A year ago tomorrow I boarded a plane to Athens, Greece, to meet seven women I did not know. We had all signed up as volunteers with the 501c3 Carry The Future, an organization that provides humanitarian relief to refugees worldwide by providing material aide to ease their journey. In our team's specific case, we were carrying hundreds of pounds of donated baby carriers to give to refugees as they arrived at the Port of Piraeus, Greece and continued their journey through Europe and beyond.
Refugees would stream off of ferries arriving at the port at all times of the day and night.
Ferries could arrive at any of the points mapped out below along the port. We often wouldn't know which gate they were arriving at until the ferry was in the process of docking there. We spent a lot of time walking and running from gate to gate across a vast port to try to reach the refugees directly as they debarked.
Often the refugees would be mixed in with other paying passengers who had simply used the ferry as transport that day. Our job was to suss out who was a refugee and who wasn't, and in particular, identify families with children who were in need of baby carriers.
We became practiced at zoning in on those in need and would wade directly into the crowds, draped in dozens of carriers, approaching strangers we had never met to offer them the gift of a carrier to ease their burden.
The three most challenging parts of this process were:
1. Not speaking their language. Luckily the language of babies-in-arms and mothers-who-understand is fairly universal.
2. Approaching strangers who thought you might be trying to SELL them the carrier (we learned the words for 'free' and 'gift' in Arabic and Farsi).
3. And lastly, we often only had 2-3 minutes to fit a carrier to a body before the family had to move on. Police at the port would hurry us or the families to keep the crowds out of traffic and walkways. They also wanted to rush the refugees to awaiting buses to clear the docks immediately.
If the police or the ticket hawkers trying to fill the buses didn't give us time as they debarked, we would follow the families and go up onto the buses with them, fitting carriers in buses before they departed.
There were certain key aspects of the carriers we tried to get across in the brief moments we had with each family. It was often the fathers who wore their children (I'd say much more often than I see American men wearing their children). No matter who was wearing the child, and we encountered mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and friends who would be the designated carrier, we quickly tried to show them how to ergonomically adjust the carriers for ease of wearing, how to get the babies up into the carriers, and how to get them safely off (especially when using back carry).
I did a lot of signalling to the wearers to watch my hands as I pointed out adjustment points, tightening and loosening capabilities, and how to use the hoods for sun and weather protection and head support.
This video, taken and edited by our team member, Lulu Potts, gives you a good idea of the chaos we had to quickly work in and the important work we did in that short amount of time.
The families we met were just like your friends and neighbors. They were beautiful. They loved each other and they were grateful for the help.
Like the baby you would reach out to hold at church, or on the playground, we did lots of holding, cooing, and connecting. My teammates and I carried photos of our own children and when we had the rare moment of extra time, we would share photos of our kids to those who wanted to see. Sometimes holding up a photo was easier than trying to explain to someone in a language you didn't speak that you were a mother too and that their children mattered to you the way your own children did.
Still, of all the positive connecting we did during those days at the port, I remain haunted by the people I met.
I think of the families, and the children and I wonder where they are. Did they make it to their desired destinations? Are they stuck in limbo in a refugee camp?
Have they been greeted with hate and fear or love and acceptance? Have they been sent back to the countries they tried so hard to leave? Are they scared? Are they hungry?
I think of this man. A father of six boys. His wife didn't make it on the journey. He's a widower now with six children. The youngest, baby Michael, was only four weeks old (second picture below.)
While this photo seems filled with hope, what you don't see is the little boy behind these men.
You can see his red jacket peeking out between the men in the pic below. He was traveling with this group. And while the older men were joyfully celebrating their arrival on Greece's mainland, the boy that was with them sat slumped. He never smiled. He just stared forward, catatonic.
You see the same look I'm describing on the youngest boy's face in this photo (bottom right.) This was a family group traveling together and while a grandmother-figure was present, there was no mother-figure with them. Who knows what happened to her. Who knows what those children have seen.
I remember the people who could not smile. They just had tight lines drawn across their faces. I cannot forget the women I approached who seemed to physically recoil as I advanced. One woman sat with her back to a wall, her knees drawn to her chest. A baby was placed on a pile of jackets near her feet. I went up to her slowly and simply lifted a carrier into the air with my eyebrows raised in offering. Without looking at me or the baby, she dug around in the pile of coats and lifted up a carrier she already had. Then she turned her head away in tears. I walked away quietly.
