This beautiful piece is written by a long term volunteer on Leros, Ronja de Boer and republished here with permission. It truly conveys how it feels to be a volunteer.
It is the baby’s hands against my neck,
when mothers arms are too weak.
It is the man who lost three fingers,
on the military island, Farmakonisi.
It is the Greek soldiers shouting, that here,
he will die.(He didn’t).
It is other refugees stating Greek soldiers,
treated them well.
It is a military boat circling around their rubber boat,
for it to tip over,
despite long arms holding the bodies of babies in the air,
they are rescued by reaching international water.
It is a woman who collapses in my arms,
she has walked for three days,
she says, “and nobody listen.”
It is the numbers on their hands,
and I have to write the numbers on paper,
to give to the police,
from number to human,
when they follow me up to Villa Artemis.
Villa Artemis where we communicate with occasional English words and a flow of Arabic words I don’t understand and hand gestures and crying and laughing and stroking hands on backs and kisses on each other’s cheeks.
A head on the other side of the window, the woman is washing clothes outside, in the dark,
afraid of the dark, I sit beside her, watching her hands carefully turning the wet clothes and together we sang,
Syria Oh Syria.
And in between she whispered,
“I love you Syria.”
It’s the older women, who moan as they climb, the steep stairs to the Villa Artemis,
for each step,
they exclaim a “Jalla”,
when they take breaks and sit down,
I put flowers from the garden,
at the edges of their hijabs.
They call me Habibi.
It is the boys stuck for too many days on Leros,
as the ferries to Athens strike,
we compete, to see who can run the fastest,
they help me distribute diapers,
as thanks I give them,
or a jacket.
It is being at the harbor when the ferry leaves for Athens,
to see hope shining from the people,
and no one is able to say,
“But the escape is not over yet.”
It is repeatedly forgetting to give chocolates to the man,
who helped to translate,
until the day his face disappeared from the camp.
It is the red inflamed skin of the drowned children,
who arrive in the same boat,
as those who did not drown.
Who travel in the same boat where staff,
Wear bio hazard suits, costumes for their protection,
as if it was a load of Ebola patients,
It is the forgotten island nearby, that doesn’t have enough people or resources to deal with the situation.
It is that is there are not enough body bags for those,
It is that one night 1300 people arrived,
when we usually saw 300 for the day.
It is distributing 1400 breakfast sandwiches on camp,
and that we shout “No! No! No!”,
to those who want to take,
It is the pictures a woman shows, of herself undressed and rouged,
in challenging poses,
and that she continues to browse, and point and say to me,
It is the port police here,
whose work has been reformed completely,
and they can often yell at the refugees,
when no one seems to listen.
And they can misuse their power,
and they can forget their power,
and they yell at a volunteer,
“how can it happen that people come here wet and cold,
with not enough blankets available?”
It is the moment to listen to a man’s story,
it is the moment to say, with an irritated voice,
“No Shoes” when the storage of shoes is empty but so many,
It is as-salaam ‘alaykum, shukran and bukra,
it is that I barely know any phrases in Farsi.
It’s the hospital on Leros, and the memory I have in my head,
of the doctor with the moustache and the nurse with the hysterical sympathetic laughter,
who treated the child in such a beautiful way,
that I sat there interested,
as if it was a fantastic performance,
I was looking at.
It is that night when a boat arrived from Farmakonisi.
And out came, as always,
exhausted, hungry, wet people.
And we took a number of single women with small children.
While I drove them to the Villa Artemis,
my playlist of songs shuffled,
“Celebration” through the speakers.
And although it sounds brutal, because what is there to celebrate?
There streamed laughter, and singing, joy,
from their moving bodies.
It made it so concrete that humanity is comprised of so much,
It was the rain that fell making people cold and wet, again,
relocated to the abandoned building in the other camp,
I went upstairs,
I saw only their dark figures lit up by the brightness of the lightning strike which forced it’s way in.
And I did not realize at that moment that this was
It is that night when my emotions crashed.
They were telling stories,
in words I did not understand,
but with gestures that made the cruelty so clear.
A mother who has lost three of her six children, killed, by
She got robbed just before they crossed the Aegean sea,
they took everything,
they even took her,
That same night I saw friends leave with the boat to Athens.
I saw the old Greek man who is everyone’s Grandpa in camp,
wildly waving his arms at the edge of the dock with big tears rolling down,
Each departure to Athens he stands there.
Later that night I drove back to the villa.
I expected to find them sleeping,
but there they sat in the kitchen,
When they saw my distorted face,
distorted by grief, separation, injustice,
and the reality that I had experienced in recent weeks,
they all started crying.
And we sat in a ring, with our hands in each other’s hands,
and they prayed,
and I hoped
It is the many tears and the generous laughter.
It is so close to the primal,
when the mountains in the sea around me,
are lying like dinosaur bodies.
And the sun makes them warm, and the moon, the sea between them silvery and the lightning renders their background metaphysical.
I swam in the same sea where children and mothers and fathers have died on its way from Turkey to Greece,
but the sea made such an innocent sound in my ears.
One day when life was sitting so heavy in my body,
I saw a large beetle on the stairs and I wished I was it.
And I am almost ashamed to write it,
but in this absurd existence,
where so much is so wrong,
but people’s feelings manifest themselves truthfully,
for nothing else is possible.
And in that combination where the frustration and devastation,
faces the constant beauty of the island
it creates an echoing existential question in my head.
By Ronja de Boer