Almost exactly a year ago today, I spent the evening with ice-cold fingers and guitar in hand on Cramond Beach, Edinburgh, as part of the ‘Light for Aleppo’ event that Ali Newell (my friend Cam’s mum) held there at the same time as a series of similar events around the world. The philosophy behind the event was one of solidarity and light as each of us stood around a fire grate and added a piece of wood to it, symbolising a message that echoed worldwide as others did the same. After a moment of silent reflection, Ali asked Cam and I to play some music for those gathered. With fingers now drained of colour and strings that teetered on the edge of snapping, we played what felt like the most appropriate song for the moment: ‘I Shall Be Released’ by Bob Dylan. When we chose the song, I don’t think that we fully appreciated the weight and aptitude of the lyrics, but in that moment, at such a powerful event, the song took on a new meaning and significance. The refugee crisis and the horrifying images that are bestowed upon us from Aleppo and other warzones across the world make the crisis seem too big, too fierce to be even remotely affected by ourselves or those around us. For me, though, that night on Cramond Beach represented a moment of clarity; a resounding sense of hope.
For many people such as myself it’s as if there is this juxtaposition of moments where you feel like you can do absolutely nothing in the face of this crisis, and moments where you feel that you can do everything. Since coming to Greece, I have felt both of these perceptions in full effect. There have been times in camp where I’ve felt that I’m genuinely able to make a positive contribution to the lives of people living there. This might be through facilitating music classes or workshops; helping to create a safe space for women to talk freely and express themselves; or by helping to run classes or events where people can laugh and be ridiculous for an hour or two (something that can be hugely psychologically uplifting). However, there are also those moments where I feel completely helpless and ultimately useless. These moments can hit you like a tonne of bricks. You might be having a relatively relaxed day with classes going really well, and then have a conversation that re-enforces the depth of the desperate situation of the people around you.
It can be so easy to forget that the people in Nea Kavala are labelled refugees. Even to use this word feels like a reduction of the individuality of the people here. The majority of conversations that I’ve had here have been the same as the conversations I’d have with my friends at home – we talk about our friends, families, boyfriends, girlfriends, our favourite films, places we’d like to go, things we want to see. As such, the bonds created with friends living in camp are much like those with any friends I have at home. It is perhaps this fact that makes the moments in which trauma and sadness are revealed all the more depressing and debilitating. For example, this week in the women’s space I’ve been running some activities to connect us to our emotions and recognise what messages our emotions are sending to us. In one activity, we used a large piece of canvas paper to draw a dream or wish that we have for the future, before discussing how we felt about this dream. Every woman drew a house and their family. Of course this is the most powerful wish that these women have, and it was really good to be able to talk about this together. Afterwards I felt both uplifted and wholly desolate: this dream seems so far removed from the reality of the Europe they will live in and the way in which refugees are currently being processed. It is far more likely that the people in Nea Kavala will end up in a flat in Athens surrounded by people they don’t know, and who speak a language that they do not share, and unable to find work or any prospect of improving their circumstances. Perhaps this is a rather negative outlook from myself, but it it seems increasingly unlikely that my friends in camp will fulfil their dream of reaching Germany, or the UK, or Norway, or Sweden, despite their determination to do so.
At times I find myself getting so angry about this situation that it is very difficult to relax, even when I'm out of the camp. Perhaps what makes it most frustrating is the sheer kindness with which the friends I have made in camp welcome us each day. Every time we step into Nea Kavala we are invited in for tea or for food, and after every lesson or workshop the gratitude and love that is bestowed upon us as volunteers is truly overwhelming. The longer I've been working here, the more that I've felt this love move backwards and forth between people in the camp. It feels like such a paradox that these same people, who welcome us with such warmth, are being rejected so forcibly by the structures of borders and nations and bureaucracy that surround Europe. And yet, even on a day when I feel at my most stressed, there can still be found this resounding sense of hope. Just as it can only take one conversation or one event to send one into the depths of despair, so can it be that one smile or one burst of laughter causes the light to shine back in through the window panes.
I’m writing this blog post from my bedroom in Polykastro. My room-mate, Archie, left a few days ago and the temperature this week has dropped dramatically. I’m currently warming myself up next to my kerosene heater, whose presence has significantly improved my circumstances. This room has been the home to a series of volunteers over the past 3 years, and someone sometime decided to begin a tradition of writing in chalk on the walls. As a result, I’m surrounded by quotes and statements and drawings in different colours and handwritings. Some is in English, some Italian, some Spanish. The one that stands out the most to me at this moment is in purple: “Love. Not transient, but true”. This quote encompasses the same sentiment that I felt that night on Cramond beach. Sometimes all we can do to help the situation that faces humanity at the moment is to make sure that we truly love. This might be through meeting people and volunteering and physically donating money or time to the situation. But this might also mean changing our attitude at home too. It might mean taking more time to speak properly with people; removing our preconceptions about those who live around us; or even just trying to be more positive towards the people with whom we interact on a daily basis. Whatever the contribution, it seems to me that, at this moment, we all have a responsibility to help during this crisis in any way that we find we are able.