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On the Ground in Leros, Greece

At 67, heading into the thick of a refugee crisis seemed an odd thing to have on my bucket list. But it kept rising to the top—beyond going to the Galapagos, spending a month in silence, or visiting the temples of Myanmar.

It is raw here. Visceral. Without the filters of TV and computer screens, the complex challenges of “the refugee crisis” is embodied in each person I meet and in all those I pass, sleeping on the sidewalk, huddled with their families and friends and those trying, through whatever means, to advocate for themselves and their families.

I try to feel the weave of desperation and unstoppable bravery and determination that the people I meet embody. I try to imagine handing over the money that may be all I have, or all I could borrow or beg, and then loading my husband, my three children and my elderly mother into an unsafe raft, knowing that many have died in the journey we are about to embark on.

I imagine trying to help steer a raft in the direction of an island in the dark of night with waves as high as six feet, threatening to sink us. I try to feel that instinctual moment when I jump into the black water with the other men and push the women and children to the center, and try to keep the boat from swamping, praying that we will somehow survive.

I try to imagine being the women I meet—the one whose labor started on the boat and blessedly made it to land and medical attention just in time. I heard it was a boy. The other who miscarried the night she arrived, whose name I never learned. Assil and her cousin, Reema, each have infants under a month. Kamar has brought her six year old son with a brain tumor that must be operated on. I try to imagine being in my late 70’s, unwell and having never left the village I was born in but now following my insistent son into the unknown, knowing I will never see my home again.

The Syrians—not the Iraqis, Afghans or those from Etria and Somalia—are the only legally recognized asylum seekers here. Yet, even the Syrians have no guarantee of getting to the coveted Germany...or anywhere in Europe.

FRONTEX registers the refugees when they first arrive. The agency has two translators who know over 30 Arabic dialects. Their real job is to determine who is actually Syrian and who is not.

The Iraqis are often angry that they, whose country the US—with the help of the Multi-National Force—completely destabilized, leading to the rise of fundamentalist terrorists, are now telling them they are not legitimate refugees.

I have a mediator’s perspective and know that no single truth is ever the truth. Yet I find some bizarre twist of logic in saying that their exodus is just because they want jobs and economic opportunity. The Iraqis I speak to are fleeing to avoid the very real risk of being murdered for their more moderate view of Islam, or of being forced to join ISIS, or because their economic opportunity has been destroyed by US intervention and the fracturing that has occurred since we tried and failed to assert our will.

These are hopeless and displaced young men without a future. They understandably blame the West, especially the US, for creating the conditions they are now enduring. They are angry and it is easy to understand how they might be radicalized.

Abdul is 18 and has received his registration papers. He has a four-day wait before his boat to Athens, and he has volunteered to help us get supplies for those who are not yet free to move around. I talk to him while the water slowly fills the 20 gallon plastic container.

“Are you with your family?” I ask.

“My family is dead” he says sharply. “Killed by ISIS. Everyone. Gone.” “I am so sorry.” Useless words, but all I have.

He shrugs and turns back to the water.

“I am not sad” he says over his shoulder. “I believe in God’s will. It was their time so why should I be sad. It is not worth a minute of my thoughts.”

I try to absorb this—I am sure my own faith would be full of holes and leaking blood. I want to understand.

“Abdul, would you be willing to tell me what happened? Your story is important.”

“Why,” he asks, giving me barely half his face.

I am on thin ice.

“So I can tell people in America what is happening.”

He laughs and throws back his head, in that sarcastic withering teenaged way—the way that lets me know he thinks I’m a total idiot and that any good intentions I may have are crap. He is likely right.

“Why should I say anything? Everyone knows. It’s in the headlines every day. No one cares about us. They have left us alone. No one cares about us.”

He lifts the heavy container and walks to the car.

Now I am the one with nothing to say. We ride back to the Port Police compound in silence. That night he is gone on the ferry to Athens and whatever difficult future lies ahead.

This article was first published in the Huffington Post, September 21, 2015. Copyright Judith Ansara.

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