Be Where You Are

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“Don’t add too much water because you don’t want it to be too watery. You don’t want to lose all the taste that you are trying to build,” my grandmother Anna says as she stirs the vegetable soup. Her soup, like everything else she crafts in her kitchen, is delicious. My grandfather George laughs and adds, “You know…you can always add salt to make things taste better!” You can hear all the background noise. The knob of the kitchen screen door slightly touching the white wall whenever a sunny breeze flies through the room. My grandfather brushing the cotton placemat with his crispy fingertips as he listens to the radio. His loud breathing.

This is from my first recording. A couple of years ago, I was pinched by a fresh impulse to keep records of conversations that I have in Greece and listen to them while I am away from home. The biggest chunk of my collection consists of lunch conversations or afternoon chatting as I lay on the beach with my siblings. Some of them are just recordings of background clutter: the sleek sound of my younger sister flipping the pages of the book she’s reading, the olive tree branches grooming the windows of my bedroom early in the morning, my mom washing the dishes. Sound is my favorite sense. As much as I love pictures and the visual pleasure of looking at old photos, I miss voices and sounds the most.

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This summer was like no other. As I was crossing the street to go to the beach one day, a jeep rushed out of the private road of my house. On the car, I read “ERCI: EMERGENCY RESPONSE CENTRE INTERNATIONAL.” As most people living on the island of Lesvos are Greek, I was very puzzled and wondered how there were English-speaking people living so close to my home. Later that day, I watched the same car pull up in the private pathway and park outside a neighboring house. I read the letters on the car once again. “ERCI: EMERGENCY RESPONSE CENTRE INTERNATIONAL.” Eager to find out what this was, I researched the organization and found out that it is a Greek, non-profit community of volunteers that help alleviate the refugee crisis.

The first person I met from the volunteering group was Ahmed, a kind young man with a unique sense of humor who welcomed me in their group so warmly. Our work involved long night shifts from 8 PM to 8 AM on the beach where we waited for refugee boats from Turkey to arrive. We provided first response humanitarian aid or medical services with the help of doctors in our team. ERCI had its own boat that would patrol the Aegean along with the Greek coastguard as well as two cars that we would use to pick up or drop off volunteers at different shifts.

The community, though small, was incredibly diverse. The only Greek person (other than myself) was Nassos, the team leader and backbone of our mission – undoubtedly one of the most responsible and principled men I have ever met. Everyone else was international: Erik is Swedish, Ane is Norwegian, Helena is Chinese-American, Gemma is Spanish, Francesco is Italian.

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While going through my recordings, I found one named “Ava.” Ava is an Afghani woman who volunteers with ERCI, and I had the pleasure of sharing shifts with her a few times. Since our shifts were so long, we would all talk for a while so that we could stay awake and be alert for boats arriving. Each of us would share a story, and the recurring theme of discussion was the refugee crisis. Since I was the newest member, Ava shared her ERCI experiences with me. She told me about a child she met at the camp where the Greek coastguard takes the refugees after they have arrived safely on shore.

“He said his mom was killed. I was so devastated, and I couldn’t stop crying. He said his mom was killed by the Taliban. And then I see this girl, about your age, come up to me and say, ‘You speak Farsi?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ then we start talking. She said the situation is getting so bad in Afghanistan. She goes home after school one day and found her mom shot in the head. She didn’t know what to do. She looked for her sister and couldn’t find her. She started crying, and I started crying with her. Then her father, he managed to get them out, and they went to Iran. It’s a long story but to make it short, the Taliban threatened to kill his daughter if he didn’t join the Taliban. So he paid smugglers to flee the country. He had to sell everything he owned to do this. When they went to Iran, his son disappeared. He was asking the smugglers where his son is but they said you will either come with us or we will leave you behind. What happens a lot of the time when they steal boys is they take their kidneys or they sell them into prostitution. He is so depressed now. He had to make that choice: whether to stay in Iran or cross the border and save his other children. They lied to him and told him they will find his son when they go to Turkey. So they went to Turkey and crossed the water and they almost drowned but they made it.”

The sacrifices people make for a better future and for the ones they love are truly remarkable, inspiring, and real. These refugees risk everything they have to leave their home behind. Most of them lose all of their paperwork when they try to cross borders. They leave their bedrooms, phones, bracelets, favorite corner of their house, their notes on classes they have taken, their cups, even their family, everything. They leave every thing, every material and every non-material thing to survive, to move on and be happy far from home. Everything.

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As I listen to my grandmother’s voice on the recording that I kept from our lunch, I cannot help but think of the work and hardship my grandparents have been through, as immigrants, for me to be able to attend a university in the United States, where I get to meet incredibly intelligent and witty people and friends that I love. Where I get to pick up a book about anything that interests me, be that jazz music or the evolution of viral diseases, and read it. How lucky I am to have a choice. How lucky I am to be able to choose to leave my family in Greece in order to be here. How lucky I am to be homesick for two homes now.

Really taste the soup when you eat it. Savor the conversations you have. Make people you love feel loved around you. Hug them with all your energy. Experience everything completely. Breathe in the air and let it fill up your lungs and warm your entire body. Be where you are. You are lucky. You are very lucky.

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