This morning I had to bid my farewells. Half of the volunteers will still be there when I return in three days, the other half will have returned to their homes by then. It was not necessarily the easiest telling Frida, Solfrid, and Ingrid goodbye. As we were waiting at the port for Theresa to say goodbye we saw a girl walking with her bags away from the ferry. I vaguely knew who she was, but that was due to her spending time with Mari the past few days. She was not going to go on the ferry with us, and she was in tears. Mari spent the time we were waiting for Theresa trying to comfort her, while I was anxiously pacing wondering if Theresa would make it on time, or if the ferry would leave without us. It made bidding our adieu’s a little easier to the three girls. We will definitely see each other this summer back on the isles, but they will depart for home the day before I return to Samos.
On the ferry there were so many familiar faces. If we did not recognize them, they definitely recognized us. Each one of them had seen us dancing, distributing clothes, working with the children, erecting tents for them, etc. Our tickets placed us in the interior of the boat with three general populace, but as we were standing on the deck waving to the girls and Theresa, we decided that we would rather be with the refugees who had to stay outside, most of the familiar faces were out there. We ran into one of our friends, Tardik, who speaks fluent English so we sat by him. Soon enough there were about 10 around us, we utilized him as our interpreter.
The ferry trip itself was 11 hours, but it seemed much longer than that. After about 3 hours Tarek came to me with a concern about the families, women, and children who had to sit outside the whole trip. We both went inside and with the power of a reflective vest and possibly me being American we were able to persuade one of the crew to allow the women and children to go inside.
Had that not happened there is no way that the next events would have happened. Tardik and I took a walk around the ferry and began to talk. He had actually worked on a ship mostly out of the Indian Ocean which allowed him to gain culture. His father had been in the hospital for 3 years so he spent every night sleeping there, helping the nurses and doctors. There he learned some medical work, nothing in depth, but he knew enough to help people. His goal was to go to Germany where his sister teaches English. He knew that he needed to continue learning English and further his education, and he mused about possibly doing some work with the UN.
We talked for a while about who we were in the heart. He had never really felt like he belonged anywhere before. He had given up his religion, and due to his work on a ship gained culture. In Syria most of his peers looked at him like he was different because his thoughts did not align with the rest of the general populace. He was another one who just never felt quite at home, even when he was home. Even those at the camps and on the ferry asked him why he was spending more time with the volunteers rather than with his own people. I told him about myself, my immigration story, my military background, and my intentions about the orphanage and working on a book to tell the individual stories about the refugees. Due to his ability to speak English I told him that I would like to start with him, and that perhaps he could help us. He was immediately on board, but it never happened today.
Roughly half-way through the trip we broke open the bags of toys, balloons, markers, and blank sheets of paper. We informed the children and their families that the drawings would be used to help the islands and to buy toys for the children who would be passing through the islands in the upcoming future. We let them know that we would be selling them online via Ebay. All of the children wanted to help.
When we opened the bags I started to make balloon animals and blow up regular balloons, Mari started handing out sheets of paper and markers. This was my first time to interact with the children besides my first night at Moria Camp on Lesvos, and they were clamoring all over me to get a balloon animal. The balloons went quick, mostly because I could only find a few bags of them on Samos. Many of them broke because they were old and sticking together. Next time I come here I must fill a bag with balloons for balloon animals.
The next two hours we sat with the kids drawing pictures. I have a stack a good inch thick in my laptop bag now. Some were regular kid drawings, some were pieces of art. I have no idea what happened to the markers, especially since all the caps were rolling all over the floor. Not a big issue, I doubt they cost me over 10 euro from donations. Some of the younger children had more marker on their faces than on the paper but they were happy as were their families. For 11 hours on the ferry they had nothing to do but sit, and the camps themselves become monotonous after a few hours. I can only imagine how bored the children must have been.
I gave Tardik my camera and cell phone to take pictures of the children drawing. It is easier having another Syrian taking the pictures rather than a volunteer. There are cultural differences so we have to ask permission to take pictures, something that does not occur on Lesvos. In general, one should not take pictures of teenage girls or women, and of course make sure to ask before taking a picture. Many of the pictures taken today display the child either holding their picture, or of them actually drawing it. This will help out massively because we can display that it was an actual refugee child that drew the picture.
