Monday, December 21, 2015

Into the Mild: Journal From a Refugee Camp, Week One

Posted By on Mon, Dec 21, 2015 at 2:01 PM

Mytilene, Greece – December 2015

This is part two of a journal I’m keeping during my month working at a refugee camp in Greece. Part one, covering my last night in the US and two days in Athens, is here.

Dec. 9: It’s go time. After a series of subways and flights, I’m on the island of Lesvoz, the epicenter of refugee arrivals.

Now what?

I’d previously arranged to work in Molyvos, a town in the north of the island that desperately needed help a month ago. Since that time, thing have calmed down in Molyvos. Several senior members of the Greek government visited the camp in Molyvos before I came, leading to a pause in boats coming from Turkey. The Turkish coast guard is now patrolling the area near Molyvos at night, causing the smugglers to take boats further south. The city of Mytilene has now become the new major landing point. I decided to hold off on Molyvos for the time being and give Mytilene a shot.

Still unsure of where I will sleep or work, I decide to spend the day sorting clothes at a warehouse. This is a huge need on the island, as everybody dreams of coming and heroically helping refugees off of boats, but nobody dreams of heroically sorting shoes. I hailed a taxi in front of the airport and asked him to take me to the warehouse in town.

“Refugees?” he asks me.

“Yes, I’m going to the warehouse for refugees, where there are clothes,” I replied.

“You go to work for refugees, I will take you there?”

I tried to explain using the most basic English I could think of… “Yes, at the building with boxes, food, and clothing. The warehouse.”

“OK, we go to warehouse.”

Five minutes later, we were at Pikpa, which is definitely not a warehouse. Pikpa was formerly a summer camp for children with special needs, though it was abandoned and later became a refugee camp. It is now populated by at-risk families or refugees with special health conditions (i.e. pregnancy) that made them a poor fit for the general population at other refugee camps.

Pikpa's distribution center. - All Together written in Farsi, Greek, Arabic, and English
  • Pikpa's distribution center.All Together written in Farsi, Greek, Arabic, and English

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Into the Mild: Journal From a Refugee Camp, Week Zero

Posted By on Mon, Dec 14, 2015 at 10:11 AM

Athens, Greece – December 2015

Last week, I left the US for six months of exploring Europe and Africa. My first stop is on Lesbos Island in Greece, working and living at a refugee camp. This is the first part of a weekly journal that I'll write while staying at the camp.

Dec. 4- Sometimes, despite all observable trends, humanity exhibits glimmers of hope. Since telling friends two weeks ago that I would be be volunteering at a refugee camp, I’ve had supplies shipped from all over the United States. I returned from a family vacation last week to find six large boxes waiting for me.

The rundown:

37 pairs of wool socks
85 pairs of normal socks
16 winter hats
12 pairs of gloves
7 scarves
10 t-shirts
3 sweatshirts
1 pair of moccasins
100+ toothbrushes
52 combs
60 pens
2 large backpacks
30 pounds of dehydrated, vitamin-fortified food
$225 in cash


Everything somehow squeezed inside the two backpacks and weighed in at over 75 pounds. I spent that night packing and saying goodbye to my family and friends as I would head across the Atlantic the next day and not return until June.

Dec. 5– I left for Greece today. I caught the shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport at 3:30 a.m., was in Houston at 11 a.m. local time, and waited there for 10 hours. Buying the cheapest flights isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After lots of waiting and no real trouble from authorities, I was in Athens at 10 p.m. the night of the 6th. The city was beautiful and the weather was pleasant that night, but my internal clock was so warped that I went straight to bed.

Dec. 7– I met up for breakfast today with Joanna, an energetic New Yorker who just returned from Lesbos Island. We took the metro to an old olympic field hockey stadium that was being used as a refugee camp. The idea was that we would serve breakfast there as it had previously been undermanned.

The stadium’s press office was turned into a clothing depot, the food concourse into a kitchen and command & control center, and all other rooms were used as a dorms for refugees. The bleachers were mostly empty and the field never had more than two or three people playing at the same time. This was probably good, as an Iran-Iraq soccer match between hungry and impatient refugees is a remarkably poor idea.

Formerly a merchandise shop, this room became one of many dormitories.
  • Formerly a merchandise shop, this room became one of many dormitories.

