Thursday, March 2, 2017

the kids and grief

I just stumbled across this in my unfinished drafts folder, and couldn't NOT share it.  I suddenly remember all of these things as I sit here, and the tears I find on my cheeks here feel weirdly comforting.  I find myself saying, out loud "I love you Mommy!"

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And of course, there is grief for the children, too.  I would occasionally find the work "Nana" spelled out in random places, and Cadence found a piece of art created by a family friend for mom in her last days, and solemnly and wordlessly presented it to me and then gave it a place of honor in the bedroom where she could see it.  It took her several months to be able to verbally admit that she missed her and was sad, and she confessed that seeing her things was painful.  Hazel's approach has been to talk about it all quite matter-of-factly.  "Nana liked to play this game with me, but now she can't play anymore because she's dead, right?" And Calliope...well, perhaps her young age puts her more in touch with the spiritual realm, because she continued to have conversations with someone who wasn't there and refer to Nana and point to an empty space for weeks. Around mother's day I heard her say "bye Nana!" and I haven't heard her having any such conversations since.  I am actually willing to believe she was there, even though I know it sounds totally nuts...There were times where I could feel her presence, and twice we awoke to find a bedroom curtain had been opened and tied up while we slept, and once I couldn't sleep because I was having an allergy-induced asthma attack and all of a sudden my air purifier turned on and turned itself up to "turbo" mode seemingly of its own accord.  (It has no automatic settings.)    

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Good We Can Do - a heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone who made this possible!!

I've been so excited to share this update with you all for so long; it is especially exciting to be able to give it to you as a high note to end this crazy year on!

The trip to Serbia my dear friend Amy and I went on in October was unlike our usual trips.  It was an exploratory mission to find out what the situation was like for refugees and those helping them there, and much of it was spent making connections and scouting out need.  We did have baby carriers, of course, but they were held up in customs for the majority of the time we spent there. Carry The Future provided us $800 to spend on 'additional aid' as needed, so, after scouting out the various encampments and aid centers and polling folks for what the greatest needs were, we hit up our favorite big box store for a massive aid run.

This is a chain that we have used in Greece - both as a landmark to find our hotel (haha!) and to purchase aid items at reasonably cheap prices, so it was quite exciting to find one in Serbia, too!
Let me tell ya: remember all those shows where they'd give people shopping carts to fill with as much stuff as they possibly could?  That's essentially what we got to do - granted, there was considerably more math involved - but it was every bit as fun as I imagined it would be...and the fact that it was all meeting specific needs to boot?? My amazing travel sister Amy and I were positively giddy...which might be obvious from the pictures.


Probably the only situation in which I would be this happy buying an entire cartload of sanitary napkins.

Amy modeling the confusing hats...they were the same size, shape, and material as the full face balaclavas they had on the next rack, but they had no face holes...

we filled two whole carts with aid!
Two whole carts!!!
 Next, it was off to a Serbian version of Costco:

we got soap...
a LOT of soap...
by the time we checked out, we had overfilled yet another cart with much needed supplies.

There was just SO MUCH STUFF!
We were a little excited about how far our aid money was going.



...Ok, a lotta bit excited...

We loaded it all up into our trusty little car...

luckily there was still a little room for us!

Back at the hotel, I loaded Panther Pack up with as much as I could, and then some...

once inside, we spent the majority of our evening prepping little care packages - making sure that everyone who received soap had a way to store and reuse it as well.

We had a limited number of towels, which we included in a batch to be given to mothers with babies.

The next day, we dropped everything off at the various aid stations that had requested them...here is a stack of diapers successfully delivered to Miksaliste's aid  distribution storehouse.
And I have to include this one because all of that on the fly math - calculating how much of each thing would give us the biggest bang for our buck, taking the exchange rates into account...it totally paid off.  When we did our final calculation to see how close to our budget we were, we were Amazingly On Point!!

Boom.
Not too bad for budgeting through exchange rates.

...But now we had a problem. We had all used up all of our aid money, and had prepped and distributed it all, but it was only a couple days into our trip, and our carriers were still stuck in customs.  Not wanting to waste our time there when there was such obvious and urgent need, we decided to strike out on our own and see if we could raise a little bit more to spend while we were there on the ground.  Amy created a paypal link where people could donate whatever funds they so chose, and we both shared that link on our own personal facebook pages - and that was it.  Overnight, our amazing support networks shared those posts and donated a whopping $900, giving us even more than we had from CTF the first time around.  Within 24 hours, that number had risen to over $1,400.  We were floored, and so, so SO grateful to our friends and family for rallying to make such an immediate difference.  We got right to work!

After a lot more math...

Exchange rates + ATMS + haggling prices in multiple languages = I'm amazed my brain could process it all!
Armed once again with cash:

Serbian Dinar notes
We headed off on an adventure to find the Chinese market; which we had been tipped off about by various aid workers there...evidently they have the best prices in Belgrade for the types of items we needed to get, and the sellers were open to haggling.  Edin gave us a lesson (seriously, wrote out diagrams on a whiteboard and everything) on the best way to haggle down the prices, and off we went.  Our GPS - which we named Charles, and spoke with a British accent once finally finding an English language setting - was utterly useless in finding this place, so it took us the better part of a day to find it, but we finally did - using old fashioned maps and landmarks and guesswork - and were not disappointed!


a tiny fraction of the Chinese market...we didn't take a lot of pictures because we were busy searching out and haggling over the best options for our aid purchases.

It went well, overall..I made Amy nervous at first because I kept walking away from potential deals, but after we got a deal on the same hats for literally half the price, she went into power mode and brokered several more awesome deals!


