Searching for happiness in camp Moria

This post is written by Martijn R Hofman, a psychologist in the humanitarian field.

DW-camp-Moria

The ‘exit-gate’ in the fence surrounding Camp Moria on the Greek Island of Lesbos. Source: DW/Dimitri Tosidis

Preface

Last year, Janneke Woudstra and I, both mental health professionals, friends and colleagues at the Dutch mental health organisation the Parnassia Group, worked for several weeks for the Boat Refugee Foundation as volunteers to provide psychological aid to the refugees that are living in camp Moria (Lesbos, Greece). Based on our experiences I wrote a personal essay called “Searching for happiness in camp Moria.”

At the time I wrote this essay, the world still seemed a “normal place.” Now, almost a year after our visit to refugee camp Moria, the world has changed. No one had heard of the Coronavirus or COVID-19 a year ago. Now, the virus has put our lives on this planet “on hold”, with disastrous health and economic consequences for many. At the same time, hopefully it is making many of us more aware of our lifestyles’ deleterious effects on our planet, and the importance of solidarity and good health for all. As is often the case with natural- or man-made disasters, vulnerable groups—such as people who have been uprooted and are living as “migrants” or “refugees”—are most heavily impacted both directly and indirectly by this global pandemic.

A personal essay on searching for happiness in a refugee camp seems, from the new context in which we are all living nowadays, somehow irrelevant as everyone focuses on survival—in its most basic sense, on staying alive. Honestly speaking, I don’t think surviving is the only important thing now. Especially in times of hardship such as this, our human search for happiness still comes to the fore. Suddenly, it becomes even more apparent that happiness is not to be found in individual goals, rather we find it in joining with others toward common goals. In knowing that we share our lives on this planet with each other, and that we are all in a way responsible for each other. Happiness is grounded on the principle of solidarity.

For this reason, I am convinced that the essay I wrote last year is perhaps even more valuable nowadays. I hope it will inspire you.

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As a colleague and I are walking up the road, we pass two young women  walking arm in arm. They are dressed fashionably and laughing as they look at their mobile phones, completely fitting into the bustling, international street life of the Netherlands, where my colleague and I are from. Yet we are not in Amsterdam; we are in Moria, a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, where these young women live as refugees alongside many other people from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. They have just passed through an “exit-gate”— essentially a hole in the large fence that encircles the camp.

I am a psychologist from the Netherlands. A couple of months ago, I provided psychosocial support as part of the Dutch Boat Refugee Foundation’s community team in camp Moria. Originally a military base, with the accompanying excess of fencing and barbwire, it has been used to house people arriving in Greece as refugees since 2015. The camp population is currently estimated to fluctuate around 20,000, well over its capacity of 3,000.

As a psychologist, I was interested in observing how happiness is experienced by those living in the camp. I had come to camp Moria with my own Continue reading

Old Contenders

This post is by Adam Tousley, who recently worked for an INGO in northern Iraq. Adam previously wrote about his work in Northern Rakhine State in this post.

A. Tousley (2019) Flying Man Pic (I took this picture of the Flying Man Statue outside Baghdad International Airport)

Statue of Abbas ibn Firnas, the first man to fly in 875 BC. The statue is located outside of Baghdad International Airport, Iraq. Photo by Adam Tousley.

“Must you have battle in your heart forever? The bloody toil of combat? Old contender…”

– Odyssey 12:132f, Fitzgerald

Homer’s Odyssey, written around 750 BC, is one of the first known written works that tells of the “psychologically injured” veteran who returns from war and fails to adapt to society. A man named Odysseus, which means “man of enmity”, endures both Trojan War and a decade of grueling travel before finding his way home.  If you’ve read this story, you’re aware his homecoming was anything but peaceful.  This perception of the psychologically wounded veteran permeates into today’s society.  Millions of government dollars and countless non-profits exist to provide counseling and pharmaceuticals to help veterans re-integrate.

Some international humanitarian organizations buy into this perception by denying jobs to applicants who are qualified candidates with military backgrounds, due to the humanitarian principle of neutrality. I, a veteran of the U.S. Army, have been turned down three times because of my military background.  On this Veteran’s Day holiday in the U.S., I want to challenge the perception of the veteran written by Homer in the 8th century, and make the case that veterans returning to places of conflict is healing for themselves and for the citizens of the conflict-affected countries in which they are working.

Dave Hansen is a U.S. veteran of the war between the U.S. and Vietnam, having served as a med-evac pilot in the Khe Sanh Combat Base. On June 4, 1971, Dave was called to emergency evacuate a team of U.S. Army Special Forces from Hill 950 (just N. of Khe Sanh Airfield).  Amidst an intense firefight within an enclosed area being overrun by Continue reading

A Series of Facts about Edith Wharton, for Aid Workers. Postscript.