Formerly a press office, this room became a warehouse for donated goods.
  • Formerly a press office, this room became a warehouse for donated goods.
Today, the camp had double the staff needed. I helped for about 10 minutes stirring a vat of tea, then helped pouring tee for a bit while others passed out croissants. I then mentioned that I studied Farsi. I immediately became an interpreter for the Iranian and Afghanis there, relaying valuable messages such as Stay out of the sun so you don’t get dehydrated and Pick up the trash, we can’t pass out clothes if the area is dirty.

Other conversations involved telling Iranians who had just traveled across the entire Middle East that they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the rest of Europe and were not eligible for Greek work visas. This was a depressing trend. The European Union was only allowing in refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, while refugees were showing up in Greece’s open borders expecting to move on to Germany or Sweden. The result was buses full of Syrians going through to Macedonia while thousands of Algerians, Iranians, and Pakistanis got stuck in limbo in Greece.

With nothing else that needed immediate translating, I searched for Iranians and Afghanis to practice Farsi and Dari with.

I quickly struck up a conversation with Jawwad, who was sitting on a chair directly underneath a sign that said not to sit there. I liked him immediately. He was Afghani, but since he left Afghanistan and lived legally in Iran for several years, the European Union considered him Iranian and wouldn’t grant him refugee status.

I next spoke with another Afghani who was stuck in Greece despite his family being in Macedonia. He had lost his paperwork proving that he was a refugee, leaving him in limbo until the UN could finish sorting the other 1,000,000 refugees and try to find his information. Taliban-era Afghanistan apparently wasn’t great at keeping public records.

The final significant conversation was with an Iranian who wanted to settle in the United States. When I mentioned that there were large Persian communities in Los Angeles and San Jose, he took that as a cue that I worked for the government and could get him a visa. I backed out of the conversation as gently as possible, found Joanna, and set off for a lunch meeting she had set up later.

After a series of cabs, metros, and trains, we found ourselves at the IASIS headquarters. IASIS is a non-profit in Athens that deals with the homeless, mentally ill, and abused populations. IASIS has adapted to become a landing point for refugee women and children who were viewed as vulnerable. Its name is also sure to get Joanna’s assets frozen when she donates to it. Joanna worked for a very well-known bank in London and there to discuss where funding would be most needed. I was there because I had nothing better to do and wanted to learn more about the situation. We left the meeting with an understanding that Joanna would buy them industrial kitchen equipment and that I would work with them after Christmas. Smooth talkers they were.

Dec. 8– I’m spending today exploring Athens, finding waterproof boots for the shore rescues, and trying to finally defeat jetlag. Mostly, I’m relaxing. Tomorrow takes me to the island and a new adventure.

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Into the Mild: Sorry, Prostitutes Can´t Stay in the Dormitory

Posted By on Mon, Dec 7, 2015 at 10:00 AM

Santiago, Chile


Was I bored or hungry? My night shift at the hostel seemed to be moving in slow motion that night. I stepped away for a couple of minutes to grab food from the staff refrigerator in the back yard. A coworker, Julie, watched the office for me.

I returned to an empty office and an open door. I went out to see why the door was open and found Julie talking to a man through the fence. The man was around 45 years old and needed a bed for the night for a friend. He didn’t have a reservation but claimed to know the owner, Jon. Jon would vouch for him. They were friends. I talked with the man as my coworker went back inside to call Jon. The man asked again if he could have a room and then gave us 10,000 Chilean Pesos (15 dollars), said he didn’t need the change, and signaled to the car across the street.

When the man brought his friend out, I immediately saw why he had left her in the car during our initial conversation. She was roughly 45, distraught, and wearing a very short skirt & very high heels, one of which had a broken strap. A strong limp and eyes that told of recent drug use came into focus as she got closer. I stepped inside for a minute to brief my coworker. Neither of us knew what to do. Our daily workload focused mostly on arranging reservations and giving tours. I must have missed the training session on dealing with battered woman escorted by their abusers.

I stepped back outside, opened the gate, and let the woman in. The man tried to follow her in, putting his hand on my shoulder as he talked to me. I told him twice not to touch me, each request followed by him removing his hand for five seconds. The third time, I told him very colorfully to leave, pushed him out, and slammed the gate as he yelled at me.