The most amusing part of the whole ordeal was the language barrier.  Many of the vendors only spoke Chinese or the local Serbian dialect, and not many (if any) of them spoke English.  This provided for a lot of non-verbal communications and speaking via a calculator...and at least one hilarious instance of me recognizing that the vendor was speaking Mandarin, and so I dusted off a bit of Mandarin from the corner of my memory and conducted an entire deal haggling in Chinese, in Serbia, to benefit people from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, while trying to convert the numbers in my head to US currency.  It went quite well, overall...except that I totally blanked on the word for "one hundred", so I ended up asking for "ninety-nine and one" hats...

After a quite successful day at the Chinese market, it was time to head over to the Hungarian border.

But first it was back to city center to pick up some sugar.


A LOT of sugar.



Is this an appropriate face for someone about to purchase over 100 kilos of sugar?
 A note about all of this Sugar:

While on the surface this may seem like an irresponsibly frivolous purchase, it's actually a really important one. Tea is a super big deal to most refugees; tea in many middle eastern cultures brings people together, and can be a comfort in a dehumanizing situation...and to get that 'comfort of home' feeling, it needs to be SWEET. (Like, way too sweet for most Americans) - but obviously sugar is hard to come by when you are living in abandoned buildings or tents...So I consider it a contribution towards aiding the mental well-being of these people who have lived through things no one should ever have to witness.  


When we had visited Edin at the Daily Center, in addition to our haggling lesson, we got to meet many of the regulars in his establishment, many of whom were giving him a good natured hard time about needing to ration the sugar - a thing that he clearly wished he could address.

By this time, Edin himself had spent an unprecedented amount of time and money to help us get our carriers out of customs, and we found out during our shopping spree that he had successfully obtained our carriers and they were waiting for us at the center.

Overjoyed, we wanted to show give him a small gesture of thanks.


So we bought as much sugar as we could fit in our trunk



(along with some hats and other things that had been requested)
And drove over to The Daily Center, where we built a little castle of sugar for him to find on the coffee table.


(we also gave them plenty of other aid from our plunders as well, but they weren't as photogenic as this magnificent tower...plus I love all the pictures on the wall in the background!)

Reunited at long last!
Armed now with our carriers and remaining aid, we took the trek out to the Hungarian border.  There, we found another 'flea market' that reputedly had even better prices than the Chinese market in Belgrade...We got as much stuff as we possibly could, and filled our car to bursting.

It was one of those "don't open the door we may never get it shut again" situations.

who needs to see out the back windows anyway?

We would have gotten more, but we simply couldn't fit anything else in our car!! 

At North Star, we were able to distribute massive amounts of stuff.  Syd was especially happy to get the mylar emergency blankets that I brought from home (and yes, he already knew that they had to be used under people's clothes in order to be effective.)

Also stashed in my panther pack, I had two bags full of handmade hats from a friend here in DC; Laura had broken her ankle and utilized her immobile healing time to make as many hats as she possibly could...so I had the great honor of handing those out as well.  The kids loved them.  They were the first thing we handed out, and it was so fun to see little heads running about with familiar bright pops of color throughout the rest of our stay!

One of Laura's hats spotted warming a small head from afar!

Amy hanging out with our tiny friend Sultan, and his new red hat from Laura!
Back in Beograd, we spent our last full day distributing the last of our aid stores. By giving up our free day, we were even able to distribute all of our baby carriers, despite the hold up! We held several training sessions with core volunteers from each of the groups we had worked with (and left them with small supplies of carriers), so that we could rest assured that they would be able to properly fit not only our carriers, but any they receive in the future, too!


Amy demonstrating that the wearer should be able to kiss the top of baby's head in a proper fit to a volunteer at Miksaliste


Box of carriers delivered to Miksaliste!

Amy, Baby-wearing Guru, leading a training session at Refugee Aid (Serbia)

At the close of that final day, we were faced with a bit of a conundrum.  We still had a decent chunk of aid money left, but no time, and frankly not a whole lot of obivously unmet needs that were within our means to address in that moment.  After much discussion and deliberation, we found a fabulous way to spend it all in a meaningful way while still on the ground in Serbia, therefore doing some serious good while fulfilling the terms we'd laid forth when we approached our friends for help.

For many of the refugees, having access to a computer is the only way to communicate with their families.  A few aid centers offer wifi, but only the asylum center had publicly available computers - and that is the place that is like a sardine can...getting a chance to use a computer there is not guaranteed. Knowing that having a way to contact family members is crucial to the wellbeing of these displaced people - and knowing that Edin had laptop computers on his wishlist for the center, and also taking into account how much of himself he poured into this place, what a difference it made to the people he served, and how far above and beyond he had gone to assist us in addition to all that, we decided to put our remaining aid money towards getting him a laptop for the center.

Amy had to leave early the next morning, but I had a later flight and was able to put my morning to good use.  After consulting with the AMAZING woman who worked at the hotel and helped us out -enthusiastically - many times, I found a place where I could get not just one, but TWO brand-spankin' new (which means that they came with a several year warranty, and should anything happen to them, he can take them in to get fixed) computers!!


(OK fine, we were short $50 just on the tax...which was simply too close not to go for, especially because we'd be left with a surplus otherwise...so I got two anyway.  Amy and I each agreed to pay an extra $25 to cover it.  WORTH IT.)


The AMAZING woman at the hotel helped to make it a nice surprise; she put them in the hotel safe and we sent a message to Edin to find her.  We left this note along with it:

(we threw in the sugar packets we had been collecting the whole week.)
Of course there were many, MANY simply wonderful people that we met along the way, and so many fabulous organizations committed to doing whatever it takes to help refugees on their journeys, but I genuinely cannot overstate the amount of work Edin put into helping us during that week.  He expended so much energy, time, and money on assisting us, we wouldn't have been surprised if he decided it was too much work to be associated with us anymore; so we felt a strong desire to show him how much we appreciated his work, and that we are willing to help his org as much as he helped ours...

