Connecting the past and present: A feeling of betrayal in a temporary environment

We often use the past to connect with the present. I find myself doing this far too often. Whether it deals with connecting past journalistic experiences or my time in Greece one year ago, it is inevitable to utilize how we have interacted in the past to help guide our actions in the present. That whole “learning from your experiences” thing.

A rolled-up dinghy sits behind a grove of trees on a hiking trail near Skala Sikamineas.

Engaging in this type of behavior is treacherous this time around. As I mentioned in my last story, Stage 2 is a temporary camp for new arrivals before the head to Moria — the main camp on the island. They typically stay at Stage 2 for a very short amount of time. 

Knowing the new arrivals would be heading to Moria has been a dramatically heart-wrenching experience for me. I can’t tell them where they’re about to go to is good, and I can’t tell them it’s awful. Either their expectations will be shattered or their hearts will sink knowing their conditions won’t get much better after paying an inordinate amount of money to leave similar conditions just across the Aegean. 

I spent the afternoon at Stage 2 on Thursday with about 30 new arrivals from Eritrea and Kurdish Iraq. They had arrived early that morning and were waiting for the bus to take them to Moria. We confirmed it would arrive around 12:45 p.m., and we began to tell the refugees so they could collect their things and be ready to go. 

This was the first time I had seen new arrivals board the bus for Moria, and I secretly hoped I would never have to experience it. My heart was in my throat as the bus arrived and the refugees began to line up at the entrance to Stage 2. I was tasked with only letting seven people through at a time and making sure their bags were loaded. 

The entire process took about 10 minutes, and before I knew it, everyone was on board and set to go to Moria. I stood at the entrance with another volunteer as our coordinator, Frontex representatives and some other officials spoke. 

As we stood there, a family — a father, mother, and a 2-year-old boy — sat at the very front of the bus. We had spent a short amount of time with them at Stage 2, playing with the child and talking with the mother. The father mentioned for his son to wave to us, and with the biggest grin, he waved vehemently before the bus swung out of the gravel lot. 

We, of course, waved back, but as I waved, I couldn’t help but feel awful. I knew what they were headed to. I knew that their family may be split up as the father stayed in Moria and the mother and son stayed at Kara Tepe camp. I couldn’t help but think about the miserable conditions they were headed to and the drastically long road that lay ahead of them. 

I felt as though I had betrayed them.

I stood waving with a smile as they headed down a hour-long road to an uncertain future. Would they face violence? Would they ever see an asylum interview? Would they even have a chance?

Stage 2 is an excellent reprieve for new arrivals after having just faced death by courageously crossing the Aegean in a dinghy that very well may have holes a minimal amount of gas for the engine. It is an oasis after experiencing the many horrors that present themselves in the Turkish camps. But it is so temporary. As is my time here and the impact I may have. 

Even though it doesn’t seem this way at all, may the crisis be the just the same: temporary.

A night at Stage 2

A small church in the Skala Sikamineas harbor

Coming to Skala Sikamineas, I did not think I would be interacting directly with refugees or in a refugee camp as I did one year ago. I figured that I would only interact briefly with refugees while assisting a landing or helping them in the refugee transit camp called “Stage 2” in Skala. I was incorrect.

I spent my fifth night in Stage 2 with another volunteer, being a presence in case anyone needed a blanket or had an emergency. This is not typical.

Usually, refugees stay in Stage 2 for no more than 24 hours. Here, the receive dry clothes, shoes, water, tea and sometimes a meal depending on the time of day. Sometimes they stay the night, but that’s only if the bus that will take them to Moria, the main camp on the island, doesn’t arrive until the morning.

In the case we had this week, a landing occurred in the northwest part of the island, Efthalou, that was carrying around 35 people. They were transported to Stage 2 where another group of around 80 new arrivals from the south shore of Lesvos were also being transported. The group of around 115 refugees stayed for three nights.

The bus coming depends on the day, the capacity of Moria and the overall feeling of the Greek police/coast guard. For reasons no one could really make sense of, the bus wasn’t going to come for a while. We were told “tomorrow” three times, and finally, Wednesday morning it arrived. 

I write all of this to set the scene for two awe-striking moments in the same single night. My overnight shift was my second time volunteering in Stage 2, and many of the refugees remembered us. We had made friends, played volleyball and soccer, and chatted with a number of them. We arrived Tuesday night at 10 p.m.

As we were running around trying to ensure everyone was taken care of and had what they needed, a group of young men was standing together, and we decided to join them. Everyone introduced themselves by answering the three basic questions: What’s your name, where are you from, and how old are you?

As we went around the circle, we realized we had seven entirely different nationalities: An Iranian, a Kuwaiti, and Iraqi, a Somali, an Italian, and an American. Each of us either spoke different or multiple languages, and our communication, while at times disjointed, appeared to be a beautiful symphony of culture and unity. 

Each of us had massive smiles on our faces as we realized how many different people were in this one, small circle, and it gave me tremendous warmth in my heart. How astounding it is to be surrounded by people from countries you may never visit and places you may have a stereotypical understanding of only to have that stereotype abolished. 

We chatted for a while, and we continued our work — handing out a few more blankets and jackets as everyone headed to sleep. We stayed up until 2 a.m. talking with two Kuwaiti boys — a 16 and a 15-year-old.

We headed for the distribution tent that held our two, thin sleeping pads and multiple UNHCR blankets. We prepared our beds and tried to sleep the best we could, knowing the morning bus situation was uncertain.

As I lay on the floor trying to sleep, I again realized that we were sharing in such a minuscule experience with those at Stage 2. We didn’t have comfy beds or a private room to get quality, rejuvenating sleep. We slept on the floor of a dusty, hard tent just as everyone else did.

That experience enhanced my perspective of the refugee crisis. People don’t even begin to minutely understand the situation until they are there. I believe that goes for anything. For me, sleeping just as everyone else did that night gave me just the tiniest of views into the experience they have.

I am in no way trying to say I understand their situation and get it now. I will probably never be able to say that, and I hope no one else is able to becuase it is a horrible crisis. All I’m saying is that experiences like that open us up to address our own issues, sterotypes, and perspectives that probably need to change. I would hope all of us would welcome instances like those — of perspective and life change.