(Pt 6) Oh the places you’ll go, and the people you’ll meet…all over a cup of coffee (Adventures as a Global Volunteer: Lesvos)

More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis

The Café and a bit more English

In the aftermath of the fights in Moria, I pulled myself away from activities at the makeshift refugee camp.  Around the same time, a new coordinator showed up to my organization with the goal of making some positive changes. The focuses were a new project for the organization and efforts to grow the number of people coming to our tiny cafe.

Our English classes were becoming a hit as people frequently walked into the café asking to signup.  The problem was we were already at full capacity in our classes. The new coordinator had the excellent idea of adding “English Conversation Hours” in our café for a couple days a week in addition to extending our café hours to 4 open hours (instead of 2). It worked like a charm. Before we knew it, people were pouring in at 5 o’clock just to chat and improve their English. Additionally, I started running into people on the street in downtown Mytiline that I’d met during my time interpreting in Moria. I genuinely liked every single one of them, so I invited them to the café, growing our “clientele” and improving the atmosphere.

Within a week of the changes, the place was bustling, with between 20 and 30 people per evening hanging out in the converted garage for at least 3 hours.

The project teaching during the “English Conversation Hours” through conversation and games like charades, headbands, and family feud was an experiment and a work in progress…but a good one. We would open each session with a game of Pictionary or Headbands to help them improve their English on targeted vocabulary and practice a concept called “circumlocution”. After an hour of monkey business we would break off into smaller groups of beginner, intermediate, and advanced English speakers.

I normally took the advanced speakers and spoke about whatever they wanted, and the conversations were always interesting. One time we spoke for 2 hours about advice from our grandparents. One time it was about nuclear disarmament. Another time it was about the emotional and mental scarring that comes from trauma. They were an ambitious group.

One interesting evening in particular the advanced group wanted to practice translating in medical scenarios, so they each took turns being the interpreter, the doctor, and the patient. Coincidentally, the organization I was with sent a social media/PR team to the island that wanted to have a conversation with me about our English classes. I was told they would come sometime in the evening but I wasn’t expecting them to come during our conversation hour…this worked out too perfectly.

“Do you have time to answer a few questions now?” the PR team asked.

“Oh absolutely, I just need to do something quickly. Would you mind taking over for a second?” I urged them both into the seats, explained the parameters of the role-play, disappeared, and let them experience what it was like to “teach” English as I hid on the other side of the wall listening and chuckling.

During this roleplay an odd thing happened. As the guys at the café were practicing their English, pretending to be patients, they started talking about their real issues with the PR team. PTSD. Awaking from nightmares. Missing loved ones.  How being ostracized as single males in the camp made them feel.  This actually happened quite often in the café and chatting with the guys, and I’m happy it happened with the PR team,. I just hadn’t realized this was happening until I observed the situation from the outside.

After about 5 minutes I saved the PR team from the role play and went ahead answering their questions. This situation highlighted a primary point of value for the café.

The guys regularly came when the café opened and stayed until after close as long as we would let them. They felt safe. They felt at home. They opened up and made themselves vulnerable in that space in a way that they couldn’t in Moria. The safe space of the café had turned into a place that the guys could decompress and release whatever was haunting them, all while maintaining an atmosphere good enough to make people want to come back.

A couple hours before closing, I would usually put on a movie, something visually pleasing and easy to follow. In the beginning, the guys would ignore it and focus on their English lessons. Over time, they relaxed a bit, stopping English lessons in time to catch the end of the movie. By the end, before I left, the guys had no problem just sitting around in the café, relaxed, playing poker, chess, or backgammon, and being open and talking about the issues they had experienced during the day.  I sat behind the bar alternating between serving them coffee and tea and playing blackjack dealer with chips made from printer paper. They felt comfortable doing normal things, like setting up a blanket to pray in the corner or coming behind the bar to wash dishes.  I sincerely think that by just doing “normal things” in a “normal atmosphere” the guys were able to feel “normal”, and that’s why they enjoyed the cafe so much.

Our organization’s policy was actually that the refugees shouldn’t be allowed behind the bar or washing dishes, but I caved after I was chatting with one refugee and I couldn’t argue with his logic. I was trying to explain that it was my job to clean the glasses because he was a guest, politely finding a way to enforce the organization’s policies.

