Elpida (Greek for hope) is a housing accomodation for refugees located in a former jeans factory in Thessaloniki, which the NGO Together for Better Days helped transform. Our main aim is to welcome and house our temporary residents with human dignity. In practice, this means that a room with at least 3.5m2 per person is offered to a family. Instead of mats and air matrasses, the residents are provided with beds. Volunteers and refugees work together and the latest are involved when- and wherever possible in decision-making and activities. Empowering them, giving them a voice, giving them dignity. The refugee children at Elpida are the first ones of Northern Greece attending Greek school, thanks to the hard determined work of volunteers. With Elpida a clear message is sent to the world: there are easy ways to welcome and embrace refugees, victims of the current global crises, with dignity and sense of humanity. After all, isn’t that what life is all about (and not a privilige for the lucky ones). It schould be, but unfortunately rarely is. We believe it is still possible to make that change. By being that change and collaborate for better days.
For more than half a year, I have been trying to write a blog. In vain. I was locked up; my heart was hidden behind leaden doors, my brain blocked, my tears unreachable. During Elpida’s daily yoga class I knew: now it’s going to happen. And while tears found their way out of me, my words did too. This blog won’t be of the kind that shows how many years I studied or how analytical I am. It won’t be pierced with theoretical references, smart ass ideas or clever connections about the refugee crisis; it’s causes, challenges or possible solutions.
Instead, this piece will be about personal experiences as a volunteer during this refugee situation. It is written with the pencil of emotions, not with the one of my mind. I won’t use political statements or historical references. My soul will write, and I am so happy that after such a long time of uncomfortable silence, it is finally able to speak again. Writing this, I already feel relieved from a burden that I was carrying with me for too long.
With exception of last three months (spending ‘at home’, The Netherlands, trying to ground and heal again), I have been involved in the current big refugee crisis in Greece since last February. It started on Lesbos, I went to Athens, Petra Olympou, Giannitsa and I am currently based in Thessaloniki. This whole journey was a (re)action to the fact that my job as social work teacher ended after another ‘kind of burnout’. It was a tough time with lots of uncertainties, inner-confrontations, deep open wounds and mental and emotional challenges. Maybe the biggest was the challenge to embrace the situation or even more MYSELF as it was. As I were. That took me deep. It took quite a while.
Once I did though, I had room again to experience the world around me. And I realized I could no longer look at those images of people whom are being treated so inhumanely after being forced to flee their country, house, family, friends and lives. I decided to fill the gap caused by the loss of my job, with offering my hands and smile.
10 months after my first arrival in Greece, I laid down on my back in the women’s area. While doing excercises in the rhythm of my deep breath, I felt more and more relaxed. The mantra of music at the background was in absolute harmony with the calm voice of our yoga teacher, one of Elpida’s 150 temporary residents. While she was leading all of us through a variety of body positions as if she she had been teaching for years, I found myself crying. Finally.
Teardrops found their way through my eyelashes, down to my temples, into my ears. Tears of pain and reflection but mainly pearls of gratefulness and joy escaped my body. An intense film of flashbacks from the last few months passed by:
I saw the refugee camp on Lesbos with its the daily scenery of the touching chaos of families arriving soaking wet from the frightening boat journey, until the EU-Turkey Deal of March 19th 2016 caused both the closure of the borders and our camp.
I remember the loudly crying lady at the isolated camp halfway mount Olympou, who just had had a phone call that her husband in Germany had died; the dehumanizing camp, Giannitsa, where the people lived in tents under a 40 degrees Celcius hot sun without shade and where I, then, as a Women Protection Caseworker was unable to use my skills because of the absence of a translator; all the way to this yoga class where I am now in ‘downward facing dog’. Finally, a teardrop finds refuge on the yoga mat under me.