But he didn't distance himself from us, instead he continues to work closely with us as a liaison within the Serbian refugee community, and was instrumental in us getting a count - and subsequent request to aid - the number of families in the camps in need of carriers. In January, our teams will be bringing 500 baby carriers to families in need in Serbia!

So, to sum up, I am proud to share with you the official numbers from this single trip; Amy and I - with the help of all of our wonderful friends and families - were able to provide:

Purchased with CTF funding:  $800 USD
5 reams paper
5 jumbo colored pencil boxes
480 bars soap
420 ziploc bags
48 small towels
24 bags diapers (size 4/5)
1,272 sanitary pads
120 tissue packs
21 baby wipes
21 mommy wipes
60 hats

Purchased with independently raised funds:  $1,423USD
100 pairs gloves
105 Kilos Sugar
200 double layer thermal hats
100 pairs thermal leggings
72 pairs men's thermal socks
60 pairs women/child socks
112 razors
54 boxes black tea
2 lenovo ideapad laptop computers

Also distributed: 
Laura's hand knit hats (20)
50 mylar emergency blankets
⦁ 50 baby carriers.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Mama's Christmas Gift

Calliope had a really REALLY hard time falling asleep tonight, and it didn't seem to be just the usual Christmas Eve jitters; the poor kid was sobbing for a LONG time. We tried everything...music, mama cuddles, sister cuddles, baba cuddles, my dad even brought his guitar in to play to her, we tried stories, you name it...nothing was working. She was inconsolable and part of the problem was that she was feeling guilty for being inconsolable...she kept saying it was just so hard to calm down even though she didn't have a reason to be upset anymore, which made her cry harder. We talked about it for a bit, but then!! Oh, then came this amazing exchange that was such a huge gift to this mama's heart; I can't believe this is a real thing that just happened. Today we saw (fiasco's AMAZING production of ) into the woods; and Sondheim is right:  Children will listen.


Calliope: 
Mama, sometimes the bad feelings just push into you even when you are already trying to calm down and you dont know why

Me:
Well the important thing is that you are able to recognize that, so you can start to understand that the bad feelings aren't you, and let them go.

Cadence:
Calliope, breathe out whatever is bothering you with each breath.

Hazel:
And think about the good things that make you happy every time you breathe in.

Cadence: 
Yeah, with every breath take in the happy thoughts as you breathe in and as you breathe out let go of all the bad thoughts that are making you grumpy and sad.

Hazel:
 Calliope, think about all the good things you want to do with your life, and focus on that.

Calliope:
 Or you can just swallow the bad stuff.

Hazel: 
Oh but no, if you swallow it it will just go inside you.

Cadence:
 And you don't want it trapped inside you, then you'll never feel better.

Hazel: 
Just breathe.

Cadence:
Like this.

All three start breathing calmly and deeply. The cats come and sit on them. All theee are sound asleep in under 10 minutes.

Unbelievable. They blow my mind...I adore my amazing, compassionate, thoughtful children, and I'm so glad they are actually gathering the tools they will need to make the best of this crazy life.



Happy Holidays, all.
With so. Much. Love.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Impossible to sum up

NOTE: I am publishing this on Thanksgiving Day, a day we Americans set aside to look around, see the abundance that we have for what it is, and to be actively grateful for our good fortune - in whatever form that may take on.  I would ask you, my dear readers, to think of the people I will introduce you to here as you begin this ritual today, and to allow yourself to acknowledge that so little separates you from my dear friends here that their current situation is nigh on infathomable. Our roles could so easily be reversed...If it were, what would you do?  Who would you turn to?  As we celebrate our abundance, I humbly ask you to consider whether you have in your abundance the room to help another, who may not currently have that much - if anything - to spare.
I began writing this on the plane ride home, but didn't finish writing until significantly later, so please forgive the wonky timey-wimey documentation.  The events that I am recounting were farther and farther in the past as I continued writing, but all of them remain as vivid as ever even though adding the multimedia elements delayed its publication even further....

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Carry The Future Athens Team 6!! L-R: Kate, Kat, Sarah, Cristal, Ann, Keli, Lily.  Photo credit to the awesome photographer who slipped off without giving us his contact info...if you see this kind sir, please contact me!
The past 10 days have been so full that I don't think there is any way for me to sum up the experiences that I have had.

Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
Our arrival to Piraeus seems like so long ago that I can barely remember those early days...Kate and I recounted much of the (quite little) time we spent as wide-eyed newcomers to our successors the night before we left, and it felt downright nostalgic.  We didn't have very much time to learn the ropes, as things happen so fast, and the crisis so critical...the situation changes day by day, and we had to jump in and adapt and change course on the fly.

Appropriate, reaffirming artwork in the wonderful little rooftop restaurant in the Pireaus Dream Hotel which became the refuge for the helpers
Some of the work we did was very similar to what the teams before us did - finding ways to offer, fit, and teach each family how to use the baby carrier in about 2-3 minutes, through a language barrier. simple, right?


In the past, everyone who came across the Aegean - in those tiny little rubber boats that you see on the news all the time - and landed on the small islands of Greece had to take a ferry through the Port of Piraeus in Athens in order to get anywhere else, and so our predecessors would simply track the ferries to find out which ones had refugees on them, and meet the boats at the pier to find families traveling with small children, and fit them into carriers that will make their journey a little safer, a little easier.

