DISPATCH FROM CHIOS: The End and the Beginning

By on January 31, 2017

When the darkest times bring people to the light.

The soggy ‘homes’ at Souda refugee camp. (Photo: Ludek Stavinoha)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – My visa expired and I have officially been kicked out of Greece. I cannot return for 82 days. Now I find myself in Turkey and I love everything about it, except for the fact that I spend most of my time staring at Chios. I think if I get out of the port city of Cesme my heart will stop breaking. If I can’t see Souda, four miles across the channel, maybe I can spend five minutes not thinking about it.

This was supposed to be a break after more than three months of crisis relief work at Souda refugee camp, but all I do every day on the Turkish coast is stare at the hills of Chios, floating distantly on the horizon. Tapping my pen against small cups of Turkish coffee that are so hot and hard to swallow, I let the coffee get cold and muddy as I scribble words that aren’t anywhere close to how I feel.

I hate that I left them there. But I trust in human resilience and human compassion, because I have had the honor of being brought, per force, to the evidence of its existence countless times. In the worst conditions, on the hardest, coldest days, there will always be people who stand, firmly grounded, in their humanity. People like Diyaa.

A 42-year-old refugee at Souda, Diyaa quickly became one of the contacts my friend Thomas Hinkel and I used in the camp to ensure that approximately 1,000 refugees were receiving the essential goods they needed.

“This man—he needs a neck brace,” Diyaa would advise. “This boy—a coat. This woman—diapers for her baby. We all need shoes.”

Diyaa clicks through his list with a smile, sometimes a joke. His best friend Riad recently made it to Athens, largely due to Diyaa’s efforts. Riad has a health condition that will, in the very near future, probably kill him if it is not addressed. Before the transfer, Diyaa and Riad were waiting in front of the Vial Camp for processing–sometimes four or even five hours every day for weeks. Each time they were told, “The special cases worker is on vacation, come back tomorrow.”

Ensuring Riad did not die became Diyaa’s purpose. That he got his asylum acceptance. That he could eventually make it to Germany where Riad’s wife and two daughters still wait for him. After weeks, we were finally able to help them find a pro bono lawyer who was able to speed along Riad’s departure. And when that life-preserving first step was granted, Riad left. So Diyaa found a new person in need to spend his days helping.

Seeking out people who need help, who need advice, who are being forgotten, Diyaa hopes if he spends his time taking care of other people, he won’t have time to stop and realize no one is taking care of him. He lives in a plastic 8- by 12-foot shed with six other men. He uses UNHCR blankets for a bed. The heater in his container is on a timer, and when it kicks off, the cracked plastic shed chills in minutes. He has no choice in what he eats, what he wears, when his asylum will be reviewed, where he will be in two weeks or even a year. His future is not his own. Souda is essentially a prison built out of desperation and fear. And still he chooses to love people as much as he can.

Diyaa took care of a complete stranger who had an emergency case of appendicitis the week before last. Getting your appendix out in the United States is essentially an outpatient procedure. In Greece, in a tiny island hospital poorly equipped for emergencies, when Adeen the lonely Moroccan required the emergency procedure, it became life threatening. Adeen did nothing but lay in bed, feebly weak, after the procedure; he couldn’t eat or drink anything for more than a week. Every time he tried to eat, he would throw up. He was constantly in pain. His skin grew grey and he shed pound after pound off of his already malnourished frame.

As he withered away, Diyaa visited him every day in the hospital changing his clothes and holding his bedpan while Adeen vomited, trying to get him to drink capfuls of water. He sought translators to help explain why Adeen wasn’t healing. He pressured doctors and brought Thomas and me to the hospital, so that we could show Adeen he wasn’t alone.

I remember sitting beside that Moroccan boy petting his hair while he slept because he was too weak to stay awake. Diyaa’s hurried, broken English became comforting background noise as he confronted the doctors again and again. He would fight for this complete stranger until the end.

After eight days, Adeen could muster eating a croissant without vomiting. Within the hour he was released from the hospital.

Since Adeen was far too weak to live in the frigid camp, Diyaa took him to the Chiostown jail, where he stayed with him overnight. “At least here it is warm and Adeen has a bed,” Diyaa explained to us later that day.

There was a time I wanted to ask Diyaa why he had done it. Why he had helped the Moroccan boy. Why he had practically adopted Riad and fought so damn hard for him when it seemed impossible. Why he sought out people in need and tried to make sure they were fed and clothed. Why he sacrificed so much for those he hardly knew, who could offer him nothing. But if I have learned anything on the shores of Chios, it is that compassion is not a departure from human nature. It should never be seen as colossal.

What Chios has taught me is that compassion, empathy, and sacrifice—they are the standard. Anything less than that is a betrayal of our humanity. It is a betrayal of our truest selves. So at the end of my time in Chios, I would like to thank those who are humane. Those who choose not to betray their truest selves, even when there is nothing to gain, even when it hurts. PJH

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About Natosha Hoduski

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