war and persecution, are being arrested and held in detention centers with no humanitarian standard of care, and we are not talking about it.
Videos have been released showing armed xenophobic vigilante groups rounding up refugees trying to cross their borders and violently detaining them, receiving praise from their government as a result, and we are not talking about it!
These are things that should be setting the world ablaze, that should push people into the streets in protest. We should be calling attention to them at the top of our voices, but, for the most part, we are not talking about it.
We discuss the refugee crisis like it is a logistical problem, instead of a humanitarian one. We reduce people to numbers and figures to simplify the immensity of what’s happening.
Maybe if we talked about the crisis as though it belonged to us, to our world, and talked about the refugees as though they are people with real and individual stories, we wouldn’t be so quiet. We couldn’t be.
In February, before the borders slammed shut, I was working at the IRC camp on the north of the island when I found myself sitting next to a boy whose lunch sat untouched beside him.
In these situations, we have learned how inappropriate it is to open a conversation with pleasantries such as, “How are you doing?” or “Are you ok?”
I asked him the only safe question, “Where are you from?”
Sometimes people want to talk, want to share, and sometimes they don’t. Today, this boy wanted to talk.
He told me he was from a city in northern Afghanistan, the center of Daesh (ISIS) territory. He was travelling alone—every penny the family had was spent on his passage to Europe. He left behind his parents and three younger sisters, who are unable to leave the house because of the violence.
The boy spoke English. He had learned it in school, he said. He told me how much he loved school, how he wanted to get a degree in language and engineering, but there were no schools in his community anymore. He said the only option for a boy his age, 18, was to join Daesh or the Taliban to fight. And if you don’t die fighting, you die because you will not fight.
He told me about Kabul, a city used by foreign politicians to classify Afghanistan as ‘safe enough’ to justify the deportation of refugees, like the dozens of British-educated Afghan teenagers at risk of being returned from England.
“Yes, Kabul is ok.” He said, shrugging, “But it is very expensive there. Very few people can afford to live in Kabul. For most, it is impossible.”
He stared at the floor when he told me about the journey, and I sat quietly, afraid that the slightest sound might interrupt his story. His group’s journey had taken several weeks. When they arrived at the mountain border crossing into Turkey, they found a family of fourteen people, including children, frozen to death. Their smuggler then took them one by one and put a gun to the back of their heads and forced them to cross. Turning back meant execution, a guarantee by smugglers so their cargo will never identify them. An older man in their group had injured his leg and was unable to keep up with the group. The smuggler shot him and left his body on the mountain with the frozen children.
The boy asked me about Germany, how long would it take to get there? Could he leave for Macedonia today? How quickly would he be able to get a job? How soon until he would be able to earn money to send to his family?
These were questions I couldn’t answer, mostly because there were no answers, and while I tried to focus him on things I could help with—where he would go next, what he needed to do inside the registration camp—he couldn’t stop thinking ten steps ahead. In his mind, he was already in Germany. His hands were shaking as he turned his cheese sandwich over and over without taking a bite.
Then he looked at me, searching every inch of my face for my answer, and asked, “I’m eighteen. Would it be better for me to lie about my age so I can go to a school when I arrive in Germany?”
I felt surprise, looking at this boy and thinking, all of this, you went through all of this, and you nearly died, for school?
Pause here. Ask my high school band teacher, Mr. Whitford, and he will tell you that there wasn’t a single day my senior year that I arrived on time. Every September for eighteen years, I found myself in a well-resourced classroom, with floors, doors, books, and teachers. It was never even a question. I have never known the frustration or desperation that comes from being blocked from receiving education, or prevented from exploring my potential. I had the privilege of taking it completely for granted, all on account of being born in the right longitude and latitude.
This boy said he doesn’t want to live in Germany forever. “Afghanistan is my home,” he said.
His friends kicked around a soccer ball in front of us, and one, hearing the country’s name, smiled and pointed to the Afghanistan Football Club jersey under his jacket.
“That’s where I want to live. One day I will go back. But there is so much fighting. I want to go to school. I want to learn.”
