DISPATCH FROM CHIOS: Return to Chaos

By on December 13, 2016

Why I packed up all my things and left Jackson Hole.

The tents that Syrian refugees call home on the Greek island of Chios. (Photo: Natosha Hoduski)

The tents that Syrian refugees call home on the Greek island of Chios. (Photo: Natosha Hoduski)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Walking on the pebbled shore of Chios, I am distracted by the cold. My toes curl around the rocks, pant legs rolled up around my ankles as I step into the Aegean Sea. Some of the people I love best in the world came from there, and my eyes scan the Turkish coast with its rock-hewn cliffs and low-hanging clouds, wondering how many people its shores will still release to us. The wind picks up, and I can’t help but notice that it’s a very different kind of cold than the Jackson Hole winters I’ve become so accustomed to.

The Greek island of Chios is part desert, part anecdote on the changing economic structure of a once great empire. The cold becomes more intense because it has nothing to do with the temperature.

The refugees that have been stockpiled in Souda camp on Chios are realizing more and more everyday that this is a nightmare with no end in sight, as we try to finish “winterizing” the camp. For now, they are stuck here in small containers, with limited access to food and health care, no work, no forward motion. We do what we can to help them dust off the sediment of permanence.

I hadn’t intended to come back to Chios. I left in the middle of November to head back to Jackson because the shoulder season was over. It was time to go back to my regularly scheduled life.

But when I flew home it was on the heels of a tragedy in Souda. The night I left, a Greek white supremacist group, Golden Dawn, attacked the camp. They fired Molotov cocktails and stones down on the crude dwellings that about 850 refugees call home.

More than 60 people were arrested (all volunteers and refugees–not a single member of the Golden Dawn party), three refugees were placed in ICU, and hundreds spent the next week homeless and freezing on the icy shores.

I video chatted with several of my friends on the island while it was happening. They were cold, huddled in shoddy blankets on the shoreline. This exact sort of violence is why they fled their homelands. One of the worst things was how calm so many of them looked, unfazed even. As though their last belongings were not burning in Kristallnacht style behind them.

Back in the U.S., I was haunted by a constant stream of messages and photos of the situation. The most troubling was a text I got from one of my friends who had been thrown in prison. “Natosha,” it read, “I lose hope. I do not believe I will know happiness in my life.”

Khaled is in a prison in Athens without charge. He has been there almost a month since the attacks on November 17. He has no rights, no representation, no mobility, no court date even. He is just left to wait.

Peel back the veneer of just about any soul, and you will find an unspoken ache waiting to be named. In Souda, there is no veneer. The wounds are in the shape of red layered scars and the chaos of broken hearts.

Recently I spent two days living in a friend’s guest room when I returned to Jackson, barely registering that I had made it back to my favorite mountains. Life was just as I had left it at the beginning of October, but somehow returning to it made me feel like a stranger. I constantly woke up in the middle of the night with clenched fists. Because I knew, for God’s sake, I couldn’t listen to one more billionaire bitch about the quality of his dogsled ride at the high end hotel where I was working. Because for one moment I had known real suffering.

Jesus, I wanted to shake people. Don’t you know I have held the hand of that orphan who made me believe in souls again, because his is so broken? And there was no way to explain it—not in a way that made anyone believe Khaled was worth saving, or even worth five extra minutes of their time—because the Broncos were on, and he wasn’t as real as football.

I literally ached for that little island with its toilet-paper-incapable sewage systems and its mad-hatter drivers. I missed the tangible relief that we could offer when there was never a blanket big enough to cover all the suffering.

So, suddenly, impulsively, I was packing up everything I owned, driving 1,300 miles across the country to drop it all off at my parents’ house before jumping on a plane back to Chios.

And now, here I am back on that island with the UNHCR tents always in my periphery. The grooves of this rocky shore feel like my fingerprints, and not one laugh is taken for granted. PJH

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