The woman obviously needed help so I led her in and took her to the dining room. I then found Julie and told her “She’s pretty f***ed up, we should call an ambulance.” I then saw the two guests in the same room and regretted not pulling Julie to the side to say it. We went to a smaller room near the kitchen. The woman said that she was hungry so I brought her bread and butter as Julie began asking her what had happened. Julie was Latina, charismatic, and spoke Spanish as her first language. The woman warmed and opened up as she spoke with Julie.

I felt that they would be more comfortable in private so I left them and grabbed the phone in the office. No one picked up the emergency line for the hospital, so I gave up and called the police instead. They told me they would send a unit by soon.

I went to update Julie and hoped that things weren't how they looked. They were. In addition to the bad ankle, her speech was slurred and she had a long red mark on her face that she earlier tried to hide with her hair. She eventually opened up and said that the man had been beating her and she didn’t want to return.

What to do?

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Monday, November 30, 2015

Into the Mild: Three Exorcisms is Where I Draw the Line

Posted By on Mon, Nov 30, 2015 at 9:04 AM

Salvador, Brasil

I subsidized my time in Salvador by working at a youth hostel. Work resembled a Pitbull song and every night brought a new cast of travelers from around the world who there on vacation. Most nights I hung out with whoever was staying at the hostel, with the exception of Fridays. I don’t bro out at bars with the guys and typically went to the lighthouse to watch the sunset with my girlfriend at the time. She worked late one night, so I went alone and explored a new part of the city.


I enjoy seeing new cathedrals and churches, so when I saw a large one with the lights on I went in. I sat in the back and tried not to draw attention to myself. After about two minutes I saw the rest of the crowd walking towards the front and a women in the aisle motioned for me to come forward. I wasn't sure what was going on, but it looked like a weird time so I followed the group towards the front. We then stood in a line facing the stage. Three pastors came to the crowd and started barking commands at a man. The pastors put their hands on the man's head and started yelling and shaking their hands. I stood and wondered what was going on when they finished with him and a pastor walked to me. He was much friendlier with me than he was with the first man. After a minute of talking, he put his hands on my head and started chanting. At the end of each sentence he chanted OUT or NOW and would throw his hands up. This only lasted around two minutes and then he looked at me, smiled, and walked to another person.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Into the Mild: Giving Thanks to the Syrian Refugees Who Took Me In

Posted By on Mon, Nov 23, 2015 at 10:00 AM

Amman, Jordan – February 2015


As Thanksgiving approaches, I look back at the previous year and reflect on the amazing love and compassion I've received. While I could write a book on all the people who've helped me out, I owe the most to the Syrian and Iraqi refugees I worked with in Jordan. They ignored our differences and took me under their wing when I didn't have anyone else.

I arrived in Jordan at a tough time. I had quit my job in Turkey early and didn't have a backup plan. I landed at a hotel restaurant in Amman, Jordan, not knowing a single person or a word of Arabic. It was a leap of faith and could have easily turned out terribly, had I not lucked out with my coworkers. The main crew I worked with was composed of myself, an Iraqi refugee, and two salafist Syrian refugees. I'm white, Mormon, and don't speak any Arabic. There was every reason for this to blow up in my face.

    • The leader of the restaurant staff was abu Abduh, a Syrian refugee. He spoke no English and I spoke no Arabic, so he bridged the gap by yelling Shaku maku Jimmy! every 30 seconds, or whenever one of us enters the room. Shaku maku is Iraqi slang along the lines of what’s shakin?  and my name isn’t Jimmy, so it got old. Fast. Abu Abduh used to be a taxi driver in Homs, Syria, but fled to Jordan as he became trapped between ISIS and the al-Assad regime. He was loud, obnoxious, and would give you the shirt off his back. He was the patriarch of our strange family.

      Next came Thamer, another Syrian refugee. Young, serious, and a strict salafist. Due to his religious views, ISIS thought he would be sympathetic and tried to recruit him. He immediately packed his car and sped to Jordan. We regularly argued using hand gestures and a collection of profanity that we both understood, but could never stay mad for more than five minutes.

      Finally, there was Muhseen. He's a former Iraqi Army soldier who also worked with American forces. He originally lived roughly 15 minutes from one of the locations I served in Iraq, close enough that I’ve probably given his son candy at some point in the past. Muhseen's brother worked as a barber on a US Army base and was murdered. He then found a bullet wrapped in a note that said “LEAVE” on his doorstep. Muhseen left with his family in the middle of that night. 