Without Tardik’s help there is no way that this would have run as efficiently or the magnitude of pictures we had procured. I believe this was a massive life-changing experience for him. He saw the children so happy, the parents thanking us, and noticed the children having something to pass their time. I am so thankful for his help but also that he was able to be a part of this. I pretty sure that I spent a pretty penny on cookies for all the children, or else I was massively overcharged for my cup of joe. I will just go with the latter, because who is really counting anyways?
I was nodding off since I had only slept three hours the night before, and I have before mentioned our sleep predicament as volunteers. I ended up falling over and sleeping on the metal floor, but woke up with a blanket that one of the refugees had wrapped around me. Tarek had been sitting next to me watching Mari’s and my bags, and had a cup of coffee for me by the time that I had woken up. I ate a few bites of food, talked with a few refugees around me, and then let the refugees use my Bluetooth speakers to listen to some tunes. They are from the same group that we were dancing with a few nights before, so I knew that music was their thing. Within minutes there was a group in a circle clapping and dancing.
Mari fell asleep next to a refugee family and our bags. Besides perhaps our passports none of the refugees would have let anyone touch our luggage. Everyone around us tried their best to take care of us as a show of gratitude. For some all they could do was offer us a blanket, others sat on the floor so we could sit on a chair, we had some share some food with us, one gave Mari a hat, while another gave me a necklace.
As Mari was sleeping, Tarek and I fell into deep conversation. He has decided that he wants to write a book to help the Syrians learn how to integrate into society, help them with the immigration, and to help with the refugees learning English. I immediately thought of my friend Kristina who is a publicist back in Norway. This book of his is going to happen, it will take a while, but he also knows that it will also help him with fine-tuning his English.
We sat at the aft of the boat and talked. His life had changed in the past few hours. Instead of his previous plans, he wanted to do work helping people. I am not sure what he and Mari had talked about while I was sleeping, but I think it was the same as my previous conversation with him. He had found people whose thoughts aligned with his, and after seeing the dynamics with the children he decided to change his life goals. He told me that Mari, the other volunteers, and myself had helped him, and now he wants to return the favor. Humans helping humans. We became brothers tonight, staring out over the Aegean Sea. I told him that I will find him in Germany, that I will follow him on his migration. I need him to help me with the book that I am working on as well. I believe that he could be extremely vital to the world due to his language skills and culturism.
When the ferry arrived at Athens, the goodbyes began. We had Lasse Olofson, a journalist from Sweden who we had met in Lesvos. This trip changed him as well, and I know that our paths will cross again on Samos. He is helping a boy who lost his college diploma and passport gain asylum in Sweden. Then of course it was difficult saying goodbye to Tarek, but I will see him before I return to the States.
My phone now has more pictures and group-selfies from the last 10 minutes on ship than the past two years of owning my phone. I hope to see these humans again, for they have become good friends and their faces have become very familiar these past few days. As we were saying good-bye I have never been thanked, hugged, or told that I was a good man so many times in my life.
The dynamics of the day could have easily been something totally different. We had heavily thought about taking a flight to Athens which does not cost much more than the ferry. We could have stayed inside the boat where it was warm instead of giving our seats away. We could have not last-minute brought the toys, balloons, bubbles, and drawing things for the children. Had we not though, Tardik would not have decided to help the refugees, the children would and women would have been sitting in the cold, and we would not have this incredible story to tell the world. I would sit outside in the cold every night to have a night like we had today.
Video of the children with Andrew and Mari: https://www.facebook.com/lasse.oloffson/videos/1013861825345083/
These are some of the pictures the kids drew on the ferry to Athens. These are their memories. These are the kids who are afraid to go and play when it is sunny out because the coalItion does not go on drone missions when it's cloudy or there is a storm. As we were on the ferry jets flew by twice and I watched some of the children cringe in fear. These children were almost all under 10 years old, kids just like the ones back home. Imagine your child with these memories. #ChildrenOfWar