Reflections

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The photo above is a mural painted in a refugee camp in Athens. My world has been turned upside down since I first ┬ácame to volunteer in the refugee crisis in February 2016. I have learned more about people and their ability to thrive, not just survive. We are at our best when challenged not to be at our best. 2016 has been the year to push me to not do my best. I have been presented with challenges that, had it not been for the example of compassionate people all around me, would have done me in. But somehow the challenge to rise up out of myself for the greater good combined with living examples of how to do that, found me becoming a better human being. All the great spiritual traditions emphasise the path to deeper understanding lies within service to others and loss of self. Although I’ve known this from many years of Buddhist meditation, it’s one thing to know intellectually but another to live through the kind of change I’m describing. And it ain’t easy! But it is more worthwhile than I can describe in words alone. Try something new this year: step out of your comfort zone for just a moment and see what you can do to relieve someone else’s suffering. You don’t have to travel across the world to help others; there are opportunities in your own back yard.

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Human Rights

I thought it was time to write about my experience of working day in and day out with refugees in Athens, Greece and attempt to give voice to these vulnerable people. Humans fleeing war, terror, persecution, the Taliban and ISIL/Daesh ┬áhave no rights. None! I know someone who had to flee the Taliban in Afghanistan because he was a journalist. I know a female refugee who fled her country, Afghanistan, and her abusive husband; she was forced to marry at 14 and now has a 4 year old and a 2 1/2 year old. I have met people who have lost multiple family members to Assad’s bombs in Syria; they have seen and experienced things that would be too horrible for a horror movie. There are people suffering from significant mental illness forced to live in a tent on the pavement in the Port of Piraeus while the government decides where to send them. There is someone who slit her wrists only to have them bandaged without stitches and no referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist. I have helped get someone into a psychiatric hospital who was having a breakdown. There are children using nails, boards and sharp metal as toys. These same children throw rocks at each other and fight regularly. There are a number of large NGOs who spend more time having meetings than taking action. I have talked to no fewer than 5 organisations to find a social worker to follow a case of a refugee with significant mental illness. One refugee! How many more people are suffering from depression, trauma, anxiety disorders, sleep and eating disorders that we don’t even know about?

What is wrong with a world that doesn’t value human life if that life is apparently so different from theirs? What do you fear? Have you ever suffered? Lost a parent, a child, a job? How different are refugees? They’re not. They are us. They are doctors, dentists, actors, scientists, engineers, journalists, psychologists, writers, construction workers, truck drivers, farmers, and on and on. Europe has closed its borders thanks to a wave of rightwing anti-immigration politicians who spend more time sowing the seeds of fear rather than encouraging dialogue. Where is America when it needs to show compassionate leadership? What is the obsession with the self obsessed Donald Trump?

Wake up world!

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The adventure continues….

Where do I start? I’ve been living in Athens, Greece since April 15th after deciding to move here to volunteer with the refugees fleeing war and terror. In all my wildest dreams I never imagined being able to partake of such suffering and yet hopeful humanity! I have certainly known suffering both personally and in my long career as a psychotherapist but nothing remotely compares to my experiences here. I work in a refugee camp as a volunteer and am primarily responsible for helping distribute clothing donated from different countries in Europe. Because of my background, I have also assisted and will continue to assist with refugees in acute psychiatric distress. The camp, called Skaramangas just outside Athens, was erected by the military about 2 months ago in a former shipyard. They brought in “ISO boxes” similar to caravans or trailers. Each one has 2 rooms with 4 bunk beds and a bathroom. The residents are fed 3 meals a day by a military contractor. The food is very simple starch like macaroni or potatoes; not much nutritional value. They are not served and vegetables or fruit. There are a number of NGOs present to provide additional services such as the Spanish and Greek Red Cross and naval physicians for medical concerns, the Danish Refugee Council to provide more infrastructure, the UNHCR, Movement on the Ground, a Dutch NGO working with children and A Drop in the Ocean, a Norwegian NGO who do a variety of things including organising and helping with aid distribution and providing a safe space for nursing mothers and moms with young children. There are a number of others that would take too long to describe. The work in the camp is an incredible international collaboration amongst a widely diverse group of people, including the military. Our mission has only one purpose: to relieve the suffering of thousands of people fleeing war and terror. I am often overwhelmed with gratitude by the open hearted response to just a smile or hello by the camp residents; they are quite remarkable people. They continue to prove over and over the power of the human spirit! Please follow my updates and help support these amazing people.