 


A glimpse into the actual work of tracking the ferries.  Our team tracked ferries for as long as we could given the circumstances...


The day we left the US to begin our journey, however, the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, and all the boarders closed.  The very first boat that we met the night we arrived - the one where they didn't let anyone off - was the last boat that carried a significant number of refugees on it.  While we continued to meet the ferries for most of the week, the numbers dwindled down to nothing.  The deal was that anyone who arrived prior to midnight on Sunday would be allowed to board the ferries and continue the journey into Greece (however, with the boarders closed, there was nowhere else for them to go, so now they are stuck in the camps on Greek soil indefinitely), but anyone who arrived after midnight would be taken to detainment camps on the islands, and will be sent back to Turkey next week.  These camps are not pleasant places; the reports we hear from the volunteers who *were* on the ground there tell a frightening tale of refugees being caged in like prisoners, often with much pomp and theatrics and little compassion.  All of the volunteers were kicked out, and it sounds like the point is to make the camps fail, to make them such miserable places that no one wants to risk the dangerous journey across the ocean.

The Port of Pireaus...those big ships are entire planets compared to the inflatable rubber dinghies most of the refugees made the crossing on
On the day the deal went into effect, a boat arrived just hours past the deadline, its passengers hypothermic and struggling...two families were traveling with young children, and in both families, the father did his best to protect the children.  In both families, the fathers passed away on the beach, leaving their wives widowed and grieving in a strange land.  The two mothers became inseparable, and banded together to care for the children...but the deadline had past.  They made the long, terribly journey by night, managed to avoid the NATO warships that are waiting to scoop up any travelers, managed to make it to the Greek shore, only to lose their husbands and find themselves with their children in a detainment camp, waiting to be deported right back to where they came from.

I heard that story from two sets of volunteers who were on Lesvos that day, one who dealt with the mothers, and another who had tried in vain to save the fathers.

As for those who did make it to Athens, many if not most of them do not have anyplace to go.  Since there were no more ferries to meet, our team turned our attention to the camp - really a series of camps - that have sprung up in the port itself. During our time there, I estimated the number of refugees living in the terminal buildings - and in flimsy tents outside of them -at the port itself to be around 4,000...but at a meeting held by the volunteers running the support effort there, we were informed that the number was more like 7,000.

life at the port
Many of those people do not have real tents, but are sleeping in children's play tents not meant for enduring bad weather.  Some of the young, single, men don't even have tents, but are sleeping wrapped in blankets on the pavement outside.

This gentleman asked us to take his photo, thanked us, and left. Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
While the weather is generally trending warmer, it still gets quite cold at night, and many of these people -children included - do not have socks or shoes.  People constantly asked me for pants, jackets...while we often had socks and hats for the babies, we rarely had anything else, and saying "no" is one of those awful things that you need to do more often than not in these situations.

Her shirt says it all...
There was one little girl, probably around 9 years old, who came to me looking for gloves. We found a pair and gave them to her, but while she was there, I noticed that she had no socks (or coat) and was wearing adult sized flip flops.  I could tell by looking at her feet that her toes were beginning to develop frostbite - they had that glassy, grey look to them - but I didn't have any socks that would fit her.  I found a pair of thick knitted gloves amongst our supplies and turned them inside out, and she sat in my lap as we worked together to put them on her feet.  It was no where near ideal, and it made wearing her flip flops difficult, but at least her toes were covered.

That same night I saw a little boy walking around in a pair of adult women's high heel wedges, because his entire little foot fit in the toe part and at least that kept his feet off of the cold concrete.

video by Keli Hiatt Anderson

This is all hard to write, because for every story I tell, there are five more I'm leaving out.  My writing is largely stream of consciousness, and I get into a flow and then suddenly realize...I talked about the weather, but did I mention the sudden, violent hailstorm that happened one afternoon?  Did I talk about how - until a few days before we left - there were no showers in any of the port encampments?  The day they finally opened the first set of showers, there was music and dancing and a huge celebration.  It was joyous and reverent...all because there were now two showers fueled by a single water truck for 7,000 people. Or how there are an increasing number of Hep A cases being reported, as people are washing their clothes in the toilets?

photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
That almost every child in the camp is sick in one way or another? Crusty eyes, runny noses, horrid coughs...injuries that are slow to heal...and they have limited access to doctors. (The line for the medical camper was constantly a long and depressing event, eight year old kids weeping, babies screaming, adults looking more than weary...)

Not even a goopy nose can defeat her smile! Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson


The normal Chaos of a fitting session at the port.  Note the woman with a child tied to her back with a fleece blanket. Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
And I didn't even mention the safety issues that go along with the port still being active.  Huge trucks and reckless taxis come tearing through the camps, and the children have limited space to play, and constantly end up in the road. I was in the middle of fitting a carrier one day when an older woman approached us with a child tied to her back with a fleece blanket.  She was technically too big to be carried, but the need in this case was obvious...the child was injured.

A difficult fitting as we didn't want to aggravate any of the child's injuries. Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
We fit her into the biggest carrier we had and off they went, relieved.  A short while later, she came back, bringing Lily and I to her tent, which boarded the road.  She explained as best she could through the language barrier; the child had stepped outside the tent and was struck by a taxi, which circled around and sped off and didn't even stop to check on her.

Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
She had been to the hospital, but she was released - back into the camp, in the tent - with a neck brace and possibly a broken arm, though I wasn't sure about that.  They wanted us to help somehow, but the best we could offer was to tell their story to a local organization that aims to protect the most vulnerable among the population, and hope they could come and assist them.

