(IAP ’18 EXPLORE) Michelle Xu

Dec 19, 2017

Entry 3: Tidbits from the Subconscious

I’ve been thinking a lot lately. And contrary to any wisecracks my friends might suggest in this situation, I do think a lot in general—but normally it’s a very conscious process. The everyday worries of MIT life are things that sweep across my brain, receive some sort of acknowledgement, and then travel onwards in the thoughtstream. But the thinking that I’ve been doing about my trip to Greece has been, in many ways, subconscious.

There are just a lot of elements that are stewing, ideas that need time to congeal. And every time I search back through the annals of my recent memory to my three weeks, I am engulfed in millions of sensations and impressions: the cold scent of laundry powder and softener in a metal box, the squish of muddy gravel of the camp after an almost-snow, the brightness of the graffiti that expressed hospitality and hope through spray paint.

Look closely—”Marhaba...this is Ritsona, our home land!!!”

Look closely—”Marhaba…this is Ritsona, our home land!!!”

There are the stories, the interviews, and the random pieces of information that stubbornly resist tucking neatly into any story I try to braid. There is nothing to “do” with the fact that the fastest way to distribute varying quantities of milk and tea to several dozen families is to create bags of two, three, and four cartons with 14, 21, and 28 Lipton tea bags respectively. When people ask me about my trip, I don’t talk about milk and tea. But the thought still sits back there, floating around in my subconscious.

Every once in a while, the subconscious part of my brain throws out some interesting conclusion to the conscious. Like maybe this—communication, even between two strangers of radically different backgrounds, can function without language. I didn’t and don’t speak Arabic, Kurdish, or Greek. To set up laundry appointments, to check them into the distribution center, I had to use hand gestures, broken clocks, and emphasized English words they probably didn’t know; as a writer, I’ve never seen words become such a useless resource. And yet still, the camp residents and I figured out together that this woman’s jacket was lost, that man needed another appointment slip, this little girl was looking for more leggings. No common language, just earnest attempts at understanding.

Stuff like that. Small morals. Nothing grandiose or life-changing, just small ideas.

I feel like I’m in the same subconscious-thinking situation with my research in general about the refugee situation, which is a tad more concerning. I don’t have any brilliant solutions to solve this entangled mess of politics and people—the more I learn, the messier it becomes. There is the EU to consider, and every country’s own shifting policies. There are Greece’s local politics, which have recently shifted to become more left-wing, and the divisive opinions of the Greek people on the influx of refugees. There are the NGOs to consider, and their constant worry of balancing funding with filling a need at a camp. All of these are major players, whose political inertia won’t let them change for the better at any satisfying pace.

There are also the individual people who make it through this process, the students and lawyers and salesmen who are all now just “refugees.” They all need different things at different points in their process of starting their new lives. Lighthouse Relief, an NGO I spoke with, has worked at a variety of camp locations around Greece, and have filled in for a variety of tasks, from shoreline watch to psychosocial therapy to early childhood development.

The situation is simply different in every camp. Camps on the islands, like Lesbos, are filled with dirty tents and people who’ve just gotten pulled out of the ocean; the mainland camps meanwhile, like at Ritsona, are filled with heated isoboxes and people who have been slogging through bureaucracy for months. One set of human beings are more worried about their present survival, the other about the past traumas and uncertain future. Both are issues that need to be addressed.

We can’t fix everything, but I did find recurring issues that kept appearing in conversations with NGO workers from both CCS and other organizations. A particular one of these issues stood out and stuck itself in my subconscious mind—and now it keeps pushing itself into the conscious part. I spent a lot of time in my last blog discussing how life can move on after trauma, how people rebuild their worlds, how the human condition persists. There is lots of happiness in the refugee camp, found in the laughter of children and the taste of falafel. But it would be a grave injustice to ignore the pain and trauma that people go through after losing and experiencing so much.

This psychosocial issue of how to deal with depression, PTSD, anxiety, hopelessness is more the type of thing people at Ritsona worry about. And there are lots of organizations there to provide for those needs. There are female-friendly spaces, where women can talk, drink tea, do yoga, and simply socialize. There are kid-friendly spaces, where volunteers guide children through activities painting and writing to express their feelings. For the older teens, Lighthouse Relief runs a magazine featuring their writing and art and holds sessions for them to cope with negative feelings and sense of self.

But this is also perhaps a space that MIT could slot into. Last summer, there was already a D-Lab workshop that taught the design process and how to use tools to unaccompanied refugee minors. This not only gave the teens practical skills, but also boosted their self-esteem and exercised their creative potential, thereby helping their psychosocial state. We could definitely implement more programs that allow refugees to look towards the future and see something bright. After all, MIT is a place that pushes the gears in our minds to construct the future we want to see, whether through physical materials or abstract equations. Couldn’t we lend this mindset to refugees, through workshops that let them express and establish themselves through technology?