I think about how far they would have had to come to simply have gotten to the port where we were meeting them. And how far they still had to go to find any modicum of safety or security.
In two days, we helped four mothers with newborns (all less than two weeks old). I used every ounce of emotional energy not to cry while I interacted with them, but each time they walked away, I'd sob.
When my teammate, Courtney, and I carefully unwrapped a blanket this Syrian mother was clutching to her chest, we found a tiny, two week old baby. I will never forget how that mother trusted me enough to hold the baby when we unwrapped all those blankets. While I tightened the carrier around her, an older Greek taxi driver looked on and openly wept. These babies, and their mothers, were the most vulnerable human beings I'd ever met.
That's not a smile on my face in the photo below. It's a desperate attempt to not weep along with the taxi driver who was standing just left of the photo.
The moment that hit me the hardest and that I've had the hardest time talking about out loud was the evening I met these children. The older boy smiling in the middle saw my camera and flagged me over gesturing for me to take their photo.
Then he stood separate from the others and gestured up and down at himself. "Take my picture" he meant. And he puffed up his chest. I obliged.
As soon as I had snapped it he started gesturing again. "Wait! Don't leave yet." And he dragged the little girl over and stepped out of the frame. "Take her picture!" he would have said if he could in English.
And then again, before I could even think of turning away he waved wildly for me to wait and he ran and got this little guy. He had to try twice to lift him up onto the wall but then he stepped out of the frame so I could snap the wee one's photo.
After that, they all wanted to see the pics I had taken. The next request was if THEY could use my camera to take photos. Just like the little kids you know in your life who are fascinated by and always trying to use your phone, camera, or tablet, these kids were the same. The older boy and girl took turns taking photos.
After this last group selfie, the adults with them gestured for them to say goodbye. As they walked away, I crumbled inside. The sheer normality of the moment had gotten to me. Those kids could have been my kids. That scene could have played out at any play date in my hometown. Like mine, the children were so loved. And they still had so much inner confidence and all they wanted was a moment to play with a digital camera. I watched their group walk away but I've never forgotten them.
May they find a safe place, and may that have already happened considering these photos were taken a year ago.
The work was emotionally draining.
We all tried to find small moments of zen or just to shut things out.
We tried yoga. We tried laughter.
Wine was a constant and so was direct messaging.
I spent about 10 days with my team and these women who were strangers became friends for life. There was Mary, whose official role was 'Mama Bear.' Her job was to be a mother to mothers and she more than fulfilled her role. Mary was always ready to comfort and to gently remind us to remember self-care. Her pockets held a seemingly unending supply of chocolate and Emergen-C.
After our team trip last February, Mary went back to Greece and volunteered in the Idomeni, and Ritsona refugee camps, and several camps near Thessoloniki distributing carriers, hajibs, underwear, kids' sun hats, sunscreen, bug repellent, diapers, and other aid. She also volunteers with I Am You and she sponsors a refugee mother and her 3 young daughters through Humanwire's Tent to Home campaign, moving them from a camp to an apartment while they go through the asylum process.
Courtney was my roommate and she quickly earned the nickname of Super Girl. Super she was. She fell sick in the first few days we arrived and even from her sick bed she messaged us ferry arrival times and group info. She was back to work in record time too.
After returning from Greece, Courtney met with local officials about accepting refugees in her hometown and Eugene, Oregon has since welcomed a family from Syria and a woman from Iraq. Courtney is such a Super Woman that she went to the airport to meet the woman arriving from Iraq the night before her second son was born. She, along with 30 other members from the community were there to greet the woman as she came off the plane.
On the left next to Super Girl Is Jen. Jen is super fit. She'd go for runs, on barely any sleep, in between ferries arriving. One morning our team leader said Jen's hat made her look like a DJ. And since Jen is FAF (fit as f*ck), her team name quickly became DJ FAF. I think her energy level kept us all going.
Jen went back to Greece in November, leading a trip for CTF to Lesvos. She goes back again in March with students from her university in Maine. Locally, she started a knitting circle with New Mainer (refugee) women.
To the right of DJ FAF is Heather. Heather was dubbed Stand-Up both because of how funny she is (like a stand up comedienne) and because she stands up for what is right.