“You said that this is our home right? Well it feels like home, but at home I wash the dishes, and I help out, so please let me do this. I’m not a guest here.” His demand had the undertone that there was an opportunity to feel normal that he didn’t want to be deprived of.

I couldn’t argue with that. I was just happy this had become a safe space for him. For all of them.

On my last day working in the café I took a few of the guys that came regularly and showed them everything in the café and how to work them: the laptops, the computer, the projector, the teapot. I instructed them, “This is your home now. Volunteers will come through, but you guys run things and make sure this continues to be your home until you leave Lesvos. Then, pass it on.” They nodded and assured me that they realized that already.

I actually got a text from one of the guys a couple days ago.  He was one of my favorites, an amazingly polite guy with a heartbreaking story and the kind of character that could seemingly survive anything.  I met him walking through downtown and invited him to the cafe and he made it his home shortly after – he came in everyday until I left.  He’s now volunteering with the organization I left.

His message said, “Dear Bro Corlus, I am now a member as a volunteer and we are working hard serving mankind!”

So, maybe after those months of work, me and my friends that I had as volunteers did some good after all.  We helped out someone in such a way that the people we tried to help can now do what we did, and are doing it better.  They need us less now and are one step closer to not needing us anymore.  I love that.

I wrote before in this series about the risk of voluntourism and how certain activities that are critical to survival are the safest ways to contribute in a meaningful, positive, and lasting way. I think this café was one of those ways. Even though on the surface the café may have seemed like just another converted garage with Wi-Fi, a few laptops, tea, and coffee, it was more.  For the refugees it was a place of emotional relief. A place where they could feel normal, feel welcomed, and be listened to. I’ve been around enough veterans with PTSD to realize that you can be physically fine but unable to function in life because the emotional and mental scars run too deep and have left you too compressed to function normally in the real world. By giving those guys emotional relief and a genuinely warm welcome, I would like to think (and hope) we were helping them move further away from the emotional effects of the trauma that forced them to Greece and one step closer to being productive, value adding contributors in the next country they’ll call home.  I love that they are now helping each other out, teaching each other English and Greek, and closer toward enjoying normal life as members of the Greek community of Mytiline.  One step away from being refugees.  One step closer to living as strong, independent people making valuable contributions to society.

If the English Essential 500 project is the one product I’m most proud of, working in this café was the experience I was most honored to participate in and the project I was happiest to be part of. The people (refugees) that came into that café everyday were amazing, inspiring people. I would feel honored to be in the presence of such great people again in the future.

Oh the Places You’ll Go: The People I’ve Met, their experiences

The biggest honor I’ve had in this experience is meeting the people. During one of the English classes the students asked what I do in the real world. I told them “I write. I write about travel. I write about the things I see. I write about things I think people need to know.”

They asked if I would write about them and the experience on Lesvos.

“Absolutely,” I replied. “What would you like me to tell people?”

“Tell them that we are still here. Tell them please don’t forget us. Remind them that we’re human beings. We’re still here and we can do great things, just don’t forget about us.”

Here are just a few of the people I want to make sure aren’t forgotten.

M – A Syrian guy about 20 years old. Extremely bright, conservative, and very interested in learning English. He’s analytically minded and has been teaching himself English and getting ready for university studies by reading published research papers, mostly in math and science. He’s strong and self sufficient. He has to be, there’s no one else here with him. He walked from Syria on through Turkey before being smuggled to Greece. During a conversation with him over coffee, he broached the topic of family. I shared about my family and how they were doing, and then politely asked about his.

He turned cold for a minute as he tried to hide emotion. After a minute he said, “I don’t talk about my family anymore.” I respected that.

P – About 18 years old, Afghan, and one of the most polite people you’ll every meet. He speaks much better English than he gives himself credit for. He clings to Islam, his faith, and uses it to get him through the hard times, but he openly expresses interest in and respect for Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. He works for free very often as a translator, simply because he wants to see conditions improve for everyone, and communication is a good first step, in his opinion.

