Searching for happiness in camp Moria

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

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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

Policy, practice, and poetry

This post is written by Jennifer Lentfer. Jennifer is the creator of the blog how-matters.org and Director of Communications at Thousand Currents. This week, she joins 21 other diverse speakers at Healing Solidarity, a free online conference posing critical questions about healing, inequity, exhaustion, and challenging power structures in international aid and development. Join the conversation at healingsolidarity.org and follow #HealingSolidarity.

Practice-Solidarity

People are waking up to big issues in international aid. Now what?  Image from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) #PracticeSolidarity campaign 

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A journalist recently asked me, “Do you know anyone who would be willing to go on the record as resistant to change?”

“Good luck,” I thought. Institutional bodies are adept at portraying its leaders as on trend and non-controversial, and no self-respecting do-gooder is going to oppose more racial and gender diversity outright at this time in our history. However I constantly encounter “good people” who may or may not be aware of the white privilege and supremacy that runs through aid institutions, or who haven’t developed the personal resiliency to talk openly about the historical origins of our sector and the political and identity-driven realities that affect every aspect of our day-to-day work.

Policies that support diversity and inclusion are in place. What we now have to shift is the practice. For people with positional power and for those with privilege, this may  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

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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

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

Follow the light

By Megan Nobert

Megan Nobert is a Canadian-born lawyer and humanitarian aid worker. She is currently the Founder and Director of Report the Abuse, the first global NGO created to address sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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Source: Pixabay.com, Creative Commons CC0

Expectations are a strange, terrifying and exhilarating thing.

Two years ago, broken, damaged and in tears, I made the decision to speak publicly about my experience with sexual violence while working in South Sudan. There is a distinct chance that I was not quite prepared to speak publicly, barely grappling with the experience myself and having just told my family about the rape. Perhaps I would never have been prepared for the changes that this decision would bring.

Speaking to the media exposed me in a number of ways. It has meant that every time I walk into a room now, there is a significant chance that someone knows the details of the most intimate moment in my life. It means that dating is now a minefield. And it means that on any given day – at any meeting, party or event – another humanitarian will pull me to the side to tell me about their own experience with sexual violence. Hundreds of  Continue reading

Between Two Worlds

This post is written by Jennifer L. Robinson. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @thepenofjen.

Between Two Worlds Jennifer

The author with her brother somewhere on the road. Credit: Jennifer Robinson

When I left Iraq in the spring of 2016 after two full years responding to the Syrian refugee crisis and later to the overwhelming wave of internally displaced people from Mosul, I felt certain that I was done for a while. I knew I wanted a break and could commit to taking one. During that break I would learn to quiet myself, find my center, and focus on a season of creativity. When I said goodbye to my colleagues, I didn’t plan on seeing any of them for at least a year.

My dad picked me up from the airport in San Diego in a new (used) Mercedes, which we filled with the smell of fast food tacos. On the ride home, we chatted about my flight and the weather in Erbil, his work and latest golf scores. My dad was giving me the space to talk if I wanted; I was waiting for a question. After a few minutes we both decided to Continue reading

Know Your Why

This post is written by Leora Ward. Leora is an aid worker and life coach who supports women in the humanitarian and caring professions through her organization, Healing in Service.

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Leora Ward of Healing in Service

I was 24 when I first started working in West Africa, 25 when I moved to northern Uganda, and 26 when I took my first job in Darfur, Sudan. At the time, I got many comments from family and friends about my choice and decision to move so far away, to a war-torn country nonetheless. Some people found it idealistic, others thought it was “cute”, and then others called me a bleeding heart. I didn’t really take it personally at the time and never responded. The fact is that I didn’t have the words at that point to truly explain WHY I went into the humanitarian field. And, ever since then, I have bounced between altruistic responses about wanting to create a better world, to savior-like ones that sound something like, “well, someone’s got to do it!”

It wasn’t until much later that something clicked. I have coached women in the humanitarian and development fields for almost 2 years now. In doing so, I have gotten to know myself better and also understand the real reasons WHY we do this work. It seems Continue reading

Healing from toxic stress

This blog is written by Minna Järvenpää.  For Minna, yoga and meditation have played a key role in regaining inner balance. She is now finding ways to share the tools she learned, through Tools for Inner Peace, which promotes the mental and emotional wellbeing of aid workers, journalists and other frontline professionals.

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First snow on the main bridge in Mitrovica. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Somewhere along a decade-long road from Sarajevo to Kabul I started tilting out of balance – as a result of toxic levels of stress.

The tipping point came on a day of rioting in Mitrovica on 17 March 2004. Nineteen people were killed that day and two hundred hospitalised. I was the ‘Mayor’ of Mitrovica, appointed by the UN in Kosovo as caretaker when the Serbs of the divided town refused to vote. I had seen the violence coming but had been unable to convince those who could have prevented it to act. During the months after leaving Kosovo, I sat and stared out at the Adriatic sea, until the images of that day blurred along with the remembered smell of tear-gas and the sound of bullets ricocheting from the trees.

Already in the lead-up to the violence, I had developed brutal insomnia and started lashing out at people in a state of exhausted dysfunction. The only times I remember experiencing real relaxation in the months before March 2004 were when a friend and colleague in Mitrovica dragged me along to a yoga class.

In the aftermath, when I began suffering from hypervigilance (every car on the road was potentially out to run me over) and avoiding people and conversations that would trigger Continue reading