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Little Lessons from Lesvos

From a little Greek island in the Aegean you can see Turkey. You can see, clear as day, the journey that well over 45 000 refugees have made since 2015 to reach “safety”, to seek asylum, a right every human has.

This is where I have spent the past month. These are the people I have been working with and supporting because I believe one simple thing:

That every human have the right to safety, the right to be free from persecution and the right to seek asylum. Every human. Without exception.

My time on this little island wasn’t heroic, I wasn’t involved in rescues or the distribution of essential items but I feel in my heart that the work I did was valuable, meaningful and indeed, perhaps even life changing. Why? Because when we work with children, we work with the future, we have a chance to offer an alternative narrative, a chance to share hope and to nurture resilience.

Go back just under a decade when my work with refugees started and I never dreamt I would find my calling working with the smallest refugees in the world, but this last month has solidified this belief in me. That working with kids is where I am my best me and when I am my best, I can give everything that I have.

But this isn’t about me today. This is about those little ones I worked with and shared with and laughed with and sang with over these 4 short weeks. So I want to tell you a few stories so you can also share in the beauty, simplicity and hope of my trip (because without you all, I couldn’t have done it).

Please note, the names have been changed for safety, privacy and respect.

Meet Asif

I want to tell you about Asif. Asif is 10 years old from Afghanistan. He is a bright young boy, especially when it comes to maths. When he is engaged and with us at school, Asif is a pure delight. He is eager to lead an activity, always wanting to sing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes as fast as he can. He has a little brother whose smile lights up the room, so does Asif’s when we get to see it. But he also struggles with his anger, and many times I watched it take over him and he just checked out. Anger is a hard thing to see in a child and Asif continually reminded me where these big emotions come from. They are coping mechanisms. For Asif, they are a response to the things this little boy has witnessed that I can’t begin to imagine. This anger doesn’t define him and he doesn’t want it. So Asif pushed me to try to address it, in as many creative ways as I could. He taught me a lot, Asif. In my second-last week we started talking about emotions. We named them. We acted them out. We identified that everyone feels them. But I think the biggest lesson for both me and Asif came on our second-last day of the program, when I got angry. When I let my emotions get he better of me. After spending hours filled with guilt and sadness over this reaction, I knew that it offered me a chance to do something important. The next morning, I made a little card for Asif. I took him aside with our interpreter and explained to him that I had made a mistake. That I got angry and I shouldn’t have and I was so very sorry. I asked if he thought he could forgive me, and with a little smile and a hand shake he said he did. Asif may have never had an adult apologise to him before. I wanted him to know that we all make mistakes and we all get angry. But that there are ways to manage it and to make amends. My biggest lesson from this little boy… be fair, be honest, be humble. I will hold him in my heart forever for this lesson (and many more) and I wish him all the peace and happiness in his life.

Meet Parvana

Now I’d like you to meet Parvana. Parvana is 8. Her 6 year old sister, Vahida and her left a lasting mark on me for more reasons than I could put into words here. They live in the Olive Grove, this is the overflow of Moria Camp. It is an “illegal” camp on private land so they aren’t able to get any electricity and they live in tents. During my time on the island it rained, and when I say it rained, I mean it poured like the monsoon. These children came to school soaked to the bone on many occasions. They were tired, sick and cold. No one, especially not children, but no human should be living in these conditions. For me, I knew that having these girls in school meant that for 3 hours every day they were safe and warm. And I hope, with every ounce of my being, that that helped in some small way. But Parvana played an important role in my time on the island for many other reasons. One was because I had an opportunity to talk with her quite a lot. She got angry and often so very upset, but when this happened we were still able to connect on a basic level. About a week into my time there, she had been sent to sit by herself after a big argument with Asif. I sat with her, trying to comfort this distressed little girl. We did some breathing together (an exercise that needs no language), we made rhythms by squeezing each other’s hands and we warmed our hands by rubbing them together and then placing them on our face (an exercise sometimes practiced at the end of a yoga class). These 3 little activities were designed to bring her back to her body, to reconnect with the present moment rather than replaying an “unfair” fight over and over in her head. And she did it. Fast forward about 2 weeks and another argument unfolded. I took her aside with our interpreter and asked if she could remember what we had practiced those weeks before. She knew the exercises, every one of them. We talked about anger and reacting and being strong and walking away. I asked her if she thought she could try something the next time she was getting angry, to take 3 breaths, walk away, find me and hold my hands. In this way I would understand, without words, what had happened. A few hours later in class, the kids were working on a craft project, making butterflies from The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Another girl in the class said something to Parvana, something that clearly upset her. I watched from a distance as anger rose on her little face, she looked at her butterfly, took 3 deep breaths and continued with her work. What a privilege to share these moments with these children. Managing our emotions is something we learn and something we can practice and in just a few short week I saw changes in these kids' capacity to notice and manage these feelings. The lesson here? Aside from the fact that children are amazing? When we talk to them and listen to what they have to say and how they feel, we put ourselves in a position to offer them support, to come up with solutions and to build connections, that as we know are the way to healing.