I feel muted, trying to lay bare my anxieties about the future, afraid of sounding too political or too…liberal. Home is a world away from the place where we would sit after a shift in a refugee camp to discuss our frustrations that the majority of our world is prevented from seeking a better life. Our sadness that the words carved onto the Statue of Liberty, which we once heralded as an anthem for inclusivity have turned into just that: words.
How can I describe my sadness that wealthy countries are taking shockingly low numbers of asylum seekers? That countries which were once open and sympathetic to refugees have since shut their borders, even erecting fences and deploying the military to secure them?
Despite their initial openness, governments are now faced with growing voter concern and pressure from resurgent right-wing parties, and as a result have moved to limit migration. The governments of Europe are phobic of reverting back to pre-World War politics of fear and ardent nationalism, a memory that is not far enough in the past to be painless. The fear of opening the door to doing the right thing is being overshadowed by the fear of opening the door to the resurgence of the Right-Wing.
At least half of Britons report being anxious about immigration, despite Britain committing to take only 20,000 refugees over five years. That number constitutes a mere .03% of the world’s displaced population, and represents less than .03% of Britain’s population. America has taken fewer than 2,000 refugees, and we fear them. We just happen to be separated by a bigger ocean. In Europe, if every single Syrian refugee were allowed to resettle, it would still only represent .04% of the continent’s population.
There is a rallying cry to protect European culture, rooted in the fear that refugees will overwhelm Europe and change it irrevocably. Some might prefer to call it a systematic prioritization of one ethnic group and culture over another.
Let’s talk about that. Imagine you are sitting in a room filled with 300 people. That’s more than my graduating class in high school, so maybe you’re sitting in your school cafeteria during the lunch rush. Now imagine one of your classmates was a refugee, who fled unspeakable violence to have the chance to go to school like you do every day. Look around the room. Are you genuinely concerned that your entire class culture is going to be disrupted or lost because of the new student? Beyond that, are you so afraid of them, sitting alone at a table as new students do, that you wouldn’t try make them feel welcome? That you would sit silently as others in your class accused them of being terrorists, or voted for policies that would make it impossible for them to travel or rejoin their families? That would deny their parents the right to work, or leave them unable to practice their religion? Would you turn away as people vandalized their homes?
If we define terrorism as the use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims, then the fear that drives governments towards nationalism and away from helping the world’s most vulnerable people, is terrorism. It’s the kind of terrorism that grows at home, silently and like a weed, so that you barely notice it at first. Soon it becomes part of the national character, indistinguishable in some circles, from patriotism.
Right-wing political groups continue to dehumanize refugees on a staggering scale. The volume of advocacy against refugees is deafening, but the pro-refugee voice is soft. We are afraid to rock the boat.
I believe that when you find fear, or a large-scale failure to empathize with the plight of another, it is more seriously, a failure of imagination. Because we fail to understand the refugees, their desires and fears, we continue to consider them as ‘other.’ Because they are ‘other,’ we don’t feel that their problems are our problems. And so, we don’t talk about it. We are quiet.
The quiet that persists, the convenient ordering of our concerns, frightens me. How easy it is to get used to, and to love, the quiet. How easy to become susceptible to the ideologies of those who tell us we don’t need to care, that the problem is not ours to untangle.
I just returned from a visit to Turkey, a country rapidly falling under dictatorship. Freedom of the press has been almost entirely suppressed, and people cannot speak out against the government for fear of having their assets frozen or being arrested for conspiracy. In a country with access to little or no information, I found people there to be ravenous for news. I fielded constant questions, not just about my experience, but the day-to-day realities of the refugee situation, the politics, and how people could get more involved. Maybe, when you are at risk of losing your access to news and information, you realize what a privilege it is to be able talk.
A friend of mine, when asked about the uncertain future of life in Istanbul, admitted that in her social group, “We live in a bit of a bubble. Most people are comfortable. If you don’t poke a sleeping bear, it won’t bite you.” She is right.
But those of us who can—those of us with free press, with free speech, with free will— why aren’t we talking? Why aren’t we poking and prodding and shouting and banging our fists?
