Volunteering in Greece and Turkey will forever be a polarizing moment in my life. Think pre 9/11 and post 9/11. Just the way you see life is completely changed - again.
I personally apologize for the delay in sharing more about this trip. To those who supported us - financially, emotionally and spiritually - thank you. Thank you so much. Working with refugees - in the sort of environment we served - really impacted us a lot. It's something that I have trouble writing about because it's a traumatic thing that is still happening right now. Not only inside me, but in the living hell that many many people call life.
We volunteered on Lesvos, Greece and Izmir, Turkey. These are two of the main transit point on the refugee route. Refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria (as well as many other war torn areas) risk their lives leaving their country - with or without their family - to find a safe place to live until the war ends.
Refugees come through Izmir to get connected with a smuggler to get them into Greece (European Union) (aka the EU).
Due to blanket passport restrictions from war torn countries - refugees are not allowed to overland or fly into the EU. Denying safe passage is a direct violation of their rights as refugees.
Refugees have to spend up to $2000 per adult and $500 per child to illegally cross in dangerously overcrowded rafts, boats and dinghy's in dangerously treacherous water (the Aegean Sea). This journey, by the way, costs $15 on a normal ferry - only for those us with passports from western countries.
We worked in the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece. This was where refugees who survived the sea would go to get registered with the EU and transferred to another camp.
This video was filmed on Lesvos. This is the island where we volunteered. Once people came in from the boats they would come over to Moria or Afghan Hill.
Working in Refugee Camps is something that is hard to put into words. One of my fellow volunteer friends said that every day feels like a week, and a week feels like a month, and a month like a year. I think there is a lot of truth to that. Especially in the emotional energy expenditure department.
We got thrown into a dramatic - almost chaotic environment. Despite the craziness of the situation we saw some of the brightest light and hope in those that you would think should be hopeless. We met thousands of people who risked their lives - and the lives of their children - to cross the Aegean Sea. (A journey that tens of thousands of people have drown taking).
We danced and sang with people who made it safely across the sea. We cried with those who saw truly terrible things, both at home and at sea. We endured the smell of rotting corpses, as volunteers we dug graves for an unknown man, just a day after burying a young (8-10 year old girl). Both bodies were found on the beach. The dead are nameless and faceless. Nobody knows who they are, nobody claimed their bodies and since all the graveyards on Lesvos are full, the unidentified corpses are being buried in makeshift graves on a donated piece of farmland from a Greek local.
None of us have ever been to a funeral of someone we didn't know. Surely, not anyone who didn't have any friends or family to also attend their funeral. That was another really sad thing. Was knowing that the people we buried have are not nameless or faceless. They are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. They all have family somewhere that may or may not know they are dead.
The one thing all these people had in common was the hope for safety and freedom. And there are tens of thousands of people every single year who pay the ultimate sacrifice for the simple hope (not the guarantee) of freedom.
Every single day you wake up knowing that you'll probably need professional counseling after this is all said in done. Every single day, you're faced with the cruel reality that this world is not fair. Every single day, you look across that 8-15 mile straight - right over at Turkey - knowing that someone is looking right back at you from the other side, saying they're last prayer before making a life or death choice to take to the waters.
After a few weeks of being in Greece, we had to move over to Izmir, Turkey. We volunteered with a small NGO called ReVi. They worked with Syrian Refugees in the Basmane Village on Syria. Basmane has been known as "Little Syria" as the neighborhood (pictured above) is mostly inhabited by Syrians with poorer Turkish families living among them.
Working in Turkey was something else. Katie and I would team up with someone from our team as well as a translator (which almost all our translators were refugees themselves). We would visit refugee families in their "homes" and get to know them on a one on one level.
Officially, our work was to learn about them and figure out how we can help them get their kids in school and if there is any skills they have that we could help them make money from - similar to our work in Kenya, Africa.
We were personally invited into the homes of over 150 Syrian Refugees and many we got to see multiple times and few are now life long friends.
I'm still at a loss for words, even 7 months later. I still cannot put this whole experience into words. There are stories and things that we saw, things that we still haven't fully processed internally. Some things, I don't know if I have the capacity to process yet.
I will say that no matter where you stand on the political spectrum - if you saw what we saw. Which is just a small small glimpse into the living hell that these people have had to endure - you would see that things like religion and politics should never come before our humanity. Making sure that even if we can't actively take care of the least of these, the orphans and widows, and treating others like we would want to be treated - that at the very least believe and support it.
One thing I learned about this crisis is that is absolutely for real. These are real people just like you and I. You cannot sit with a family of 7 (who more or less adopted you) just hours before they risk their lives on the boats to Greece and not think about what it would be like if you were in their shoes.
We stood on both sides of the Aegean Sea. We saw what happens there, and nobody should have to be forced to do what these people have had to do. Nobody.
The people we served are now our family. Some people can understand that, and some people can't. Despite everything that is going on, we met some of the most beautiful people we've ever met in our lives.
The Muslim men, women and chidlren treated us like family. And that is one of the saddest misunderstandings about their culture. How peaceful and welcoming they are.
During our time volunteering, I filmed a small film that has turned into a full on documentary. I was able to edit most of it down and have it roughly half way finished - unfortunately I wasn't able to work on it at all during our summer tour. Hopefully we will get it finished before we go back to Greece and Turkey.
There is much more to be learned from this and we will be releasing more pictures and video soon. Thanks for understanding the sensitivity of all this. And thank you for all of you out there that support this.