On my first day working at One Happy Family on Lesvos island, Greece, I was assigned to help at The Boutique. The Boutique is a filled-to-the-rim second hand clothing "store," which is set up in a makeshift building on a bluff overlooking the Aegean sea, and where refugees can come twice a month to pick up clothing for themselves and for their children. Monday and Tuesday are for the men, Thursday and Friday are for the women.
The Boutique is a super fast paced, rather chaotic environment, with customers invited to enter in groups of ten, for ten-minute shopping sprees. Our job was to keep the store stocked, somewhat organized, and the chaos at a minimum during shopping time. The first time I saw the state of the shop after the first ten-minute segment, I was so flabergasted that I could not close my mouth. Wow. Talk about
the raw power of women wanting to put clothes on their kids' backs...
On my first day there, I met two people, refugees themselves, who would become significant to me: one is Mehdi, a smart and sweet 20 year old Afghani man, and the other one is Memory, a strikingly beautiful, warm and energetic Zimbabwe woman in her early 40s. While volunteers and helpers came and went, Mehdi and Memory kept running the show day in and day out, making sure the shelves were stocked, the massive amount of clothing organized, and the customers served efficiently, kindly and occasionally firmly.
On that first day, when I barely knew anyone there, Mehdi and Memory made me feel at home, and as though I could contribute a little bit.
On the second day, when the rainy muddy afternoon brought on a strong craving for chocolate, Memory handed me a bar of Crunch from her backpack. Her gesture meant so much to me, and was filled with more sweetness than made sense in such a small piece of chocolate. Minutes later, the sun came up and I was able to snap a photo of the rainbow overlooking that sea, that sea that has become such a source of terror. That's the kind of days we had over there: chaotic, sweet, beautiful and heart breaking.
Over the next few weeks, I became good friends with Mehdi, his wife Mina, and Memory.
One day during lunch, I saw that Memory was reading a book. I asked her what it was and when she showed me the cover of The Secrets of Happiness, I had to smile. When I asked her if she liked it, Memory said that yes, she did very much - and that she needed to read this sort of things to keep her attitude positive, especially while living in Moria, that terrible, terrible refugee camp.
The weeks passed and before it was time for me to leave, Memory told me that she had gotten her "blue stamp," the coveted permission to leave the island and make her way to Athens, for a chance at a new chapter. She did not have her departure date set yet, but it was in the works. We hugged and I told her how happy I was for her.
A couple of days ago, having just finished my first Retreat in Mexico, I decided to check in with Memory through a WhatsApp message and find out how she was doing. She responded immediately and in her typical upbeat manner told me that she was in Athens and that all was well. Somehow, I felt that I wanted to know a little more. So I asked. And that's when she told me that while she had a roof over her head, she had no money for food.
I could not quite understand how she could have no money for food, being under the U.N.H.C.R. care (the U.N. branch that handles refugee matters) - but whatever the reason was, I would find out later. The more urgent task at hand was to get her some grocery money. A few hours of Western Union Mexico / Greece confusion later, I was able to send her a bit of help.
Then I asked her why she was not receiving food help, and that's when she explained her situation to me: once she had received her "blue stamp," Memory was put on a list that would eventually take her off the island and to Athens, under the auspice of the U.N.H.C.R. How long this process would take, no one knows. It could have been a day, or it could have been months. Which would be okay, if it weren't for the fact that in order to be well, Memory needs to receive a regular dose of medication, medication which is not available on Lesvos. Having been on the island a little while already, she was starting to not feel well and being now legally able to leave the island, she found herself with the choice of remaining there until her official turn came - and be covered by the U.N.H.C.R - or leave in order to take care of her health, and go to Athens on her own.
She chose her health, signed on the dotted line and by doing so relinquished the help of the United Nation, then made her way to a friend's in Athens, where she has been able to finally get her medication.
Here are the good news: Memory is smart as heck and will be an asset to any employer lucky enough to hire her, now that she can legally work in Greece - which tells me that it may not be too long before she gets a job (although Greece's 21% unemployment rate is a little daunting, and she does not yet speak Greek). Also, she has a roof over her head for the time being. And she feels tons better. And as of this morning, she has a little bit of grocery money.
The less good news is that I cannot afford to provide her grocery money on my own for the next few weeks / months until she gets established in her new home. I wish I could, I considered it - and then my furnace went wonky at home, scaring me with a potential high bill, which allowed me to think a little bigger and to remember that hey, maybe someone, or a few someones, may want to help me help Memory get a new start with food in her stomach.