Much safer and more comfortable. Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
We spent a significant chunk of our time just playing with the children...they were such a delight, and there was so much joy whenever they would find us.  So many of them just needed affection from someone who wasn't stressed about their very survival, and they would run up and hug us as soon as we came in site.  They stuck to us like barnacles and bounced around pretending to steal our bags (which were bigger than they were), climbing on us, kicking balls with us (and around and at us), playing sing songy games and hand clapping games, pretending to be us, and just enjoying being held.

Two goofballs attempting to abscond with our distro bag...
This young man is Cosplaying US!

Dunno if you can tell, but the kids adored Lily...
How we roll (through camp).
Culturally, sharing food is a sign of appreciation and affection, and it is quite insulting to refuse the gift of food...and it broke our hearts when these kids - who didn't even really have enough food to begin with - began bringing us cookies and saving their breakfasts to share with us.  Granted, receiving a soggy, half-eaten cookie is not physically pleasant (or hygienic), but those were some of the most meaningful gifts I have ever received.  One girl gave me the entire croissant she had received for breakfast, still sealed in the package...I tried to tell her she needed to eat it but she was adamant, and in the end I accepted the gift and she beamed with pride.

Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
In which Keli is agressively offered gifts of food as she's filming...

These gifts of food were so significant because feeding the people in the camps is no easy task, and not always consistent.  The red cross had originally said that they would provide daily breakfasts, but then had to switch to only providing breakfast every other day due to lack of supply.  Unfortunately they failed to coordinate with any other NGOs or the military (who has also brought some food in) and so on the first day of the new policy, everyone lined up for breakfast but all they had was water and M&Ms.

Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
Other meals are cooked in the "kitchens" by volunteers, or brought in by other groups, but even that is not always successful. I was helping Fadi to unload a delivery of blankets one night when it was discovered that the food for the evening meal (and this was on a no-breakfast day) had been delivered and sat there for 5 days before being served, and it had all gone bad.  (Luckily Fadi was on it, and drove the half hour back to Elliniko, gathered up as much food as he could, and he and Lily delivered it back to the camp in the middle of the night.)

mid-air-kid!
Originally, there was some separation between the various ethnic/cultural groups, but over time the delineations melted away, and unfortunately this has led to lots of fights.  It's generally Afghani and Syrian people who go at each other; as there is a lot of cultural disagreement between the two groups...Afghanis tend to see Syrians as a threat because their country has been at war for decades, whereas the Syrians struggles began more recently and they are upset that Syrians appear to be given preferential treatment.  Syrians, on the other hand, tend to believe that Afghani people are not true refugees and are muddying up the statistics and are the reason the borders are closing down...so having those prejudices as the backdrop in situations where there is little to do and nowhere to go, it is easy to understand why a Syrian teen and an Afghani teen vying for the same (precious) electrical outlet can lead to major issues.

Teens are Teens everywhere, too.
Fights are a multiple-times-nightly occurrence, often involving the police to break up the conflict.you learn to simply give the crowd a wide berth and continue with your work without getting involved in those scuffles.  Best to let the police break up the violence and let the involved parties' kin talk them back down to peace.


We forget, in conflicts of this size, how much everyone on every side just wants peace.

Is it even possible to say no to this face??
I have so many stories that need telling, but the scope of the problems on the ground are so vast, and the individual stories are so deep, it's not truly possible to pour it all onto the page...

Some of the kids showing us their own 'baby' while we fit carriers. Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
The conditions at the port are less than hospitable.  I've already mentioned that many people are in inadequate tents, or without any shelter at all, and the taxis running through the port at breakneck speeds...but even for those who have scored a space sleeping on the hard floors of the indoor terminal buildings, there is no way to protect your personal belongings, and their is a constant haze inside from smoke and congestion of so many people...some have lights that never turn off, others are in warehouse buildings with almost no lighting.  The contrasts are stunning even between people camped just a few feet away from one another.

photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
Mobbing is a real problem in the camps, as is common in situations where resources are scarce.  You can spot a newbie volunteer pretty easily if they walk in thinking they are going to help everything by doling out aid...and then quickly get so mobbed they have to abandon their mission - and their wares - to save themselves from getting mauled.  Hawking baby carriers was usually not as much of an issue, as its more of a niche item that only a select few would actually want, especially in an area that has already been given ample access to carriers in recent days. But even with just carriers, we would occasionally get surrounded, and there was one afternoon in particular when Sarah and I got separated from the rest of the group and got pretty seriously mobbed by parents who had seen other families with the carriers around the camp, and decided that they wanted their own...it was a little scary, as I am not a very big person - neither is Sarah - and while I can hold my own and am pretty good at avoiding these types of situations, this one was really intense, with people surrounding us so closely that I couldn't see anything beyond them, and only a little patch of blue sky above me, and they were all pulling at me and physically grabbing my body to try to make sure that their kid didn't miss out.

As a parent, I can totally relate to that.

A shot from a much more peaceful moment, but This little kid's smile slays me every time.  

Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
I tried many times (in vain) to get the attention of the rest of the group, but they must have been pretty far off because they were (I found out later) completely unaware of what had been going on.  But, as intimidating as it was, Sarah and I both kept our heads and worked as quickly as possible to fit as many of these desperate families as we possibly could...and the smiles and thank yous they gave us (rarely in English, often in French, German or Spanish; the languages spoken by many volunteers) made it completely worth it.  There was one teenage boy in the crowd who seemed to have just ambled over to see what was happening, and he spoke *slightly* more English than most of the folks in the crowd, and he ended up helping us out and translating here and there, where he could, which made the process even more swift...in no time at all, the crowd had dispersed, almost all of them with carriers they had just been trained to use.  Our young assistant then turned to me and said "I have one now, yes" and I thought he was joking.  We teased him back "Eine Baby? Where's your baby?  only for babies!"  and prepared for the at this point stale-to-us joke of having grown men jump into each other's arms and claim "I am baby!" (but it brings them a moment of giggling over tomfoolery, so who are we to shut it down?  We laugh and play along every time, even if it was the 22nd time that morning...)

