It’s been quite a while since the last time we talked; I’m really sorry and I apologise for my absence. I think that happened partly because I went back to a semi-stable life back home (on the short term, of course, do you really think I could stay still here?) and dove back into the metropolitan life of Milan, even if experiencing a completely new and unexpectedly surprising adventure in the city. On the other hand, if I have to tell you (and myself) the truth, it’s due to the fact that writing a few words on my last experience in Greece has been genuinely tough; going back to that country and work in the same field as I did when this “journey” started has brough back to the surface extremely intense sensations and thoughts which were and are sometimes related to traumas I haven’t completely gone through yet. I leave you now to my words, filled up with everything that this experience gave to me and with something I’ve been bringing along with and within me for the past few years now; I’m sure this will also help me to understand everything better.
The ringtones of our phones fill up the silence of the room with their loud noise. We quickly wake up, I grab my phone and simultaneously check the time and read the text we’ve just received.
It’s half past four in the morning.
Still not completely awake, I put on my clothes, I grab my personal badge, water, a few biscuits and the keys and we head a bit nervously to the van waiting for us parked outside and full of everything we’ll need to reach the landing site. We get a couple of other texts from the leader of team which tonight is in charge of the assistance of people landing by sea on the shores of Chios island from Turkey, bringing some water, food and dry clothes. The landing took place on the north; “they’re probably Somalis” I think, and turning my look at Laura who’s sitting next to me giving indications and updating me on the landing, I come across her look which seems to perfectly read my thoughts. Long breath and eyes back to the road which unfolds along the coast of this breathtaking island with the background noise of this battered van that sometimes can be a bit of pain in the ass but in the end, I kind of love.
A heavy silence is filling the van and a few rays of sunshine shyly pass through the windows, but I swear I can almost hear our thoughts frantically running after each other. We don’t talk, it seems like the weight of the situation prevents letters to take the shape of words. I find it very difficult to explain what was going on in my mind in those moments, always different from one another despite the recurring scheme: a mix of concern, desolate discouragement, hundreds of faces crowded together in my mind and then the images(/scenes) of past experiences, of ones I just dreamt of and of others I’ve listened to in someone else’s tails. Every blink of my eye brings a new frame that freezes so intensely on my mind like a slide show of my thoughts. Then thousands of questions start whirl in my head; doubts concerning what we were doing, how we were doing it, what was right and what was wrong, doubts about the situation on the island, in Greece and in this strange world;
Every time I blink my eyes the image that is fixed so intensely in my head changes as in a slides show. Then hundreds of questions about what we were doing, about how we were doing it, about what was right and what didn’t, on the small island, in Greece and in this strange world; and therefore that close to the heart, almost a void, the skip of a beat (which still comes back to me every now and then) when I realized the inability, the complexity, the injustice, the difficulty despite the passionate will, the frustration and the pain, all concentrated in that leap of heart beat. I look for her gaze and her hand rests on mine as I try to put that third gear that never wants to work at the first try. I calm down with the light of the dawn illuminating the crazy beautiful landscape of this Greek island, and, in an almost religious, shared and very intimate silence, we get ready, let go of everything, thoughts, worries, tiredness and the accumulated stress and we begin to prepare for the work that we’ll have to do soon.
I metaphorically pick up the keyboard of my laptop to write to you, when many months have already passed since I returned from Chios, a small Greek island on the border with Turkey, where I worked with CESRT, a local association that deals, with the support of the German NGO Offene Arme, with first assistance in the landing of migrants together with the medical team of SMH and the port police. In addition to the landings assistance, the association carries out recreational activities with children in the only refugee camp on the island three times a week, manages a warehouse where it receives donations and purchases clothes for assistance in landings as well as collaborating with other warehouses in the neighboring islands of Samos and Lesvos; moreover, the association runs a daily center near the camp where about a hundred students receive language lessons and carry out other activities.
It has been an intense month as always, as hectic as it can be, spent working with an association of a few volunteers, always running here and there trying to foresee and plan and always repairing any unexpected events. It was also a month full of joys, of encounters and exchanges, of discussions and conversations, an important month that also launched me towards the new year in Milan, a month of images flowing in front of my eyes as I write. It was also a difficult month because returning to Greece, where for me it all started in 2016, inevitably threw me in the face a reality, that of assistance to migrants and refugees, which moves at extremely slow speed with a few pauses and even a few steps back. It has been a month that has reopened many doors inside me and also some wounds, and never like in this month, from the exact moment I set foot in the field where we did the activities with the children, I relived moments, situations and emotions of that first time which I admit that I still have to deal well with.