Why would we do that? What will it accomplish? Are we going to make a dent in this big crazy refugee situation? Probably not. But here are two of the many things I learned while working down there:
1) I have to do what I can, whatever the next right thing might be, no matter how small (I have a little story to share with you about that, soon. It has to do with a red ball), no matter how huge the whole problem seems. Because if I don't, I die a little.
2) The things that one of us cannot lift / do / accomplish on our own, can be a joy to lift / do / accomplish as a group.
So here you go. My invitation to you to help me help Memory. Whatever amount of pennies feels right to you to send me, I will send to her, in monthly increments. My vision is to be able to send her 100€ per month, for just a few months. If we can't make that happen, anything else will be more than she has now, having made that big choice.
Of course there is more I could say to pull at heart strings, share more stories about how rough things can be in that other world, tell you more about what I learned about the dark side of things. But really, I don't want to. I just want to ask you if maybe you would like to help me help Memory.
Thanks for listening. And if you'd like to share this letter with others, so that they may join in with us, please please do.
(One week is about $31 and I think that even in bits of $5 we can make this happen for her)
It comes as quite a big surprise to me that five months into this 180 day journey, I am able to look back and say that the overarching theme of this trip has been... Family.
Not Adventure, not Freedom, not Creativity, not even Service. Yes, these have all been a tremendous part of this chapter - and continue to be - but it seems that Family is #1.
NOT what I expected.
I was not raised to put a tremendous import on family - current, past or future. Instead, Independence and Individuality were the Essences around which I was raised.
I had never really thought about getting married until the day I did get married, barefoot on the side of the road. My oldest daughter was the first baby I held for more than a few minutes, even though I had much younger siblings (yet when my kids were born, my inner mom bubbled up to the surface effortlessly and I remember once feeling that the whole world existed right there, in that big bed with my three babies and their dad. I needed nothing else.)
So when I slipped on my backpack, last September 1st, a new relationship to Family was not what I expected to find.
I found it everywhere.
I found it in the hole in my heart during long days walking alone through olive groves by the Mediterranean, in Italy. I found it in the choking back of tears, listening to Christina tell me about her 97 year old mom and how she sees her everyday, no matter what. I found it in the complete peace I felt falling asleep under the same roof as my kids for a few nights, in France.
I found it when my heart burst instantly watching a man sing to his infant son while lounging on bench in a fancy Torino street.
I recognized it in the veiled women holding their daughters' hands in the streets of Marrakesh.
I found it when I read about Thessaloniki and the ways my family had come as refugees from Spain and made a new life in the Ottoman Empire. I felt it while walking the streets of that very city with my son, sister and nephew, all of us looking uncannily like everyone else there. I knew it in my belly when I heard the haunting sounds of rebetika music in a small Greek taverna, late on the night of my birthday. I remember the deep sense of belonging to that land, and I now feel the strong pull to return.
I heard it when giving rides to families of refugees on Lesvos island.
I reveled in it it while TV bingeing / recuperating on my sister's bed last week in Florida, and I lived it while sitting in my mom's living room, her apartment filled with the furniture she brought from France 35 years ago, as she invited me to please pick what I wanted - and asked me the heart-breaking question of what was going to happen to all her stuff when she was gone?
Again, I did not know.
As an adult, I had been doing a whole lot of running from my family of origin for as long as I remember. Fast and far.
I thought maybe this trip was another version of the running, and I was okay with that.
I did not know that the running would take me to this layered unveiling of my heart, to the place where family - past, present and future - sits on a thrown of love and kindly asks for the right to reign.
What this means and how this look, I sure don't know.
I am guessing that's the next gift.
The last week on Lesvos was intense. I had arranged for a French speaking student of mine to meet with the resident lawyer, a fierce woman who has been working day and night for the past two years, getting people ready for their “interview” with the local authorities, the main gateway to a possible blue stamp allowing entry into mainland Greece. I had also offered my student to go with him and interpret the meeting, an offer which he accepted. We went, I interpreted, and in some ways, I never left the small, window-less room.
There are many French speaking refugees on Lesvos, most of them men who fled their African home countries. From what I was told, there are not so many French interpreters, and this creates a potential problem, the outcome of which is that the months pass and pass while these men remain on the island, living in Moria , and losing hope. Knowing that I would only be there another few days, the lawyer asked me to stay by her side and translate as many case intakes as we could manage. I agreed.
