I get anxious just writing down those two words. there’s a lot to the story behind the decision of going to greece for our honeymoon starting with my senior year of undergrad when I was elected religious vice president of my university. before I started the job, I sat and thought about how much potential came with it, so much so that I figured almost anything was possible. I knew I wanted to do some kind of project for my school but I didn’t know what and around that time, the syrian crisis had been surfacing the news. as I read countless news articles, it became clear: refugees. in a nut shell, my project’s purpose was to raise awareness for the issues that were going on in the middle east. I was even given the opportunity to go to Jordan through an NGO and interview refugees but of course, my dad, the overly protective father that most are would only let me go if andrew went too. I’m beyond grateful that he came because that trip changed both of our lives forever.
fast forward a couple of years and we’re about to get married with a honeymoon to follow where the world is our oyster. because we have both decided to dedicate our lives to the helpless, specifically refugees from all over the world, spending our honeymoon in greece with NGOs was almost obvious. we had a 10-hour layover in athens and used it to our advantage of exploring and then took the first flight out to kos.
our little studio in kos! the landowner wasn’t there but I had called her via skype to ask her something and we ended up talking for half an hour. she kept telling me to document all that I saw and tell america about the grave situation that the refugees were in because the greeks couldn’t help them on their own. by the end of our conversation, she was telling me over and over how much she loved andrew and me.
right when we landed, we took to exploring the small island for the purpose of gaining a sense of our surroundings. there were life jackets all over… you couldn’t walk and not see them. if you ventured out to the beaches, there were hundreds of life jackets with punctured, deflated dinghy boats scattered everywhere. EVERYWHERE.
also, we found out that these “life jackets” weren’t even really life jackets. this is what a fellow volunteer said, “every time we receive refugees, the life jackets are discarded. we noticed that they were all made of one brand, ‘yamaha’ and that the inside felt like it was made with cheap filler that didn’t seem buoyant. one of our volunteers made the trip to turkey and noticed two important things: the markets sold many different life jackets but not the yamahas that we would see. that and there weren’t any refugees in sight. one pakistani migrant said that they were made to hide out in a forest for three days without food or water before being hustled onto a dinghy in the dead of night. interestingly, two days ago, police in turkey raided a factory that made fake life jackets.”
basically, smugglers make anywhere from $500-2000 per refugee and aren’t about to use that money to buy more expensive, functional life jackets when they can keep a larger percentage of that steady cash flow by buying fake ones. this is a business, people. even when it comes to those that are desolate and helpless, the greed never ends.
andrew and I didn’t know a soul in kos nor did we have a game plan when we landed. we played everything by ear and our only regret was not being able to stay long enough. andrew found this NGO that was based out of a hotel that let refugees stay for a night to recoup before heading out to athens and ultimately europe. we went to the hotel and met with their director who was more than happy to take in extra help.
here is the rundown of our days in kos:
from syria, afghanistan, pakistan, etc., refugees flee to turkey. it is there that they pay a smuggler for a space on a boat, inflatable dinghy, whatever to get to one of the islands in greece. if they are fortunate enough to make it to land, they are supposed go to the police station and register as refugees so that they can take a ferry to athens to start their trek throughout europe. the amount of people who have drowned at sea in attempts of trying to make it to the greek islands is alarmingly high. I have read many articles where anti-refugee gangs will puncture inflatable rafts in the middle of the sea, throw the engine overboard, and/or leave refugees stranded on uninhabitable islands.
there are so many barriers, political and physical that are involved with the process that it is truly amazing that refugees are even making it to greece. from turkey to greece, the refugees have about an 8-hour window to make it across. the turks patrol the waters all day and whatever boats they catch are forced to turn them around to sail back to turkey. therefore, all of the action happens at night. most refugees sail anywhere from 11pm to 7am but as of recently, the turks have increased their nightly patrol services so that really, they’re only able to make the journey from 4-7am.
in the short time that we were there, we basically worked all day. from 10 am to about 5 pm, we volunteered in this warehouse that sorted out boxes of clothes coming in from all over the world. we would then pack a van full of pre-sorted boxes so that they could be later taken to the NGO meeting station. there were two sets of boxes: the first were winter coats and scarves/mittens for those leaving on the ferry around 10pm to athens (we were there in late december) and the second were dry clothes for those coming in from turkey almost always sopping wet.
kos solidarity, the NGO we worked with was actually recently nominated by various prestigious universities for the noble peace prize in their selfless dedication to the refugees. in our short time we were there, we met the coolest people from all over the world: a psychoanalyst, young men in the military spending their home leave with non-profits, a renowned poet, a screenwriter, artists, and others. we all had such diverse backgrounds but yet all came together for the sole purpose of serving refugees.
