A call from Irfan

Perched on the edge of a rooftop cafe, distracted from my work by the shopping street three floors below still busy from weekend afternoon traffic, I received a call. This was the brick phone I used for safety while traveling in Turkey. Rarely did anyone ever call me on it.

I answered, and naturally I heard some Turkish on the other side. I thought maybe a wrong number, but from the stumbling in Turkish, I heard “Irfan from last night.”

I stiffened in my chair. I had forgotten I gave my number to him, with whom I spent 1.5 hours speaking with late the night before. Continue reading

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Not all who get carsick are lost

When you have an open seat next to you on any ride lasting longer than an hour, it’s too good to be true. Mine gave me false hope almost until the doors shut. A man came running to the stop and was still out of breath when he sat down next to me.

He seemed not much older than me and looked like he had been traveling for weeks.

“Thanks, man.” He had broken the seal of silence, and I found out in our conversation over the next hour and a half that he had in fact been traveling for weeks. Straight up the east coast, and this was the point that he turned west to head to the other side of the country.

He spent some time sorting his things. He carried not much more than his backpack, which he propped up against the seat in front of him to get one of his two water bottles. He pulled out a played with a large wad of cash.

“Can I borrow your phone? Mine’s dead.” He called his friend at his stop, which was one before mine.

I think he started asking what kind of music I’m into, but I could be remembering incorrectly. Regardless, it came up earlier than expected.

Before long, he asked, ‘If you could be doing anything anywhere, what would it be?”

I didn’t know how to answer, but he already had his thought through. He was fascinated with Finding Bigfoot, a show in which four people travelled into the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest to find Sasquatch. Living with nothing but the land and pursuing a sole goal was for him the dream.

At this point, I realized we still didn’t know anything about each other. He seemed to just be talking to keep his mind busy. He never looked at me and reacted only minimally to what I said. He appeared to still be sweating. He cleared his throat and sniffed often.

He seemed to trail off in his sentences, so the conversation quieted. A bit later, he stirred form his sleep abruptly and paced to the bathroom in the back. When he returned five to ten minutes later, I asked if he was okay.

“What, could you hear me?”

No, but it seemed to be an abrupt dash for the bathroom. He fell asleep again, but I knew when to wake him.

But when his stop came, he didn’t seem to want to be disturbed. I told him where we were. He scoffed and slumped back over.

When my stop came, he was in even deeper sleep. I couldn’t offer him lodging, so I let him sleep after a quick jostle of his shoulder. If his friend needed him, he could have called my phone.

I hope he got to where he needed to be, but he didn’t seem like the kind of guy to mind.

What limbo sounds like

In Idomeni, the future doesn’t exist and the past only evokes sadness. Every conversation walks a slippery slope in Idomeni. An uncomfortable silence prevails.

Hara Hotel, once a stopping point for the journey, now a jerry-built camp site.

A woman approached me to ask about repairing her broken tent. Tents often broke because too many people would have to pack into tents not made to be houses for two months, and the winds of the hills of Northern Greece have really picked up. The job of a volunteer is hectic — you never cross the camp without being swarmed by people asking for help or simply a chat.

While I was speaking with her, three young men about my age walked by me and one asked in a quiet voice, ‘you got the stuff?’ I reached in my pocket, pulled out nothing, and we fumbled with our hands, looking away in opposite directions. He thanked me in the espionage-like voice, and we went about our business with no acknowledgement of what had just happened.

The ‘stuff’ he implied were drugs, and to clarify, no drugs were exchanged. What had just happened was that we had a hilarious exchange, and both of knew exactly what the other meant. We probably had both seen that kind of encounter over TV or YouTube — two things that had left everyday life for those in Idomeni.

The camps have found a way to freeze time. Some may say they have been forced to create it, and it is much like others zones of comfort that they fill with the ideas they want. But this bubble has an eerie silence; the residents of the bubble have halted time.

Inside the bubble is a static happiness, created by conversation and destroyed by it. Outsiders often pop the time-machine-bubble and their publications (articlesvideos, and photographs) often emphasize desperation and devastation. Nobody doubts that the living situation is abysmal– and the future bleak — but the culture of conversation has found a way around it: don’t talk about it. Every conversation walks a slippery slope.

Continue reading

The lady who led a full life

This lady couldn’t take a hint. Nor could she see that I was having a conversation with someone else.

“Did you say Canadian Native Americans?”

We didn’t say any of those three words. I think we were talking about China. My friend and I continued our conversation after politely saying no to the woman. She was sitting alone, fiddling through the newspaper in one of the cafe’s cushioned seats about ten feet from us.

But of course, some people simply like to talk. More still like to talk about themselves.

She broke into our conversation again. She asked us which college we were in.

“Ah, I was at King’s. I studied Hebrew and Greek languages.” I couldn’t tell when she might have studied there – which year, nor at what point in her life.

By this point, I understood that I wasn’t going to be able to get back to my conversation without hearing hers first. I pivoted, gave a little nod to my friend to signal that we could briefly entertain her, then inquired further.