These guys made the I'm a baby joke before asking us to take a picture with them...the reason for the sour faces was a big puddle of vomit that is just out of frame.
A woman with a baby was walking past without paying any attention to us, and the young man pointed at her and said "That baby." We giggled at his joke for just long enough to realize he wasn't joking.  I asked him specifically, with all the glorious hand gesturing we'd been perfecting during our trip just in case the English wasn't clear: "This is your baby?"
 "My baby, my baby yes." he said. Again, we voiced our skepticism; "You, Baba?" I asked...but then another man who had been walking past suddenly spoke up; "No no, this his...he is big brother!"  And suddenly it all clicked.

Ann and I during a fitting. Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
We fit him for a carrier, but the baby wasn't having any of it, so we ended up letting him take it without the full rigamarole of explaining the bells and whistles...but truthfully, he had just helped me teach about 5 or 6 dads how to do it, so I was pretty confident that he knew what to do.  We thanked him again, and his mother thanked us, flashing a big, pride-filled smile back at us before they disappeared off into the crowd.


photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
That young man, whose name I sadly don't recall, was one of many older siblings that we fit during our time there.  I had heard that having older siblings carry their baby sisters and brothers was common, so I was somewhat prepared for it, but I found that what often happens is that the fathers in the family, if they were present - so many families were split up and waiting to be reunited, that aspect alone was heartbreaking - the fathers often wanted to be the ones to take responsibility for bearing the literal burden of carrying the children.


Most of the families we encountered who DID have both parents present had many many children, most of them very small, and we found that quite often we would fit two (or sometimes even more) carriers for different carrier-baby pairs within the same family.  We tried to make it clear how to adjust them should the carrying duties get shifted around, but it is hard to know how much people are taking away from such lessons, when they are being spit out at them so quickly by a tiny foreign woman with funny hair who can't speak a word of their language.

Siblings caring for one another is extraordinarily common
There was one family that I spotted the day after we fit their youngest in a bjorn, who evidently had another barely toddler aged kiddo that we hadn't met the previous day. It seemed to be a single mother traveling with her brood, including a baby and a barely walking toddler along with a girl who seemed to me to be around Cadence's age...probably about 9, I'd say.  Unbeknownst to me, another member of our team had just fitted the same mother with a carrier for the older child, so what I saw when I stumbled across them that day was the mother attempting to fit the 9 year old with the bjorn so that she could carry the littlest child while the mother carried the bigger child.  It was one of those things that was both heartbreaking and beautiful to see.  I asked if I could step in and help, and was graciously welcomed into their area of the encampment.  In that moment, I was glad that my own kids had tried out a number of carriers while we worked to pack and sort them, so I actually had a tiny bit of practice fitting a carrier onto a small kid.  I fit this brave young girl into this carrier which actually fit her, barely, but she simply beamed once everything was settled.

Brave older sister takes pride in being able to help.  Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
 The baby was cozy and happy, big sister was clearly very proud and just a little bit shy.  I imagined what it would be like for this family traveling with such small kids, and I wondered if this little girl would know, years from now when she's grown and looking back on this, that this sacrifice that she was making to become a caretaker at such a young age could likely be matter a life or death in which she was the deciding factor for life.

A loving older sister bringing comfort to her youngest sibling.  Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
There was squalor, and sickness, and families cramming four people into a two person tent; there was hunger and confusion and a shared history of horrors, but there was also little moments of happiness.  little exchanged smiles.  Games - endless games - with the kids, and some people who just refused to give in to the monotony and misery of their situation.  People like Ahmed, who we saw pretty much every day at the port.  Someone told me that he is only 15, but I don't know if I believe it.  Every single day at the port, he dressed in a suit and tie - or at least a suit Jacket and tie.  His attitude was to dress for success and never miss an opportunity.  He talked with us often and sought out people to talk to in order to network and improve his western language skills.  And there were guys who came to talk to us every time they saw us, just like any neighborhood where to get to know the folks who live nearby.

Ahmed, in his typical business attire, waiting at the port for whatever opportunity might come his way.  Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
Again I am struck with the inability to cover all the ground I want to in my relation of the conditions, the stories, the experience, the people...I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the little girl we met on our first morning, who didn't seem to speak any English, and didn't seem to belong to anyone in particular, but when she saw our group standing in the middle of a parking lot by the pier waiting to find out what to do next, she came right over and plopped down on our big black rolling duffle full of carriers.  She was wearing an upside-down tiara on her head, and seemed quite pleased about it.  I sat down next to her and we played a bit...Someone gave her a lollipop and she played with our whole group with that...until she dropped it on the ground and it shattered completely...and then she LAUGHED...she was taking her cues from us and no one in our group panicked, they made it a funny joke within the game, and so she laughed...and then Kate gave her another one, and she almost smashed that one too, but thought better of it and just tried to fake us out with that one.  At one point she allowed me to fix her tiara so it was right side up.  And at some point - which is actually quite well documented, since Keli was taking photographs at the moment, she hauled off and slapped me clear across the face!  She was very clearly just playing, so I made clear with body language - not the face!  Just the hand...gimme a high five.  She LOVED that and gave out high five after high five after high five to anyone who would participate...and she didn't pull her punches man, she had a lot of power and she USED it.

The wind-up...