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Refugees in Greece

I decided to come to Athens on Monday 15/2/16 as part of Aid Caravan to Greece, a non-profit started by Erika Mauritz in the Netherlands. Three of us came to support the Greek and other volunteers in supporting the Syrian refugees coming into Greece from Turkey. They arrive by ferry into Piraeus harbour from one of the Greek islands. A group of us gathered at one of the harbour gates Tuesday in preparation for the ferry. There is much to do: sorting clothes, building racks for supplies, preparing and organizing food to distribute. Early on Tuesday we found out there would be no refugees on the 08:00 ferry but there would be on the 10:00 ferry. As they disembarked, the first thing I was struck by was the amount of fear on their faces, despite our warm welcome. When offered a bag of diapers, for example, one woman kept walking until the volunteer let her know in Arabic they were free. That volunteer later explained that the Syrian mother was afraid there was a charge! They move fairly quickly to men awaiting them to drive them, by bus, to Macedonia where they begin the next phase of their journey: trying to get into Europe. There was another ferry in the afternoon with another small number of refugees, some of whom had to wait around while one of their group went to get money for the bus drivers. While they were waiting, Eluna and Corinne, two Aid Caravan volunteers, passed out little finger puppets to the children. It was truly amazing to see these kids play despite their trauma. The human spirit is quite miraculous! The Greek volunteers work tirelessly to help the refugees and ask nothing in return. True compassion if I’ve ever seen it! There was talk of refugees being held at the Turkish border as a result of some new information out of Nato, which explained the diminishment of their numbers. We shall see what tomorrow will bring.

 

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Refugees in Greece

I decided to come to Athens on Monday 15/2/16 as part of Aid Caravan to Greece, a non-profit started by Erika Mauritz in the Netherlands. Three of us came to support the Greek and other volunteers in supporting the Syrian refugees coming into Greece from Turkey. They arrive by ferry into Piraeus harbour from one of the Greek islands. A group of us gathered at one of the harbour gates Tuesday in preparation for the ferry. There is much to do: sorting clothes, building racks for supplies, preparing and organizing food to distribute. Early on Tuesday we found out there would be no refugees on the 08:00 ferry but there would be on the 10:00 ferry. As they disembarked, the first thing I was struck by was the amount of fear on their faces, despite our warm welcome. When offered a bag of diapers, for example, one woman kept walking until the volunteer let her know in Arabic they were free. That volunteer later explained that the Syrian mother was afraid there was a charge! They move fairly quickly to men awaiting them to drive them, by bus, to Macedonia where they begin the next phase of their journey: trying to get into Europe. There was another ferry in the afternoon with another small number of refugees, some of whom had to wait around while one of their group went to get money for the bus drivers. While they were waiting, Eluna and Corinne, two Aid Caravan volunteers, passed out little finger puppets to the children. It was truly amazing to see these kids play despite their trauma. The human spirit is quite miraculous! The Greek volunteers work tirelessly to help the refugees and ask nothing in return. True compassion if I’ve ever seen it! There was talk of refugees being held at the Turkish border as a result of some new information out of Nato, which explained the diminishment of their numbers. We shall see what tomorrow will bring.

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2015

I had no idea at the beginning of 2015 that I’d end up in the Netherlands and yet, here I am. Wow, New Year’s Eve in Holland…..with fireworks everywhere! As I reflect on this past year, I think about all I have to be grateful for. I am rich with friends and love beyond my wildest dreams. I got to travel with my wonderful daughter back in the spring and, thanks to her, discovered the joy of visiting new countries and meeting new people. I continued working on my doctoral dissertation (slowly). I’ve been off and out of work for the past 6 months giving me a long needed break. I’ve been studying and learning Dutch. But mostly, I’ve learned a great appreciation for what it means to have friends and community; I could never do this alone. Here’s to all my friends near and far: Happy New Year!

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Navigating in the rain.