The service that CESRT performs is fundamental; it is in fact the only association that (always cooperating with the medical team) is responsible for providing a first assistance service 24 hours a day and 7 days a week to migrants who disembark on the island, whether they are transported to the port by the patrol boats of the border police, or whether they land directly with rubber boats on the various beaches of the island, from north to south. The volunteers who carry out the other functions and activities during the day are organized in teams of about 6 people who, in rotation, take turns on call for landings every morning during the meeting with all the others around 8 am. This way there is always a team ready to answer police calls while at the same time the other volunteers carry out the activities at the language center and manage the warehouse.
We arrive at the landing spot, where we have been before, and we find the car waiting for us with the team leader and the other volunteers. While the medical team is doing the first routine checks, it’s time for us to get everything ready for our distribution. I pull the handbrake and turn the key. Here we are. Again. Everyone is assigned their own role and we immediately move, each one knowing what to do. The side door of the van is open and we begin to arrange on the ground the various bags containing the ready-made packs of clothes divided by gender, size and, in the case of children, even by age group. Men and women S, M, L, XL, XXL; male and female adolescents; male and female children aged 6 to 12 with a section for larger sizes and one for smaller ones and the same for children aged 2 to 5; babies from 0 to 24 months; special packages for pregnant women, shoes if needed, games for children and finally water and snacks for everyone (also suitable for the numerous diabetics we always assist) as well as emergency and warmer blankets. Everything is ready and organized and I think of the thousands of hours of work in the warehouse to prepare all the different packages, measure the sizes, sort the donations and rearrange everything. As soon as the medical team gives us the okay, a couple of people begin to distribute water to everyone while the other two proceed with the snacks and then begin distributing the packs of clothes under the guidance and following the instructions of the volunteer who manages the team.
Wait, I forgot something.
When we arrive at the beach the medical team informs us that many of the people who have just landed are completely soaked and very cold. We need blankets. A bit of back and forth with the police to be able to start distributing at least the blankets even if the medical team has not finished yet and only after a bit of insistence can we proceed.
In the meantime, one of the nurses tells us that we absolutely have to make room for one of the women who gave birth only a few days before, just before getting on that boat. In the hospital? I strongly doubt it. We empty the van completely and make room for the mother with the baby so that they can find some peace and receive better assistance. Ah, maybe I forgot to tell you that the medical team does not have an ambulance, they can call one only in case of emergencies, being just one and dedicated to the whole island.
We move quickly among the people sitting more or less neatly in the square of the small port, trying to understand if anyone needs something in particular, respectfully looking for a gaze of understanding that breaks the barriers that separate us. Sometimes I try to imagine, well aware of not being able to really realize it, what it might feel like to be on the other side. I imagine the tiredness of a journey that must have seemed infinite, I imagine the fear of what has passed and of what is to come, I imagine the distrust and fear of the police, of doctors, and of these guys who move with their fast distributing one thing after another. I imagine the confusion of not understanding what is happening, the frustration of not wanting and not being able to ask for help, the anger, the relief, the pain.
We try to be tactful and treat each person with the utmost dignity, this is a top priority, but at the same time we must do it as quickly as possible because we know that the police bus will arrive soon to transport everyone to the camp and certainly will not wait for us to be done distributing everything before leaving. The bus is always the same, at every landing. About 25/30 seats, no more, and obviously never enough for the people present, but, despite that, for some reason it can never make more than one trip to the camp so everyone has to go up and if all seats are taken well , whoever remains has to stand for the whole trip. Thus, crammed into what has very little different from the trucks for transporting animals that we occasionally cross on the highway, the newly disembarked people are transported to Vial refugee camp to proceed with the identification and registration.
The situation on the island of Chios and in its camp has worsened disastrously in recent months, as I imagine some of you will already know or have quickly heard on the news. It cannot be said that it has ever been idyllic but, as for the neighboring islands of Lesvos and Samos, these last months have left an indelible mark on the lives of refugees, of the inhabitants of the island and on the island itself, creating wounds that won’t heal. Just a few numbers to give you an idea (the numbers vary continuously but the orders of magnitude are more or less the same, forgive me for the inaccuracies): the field was designed to accommodate about a thousand people, at the moment it hosts about 6 thousands; 1 doctor available for the entire camp, 2 psychologists, water available every other day or only at certain times, electricity practically non-existent. I think that the discrepancy between the number of people present and those expected at the time of construction of the camp can make you imagine the condition of the latrines and the sewage system; obviously also the availability of tents is always inadequate as well as the physical space that can be occupied. In short, with all my lucidity and with all the critical spirit that I can gather, I would sum it up with: “a disaster”. As I always say: if they don’t arrive already traumatized by the journey done so far, I can only be sure that they will not leave the island without psychological and psychic trauma; in addition to the physical ones of course. No, I’m not exaggerating.