His father worked with the US Forces in Afghanistan during the war, but as the drawdown came his family started getting death threats. His father applied for a visa to the US because the conditions would no longer be safe for his family once he left, but was denied. Left with few options, his family was forced to flee, through Afghanistan, then through Iran, and into Iraq. Just as they crossed the border into Iraq, Iranian forces ambushed them. He was forced to run and hide and was separated from his family. He tried to go back and couldn’t find any trace of anyone from his family and was forced to make his way through Iraq alone. To this day, he doesn’t know where his family is or if they’re alive, but he keeps his faith that God has protected them just as God has protected him. I believe this is why whenever the call to prayer comes on, he is the first to pray.

Z – She made her way from Africa to Turkey, getting separated from her daughter and family along the way. Her daughter and family are back in Africa, unable to leave but they insisted that she continues forward into Europe. In Turkey she was jailed, raped, and tortured before finally getting out and being smuggled to Lesvos. She said one of the most terrifying nights of her life was when she crossed the channel between the Turkish Coast onto the Greek island of Lesvos, sitting on the outside edge of a rubber zodiac boat knowing that she couldn’t swim if she fell into the dark water. But had no choice.

Her last statement to me was that her faith is what drives her. In the prison she realized they could take everything, her possessions, her dignity, her pride, and at some point even her memory would fade, but they couldn’t take her faith. Her faith was the only thing that she had to give willingly, and she never did.

F – In conversation she was asked, “what makes you sad.” She flatly replied, “The day that I came over [to Grece] on the boat, the water was calm and the night was quiet. I couldn’t get my baby to stop crying. The smuggler warned me to make my baby stop, but I couldn’t. Then, he reached and grabbed the baby from my arms, throwing him into the water. My husband jumped in after and swam down looking for our baby. I had to stay in the boat with my son. I haven’t seen my husband or my baby since then. This is what saddens me most.

The Volunteers: For most of the series I’ve talked about voluntourism and the negative instances I’ve seen, trying to impart a perspective of what happens on the other side of the world and how to avoid a “wasted experience” volunteering.  But, this can come off as a one sided and tilted view.  I met some amazing volunteers.  Hundreds of people came blindly across the country, the continent, and the world to try and solve a problem not knowing if a solution was even possible.  To help.  Regardless of the outcomes of their actions, good or bad, this is an extremely commendable act and the world would be a much better place if we all lived with intentions like these.  The intention of “I’m not sure what the ‘right’ thing to do is, but I’ll do the best I can.”  Regardless of my critiques of voluntourism, I commend the spirit and thank you for your sacrifice.  Whether or not you feel that the world was changed by every action you did in a way that you wanted, keep that spirit and take it wherever you go.  Be vigilant about what you invest that spirit in, but keep it with you and live it out…its the only way we’ll make the world what we want it to be.

The Volunteers from my NGO: You all are rock stars and exceptional people.  Sacrificing the short vacations you had to come to the opposite end of the world and do your best to make a difference through the ambiguity and chaos is a testament to your character.  The things that I am most proud of and honored to have experienced only happened because of you all, and alone I admittedly would not have been able to do any of it.  The teachers from the org that (literally) taught me how to teach when I arrived and had an equal hand in the creation of the English materials and translating them into French.  The team and coordinators that built that awesome cafe and established the relationships for the cafe to exist, you accomplished some amazing things that will endure.  The team that showed up every day at the makeshift refugee camp, dropping off fruits and real food and playing with kids despite having 3 hours sleep a night.  The team that (literally) cleaned shit to setup the new center.  And everyone who stayed adaptive and aware enough to constantly find a way to make a real, positive impact in the lives of the refugees on a daily basis – whether it was a game of Uno on the outskirts of Moria or waiting while someone else finished an endless game of chess.  Thank you.  And thank you for putting up with my nonsense – I am very aware that I can be stubborn, grumpy, OCD, and unbearable at times…and the fact that no one slapped me with a chair is a miracle.  Thank you all for your patience, for your efforts, and for the experience.

And to the scientist, the philosopher, the entrepreneur, the Captain, Mr. funny shorts, and the sheriff (you all know who you are) thank you for being there at just the right time and adding that much more enjoyment to the experience.  I wouldn’t have survived without youu.  I’ll keep a peanut butter and jelly sandwich ready for you.

 

– Continue to Part 7: Welcome to Greece. Welcome to the Real World. Welcome home. –

More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis

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