After returning from Greece, Heather volunteered in Cuba with Humanitarian Aid. She serves on Grand Rapid, Michigan's Sanctuary Movement Committee, and she started ServeGR.com with an Immigration feature. Heather also participates in interfaith efforts to support local synagogues and mosques.
This is Leah. I gave her her team name of Hound Dog because she was unbelievably adept at finding refugee families with babies in large crowds. It was almost a preternatural skill. Just look at her focus in these photos.
In the last 12 months since our group excursion, Leah has done four CTF trips, three in Greece, and she led one in Lebanon. She works as staff for CTF in the capacity of Chief of the Volunteer Engagement Division. Just a few weeks ago, while visiting the US, she attended the No Muslim Ban protest march in Washington DC, in solidarity with refugees.
Lulu is a talented photographer and videographer, among other things. You've probably noticed that most of the photos in this post are attributed to her, and they're all incredible. She quickly became known as Hot Pants, because well, you CAN look good while helping others and Lulu proves that.
Lulu returned to Greece three months after our trip and volunteered with Operation Refugee Child. She continues to work with them monthly. In November she went to Standing Rock and in December she began working with the newly founded chapter of the National Lawyers Guild in Santa Ana as a media consultant and in order to facilitate legal observations. The footage that she took in November at Standing Rock contributed to this piece by Vice about what is happening there.
I don't remember who gave me my nickname but I got called Recon Charlie (RC). Perhaps because I was good at sniffing out bullshit, like when these two handsome Dutch guys tried to tell us they were 'just on vacation and interested in learning more about the refugee crisis.' Initially I thought they were undercover reporters, but with some targeted questions I quickly figured out they worked for the Dutch government.
Maybe I got called RC because I was always keenly aware of where each member of our team was during ferry missions, or perhaps it was my habit of replying 'roger that' to everything. Sailing habits die hard.
Before leaving for Greece last year I began volunteering with Jewish Family Services' Refugee & Immigration Program as a 'Friendly Match.' I was assigned a family from Afghanistan who had recently arrived in San Diego. I help and remain friends with them and their community to this day. I've also inspired other friends to join the organization as volunteers as well.
And here is our team leader, Amy. Amy was the heart and soul of our team and we call her Yoda. The force was strong with her, and she kept it alive in all of us.
Amy has been working on staff with CTF since its inception as a baby wearing educator. She now also works with the Response Division (along with fellow teammate, Leah) and is transferring rolls to three international CTF groups as outreach. She has been on five trips with CTF including three distribution trips and an exploratory trip to Lesvos. In addition to leading our Team 4, she led Team 10 to seven refugee camps and worked two days in the pharmacy in Katerini. Her trip on Team 18 was a tech exploratory to Serbia and the Hungarian boarder. She will return to Greece next month with fellow teammate, Jen, and in June she is leading a team as well. Amy is a nurse and hopes to one day work with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders.
There were other unofficial members of our group, like Stamos, our Greek driver. Stamos was always there for us and remained super flexible as ferry arrival times changed. He brought us coffee and played music we loved and kept an eye out for our safety. Check out his business, Opa! Taxi & Tours.
On the right is Debbie. We met her at one of the ferry terminals wanting to help. Once she saw what we were doing, she jumped right in to help. Her pockets were always full of sweets for the refugee children and she brought supplies from her own community to hand out as well.
This wonderful man, George, owns the restaurant, Enjoy Just Falafel, in Athens. George is an immigrant himself. Fellow aid workers we met told us about his restaurant and his work to feed refugees in Athens. Naturally, we decided to patronize his establishment. He's a wonderful example of what the Greek people are doing on a day to day basis to help refugees at their door.
This is Jefferson. He was at the port one day when one of the ferries arrived. He had come to help in any way he could. As a babywearing father of two, he was inspired by our team and helped us carry the carriers into the crowds. The next day he joined us to volunteer and clean at a refugee camp outside of Athens.
He now lives in San Diego and volunteers in the same capacity that I did at Jewish Family Services helping newly arrived refugee families.
Refugees need our help. In parting, I share this poem by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one's skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child's body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
You can help Carry The Future in several ways. Click here to learn how to get involved, donate material aid, or give money.
To the over 30 people who donated last year so I could volunteer in Greece and who donated funds and supplies to the local San Diego refugee family I support, thank you, merci, shukran.