This post is written by Rachel Unkovic, an aid worker, artist and oral historian. This is the final post in a serial, to follow along read:

…the first post here

…the second post here

…and the third post here.

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A Series of Facts about Edith Wharton, for Aid Workers.

Postscript.

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35.) Edith Wharton was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for literature for The Age of Innocence. She was the first woman in the history of the prize to win one. Continue reading

A Series of Facts about Edith Wharton, for Aid Workers. Part III.

This post is written by Rachel Unkovic, an aid worker, artist and oral historian. This is the third post in a serial, you can read the first post here and the second one here.

Edith_Wharton_with_soldiers

Edith Wharton with WWI soldiers. Source: The US WWI Centennial Commission website

A Series of Facts about Edith Wharton, for Aid Workers.

Part III

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27.)  I read The Age of Innocence in the summer of 2013, while working at the AkçakaleTal Abyad border crossing.

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28.) The Age of Innocence is not about war, yet Edith wrote it after experiencing a war.

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29.) The Age of Innocence is not violent or cruel, like its predecessor, The House of Mirth, yet Edith wrote it after witnessing violence. She wrote it after seeing the impact of human cruelty on the bodies of women, men and children. From the war, Edith—an expat, always more privileged, always safer—didn’t shrink into cynicism but grew her own capacity for generosity.

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30.) One day in late August 2013, I was curled up with the book in a dusty plastic chair in no-man’s-land between Turkey and Syria, waiting for a drug shipment to clear the crossing, bound for three health centers. Gunshots shattered the air. They were close as fuck. Surrounding me, security men whipped out their Nokias, texting furiously to Continue reading

Impossible Decisions

This post is by Adam Tousley, who currently works for an INGO in northern Iraq.

Buddhist protests_crop

Photo provided by author; source unknown.

On 25 August 2017 in Maungdaw Town, Northern Rakhine State (NRS), Burma, I was planning to go for a run at 6:00 AM.  The day before, the United Nations Department of Safety & Security, who were a three-hour boat ride away, stated that despite the heightened tension between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities there was nothing overly concerning. Instead I woke up at 3:00 AM to a large exchange of gunfire outside my INGO guest house.

There is a common nightmare for some people finding themselves naked in public places.  Take it from me; waking up semi-naked in a gunfight in Burma is far worse, especially if you’re a bearded pasty white dude.  Our buildings were targeted by small arms gunfire, and my organization was singled out for attack on social media (thanks Facebook).  After two days in hibernation my colleagues and I were directed to evacuate.

No one can be fully prepared to lead a base through evacuation in a rapid onset emergency.  For those who have, you may remember the frustration in finding a carefully developed evacuation plan was not as developed as you had envisioned (at least I hope I’m not the only one).  What had been the worst-case scenario on your risk assessment yesterday was the reality today.  The road you could run on yesterday is now Continue reading

The Extended Gratitude section

Afraid_of_nobody

“Afraid of nobody”. Source: McLean’s optical illusions. T. McLean. 1833. 11 lithographs on discs that, when spun & observed in a mirror, create the illusion of movement.

This post is the second in a two-part series written by Trayle Kulshan (read the first post here). Trayle recently finished her memoir, “Revolutions”: 99 lyrical, 99-word stories from her travels as an aid worker. You can find it on Amazon and read samples on her website

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A single page at the end of my book spells out “Gratitude,” but the generosity of strangers, of women, of friends cannot be contained on a page. I asked for a lot of help. And I got it. And it made me a better writer and a better person.

Asking for and getting feedback on my book was a way of making connections with people and building a community around myself when I was feeling lonely and isolated. I’d moved to a new city, I was a new mommy, I was not working, and I missed “my people.” Connecting with like-minded artsy-fartsy folks kept me sane. So while feedback served an important role for my book, it also played a bigger role in my life. The feedback mechanisms I talk about here don’t have to be used for a project. They can just be used.

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My previous post may not have made it explicit, but as someone who was very insecure and has trouble making decisions, feedback was priceless to me. It helped me figure out exactly what it was I was trying to create. I wanted to publish and I wanted magic. I needed help.

Feedback wasn’t about making me more confident, it was about Continue reading

Writing stories otherwise untold

This post is the first in a two-part series by Trayle Kulshan. Trayle recently finished her memoir, “Revolutions”: 99 lyrical, 99-word stories from her travels as an aid worker. You can find it on Amazon and read samples on her website

Optical_illusion_disc_with_birds,_butterflies,_and_a_man_jumping

Source: “McLean’s optical illusions.” T. McLean. 1833. 1 portfolio: 11 lithographs on discs, hand-colored, discs are to be spun on a spindle, and observed in a mirror, to create the illusion of a moving image, 25 x 25 cm. As seen on the cover of “Revolutions”. Animated GIFs from Wikimedia users Trialsanderrors & Racconish. 