...and the aftermath!
A few minutes later, she raised her hand as if she was going to slap me again, thought better of it halfway through and tried to redirect it into "bopping" my nose with her finger...but instead somehow managed to poke me square in the eye, despite my glasses.



Oh, that first day was also the day I gave up the illusion that I would be able to protect myself from whatever communicable diseases that may be bouncing around there because I was Aware and Careful... That first morning one of the many many super cute, pudgy, goopy nosed, crusty eyed smiley little lovebug babies I got to hold took one look at me and stuck her entire hand directly in my mouth and grabbed my bottom lip, hard.

Babies are babies everywhere, after all, regardless of their surroundings.

Where there is a will, there is play...
 I could go on and on and on forever...about the young couple who reminded me of James and myself...very much in love, fiercely loving of their infant child and clearly doing every possible thing to do the right thing, whatever that may be...they were about the age we were when we had Cadence, and they seemed every bit as overwhelmed and lost as we did...except that they truly WERE lost, and stuck in an overwhelming and unforgiving circumstance...they were living with this sweet baby in a makeshift refugee camp, nothing but horns, concrete, and dirty water, and they had no idea what was going to happen next.

New arrivals to Pireus try to get their bearings.
About the young boy who was very insistent about grabbing Keli's (very expensive, since it's literally her livelihood) camera, and upon realizing that he wanted it so that he could take a photo of Keli, I handed him my phone to use instead.

A budding young photographer practicing his skills using my phone! Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson

Keli at work, photo by my young friend!
They took photos of each other taking photos...of each other...and then he gestured that he wanted to (of course) take a selfie.  So he did.

My young photographer friend and I taking our first selfie; as captured by Keli Hiatt Anderson!
The first one he wanted to take with me...but later...
 And then all the other kids following us around wanted to do the same!































After a few moments I began to fear that I would never get my phone back, so I instigated a group selfie...

Operation "group selfie to rescue the phone" was a success, but its also one of my favorite memories (and therefore shots) from my time there.  I miss these kiddos something fierce.
These are some of the most precious shots I came away with.

Or, about the time a child told me there was a family in need of a carrier inside this building, so I snuck behind a clear gate to follow him, and found many families inside in need of carriers...and one family in particular that was camped out in that place -one of the more protected buildings at the port (near E3, I believe, where an older volunteer was fiercely guarding the living spaces and shoeing out anyone who didn't belong, ESPECIALLY media, for privacy's sake, who berated me briefly in Spanish until I held up a carrier and said "for the babies" at which point she stopped, took in the whole picture for a moment, then apologized, gave me a HUGE hug and told me to carry on) who were so happy to receive a carrier that they asked ME if they could take MY photo...and of course I obliged...but they had to power up their phone, which was taking forever, so I promised that I would come right back (their neighbors wanted carriers, also) -so I ran back and got Keli and some more carriers, and we returned to fit carriers onto two of their neighbors, during which time they watched me like hawks, determined not to let me get away without a snapshot...

After their neighbor took our group photo, one of the sons snapped this pic on both their phone and my own. 

They wanted me to take their picture on my phone, too...and who am I to say no?  Especially with a family this cute!
in the end all of the families wanted pictures with us, so we took many photos and then said our goodbyes before slipping back out through the gate and out to the street to meet the rest of the group.
A few minutes later, the mom in that family came out to the gate and spotted me.  She beckoned me over with a very determined face...concerned that there was something wrong with the carrier I went to her.  She held up a slip of paper that I recognized as the note that had been inside the carrier pocket; a message of love and support sent over from the states.  She didn't speak any English prior to this moment, so I was surprised when she said "this from America?" and pointed to the heart that had been drawn on it.

loved the big thumbs up she gave me, even before she found the note.
"Yes, from America. From people who care." I answered.  She held the note to her heart, and said with an earnestness I doubt I'll ever be able to match, said "I love America." It wasn't a moment of fandom.  It was a moment of thanks, and I felt the responsibility of accepting her gratitude and love on behalf of all the people in this country who feel for her, and her family, and all the families who are caught in the middle of this war and political nonsense. She was genuinely, deeply, touched by the small gesture of the note, and she wanted me - us - to know what it meant to her, that it was much more than a simple scribble on a piece of paper.

That orange paper in her hand is the note.
So many children coming up to us saying they knew where babies were.  We would follow them through acrobatically twisting paths through the camps to mothers, sisters, families with very young children, proud to make a connection that would help them.  Half the time they had absolutely no relation to the family they would lead us to, they just knew of the family and where they were camped, and wanted to help.  On a few occasions, we had already fit the people they would lead us to, and on at least one occasion there was a little boy who lead us to a tent where he was clearly not a regular visitor, but where he knew there was a pregnant woman due to give birth soon, so he wanted us to make sure they had a carrier for when the baby arrived.  He barely knew them. 

Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
But that was one of the most striking things about the camps in general...The sense of community was so thick you couldn't help but feeling like these folks were all from the same village somewhere (aforementioned fighting between differing cultures notwithstanding, of course, the general feeling was one of shared experience) when in truth most of these people hadn't known each other at all before arriving at the port...or sometimes, before finding themselves on a tiny boat together in the middle of the ocean.

photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
About helping people carry their meager belongings to the busses so we could fit them in carriers. 


