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)
Island Bliss Retreat
July 14 to 21
Happiness Retreats in Italy
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