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    Tuesday, November 17, 2015

    Into the Mild: Amman, Jordan Protests Against ISIS

    Posted By on Tue, Nov 17, 2015 at 1:30 PM

    Amman, Jordan — February 6, 2015

    In February, ISIS released a video of a captured Jordanian pilot being brutally murdered. Outrage grew in the small country throughout that week, until Amman’s main Imam called for protests following the Friday prayers at noon.

    King Abdallah, a fighter pilot and former head of Jordanian special forces (which probably had nothing to do with family connections) rallied the country, quoting Unforgiven in his calls for vengeance. The average Jordanian has no clue how perverted and awesome it is that he is quoting Clint Eastwood, by the way. The queen herself vowed to attend the protests, which sounds all cool and solidarity-like until you realize we’re already in the capital. The whole country put aside political, nationalistic, and religious differences to unite in outrage at ISIS’ barbarism.

    I learned of the upcoming protests while serving breakfast to a Russian couple who work for state media. They discovered this while combing twitter at work the day before and immediately bought tickets for Amman. (Note to self: get a job with Russian state media)

    Much of Amman began gathering at the Al-Hussein Mosque as early as 9 a.m., draped in banners and Jordanian flags.


    Flyers and posters remembering the pilot were everywhere. The poster I snagged to remember the protests ended up causing me significant problems with the Department of Homeland Security nine months later, but that is another story and shall be told another time.


    The crowd swelled for the next three hours. The police were keeping things relatively calm as everyone gathered, with someone bringing in a pallet of refrigerator boxes to be used as prayer mats. A small crowd converged and started ripping the boxes into sections and handing them out to bystanders.

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    Friday, April 24, 2015

    So What's New?

    Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2015 at 2:00 PM

    • Photo by Joan Safier

    So what's been happening the past few weeks I should know about, and maybe write about? I've been traveling in southern Spain, and the reason you go there isn't to follow current events, though thanks to the miracle of wireless-in-every-hotel, I kept up a bit. The main lure of the area is getting a glimpse of the area pre- and post-inquisition. When it comes to Spain, I learned in school that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It wasn't until later I learned the date was also a marker of the worst kind of intolerance: 1492 was a very bad time to be a Jew, and a bad time to be a Muslim too. It was also later that I learned, when the Muslims were in control of the area, it was a hotbed of learning, culture and art. The Alhambra, above, is a wonder. The time is known as the Golden Age of Jewish Culture, when Jewish learning blossomed alongside Muslim learning. Walking through the Muslim palaces and mosques, seeing a small pre-Inquisition synagogue — one of three still standing in Spain — was educational and awe inspiring. And rubbing the feet of a statue of The Rambam (the name given to the scholar/philosopher/physician Maimonides [If you didn't before, next time you watch The Big Lebowski, you'll get John Goodman's reference]) is supposed to grant you luck and impart wisdom. I usually don't go in for the rubbing-for-luck thing, but in Córdoba, I rubbed his feet every time I passed.

    So . . . if you think I missed something important in the news, give me a heads up in the comments, preferably with a link,
     and I'll try to get my mind back in Arizona, circa 2015 C.E.

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    Monday, December 16, 2013

    Shady Dell #1 Airstream Hotel in the US of A

    Trailer Love

    Posted By on Mon, Dec 16, 2013 at 2:30 PM

    Photo from The Shady Dell Facebook Page
    • Photo from The Shady Dell Facebook Page

    Are you looking for romantic trailer park getaway? Thrillist named Bisbee's Shady Dell Trailer Court the world's coolest mobile motel of 2013. Who needs a cookie on your pillow when you can get lawn flamingos on freshly cut astroturf.

    1. The Shady Dell Trailer Court — Bisbee, AZ
    This place's nine vintage aluminum trailers with equally vintage décor (think phonographs and old-school radios) promise a blast from the past. You'll return to a simpler time, a better time, when men were men, drinking on the job was basically a requirement, and you returned home to crack a brew on your patch of astroturf.
    How much? $87/nt

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    Staff Pick

    James G. Davis (1931-2016): Down at the Tower Bar, A Retrospective

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    @ Etherton Gallery Sat., Sept. 9, 7-10 p.m. and Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Nov. 11 135 S. Sixth Ave.

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