My proposition is vague; fully fledged solutions don’t appear overnight. There will be lots of questions to flesh out, lots of topics to research, lots of dilemmas to understand still. However, I’m grateful to have learned the stories and situations I already have, seen the sights and people I’ve already seen. My life granted me an amazing opportunity to improve people’s lives in some way. And who knows what may happen once I start talking to D-lab—maybe in the future, I’ll be back for more.

This mural near the front gates bid me both welcome and goodbye at Ritsona.

This mural near the front gates bid me both welcome and goodbye at Ritsona.

As they say in Greece, εις το επανιδείν—until we meet again.


Entry 2: Something in the Falafel

As one turns into the refugee camp from the main road, there is a dirt road stretching all the way from one side of the camp to another. Wooden shacks, covered in insulation and plastic, line this path, and camp residents and volunteers alike bustle in and out of them. A young man sells cigarettes and popcorn from this one, another sells lollipops and Mars bars from another. There’s a grunge cafe skull-and-crossbones drawn on the plastic sits right next to where the teenagers play soccer, offering Arabic coffee and banana milk cocktails. The alluring smell of home cooking wafts out of a falafel shop that makes miracles with falafel, tomatoes, and tzatziki.

This is a French fry pizza-quesadilla from the falafel shop. It’s toasted pita filled with fries, feta, tomatoes, olive oil, miscellaneous spices, and tastes like modern ambrosia.

This is a French fry pizza-quesadilla from the falafel shop. It’s toasted pita filled with fries, feta, tomatoes, olive oil, miscellaneous spices, and tastes like modern ambrosia.

There is a gulf of difference between reading the news about the refugees and working in the camp with them. It’s not that journalists are necessarily doing a bad job at reporting. The articles featuring their struggles, the documentaries that tear at our sense of common humanity, they are important in making people realize the existence of the issue. The volunteer group I’m working with, Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS), actually showed us one of these documentaries to give us more context about the background of the refugees: 4.1 miles is an extremely moving piece of video journalism that focuses on the smuggling of refugees from Turkey to Lesvos, and I highly recommend you watch it here.

But it’s one thing to speak on an ivory-tower level about the causes of the Syrian war, and another to order a plate of fries from the falafel stand cook, who used to be a pharmacy student at the University of Aleppo until he had to flee the country. One thing to read about the EU-Turkey refugee deal, another to communicate by hand gestures with a woman who is trying to move her laundry appointment because she’ll be in Athens doing relocation paperwork on the day she was originally assigned.

The amazing thing is, these people continue to live their lives. The children run around and cause mayhem by stealing things and throwing rocks at the laundry box. Dance music, sometimes with foreign singers, sometimes with Justin Bieber, blasts outside somewhere. The teenage boys always are looking for new kicks at the distribution shop. One of the camp residents who helps CCS out a lot adopted one of the stray cats and obsesses over her. People continue to live their lives against all odds, and it’s something you have to see to really believe.

My friend’s cat, Cece, who took a nap in the laundry piles. I swear my friend loves her more than anything alive.

My friend’s cat, Cece, who took a nap in the laundry piles. I swear my friend loves her more than anything alive.

At the camp, CCS mostly focuses on running the distribution center and the laundry box. At the distribution center, I help people find and purchase clothes on a point system and keep the place organized. We also distribute milk and tea on Tuesdays, milk and water on Fridays. At the laundry box, I wash people’s laundry, 20+ families and 40+ loads a day. They’re small things, and honestly, when my friends ask what I’ve learned, it’s hard to give immediate answers.

These laundry machines sing a little ditty once they’re done, and by now I’m probably going to know that ditty by heart for the rest of my life.

These laundry machines sing a little ditty once they’re done, and by now I’m probably going to know that ditty by heart for the rest of my life.

From my observations and talking with the CCS staff, it seems there are always frustrations. There is frustration about not having enough water, something outside of our control since the International Organization for Migration (IOM) runs the camp and sets that limit. There is distrust from the camp residents sometimes, who are suspicious of why we’d want to help them. There is confusion on coordination and organization between NGOs occasionally. There is difficulty in building a true community, as people just want to get out of here and start their new lives. There is psychosocial trauma and listlessness as paperwork slogs through bureaucracy. There are is bickering when people don’t get what they want. And it’s a lot worse out in the island camps than on the mainland, where people are still in tents.

