Drawing to a close

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The drawing at the heart of the poster for the play is by Matin, who plays a number of roles in the play.  He is one of a number of capable artists in the school, and though there is no art as part of the regular curriculum, it is offered whenever there is a volunteer with the requisite skills (Jaime is one such at present).  In addition, those who show a particular aptitude are sent for lessons at a local school for art in the town, with a scholarship.

With just one week to go, some cracks are starting to appear.  As well as a certain fading of energy (perfectly normal in the rehearsal process at this stage), there are particular problems appearing which are specific to working with refugee children.  One of the cast has apparently left to go to Athens.  I have heard such rumours before, but this time it does appear to be accurate.  She only has a couple of small roles, so they can be covered, but she is also the sister of our most recent Michael, and he has gone with her.  We spent about half an hour coaching him through his part last week, coaxing some life out of his initial woodenness, and now that has to be done again with another young and inexperienced actor.  Never mind; I knew that was a potential problem, and moving to Athens is a positive step for both of them.

But today three others told me of news which will prevent them from rehearsing tomorrow.  Iqbal, my soldier, has an interview in connection with his status, and he seems more worried that he might be sent back than excited about the possibility of moving on; one can only hope for the best for him.  Only in the case of Fatima and Amina, two sisters who play the Queen and a couple of villains, is the news an unqualified blessing, as their mother is coming from Germany to see them, the first time in five years apart.  I have been telling them all that the play will be a positive, memorable experience for them, but it pales into insignificance in comparison.

Boat people

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I suppose it is a mark of my own stupidity that it has taken a while for the reality to sink in that Lesvos is an island.  Of course it is.  It has also been at least a temporary home for getting on for a million refugees, first from Syria and Iraq, more recently from Afghanistan, and now increasing numbers from various parts of Africa.  None of them did what I did, which was to fly in; none took the ferry.  Every one has arrived in Lesvos by climbing aboard a big rubber boat, 60, 70, 90 at a time, and made the six mile or so trip across from Turkey.  Short enough, but terrifying enough at the same time, packed in like sardines, often in the dark, over half women and children.

So every refugee I have met here – the people in my comedy class at Mosaik, the kids in the Gekko school and the School for Peace, those from the “Safe Zone” at Moria, the people in the Olive Grove – came here that way, scrambling out onto the rocky shore of northern Lesvos.  Not all of them made it of course, not so very many in percentage terms, but hundreds, thousands.  Men, women, children.

Why has it taken so long for me to realise this?  Partly because, I guess, on the outside at least, you wouldn’t know.  They are ordinary people – friendly, funny, nice, ordinary people, not obviously suffering from the trauma they endured.  But it must still be with them.  It must be.

For the most part, they couldn’t swim.  The smugglers sold them life jackets, it’s true.  If they were lucky, these were real.  Or real enough.  If they were unlucky, they were sold fakes, which became water-logged, and sank.  And like a particularly nasty form of Russian roulette, there was no way of knowing in advance which was which.  One European manufacturer became concerned by the large number of fake jackets with their branding on them, because of the damage to their reputation.  Like fake Rolexes, or fake Lacoste t-shirts.  Except nobody dies because they are wearing a dodgy watch.

For some, there were no life jackets at all.  They were given a pair of empty two-litre juice containers.  To save their lives.  In the dark.  When they couldn’t swim.

But like I say, mostly you wouldn’t know; people are resilient.  The cast of my play are minors.  One sixteen year old has a baby, so was pregnant when she climbed aboard.  Two of them have two-year olds, so they each climbed in, children themselves, a small baby in their arms.  You can see for yourselves: there are plenty of videos on You Tube.  But be careful, you could end up like me, with tears streaming down my face.  But this isn’t about stupid old me.

Dinner for twelve

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Cecilia Wambach is a retired professor of Mathematics from San Francisco who is a regular volunteer on Lesvos, and the co-founder of REAL (Refugee Education and Learning) one of the multitude of small NGOs who operate on the island.  More specifically, they provide volunteers at Gekko.  She and the majority of the rest of her team camp out at Thermi, some ten miles up the coast from Mytilini – though camp out does not do it justice, as they stay at Votsala, a very comfortable and well-appointed motel.  At one time, I had considered staying there too, but decided it would be too remote and difficult to organise transport back and forth.  For me, I am sure that was the right choice; I enjoy being at the heart of things, able to come and go from both Gekko and Mosaik at my leisure.

