DISPATCH FROM CHIOS: We Are the Same

By on November 15, 2016

Fearing Syrian refugees is like fearing ourselves.

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Volunteers clean up the shores of Chios after a boat of refugees arrived.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Tucked into the hemline of a sea barrier on the coast of Chios, Souda refugee camp is an informal, non-militarized camp run by NGOs from Europe and Asia. I have found myself on the shores of this Greek island for the last month, and now, with just a week left before I leave, I am struggling to sift through the thousands of stories that should be known. There are so many stories to tell. So, so many stories. I find myself scribbling them on the corners of napkins and on the palm of my hand, because I simply cannot contain the magnitude of human suffering shelled up in that corner of my throat that makes it difficult to speak.

I have seen firsthand the flooded UNHCR tent, meant to protect a family’s most precious belongings, now sitting in two inches of rainwater. A little girl’s doll is now mildewed and water logged, but she will still love it once it is bleached out in the morning sun. I have seen a man carried away to his tent by his friends after he collapsed—sobbing, because his entire family died in a bombing raid that day. I have held the hand of my new Syrian friend Omar as he told me why he fled, describing the horrors he has experienced, perpetrated by the Islamic State (hereafter referred to as “Daesh”—a term that, if used in Syria is punishable by the chopping off of hands), and I wonder, how did we get here? And is there any way to end this suffering?

Ahmed has spent eight months in a $10 dollar tent on this gale-force, windy island, and I may never be able to make anyone understand the color blue his skin turns in the cold. He’s from Homs in Syria, where the weather is almost always warm.

“Ahmed, tell me what we can do to help Syria?” I asked him at dinner a few days ago.

He looked at me with a tired look that meant I could never understand, “Wash your hands, my friend. Wash your hands.”

“You have no hope of returning?” I pressed.

“Hope?” he struggled over the word.

“You don’t want to go back?” I tried again.

“Back? To Syria? Back? No. Back to what?”

Homs has been torn apart by Daesh. A city that predates Rome, full of beautiful ancient buildings, is now rubble. Back to what? Back to tombs made of brick, bones, and the mortar of forgetting.

Ahmed’s hand no longer faces the right way when he straightens out his arm. He is 16 years old and he will limp the rest of his life. His home collapsed on him after a bombing raid, crushing the left side of his body. When he showed me the pink folding scars where the bones had shone through I cried. He put his hand on mine and said, “No problem, my friend, no problem. I did not want to make you sad.”

“No problem, my friend?” I laughed rather suddenly. I hadn’t meant to laugh, but the words were such a contrast to the scars I was looking at. Due to a complete lack of medical attention, his arm will likely be partially paralyzed for the rest of his life.

“No problem, my friend, no problem.”

I have sat on the floors of these tents for hours a day, laughing in a patchwork of different languages. I have been blessed and welcomed and made shai with more hospitality and grace than I ever could have imagined. We sit cross-legged on the ground and I am asked to enjoy anything it is they have to offer. It is almost always the peanuts or fruit we distributed at meals the day before—one portion for each tent dweller, and they are sacrificing it to make me feel at home.

“I will hurt when you go,” Ahmed told me.

I realized that must be terrible: seeing me and so many other volunteers come and leave at will when the indefiniteness of his stay haunts him.

“In 10 days, I will be nine months here. Asherah, Asherah,” he said. “Where should I go?”

I did not have an answer for him. The EU has basically enacted an embargo on refugees. No one in Souda even considers the United States an option because they know how impossible it is to attain asylum there. The conditions in Turkey, the refugees say, are appalling.

My friend Mohammed was put in a Turkish jail for two days without water or food after trying to escape the refugee camps that have essentially become detainment facilities. The photos he took of that jail cell showed garbage piled up all around him. There were no toilets, no places to sleep, and the lights were always on.

Going back to Turkey is indeed not an option. Many of its camps are rated as some of the worst refugee camps in the world by the UNHCR and many refugees are not even being processed there. According to The Independent, some are even being returned to Syria. There is no onward passage. Families that have spent their savings to flee a war zone are met with deportation back to the very places they are attempting to escape.

Sure, the U.S. has taken in its pledged 10,000 Syrian refugees, but that’s barely .000021 percent of the 4.5 million refugees born from this great humanitarian crisis. Half of the displaced are children. President-elect Donald Trump, meanwhile, has said the United States is under no obligation to help these people, and worse still, he preached that they are a danger to “our way of life.”

“Trump? Trump is your big leader?” Ahmed asked the day after the election.

I didn’t know what to say to him. I just nodded my head.

“Then I will never go to Texas,” he winced.

“I’m sorry,” I answered, because I wasn’t sure what else to say.

He nodded his head. “No problem, no problem,” he said, as he patted me on the back before walking away.

Few things have devastated me more than watching that resigned silhouette limp back into the camp with the flapping wind tents and the coldness of the long night ahead. He was already that haunting color blue.

This place was not meant to be a home. These people were never meant to belong here. And we, as citizens of an immensely wealthy, powerful country, have the space and the means to help them. If only we would listen to the heartbeat of an entire nation, pumping out the words: we are the same. PJH

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