“I’ve led a full life.” She had travelled widely but I didn’t quite grasp the reason. She seemed to have created an organization that sponsored inter-religious understanding. She had a Bible on hand, but didn’t bring it out.

I asked if she had worked with Native American in Canada.

“What? No. Have you?”

“I set up a website for bringing groups together.” She wrote it down for us. When I checked it later, it looked like a standard NGO webpage, but I couldn’t understand what it did exactly.

She leaned back in her chair. “I’ve led a full life.” She didn’t seem like she thought she was at the end of her life, only that she appreciate reminiscing to students in a university cafe.

“It was nice to meet you, take care.”

Twitter’s Safety Council is the world’s largest safe space

Because of recent controversy with Milo Yiannopoulos, I’ve put a new edit at the bottom with clarification and nuance. Is Twitter a new government?

One of my greatest concerns in the digital realm is a problem that is often heralded as a solution. Twitter, what many people see as a public forum, unveiled its ‘safety council’ in February. The council is meant to ensure that people can continue to “express themselves freely and safely” on Twitter, yet all the groups in the council aim to stifle speech; there are no free speech groups included.

The twitter post I got this from called this fascism...it's ok I think that's ridiculous too.

The twitter post I got this from called this fascism

So while the group ostensibly wants to create ‘safety’, its manifesto and practice aims to do nothing of the sort. The group doesn’t stop incitements of violence, it stops offensive speech. ‘Safety’ only refers to the same attempts to create ‘safe spaces’ that have popped up so many other places. There is a difference between stopping the promotion of violence within a group – as Twitter did with 125,000 ‘terrorism’ accounts – and stopping others from hearing other people’s views. There is a mute and block button, but they’ve resorted to ‘shadow banning’ too.

Now compound this with the contradiction that is Twitter’s submission to authoritarian governments’ demands to take down content and accounts in places where not even newspapers can be a forum for free information, such as Russia and Turkey.

Continue reading

Tala

I took a beautiful photo of this girl at a demonstration on the road from Greece to Macedonia. It was an impactful sit-in. They occupied the highway for about 14 hours, preventing all travel on that road to Macedonia. They seemed to say that if they weren’t allowed into Macedonia, neither was anybody else. There were heated moments of the demonstration, both from the heat and confrontations with Greek drivers. None of the Greek drivers were responsible for the refugees’ predicament, but this was the only place they could be heard.

Politics politics politics.

Tala was about four years old and didn’t understand any of this. Continue reading

The Tent Designer

The only time we met was for a brief conversation. We stood by his tent and spoke, and although I didn’t see him again, his tent remained and was occupied by others. I mad sure I asked him his name, which was Aqil.

When I asked his name, it was as though I opened the window on a speeding car. Maybe he hadn’t had to introduce himself to someone in a while. He told me about his story. Continue reading

Mr. Hara and the Hara Brothers

The refugee camp at Hara Hotel got its name from what it was before the crisis, a hotel named Hara. I never met the owner formally, but I spoke with his relatives who also owned the hotel and gas station out front. Mr. Hara is named so because that was the general perception of him; Mr. Shit. (Hara means shit in Arabic.)

Volunteers particularly disliked him because he refused to comply on basic tasks. His staff was told to refer to him for every query on the property. If we wanted to set up kid’s corner in the shade under the supermarket, his brother required that Mr. Hara phone him to confirm that it was allowed. But it wasn’t allowed.

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Mr. Hara charged ten euros per warm shower in his hotel. The gas station down the road charge zero, one or two euros. A room for the night was 60-70 euros. A packaged 7-days croissant was 2.50 euro. Continue reading

Khaled and the snake family

Khaled had a pretty big family. It was hard to miss his mischievous young step brothers causing havoc all around the camp. His parents had come to the request table often. And Khaled and his wife had become kind of friends with me. I only found they were all related when Khaled killed a snake in his family’s tent. Everybody crowded around. The snake’s head was crushed, but its body still flailed about.

Our first concern was whether there would be more and whether they were venomous. There was about a 50/50 chance the one Khaled found could send you to the hospital, and Doctors without Borders had no protocol for snake bites. Build a tall wall around your tent, they said.

We passed on the information, and the family remains ‘the snake family’.  Continue reading

Promises to Mr. Laughs

If I didn’t remember this person by his face, I would have remembered him by his laugh. He didn’t speak a word of English, but you could easily understand his laughter.

When we went on tent duty at our camp, we visited two other sites besides Hara Hotel. Incidentally, all three were gas stations – Hara Hotel, Eteka Gas station and BP gas station, with about 400, 50, and 150 people respectively. Mr. Laughs lived at BP station, across the highway from the others.

One night we began the tent duty too early, and started at our usual last stop, BP, so others couldn’t ask for tents just to sell them later. It was about midnight, and we arrived to find a group of a dozen people crowded around a fire. Immediately they all invited us to sit down and join in their tea drinking. It seems across Arab, Kurd, Turkish, Persian, and perhaps any Middle East culture, tea is an intensely social activity for any, all and everyone who may pass by. And the tea is of course always about half sugar. Continue reading