Last night she arranged a dinner at Votsala for all of her REAL team, and somehow I was also invited – largely, I suspect, because I am of a similar age.  Nor was being un-REAL my only distinctive quality; I was the only male in the party.  The meal itself was excellent, quite the most haute cuisine I have encountered in Greece.

Cecilia herself, despite being 75 or so, has a bubbly, effusive personality.  Each one of us was invited to say something about ourselves, what had brought us to Lesvos, and a little about the work we are doing here.  This might have been awkward and twee, but in fact was interesting.  The largest group there were all from the swim program, working with the Gekko girls, as well as some young women from Moria, to teach them to swim and be confident in water.  It also went a little way to redress the balance of opportunity between the genders, whereby the boys in the school have free rein to wander Mytilini in the evenings, while the girls are confined to their houses.

Football crazy

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Is she as annoyed as she looks? Probably…

…though crazy is no longer the word, so far as I am concerned.  I’ve become a bit take it or leave it about the beautiful game nowadays, which in some ways is a shame.  I miss both sides of the coin: the elation of victory, as well as its flip side, the abject misery of defeat.  Nonetheless, it was England v USA in the semi-final of the Women’s World Cup, so, having made sure that the match would be shown in one of the bars down by the waterfront, I put out an invitation to join me there on WhatsApp.  It did provoke a minor squall of banter between various assorted Brits and Yanks, as well as others stirring the pot, but actually there was hardly a big attendance: Deborah and another newly arrived US volunteer, me and Jaime (who didn’t care either way.)

It was as well that I had checked it would be shown, as when I arrived with twenty minutes to spare, they were showing a basketball match, but I was assured the channel would be switched at the appropriate time.  As you probably know, England lost, but, like I say… meh!  I do think my lack of excitement is as much about what has happened to the modern game as it is me getting older, sadder, wiser and less emotionally committed.  There aren’t goals any more, but potential goals, which need to be checked on VAR.  I know that such technology is inevitable, when there are multiple cameras allowing millimetre measurement, but football should not be about such precision.  Call me an old fogey (“You’re an old fogey!”) but I do regret the passing of the day when the opinion of the referee was paramount.

At the end, even the two Americans weren’t especially excited, and I, of course, took the defeat graciously, like the good loser I am.  But as some American once said, show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.

One thing and another

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Something of a transition to report, with one project coming to a conclusion, and another one in the planning stage.

Not, I hasten to add, that Jusoor – the charity working for Syrian refugees, chiefly in Lebanon – is in any way fading. Quite the reverse, so far as I can tell from the reports of activity on its website. Plus the fact that the Hall project at Jeb Jannine school, for which Val and I have been raising money, is now underway, starting with the construction of vitally needed built-in cupboards, as well as staging units; we hope to be able to publish photos soon.  Thanks, from Jusoor, the pupils and teachers at Jeb Jannine, and indeed from Val and me, to all of you who have contributed funds to make this happen.

But while neither of us are cutting our links to Jusoor, I have been seeking opportunities for another venture, finding an organisation that which would give me the opportunity to work on a theatre project with a group of young people. Some time ago, I visited Better Days, an NGO operating on Lesvos, one of the Greek islands, and involved in various projects to help deal with the ongoing refugee crisis there.

This was a brief reconnaissance trip, to give me the opportunity to meet some of the people involved in Better Days and other projects there, to see for myself the conditions at the camps there. And, to work out how I might be able to contribute.  The trip was a mixture of the inspiring and the depressing, best summed up by one particular event. It began with a feast, cooked by a group of refugees in huge dustbin-sized saucepans on open fires, organised by a Somalian refugee called Ali, and with lots of people working together, chopping industrial quantities of onions, carrots, rice (and slightly less chicken) – and offered to all and sundry. A truly inspiring example of co-operation and cohesion.

Unfortunately, by the time it was ready, the crowd attracted by the prospect of good, home-cooked food, was beyond manageable, and though queues were formed, divided between women and children and the far larger crowd  of young men, these soon broke down into a dangerous, each man for himself scrum, some people bearing multiple plates, even washing-up bowls, and words, shoves and blows were traded. Ali was disconsolate – on the other hand, a large number of people were fed, and fed well.

I will be back in just a few days, and will be hoping to put together a Drama project for the pupils at Gecko School, a place for unaccompanied minors.  Watch this space.

Family safari

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We promised a safari sunset (to match the production backdrop) and sure enough, after a tremendous thunderstorm and downpour on our first day in the park, we were rewarded with exactly that. Click on The family on safari for the full story.