It has been over a month since I flew home from Greece. A month since a giggling circle of children covered my face in stickers in Pireaus Port. A month since the beautiful smile of little Aya won my heart and I held her little sister slumbering in my arms in the cold stillness of night as we waited to secure their family a place in Eleonas camp. Well over a month since FYROM/Macedonia closed the border with Greece, stranding tens of thousands of people from reaching their husbands, wives, children, parents, brothers and sisters who have already reached asylum in Germany or Austria or Sweden.
The situation in Greece has deteriorated rapidly since I left. Pireaus Port is now filled with tents and thousands of people sleeping in the cold. Idomeni has transformed from a border crossing way station into a humanitarian crisis as families camp in the mud and burn plastic to stay warm, children contract Hepatitis A, and thousands sit in the rain and wait, wait, wait to learn their fate.
Meanwhile on the islands, the refugees braving the dangerous Aegean crossing now meet a new, harsher face of Europe. With the signing of the deal between the EU and Turkey, all new arrivals now risk the unthinkable of being sent back to Turkey, conveniently declared a “safe country” for refugees. Despite the fact Turkish law does not recognize non-Europeans as refugees. Turkish coast guard vessels have attempted to pushback refugee boats by any means necessary even if it endangers their lives, and Turkish border guards have shot and killed Syrian refugees trying to cross into Turkey from Syria, including children. Yet Turkey is now “safe.”
If they do arrive on the shores of Greece, instead of the gentle, smiling, hopeful face of the volunteers and local NGOs I have been so proud to work with on Lesvos, these traumatized people fleeing ISIS, war, the Taliban, torture, and death are now left to shiver in their wet, dirty clothes, shut behind fences inside detention centers run by the military and police as volunteers attempt to pass them food and water and blankets through the gaps in the fence. Basics such as medical care, sanitation, water, food, dry clothing, and baby formula no longer reliably provided. Men, women, and children shut away from cameras, journalists, volunteers, doctors.
I read the stories and Facebook posts of my friends still on Lesvos, in Athens, in Idomeni. I message back and forth with refugees stuck in Idomeni who are losing hope, watching the embers die in the mud and rain as they sit and sink into the chaos that is the EU-Turkey deal and Europe’s hardening hearts. I scroll through the photos of wide-eyed children and refugees setting themselves on fire.
I discover I am numb.
I sit here, safely ensconced in the comfortable materialism of a smug, wealthy society turning its back to the faces that haunt my dreams. The world is crying and I yearn to hug her, to surrender myself to her tears.
But everything is parading past me in 2-D on the computer screen and I am numb.
I knew returning home would be jarring, an ugly culture shock as people around me spoke of the trivial and mundane details of life. I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to sit on the sidelines, watch the headlines, and feel useless as the people go about their lives, blissfully unaware of the everyday tragedy and human drama playing out across the ocean. I find myself bursting into rapid-fire jumbled explanations of what is actually happening in Europe, only to see my friends’ eyes glaze over. I retreat back into everyday, polite conversation, but my soul feels hollow. It’s easier to hibernate with my books than engage with the people around me.
Every night, I descend into vivid dreams. I embrace the sorrow, the pain, the anger, the hopelessness, and the frustration. The eyes of the children I’ve met from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq are all simmering pools of trauma that plead and call to me, but I find I cannot move or speak. I awake in a flash of panic.
Then the gray dawn that fills the room also fills my heart and I step into the day, my soul heavy and slow.
The world is crying…