Despite not yet knowing how to meaningfully reduce my experience as a volunteer on Lesvos, I am asked to so on a daily basis. It’s paradoxical, because while I loathe falling back on cookie cutter answers (it was amazing/difficult/challenging/overwhelming/exhausting/natural work!), I love that people are interested. I love that they are asking questions.
I love when people want to talk. It helps break the silence that now lives between the world and me.
But not everyone asks because they want to learn. Some people ask about Lesvos like it was an interesting museum exhibition I attended and they want to hear my review. It is a difficult reality for all volunteers going home, that not everybody cares.
I know I am lucky to have arrived back into a family that didn’t ask me to talk before I was ready. That let me process, and when I wanted to talk, listened, and responded thoughtfully.
But not everybody empathizes with the suffering and struggles of those desperate enough to get into the boats, or wants to share your perspective on it.
Recently, a woman asked me about my experience and responded by telling me a story about her mother, who lives in a European town where a few refugee families have resettled. Her mother expressed concern to her over these new residents, and how the boys seemed to have nothing to do after school and just stood around the schoolyard. As though their very presence and idleness posed a threat to her safety. Fear dominated her reaction to them, and she resented them for their seeming inability to blend in. When I brought up the topic of integration, she shut down, saying how unfair it is to expect the European people to pay for these programs, or be expected to use their time help these family’s adjust to their new surroundings. If only these villagers had any idea what the refugees were running from, and what a big transition it really is. Maybe we should be talking about it.
There is a widely shared anecdote that reads: If you have more than you need build a bigger table – not a higher fence.
How can we expect people to become seamless members of our communities if we extend no hand to invite them to? How can we expect men who came of age in violent warzones to understand overnight how to act ‘European?’ Why do we espouse the need for women to be able to dress however they want and not feel like targets, but we are uncomfortable with the clothing many refugee women select for themselves? Imagine if they expected the same of us?
The history of the world is marked by a failure to include those who we consider different. From the halls of our middle schools where we taunt those with different style, to the streets where we are culturally blind to millions who have no homes. In Rome, there are hundreds of African refugees sleeping in the streets and public parks, but tourists don’t see them. We are not talking about them. Some live in a makeshift community, beside the train station, called “The Forrest,” serviced to a degree by the Red Cross, where new immigrants sleep on flattened cardboard boxes between the trees.
Evil is normalized when you cannot see it anymore. I believe the only way that evil becomes normal, and becomes invisible, is when we do not talk about it. If we do not find a way to integrate and include those who come from outside our neighborhoods we too will stop seeing them.
The more we turn away from this epidemic, the worse it will become. Treat men like dogs and they will become wolves.
How much longer will we chain people trying to claim asylum? How much longer can we ignore that half of those living in refugee camps, with no access to education or stability, are children? How much longer will we isolate millions of people because of our preconceived notions of their race, religion, culture, or traditions? How long will we deny refugees already in Europe the right to work, to feel purposeful, and to support their families?
We are expecting to find evil where we do not see familiarity, and we react accordingly. By expecting these men to be wolves, we create them.
I wrote these updates every week because I wanted to talk about what is happening. But most of all, I want you to talk about it.
Let’s talk about the treatment of refugees and refuse to accept anything as normal. Let’s talk about integration, the next major hurdle in their journey. Let’s demand #safepassage. Let’s shout, “Where are the Calais children?” Let’s demand that governments build refugee camps with a standard of humanitarian care. Let’s question news suppression in Turkey. Let’s require education, fair work, and housing for refugees. Let’s ask, why are we allowing refugees, already traumatized and frightened, to become so terrified that they are setting themselves on fire in Greece?
Let’s talk about how half of those who are stuck in this horrible lurch are children.
To do so is all of our responsibility. Because the agreement for freedom is not that we should talk about it, it’s that we must talk about it.
I want to thank everyone for their support over the last few months. While I have no doubt that I will continue to write about the refugee crisis and volunteer experience going forward, this post brings me to the end of my scheduled programming on Lesvos. Thank you to everyone who has come this far with me. I don’t yet know what will be next, or what I will be writing about, but I hope that you will continue to ride along. It ought to be a fun journey, wherever it leads.