About boarding the busses with them to make sure they we properly fit. About how I was the adventurer who always followed people into the heart of the camps to meet their babies and fit their families who didn't come to us.  About how Keli was our baby whisperer and no baby every stayed upset in her arms.  About how no one ever refused a carrier from Kate, she was amazing at convincing them that they would really make life easier - especially if we happened to see them alongside the meandering, sidewalk-less roads within the port.  About how Ann took care of all of us with her incredibly sharp mind and ability to plan like the dickens.  How Sarah was the queen of rolling with the punches rolling up her sleeves...and no matter how hard she had worked that day, she'd be game to keep you company and have a (giant, greek poured) glass of red wine with you in the middle of the night when everyone got back to the hotel.  How Lily had been there for twice as long as the rest of us and had so many amazing connections and had deep relationships with many of the people we encountered - how hard it was for her to leave when it was all done. How Sierra was only with us for a single day and yet she continued tracking ferries for us, offering advice and supplying intel, all from her "vacation"...How Nawara arrived halfway through and hit the ground running, translating and just RELATING and talking to these scared, confused people, reminiscing about a Syria that is no longer there.  And Cristal's tireless work as the figurehead of the whole operation, conducting interviews and looking to make connections wherever she could.

Baby in a bear suit...all three of mine spent the cold months as baby bears...this kid reminded me so much of my own kiddos, it was hard to 'bear'! 

Cristal giving an interview for the local news

Our little family out to lunch together on a break.

About the family Cristal took under her wing and brought to our hotel...

this family figured prominenty into our experience on this trip.  I hope they are doing well, wherever they are.
About working with Rita and Fadi and finding ways to fill every minute with something that would ultimately help.  About the postcards we had to write, stamp, and send in the middle of all this for the indiegogo supporters. About Kate's tea tree oil breaking in her luggage, scenting our whole room for the duration.  About my epic coughing fits every single time I walked into our room. About the amazing hotel staff who we befriended - and our server, Larissa, showing off photos of her shirtless police-officer boyfriend and giving us amazing desserts or shots of ouzo on occasion, as thanks and a gesture of friendship. About seeing the deteriorating infrastructure of Greece crumbling as they diverted so many resources to help those who had even less.

We came upon this mama and her kiddos...the little one was just days old. Can you imagine...?

About how I rented a car and drove from the port all the way up to the Macedonian border and back, hitting as many camps as I could along the way...but that's another post entirely.


photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson

About how I made friends with a couple of women in the lobby of our hotel in the middle of the night as Sarah and I ran inventory of the carriers, who just so happened to be waiting for their rooms there, and it turned out that they were from Drop in the Ocean, another NGO dedicated to helping refugees.  About how it became increasingly easier to identify both refugees and volunteers on sight, and how the nature of being a fellow volunteer made you old friends from the get go, and sharing information in the hotel restaurant at midnight or over breakfast in the morning became a normal part of the game.

photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
So many mothers asking me for "pantalones?"  and as it was breaking my heart it also made me giggle, just a little...they were defaulting to Spanish, too!  Maybe we could find some common ground in that - and my bizarre default to Spanish seemed a little less out of place.  And all of them want to do something, to go somewhere, to be someone...

Photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
Hassan wasn't the only refugee who stepped up to help.  Many refugees began working with other NGOs and volunteer groups as translators, working hard doing unpleasant work (When my teammate Nawara joined the crew towards the end of the trip, she had the heartbreaking task of telling these people that there was no news, at all, and no way they could get any because no one had any and there were no plans to change that anytime soon.  For these refugee translators, they had to translate the news that they themselves were indefinitely stuck.)

photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
Multiple gentlemen stepped in wanting to help us.  There was one man in particular who had walked with us and a couple of his friends one night, and when we arrived at the gate we needed, he stopped us and through interpretive gestures and a little help from his friends, he communicated to me that he wanted to work for us.  I explained that we didn't pay, there was no money in it, and he looked almost offended as he stammered "no money! no money! Just help. I help. I do."

photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
Despite the language barriers; I understood.  He just needed something to keep himself occupied, and after seeing the work we were doing, decided that helping us would be a worthwhile endeavor.

This barber was helping to bring some normalcy to life at the port by offering free haircuts...another worthwhile endeavor!
His friend that night told me that he had enrolled in some English classes that were being offered for free to refugees in town; so every week he would travel to the heart of Athens to attend language classes.  He wanted to practice his English, so we walked together for quite a ways and talked...mostly I listened, with only the occasional interjection, question, reaction...he told me the story of the Russian air strikes bombing out his house.  His parents were dead, so he was here, he said.  He'd just come back to the port after a week long stint in Idomeni - the camp there has become somewhat notorious for being a hellish place.  I asked him which was worse, and he told me about Idomeni's inability to handle the recent rains, on top of all the political unrest being right on the border...he said the port was far superior, in terms of accommodations and conditions, and except for the fact that here he feels stuck and without hope, life in the port is hands down better than the life in Idomeni.

The dramatic end to an attempt to rescue a children's ball that had fallen into the water.  It slowly floated along the pier, with the pair of guys climbing down on every tire to try to catch it, missing every time.  It was trrifying to watch, because not only was the water extremely cold but there was a pretty strong current and the port is busy and full of massive ships...

I was honored that he had chosen to open up to me; but I often feel powerless to find ways to preserve these stories that every single person in that port, every single person in those camps...they each have their own story, and each of those stories deserves to be heard.

photo by Keli Hiatt Anderson
There are amazing and dedicated journalists out there working to tell the story of the many; but I fear the reporting often gets lost in the bigger picture (and probably rightfully so; the sheer scale of this crisis is so immense and requires such immediate action, how could anyone focus on anything other than the bigger picture...



But there are real people in these camps. We can't forget that.  Each of these people has there own personal struggle and triumph, and each has many more chapters yet to be written...What will those chapters say?

This young lady spent time with us every single day. One day she showed up with this plush heart to send us a
message.

 (And yes, Those are my glasses she's wearing. She found them fascinating, and borrowed them for the pic!)