90 days ago I left the US for the Netherlands. I wanted a change, to shake up my life, to travel, be closer to my daughter in Egypt, move to a country that I’ve longed to live in. So what’s it like? I certainly shook up my life, that’s for sure. I’ve changed just about everything about it. I’m learning a new language, how to get around in a new city, how the healthcare system works, what it takes to get a job , how to structure my day and, most importantly, how to navigate in the rain. Cycling in the rain is a great metaphor for my new life: I often don’t know where I’m going – learning to trust I’ll be okay, my rain suit makes it hard to see around me – old ideas that keep me stuck and unable to see, the rain and wind blowing in my face is both invigorating and frightening – invigoration is what I sought, fear was not…..it is the dark side of life that I usually avoid. It is truly an amazing experience and I am so grateful I get to do this!

 

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Dutch, Dutch and more Dutch!

It’s been awhile since I wrote and I know my huge number of followers are waiting with baited breath…..? So I’m studying Dutch: 4 days a week nearly 2 hours in class, an hour and a half daily with my friend and tutor and often another hour of study on my own. People say Dutch is difficult. Compared to what? Chinese? Farsi? Arabic? Portuguese? Spanish? Romanian? Those are the languages my classmates speak as well as English; although a couple of the Syrian men don’t even speak English! Of course, none of this takes away from the fact that I’m really struggling. I see why it’s so much easier for children to learn languages; their brains are so much more absorbent. A big part of the struggle is my expectations of myself: unrealistic to say the least. “I should be fluent by now. It’s been 60 days”! As I repeatedly hit the wall of expectations, I’ve begun to relax and give myself a break. This became very necessary after our mid term exam last week. I didn’t do very well and that was hard to look at. And having a graduate degree doesn’t help either. It’s the constant comparisons that wear me down; comparing myself to others and my younger self. So here’s to a new and better attitude: Chill! And I mustn’t forget my rain suit!

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Not quite two weeks in.

Wow! I’m living in Utrecht in The Netherlands. Where do I start? It’s an ongoing adventure from getting lost….. a lot, figuring out the bus system….not too hard, knowing where to buy what…..there are lots of shops everywhere, taking a course in Dutch……challenging but rewarding, navigating on my new used bicycle……a bit scary, figuring out which train to take……signs everywhere at the station, taking the train to Amsterdam……very smooth ride, meeting new Dutch friends at meetings……that’s very easy, loving the big changes I made…….a no brainer! Holland is quite a magical place to me. The Dutch are very warm and welcoming as well as progressive thinking. My Dutch teacher, in describing parts of speech and grammar, points out how the language is imbued with Dutch culture; always moving forward not back. It’s interesting to see what she means in actual practice. And she often describes the egalitarian attitude, which I see in everyday life. My Dutch class is quite international: Iran, China, Brazil, England, Syria and the US are represented. In just a week, I’ve learned a lot. She’s a good teacher who knows how to make the lessons fun and keep us from falling into despair……I’ve had a few moments of that. Anyone I’ve spoken to about learning the language has been very positive and supportive. I can’t wait to see what next week brings!

Goedenavond

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Day 2…… jet lag and Spiderman

So I took this homeopathic remedy called “No Jet lag” but I slept until 3:00 PM today, managed to shower, eat and walk around the neighborhood. By 7:00 tonight I was back asleep again. I would rename the product “Please Jet lag”. And if I get going on this blog, I should be back in bed within another 15 minutes. A few observations: there are bicycles everywhere; did I say everywhere? I thought so. I need to be on alert so as to not get hit by one. The streets are designed with cars, bikes and pedestrians in mind. But the streets are narrow leaving room for bikes and cars, while pedestrians must use their Spiderman powers to cling to and climb walls. I don’t mind…..in fact, I didn’t realize these powers laid dormant for all this time. It’s quite exciting! There’s a lovely park at the end of my block, Griftpark, with skateboard ramps, basketball courts, cycling areas, walls for pedestrians with Spiderman powers to climb, brooks for teenage girls to hang by, porta potties (what park is complete without one), runners running and people just relaxing in the sun. I dared to venture a few blocks away from my apartment paying careful attention to the trail of breadcrumbs I left behind – don’t like getting lost. It’s a great neighborhood! Very quiet and friendly.

Tomorrow I’ll go to city hall to “register” as a resident. Wish me luck! By the way, this is the staircase I use my webs to cling to while getting to the front door. Again, who knew Spiderman powers would come in so handy here in Holland!

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