I was feeling a bit of pressure at work this week having been asked to share a hope story for the weekly staff meeting during this completely unprecedented time of chaos and uncertainty. I debated between sharing an anecdote about my time volunteering in the refugee crisis (which can be hopeful but also a bit heavy) or choosing to keep things light with a random act of kindness news article I found. I decided to go with the one that’s a bit more powerful because while I believe it is important to stay positive and keep things light in hard times, I also think that sometimes it’s equally beneficial to just say: things are tough, and it’s going to be a struggle, but remember that life always perseveres. Or in the words of my personal hero, Jeff Goldblum, “Life…uh…finds a way.”
So. That brings us back to 2016 when I bought a one way ticket to Europe on my own, as per usual, to find a way to help in the refugee crisis and found myself on the tiny island of Lesvos, Greece. I joined a group of volunteers that worked alongside the search and rescue teams on the water and other NGOs to take shifts looking out for overcrowded rubber dinghies full of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. On my first night on watch, there was a boat spotting and we helped a group of 30 or so asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Syria scramble safely to shore. My team and I were responsible for transporting the group to a safe place for dry clothes, hot tea, medical attention, and whatever information we could give them regarding their rights in the short interval before they would be picked up by the Greek military. Among this group was a Syrian family of four I met: a husband, a wife, an 8 year old daughter, and an infant just a few months old. And they told me their story.
Lagkada Beach, Lesvos, Greece (Kayla Halsey)
Fleeing ISIS recruiters, they had traveled from Aleppo to Istanbul ON FOOT by night, taking them a month, before finding another smuggler to take them the 14km across the Aegean sea through the night, risking drowning and hypothermia, to the Greek island where we met. Despite it all, the father just told me, “at least my family is safe.” Not wanting to rob him of what little hope he held onto, I lacked the heart to tell him what they were about to encounter in the current situation amidst the aftermath of the EU-Turkey deal: that they wouldn’t be allowed to continue their journey, that they would be forcefully taken to a military-run and closed detention center on the island, that his family would be given one small tent on concrete with poor sanitation and limited food, and that they would be held there until a team of 5 Greek lawyers could process the asylum claims of roughly 5,000 migrants stuck in the camp. And that they STILL may face deportation.
I spent much of my time on the island thinking about this family, whether or not they had been deported, and how they could possibly find hope adjusting to this new reality after all they had already endured to merely survive. A couple months later before leaving the island, I was stopped in a car when I spotted the family from across the street. The camp’s governance had just announced it would allow “freedom of movement” for migrants around the island during the day. The father was pushing a stroller with their baby across the street, mother and daughter by his side, as they were smiling and laughing in the sunshine. They had made their own hope, found a way to live their own little life, and bring joy to their children despite their situation of relentless uncertainty. Life persevered.
March 19, 2020