But it seems that there is also progress. The old field where the kids played soccer over the summer is getting smoothed over and paved with gravel so that new isoboxes can be moved in. The clothing distribution shop didn’t exist a year ago, and now it’s up and running to full capacity. The Red Cross is moving out because the need is no longer deemed to be at an emergency level in the camps. People are leaving in a steady stream, and new families come in from the islands. There is the inevitable push forward of human strength and resilience and progress.


Here are some beautiful murals painted by volunteers inside the clothing shop part of the distribution center.

Here are some beautiful murals painted by volunteers inside the clothing shop part of the distribution center.

I have to admit, I have a lot of information about politics and refugees and opinions and difficulties lodged in an Evernote notebook. There are interviews I conducted and resource links and daily journal entries filled to the brim with everything I can possible notice and remember. I’m still processing it, and I still don’t know exactly where MIT’s particular brand of ingenuity is going to fit into this complex landscape of humanitarians and refugees.

But I’m learning something here, amidst the gravel, the falafel, the smiling and frowning people whose language I don’t speak and past trauma I can’t imagine. Something about common humanity, about our relentless push forward as a species. Something about the worst that can happen to people, something about the best we can make of it. Something about how to learn without textbooks. Something about how to help however we can.

Entry 1: Ponderings from a Six-Hour Flight

The magnitude of my impending journey has been hitting me in increments. It’s one thing to sit in my dorm at MIT, swaddled in my comforter and searching up flights to Greece for January; it’s a whole different thing to be currently sitting in this little metal airplane cabin, swaddled in a Swiss Air comforter and being on a flight to Zurich (and then connecting to Greece!) in January.

My seat's got a great view.

My seat’s got a great view.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be living in Athens and the nearby town of Chalkida, investigating the Greek refugee crisis. For the latter two of those weeks, I’ll be working daily as a volunteer at the Ritsona refugee camp right outside of Chalkida. The overall goal is to try to understand the experiences both of being a refugee and of being a humanitarian worker at a refugee camp. Hopefully, with this knowledge will come ideas on how to improve the situation of one of the greatest global crises of the current times.

On one hand, my pursuit of the project is surprising to the people who know me. I’m a Course 8 and 18 (physics and math) major who dabbles in philosophy and writing every so often—where does the humanitarian nature fit in with all the ivory tower abstraction? On the other hand, maybe not. I used to write political op/ed in high school, and just because I don’t want to deal with the hustle and bustle of news journalism anymore doesn’t mean I don’t still have some strong moral opinions.

I think it was when I first writing op/ed that the refugee crisis started blowing up on the news. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say that it’s one of the largest global crises right now, certainly one that will have a transformative and lasting impact on Europe. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published that in 2014, there were 19.5 million displaced refugees and 1.8 million asylum seekers, most fleeing the Syrian Civil War but also many from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Kosovo. All of these individuals are bringing their own cultures, backgrounds, and stories to dye the complicated social fabric of Europe. When I first read about it, the news was closely covering the human suffering and political tensions involved, and rightly so.

As the news cycle does, the issue eventually was rotated out of the media’s attention, especially as domestic topics and the election of 2016 became noisier. But just because reporters stopped covering it doesn’t mean that thousands of people weren’t stranded in Greece anymore, waiting for admission to their new lives as policymakers bickered on just how to handle the influx of people. When my friend, Victoria Buckland, approached me about doing a volunteer project with her last spring, this was one of the first things that came to mind.

Speaking of Bucky—Bucky is the friend traveling and volunteering with me these next three weeks! She’s from Singapore, and currently taking a gap year to do a lot of passion project volunteering around the world. She’s the one who inspired me to pursue a project with PKG in the first place, and has honestly been such a godsend with organizing all the logistics of the trip. This is the first time we’ve seen each other since we first met each other at a camp 2.5 years ago.

Low quality image with some high quality friends!

Low quality image with some high quality friends!

So after half a year of planning, I’m finally on my way to Greece. I’m certainly nervous about a good share of things. I’m going to be exploring a touchy and politically charged topic in Greece—I’ve been told that the Europeans look at the refugee crisis much as the US views the illegal immigration issue. I’m going to be doing real humanitarian work for the first time ever and working with people who come from a lot of trauma. And though I speak English, French, and Mandarin fluently, the only Greek I’ve known previously were the variables in my physics and math psets.

But I’m very optimistic about gaining a lot from this trip. Being on the ground to help with the refugee crisis is an incredible opportunity that will give me experiential knowledge on the issue itself, which will hopefully translate into finding some sort of actionable to pursue. I also think volunteering at Ritsona will widen my understanding of the human condition as a whole. After all, refugee camps can be sites of great suffering, but also of great strength and hope.

I came to MIT to learn about and contribute to the world; this trip, I’m certain, will give me the chance to do both.

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