Just before their eyes glaze over. That’s the point when someone usually tosses out the well-worn phrase, “Oh, you’ve been to so many interesting places, you should write a book.”

So, I did.

Indeed, like most aid workers I have enjoyed working in “many interesting places”: Guinea, DRC, Kenya, Afghanistan, Egypt. I was a WASH specialist for more than 10 years, during which I met my Syrian husband who introduced me to the Middle East, and—after many exciting exploits together—parenthood. We had a baby and settled in Dubai, where he took a good HQ-type job. So here I was, being a full-time mommy, missing the action-packed field I figured it was time to write the book.

But a funny thing happened… it ended up not really being about aid work adventures at all. It ended up being about me. It ended up being about gaining perspective, and about Continue reading

Two weeks

This week’s post is written by J, a humanitarian aid worker, novelist and prolific blogger whose sites include Tales from the Hood, AidSpeak, and co-creating Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. To stay up-to-date with J’s aid-related writing, commentary, and fiction, check out his Evil Genius websitefacebook and twitter pages. 

empty-desk

Source: Waters True Value wants you to know how to organize your desk

Two weeks. That’s how long it takes, on average, for the so-called high performing and indispensable aid worker to be forgotten. You know, the one who knew the local language and culture so well they were “practically local”? Or the one who threw the fabulous parties, or the one who always knew who in the host government to ask for what. Or maybe it was the one who—by sheer force of will or expertise—managed to accomplish what no one else had prior.

Everyone else was certain this person was irreplaceable, that the office or programme just could not go on without him or her. And you know what? Within ten working days – just two weeks – their old office or cubicle had already been reassigned, IT had reformatted their old computer, and their old position had either been refilled or their responsibilities divvied up among those left behind.

I once knew a guy who got blindsided by a downsize dressed up as a restructure. It was a shitty way for the organization to move him along, and everyone felt it. Staff were incensed and outraged in the coffee room. He’d had a long and illustrious career. He had Continue reading

What’s stopping you from stepping back?

This week’s blog is by Leora Ward, creator of Healing in Service. Leora has worked for many years in the social justice, women’s empowerment, and humanitarian fields.

I recently had a baby. There is nothing like a baby to throw a wrench into life’s pace and plans (at least at the very beginning). I am still trying to get my head around how much longer it takes to “accomplish” anything, or leave the house, or do simple things for that matter. Everything just feels so much harder now and requires more effort.

Last year, I was building a lot of momentum. I was engaging in community meetings and events. I was contributing to important conversations in the humanitarian sector. I was taking courses, attending workshops, and learning from those I most admired. I was speaking, teaching, and facilitating about topics that mattered to me. I was actively in conversation with other women about collaboration on new projects. I was moving forward, with loads of momentum, and purpose.

I was also in the midst of a deep, meaningful, and sometimes confusing, internal conversation about where to situate myself in the women’s movement. Where was I needed? Where did I add the most value? Where could I Continue reading

Listen.

Over the past few months, we’ve been listening. Deeply, actively listening. To the multitude of voices that have been silenced for far, far too long.

This International Women’s Day began with a headline from the Guardian that screamed: ‘You need to hear us’: over 1,000 female aid workers urge reform in open letterAlexia Pepper de Caires, one of the organizers of the letter alongside Sarah Martin, Danielle Spencer and Anne Quesney, sums up their motivation succinctly: “The whole point of the letter is, ‘You need to hear us, because we’re the ones who are telling you what’s happening.'” The letter calls for “fundamental reforms to shift the patriarchal bias in aid” and is signed by over a thousand women in 81 countries.

An easy ask? No. But if anyone is up for the task, these 1,000+ women spread around the globe are. I am. If gun rights activism in the US is anything to judge by, the next generation of aid workers surely is. The women you say hello to in the hallway, or grab drinks with after work, or report to, or that report to you, the women with whom you exchange all-knowing glances at the coordination meetings, definitely are.

As we wrote in 2015:

There is solidarity here. And a growing space in which people feel empowered to speak with louder and louder voices about practices that have, up to now, been considered “part of what you signed up for.” These are the words of a friend’s boss when employees asked, three times, about staff well-being during a global all-staff meeting.

My friend’s boss is wrong. He doesn’t yet realize that we have already been carried farther down along the shore than we realized. Not only by our own small strokes in the big blue sea, but also by the undercurrent of others’ actions and testimonies, which grow stronger and wider as they join with other currents. A sea change is underway.

Yes, it’s tempting to  Continue reading