at around 6pm, we would go to this restaurant that would close down for a couple of hours so that they could feed the refugees one last hearty meal before heading to europe. andrew would go out and serve the refugees food and water while I worked in the back to help prepare the food going out. the cook was so sweet and took a real liking to me, calling me his habibi, which is a term of endearment in arabic.
our first night volunteering, we were talking with one of the waitresses and she told me how ironic the situation was. kos is a seasonal island and so in the winter (when we went), the island was basically desolate except for the locals, NGOs, and refugees. during the off season, the locals have no means of work and sometimes have to go to athens to make ends meet. this waitress told me how many of these refugees aren’t poor but instead quite wealthy, far more so than her and yet here she was serving them. they may have more money than her but due to their national conflict have become helpless with no other option than to risk their life in hopes of finding a new one elsewhere. she said the situation was very unfortunate and that she was more than happy to serve them but life can never be taken for granted. all that we have can be snatched away from us almost instantly and without warning.
as we walked along the harbor to one of the night shifts, we passed dozens, maybe hundreds or more life jackets. it was such an eery site and what I imagined the titanic, post-iceberg to look like.
there were two night shifts but because our time was limited, we decided to do both of them.
I’m not exactly sure why but the finnish coast guard also patrolled the kos aspect of the aegean sea. now I don’t know all of the politics behind the process of coming to greece by boat but I do know that it is an extreme gamble for those who do decide to sail across. technically, the finns aren’t allowed to interfere unless there is danger of death ie: drowning. in response to this policy, when the weather is bad and they know that they won’t be able to make it on their own, many refugees will puncture their own boat when close to land so that the finns are forced to help them. too often, people will drown before the coast guards are able to rescue them.
when the finnish coast guards are able to rescue a boat, they will relay to the unhcr that they have incoming refugees who will then meet them at the beach. the unhcr then pick up the refugees on their massive busses and bring them to the NGO meeting station where there is medical help, hot tea, travel hygiene packs and dry clothes. those that are able to secure a spot on a boat are not allowed to bring any possessions with them but what is on their back for maximum person capacity. again this is a business and smugglers will utilize their one boat to their advantage by packing as many people as possible on to it opposed to spending more money on more boats with less people to make it safely across.
I don’t have a lot of pictures or videos from kos because 1. the ngo we volunteered with asked that we respect the privacy of the refugees as they maneuver through this trauma and 2. we were so busy with the ngo that we didn’t have time to photograph and video tape even if we wanted to. but there will be more trips like this in future, I promise.
not all of them, but many are refugees about to board the ferry to athens
“we are all immigrants. our homeland all the earth”
as I was watching andrew throughout our time volunteering in greece, I knew I married a good man, the best man. he exudes selflessness and love in such a way that I would have been stupid to have ever not married him. I’m very fortunate to have met someone with the same desires in life as me. it’s funny how timing works. before either of us met, we still had the same desires in life but different versions buried deep inside. I don’t think until we met did they start to surface and with our countless late night conversations, time, education, and experience did we see these versions coalesce. sometimes I wish that I could’ve met andrew years before I actually did so that I might be able to have the maximum amount of time with him in this lifetime. truthfully though, it wouldn’t have worked. and if it did, it wouldn’t be what it is today. we met in perfect timing as has everything else been since then. true, I didn’t want to have waited 4 years to have married him but patience has made our life that much sweeter.
I know this is way sappy but after all these years, I’ve finally married my dream and I can’t help but glow with pride and happiness.
from the video description: while we were in kos, we met a psychoanalyst who was out volunteering with the same organization that we were. as we were talking, she told us how important it was to take time to ourselves and recalibrate from all that we were experiencing. we decided to take a few hours to bike around the island and explore a little.
I specifically left anything refugee related out except for the last clip (which evokes many emotions out of the both of us), this video is just bits and pieces from athens and the few hours in kos that we took to ourselves as suggested by our psychoanalytic friend.
side note: when we got back from our honeymoon, I found out that this refugee family that we met in jordan was placed one city over from us. her name is ysra and she is my refugee baby. when I met her almost 2 years ago, we clung to each other. I cradled her the whole time I interviewed her family and she never left my lap once. I cried so much on the car ride back to amman because I thought that I would never be able to see her again but here we are TWO YEARS LATER and she lives 20 minutes from me! every time I go and visit her she jumps into my arms, showers me with kisses, and never lets go of my hand until I leave. I am so amazed at how beautiful life can be despite the horrors that sometimes come with it.