Everyone has been “accommodated” on the bus and it is now heading to the camp. The tension subsides a little and we take a moment to rest and eat something. We refill the big bags with what is left over on the van and we start cleaning the area. The group leader takes stock of the situation, jots down two numbers on what we have distributed and communicates them to the director of the association who will certainly be in the warehouse by now. Some of the team’s volunteers fill big bags with all the life jackets abandoned at the landing site, sometimes dry and sometimes soaked in water. It is not easy. Sometimes I realize that many of the actions we perform repeatedly during landings seem now obvious to us, part of a routine that we repeat almost mechanically, with attention but also with a certain detachment; I think it is a way to subconsciously protect oneself from those gestures and images that are nothing less than small traumas even for us who work. Sometimes, however, you are collecting yet another life jacket, as you have done a thousand times before, and you get stuck; you look around, you return with your eyes to that soaked jacket, and you realize what has just happened, it is as if suddenly you are overwhelmed with an impressive force by the unstoppable wave of the reality of things; all thoughts and images are concentrated in a gigantic boulder that rests on the pit of your stomach; you have trouble breathing, you don’t understand, you feel helpless, angry, you feel like crying. Breathe. Breathe. You look for the gaze of someone next to you, for a smile, a joke that will help you to get back on your feet and leave that gigantic boulder on the ground. You know well though, that it will come back.
I walk around with my black sack and pick up a few packs of brioche, a few bottles, some other rubbish and some soaked clothes abandoned after disembarkation; it always makes me feel weird to pick up those clothes. I go around a bit alone, to digest what has just happened, I exchange a few words with the others and every now and then I approach someone to see if everything is okay. I take two more steps and there it is. Damn dinghy. Every time I think “ah next time it won’t make such an impression on me” or “aaah next time it won’t even deserve a glance” or “come on Davide we have already seen some stuff, it’s not the end of the world”. But no, damn dinghy abandoned after landing. Every time we find eachother face to face I stop, I scan it, I analyze it: the cuts repaired with electrical tape, the swollen and deflated parts, pieces of food, pieces of clothing, sometimes the remains of a journey that forces you for hours, the usual stench, that mix of plastic, sea water and a host of other smells. I watch. It stares at me. Here we go again, I can’t help it and I begin to try to put all the people we have helped into it; I imagine them, I try to move them a little, to squeeze them, to press them a little but never once I manage to fit them all. How is it possible that they were all together on this boat? How?
I wait for the group leader and we start cutting it into pieces and then throw it in the nearby bin. The end.
We get back in the car and I restart the van. The return trip is a bit of a mix of emotions that depends on how the landing went, how we feel and the thoughts of the moment. The tension has given way to other milder emotions, some positive and some negative. We exchange a few words and try to pull ourselves together a bit as we head towards the warehouse; it is half past six so once we arrive we will eat something and stop directly to start the day and change shifts. Coffee, sandwich. We arrive and empty the car and the van and then reload them with the new stuff ready in the warehouse. 7:00 am. The sun warms the entrance to the warehouse, we arrange the bags a bit, have a chat and wait for the other volunteers to join us. I close the squeaky trunk of the van and breathe a sigh of relief thinking “this too is done” and at that precise moment our phones ring in unison.
“Fuck”, I think.
We get back on the road.
I’ve been back home for some time now and I’ve already left for another trip, after a few months of more or less forced stop during which a thousand other things have happened to me; but picking up this document and reopening this drawer in my head overwhelmed me a bit. It is not that at the end of each experience I close everything somewhere and forget about it, on the contrary, I think that now even more than before all these experiences are part of my daily life, and I go back to them very often for a reason or for the other, on purpose or not; but writing about it and getting lost in it always turns me upside down.
I realize that despite the length of what I wrote there would be a thousand things I would like to tell you, episodes that I would like to tell you, emotions and thoughts.
I would like to tell you about the activities with the children in the camp;
I would like to tell you about the faces that I met on landings;
I would like to tell you about my life with the other volunteers, about the people I met;
I would like to talk to you about what I thought, about the ideas I had and the reflections alone or in company;
I would like to tell you about my fear;
I would like to talk to you about how my life has changed again this time, about the pain, the fragility and the joy and immense love that I felt;
I would like to tell you about the horrors of that camp, about the violence, the rapes, the traumas of which, unfortunately, we have no idea at home.
There will be a moment to have a chat, I hope, and maybe I will pick up this chapter again for a small “second part”, but now I can only be happy to have shared a small piece of this indescribable experience with you. Every time I write I imagine being face to face with you who are reading, and every time I hope that my words turn on a little light in your head, that something moves inside you as well as it moves inside me. I do not pretend to move planets, I ask you to keep that light on, to think about it every now and then, to take me with you and to remind you that there is something else out there that we often cannot even imagine but that we must, must, consider.
There is something else out there.
See you soon,