Meet Vahida

Finally, I want to introduce you to Parvana’s little sister, Vahida. A shining light. Vahida picked up a new word or song in seconds. I watched how a little brain soaks up its surroundings, how it learns and grows and blossoms. Vahida was the youngest in class. It is a challenge to have a 6 year old in the same class as a 13 year old but again, for these children, they had safety for those few hours every day and they were very welcome there, as they are. I came to know Vahida quite well because she also attended another program the organisation offered called Mini Drops. This is a safe space for women and children every evening at the centre. The children can play while their mums knit or paint their nails or make jewellery. Vahida and Parvana regularly came to Mini Drops where we built lego, we painted and of course, we sang our favourite songs from school. Vahida often didn’t want to join certain activities in class, but I came to know that if I picked her up and started singing the Hokey Pokey, she’d be with me in a heartbeat. This little one just needed to be seen. She reminded me that sometimes children are lost in a traumatic story. Their parents are so busy queueing up for food, water, toilets, showers. (Refugees in Moria Camp spend an average of 9 hours a day in queues. Yes, that is what I said. Unfathomable). Parents are doing the very best they can to take care of themselves and their families, but children often lose the chance to be children. This is why being part of an organisation that prioritised child-friendly spaces was so inspiring and important for me. And that is exactly what little Vahida got, a chance to be a 6 year old. To sing and dance and paint. To make a mess. And my hope, is that this little one will have these memories forever. The memories of If You’re Happy and You Know It, the memories of watercolours and lego and nail polish. And not the memories of the Olive Grove or the boat journey to the island. This is my hope.

There are many other little ones I could introduce you to today, but you will meet them with time. For now, I wish these small tales to be a reminder that when we talk about refugees, this is who we are talking about. When we read that there are 68.5 million displaced people around the world, that 25.4 million of these are refugees and over half of those are under the age of 18, these are their stories. Asif, Parvana and Vahida are 3 of these children. They are 6, 8 and 10 years old. They have fled war and persecution and are now trapped on an island in the most inhumane conditions, “the worst refugee camp in the world”. But beyond all of this, they are children. So when our politicians and the media tell us lies about those who want to come to “our” countries, know that you have met who they really are and that like all children they deserve safety, peace and love and we have an obligation to offer this in whatever way we can.

A little note on goodbyes... I've come accustomed to saying goodbye over the years. But when there is such love, hope and beauty it gets hard to leave. This program welcomed 14 of the 2500 children in Moria Camp. These 14 children taught me so much about life, about compassion, about safety, about patience and about love. These children symbolise all the children around the world who have had to flee. And so I take with me, not sadness that my time has come to an end, but enormous gratitude that I have been privileged to share some time with these children. They will come with me into my next project, and the one after that, so that I can continue learning and growing and doing the work that I do to serve these little lives.

Keep an eye on my social media (below) to read more lessons from Lesvos. I will be sharing about the yoga classes with women, about our “resident artist” in class and about what some other amazing organisations are doing on the island.

If you still want to contribute, my fundraising page remains open for my return in the new year. In January and February I will be working in Izmir, Turkey (on the other side of that little stretch of water) and then from March I’ll be back on Lesvos for another 3 months.

Click here to donate.

I spent this past month with A Drop in the Ocean a wonderful organisation dedicated to filling the gaps for refugees in 4 locations around Greece. Want to support them and their work? Check out their website.