It’s hard to explain what these hours did to my brain - and to my heart.
I think that no matter what the topic, even if one were to interpret fairy tales, simultaneous translation is a taxing magic trick, one that may require a whole lot more training than I have to accomplish this on a regular schedule without becoming deeply exhausted. The way it works is that information comes in through the ears in one language, and the task at hand is to spit it out of the mouth in another language - while more information is coming in through the ears at the same time. In a way, it’s kind of fun, as it happens almost without thinking. Pretty soon, the flow becomes seamless and it’s as though we are a conduit, very much part of an intimate triangle of communication. During the easy, initial meeting with my student, my core Essences of Community and Contribution were singing happily and I was excited to keep going.
Later that night, I headed home a different person, and a stop at the harbor for a short sob barely made a dent in the grief pool that was filling up.
What I interpreted that afternoon, without giving my brain the time to comment, understand, digest or even barely acknowledge, is something which I will never been able to un-know. The things we humans do to each other in the name of fear, in the name of power and in the name of a god that looks different from someone else’s god.
I just did not know.
I just ... did not know.
And now I do.
Not because I read about it in a book or in a report, not because I saw it on TV or in a movie. But because for several hours, I sat in a tiny airless room, my right thigh touching another person’s left thigh, my eyes on their face while they looked straight ahead, my mouth becoming their voice, hearing my own words weave stories which my imagination could not have began to create, words which my heart was not fully listening to because there were many more of them pouring out which also needed a voice.
My heart knew it needed to stay out of the way so that my brain could do the work. My ears heard the words in both languages, repeatedly, and my heart kindly agreed to wait.
For a while.
My heart also agreed to my request to please dole out the understanding in small doses, doses that would allow me to return the next day and do it again. Which I did.
When I left the island, I was fully ready to go. I knew that I had accumulated as much backlog of soul-cracking information as I could take, given my lack of preparation.
I made my way to Athens, put up a No Disturb sign on the hotel room door, and stood under a hot shower for a long time, letting my heart catch up a little bit. Just a little bit.
Then I slept for hours.
Later that afternoon, I was given the gift of watching the sun set on the Acropolis as I sat on a bench facing that mass of grace and its 2400 years of witnessing. I asked wordless questions about a situation that seems so much bigger than me. How can I serve without self-destroying? How can I not let the hugeness of it all prevent me from seeing the tiny-yet-big places where I may make a difference? Please. Tell me.
As I made my way down the hill, my phone alerted me to a voice mail and a photo.
Right there, on the small screen, was the image of an official document with a big fat blue stamp smack in the middle of it. Underneath, the words: We are freeeeeee! I pressed the voice mail arrow and heard my friends Mehdi and Mina’s excited voices telling me how they had just received the news that their paperwork (which I had had nothing to with) had gone through, and that they were going to be on their way to Athens very soon. That day was Mina’s 20th birthday.
That’s when my heart decided that it would no longer hold back. Whether they were born of heartbreak or of celebration, tears flooded down in rivers and heavy sobs as I looked up and asked the Acropolis to please watch over these kids and the many others who were going to make their way there, for a new chapter of an excruciatingly difficult book.
It was a privilege.
It was a privilege to give an understandable, workable voice to stories that may help someone make their way towards the next step of their journey.
It is a privilege to know that I can serve in this way, and not just because I speak languages but because I like to believe that I am able to bring a bit of softness, light and hope to these horrible hours of retelling.
It is a privilege to no longer not know.
And, it is also a privilege to have gotten close enough to be invited into the celebration part of the cycle.
What happens next, I am not sure, but I do believe that this is something which was not presented to me by accident, and which I receive as an invitation.
I am grateful to have lost my emotional virginity. I am grateful to be blessed with enough reserves of deep joy that I can still melt at the sight of the sun rising behind a row of palm trees in Florida, where I am now spending a couple of weeks with my family.
I am grateful to know, so that I may do. Or be. Or both.
I am also grateful to know that I am stronger than I thought I was. That while my heart is forever cracked quite a bit more than it used to be, it is also stronger for the knowing.
I believe that we can allow our hearts to crack, that we don't have to believe that doing so will kill us or send us to bed with a box of chocolates for the rest of our lives.
Today, I invite you to celebrate how strong you are, how powerfully you can function in the world. Even when you know.
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I write because this is the way I am able to taste life more deeply.