Being a volunteer in this immense refugee crisis anno 2016, isn’t easy. As a volunteer, we face an turret of emotional violence on a daily basis. Ears listening to an endless row of touching narratives which set off a cacophony of dark internal dialogues. Eyes looking at broken and tired faces, into empty and sad eyes, and at pictures of a wealthy past before the war arrived. Feelings of guilt and ‘never being able to give enough’ brings imbalance, as does the lack of sleep. Continuously getting to know new people and saying goodbye to others (both volunteers and residents) is draining. Political decisions and heartless opinions of countrymen make one feel powerless and doubtful of the value of the work that is being done. Beloved ones pleading to find answers to their questions, but what is experienced here cannot – ever- be caught in words… Working incessantly, spending current savings without raising money for the future, continuously facing contradictions, paradoxes and misunderstandings, trying to remain patient and understanding whilst energy is never replenished. And in everything the omnipresent overdose of intense emotions; compassion, fear, happiness, anxiety, joy, powerlessness…. Even asleep one never truly rests. The scarce moments of “free time” is spent feeling privileged and guilty. When it snows it’s not the beauty which is seen, but the fear of people freezing to death in their tents…When the sun shines we think of all our new friends that are among so many clouds that they can’t see the light in life anyway.
It is as if all emotions are under a huge microscope; detailed and painfully visible. While watching the talented 17 years young yoga teacher from Syria in front of me, my heart fills and almost bursts with love. This is the world that I am looking for and desire since childhood. This is how beautiful the world should and could be; in connection with each other through our souls. Away from rational and illusionary boundaries and differences in terms of language, religion culture and wealth. A world in which we welcome each other with trust and love, give the ones facing most vulnerable and hurtfull moments of life a warm hand through empathy and sincere care. Here at Elpida, a micro world has been created by people who are here with their hearts, not with their minds: Volunteers are simply here because they want to, and not because of extern motivations like money and power. This turns Elpida into a place where we create attention instead of money, and human connections not political ties.
This whirlwind of feelings pulls me even deeper than the present moment. It brings me back to my youth where my roving through life started; often feeling lonely, unseen, unheard and on the run for nobody and nothing in particular. And I start to realize that – without having faced poverty and war, neither having experienced over-crowded ramshackled boats in the monsterous mouth of the rough sea, nor being forced to sleep on mud in wafer-thin tents getting soaked wet and cold to the bone when it rains and where it is almost impossible to make sure your baby survives…Without having to pee and (cold) shower in boxes used by at least a hundred others every day. Without having soap, shampoo, sanitary pads, wipes and medicines. Without being able to cook your own food but being served without choice, mainly carbohydrates, offered in plastic boxes, day in day out. Without fiercing the fate of beloved ones left behind… – But with being deeply ungrounded, unrooted, unconnected, homeless and imbalanced in myself and the cruel world around me, I have felt like ‘a refugee’ myself for many years. I have been struggeling to find my way through all blackness and sorrow surrounding me and wasn’t able to protect myself. Therefore I embodied all feelings of everybody but me since there was no space left for my own… After all, I lost myself completely.
And here, in this refugee crisis, where everybody is in limbo strolling and struggeling, I feel connected and being part of something so deeply, for maybe the first time in my life. I feel embedded in a situation that is in a way similar to mine and am surrounded by the most beautiful souls from all over the globe, but with a world vision closer to mine than I ever experienced before. I feel seen and heard without asking for attention. Being here for me is the best therapy that I have had so far in my 32 years of life. It is a fluent invitation that leads me back to my purest authenticity.
While my words flow out of me, the voice of a beloved colleague brings me back to the physical here and now: “Marije, do you want to feed the puppies together with some kids?” A smile arises around my cheeks. Shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, I walk with five children to the 11 little dogs, who already make their way to us with wagging tails. The wind blows convincingly through our jackets and raindrops fall on our skin. The smiles and the childens’ stroking hands, dwarfed any awful adult issues such as poverty and war, fill me with joy. These are the magical ordinary moments at Elpida we experience as we embrace, enjoy and live life together. While learning from each other and exchange with one another, we get sometimes frustrated or confused, but mostly we are so enriched. From the first day here, I learned to embrace life as it is, and, that my phonetical name in Arabic means mirror.
This is the world I want to live in. This is where I want to be. This is where and who I am. And I realize that this former jeans factory where nobody is home, and this refugee crisis as a whole, is like my mirror; It reflects my own pain and shows me who I really am. In this piece of shit I found something endless valuable: I found myself, beyond my name.
And now that I am, I feel strong enough to help create a world that I have been looking for so long, starting with this awful humanitarian crisis. So, I’m not only home, I’m also at the right place, imbued with “Elpida”.
* If you want to read this post in Dutch, click here