Tough. That’s the only word I can come up with right now to describe the past week. I don’t like the word because it seems overwhelmingly negative, but it is all that comes to mind right now. I was putting off blogging for the past few days because I didn’t know what to say. It’s been a busy week at work—we participated in the Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Festival over the weekend, released an exquisitely researched report on how Greece’s asylum policies impair international protection, and said goodbye to three members of the GFR team. With Sonia’s project complete, Elena’s internship ending, and Andrea taking time to work on her PhD research, it felt like the team lost a limb this week. But we’ve kept swimming through the choppy waters of daily life at the GFR: navigating the increasingly frustrating Skype for asylum system, responding to requests both routine (legal advice) and urgent (shelter or translating in a hospital), managing the Community Workers in the field, and writing reports about recent visits to the camps. The course of a day’s work is never the same because the context shifts constantly, and the team has to coordinate between proactive projects and reactive responses. This week has felt particularly tumultuous.
But it’s not just because of work that I’m feeling a bit lost right now, or as my Italian friend who lives in the apartment below me would say, “in confusion.” I can’t disengage from what’s going on at home, as much as it would be a relief to do so—to focus solely on the refugee crisis, and to concentrate on cause and effect in an intimate, local way. Here I am, in Athens, interacting daily with refugees, aid workers, activists, community leaders, NGOs, authorities… but still with the privilege to be slightly detached. I have a home to go to at night, I have more experienced and knowledgeable people all around me to turn to when I don’t know the answers, I can numb some of the daily dose of despair in what I learn and see by getting coffee, going shopping, watching a show—it’s very personal, and yet not personal at all, because in the end, I get to leave.
It’s this same privilege that has shaped the lens through which I’ve viewed the devastating events in the US over the past week. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Dallas police officers. I was a little late in learning about what happened, but sat awake watching videos and reading articles every night this week—I got sick to my stomach, cried, got angry, talked with my family and friends, thought about what I can and can’t do in the midst of this crisis of race, mistrust, and violence- pretty much the same reaction as many young, white Americans, but being abroad seemed to take the edge off a little. That is until a cab driver asked me, “why is your country so crazy? What is wrong with you?” And a Greek co-worker asked me, “what is it like to live in such a violent country?” And my Italian friend asked me, “why do the police kill black people? Are all Americans so racist? I don’t understand.” My first reaction every time is defensive. America is crazy? Look what’s happening here! And in Italy! But then comes my confusing babble trying to speak for the crisis of my own country: “it’s the system, it’s structural racism, white privilege, white supremacy, history, gun laws…” and I give up, because everything I say is woefully inadequate. It’s not a story I want to tell, nor do I feel I have the right to tell it.
But it’s important to talk about. Just like the stories I hear every day, that I see with my own eyes, are important to talk about. I don’t mean just the stories of suffering—unfortunately, that’s the easy part to tell. Frankly, it’s simple to say these things: a cop murdered a black man in Louisiana. An authority denied a mother diapers for her three-and-a-half-year-old in a refugee camp in Athens because of the new policy that only allots diapers for children under three. It hurts to know these things, to say them, to write them, but it’s harder to explain them, to discuss them, to challenge them, to think of ways to prevent similar things from happening. And here I’m at a loss. Because what am I doing here other than telling stories? How can I make storytelling something that actually helps?
This week I also began my participation in a research project through the Fletcher School. I am one of the researchers in a four-country study led by Professor Kim Wilson and PhD candidate Roxani Krystalli tracing refugee livelihoods on the move, and Wednesday was my first day conducting interviews with an amazing team of interpreters. Just one day though was extremely draining, and I marveled at Roxani, who has dedicated her life’s work to this type of research, as well as the interpreters, who hear the stories more directly in the tellers’ native language, and perhaps the edges soften through their interpreting and my notes. I’m hopeful that this research experience will help my own understanding of how to derive true impact from storytelling.
To end, I must admit I am going to fully steal from Roxani’s website and share a poem that she posted. I have always been an avid Margaret Atwood fan (her newest book is the only one I brought with me to Greece), but I hadn’t read this particular poem until I saw it on R’s page, and I am so grateful that she shared it, because it captures perfectly everything I cannot say.
NOTES TOWARDS A POEM THAT CAN NEVER BE WRITTEN (an excerpt)
by Margaret Atwood
The facts of this world seen clearly
are seen through tears;
why tell me then
there is something wrong with my eyes?
To see clearly and without flinching,
without turning away,
this is agony, the eyes taped open
two inches from the sun.
What is it you see then?
Is it a bad dream, a hallucination?
Is it a vision?
What is it you hear?
The razor across the eyeball
is a detail from an old film.
It is also a truth.
Witness is what you must bear.
In this country you can say what you like
because no one will listen to you anyway,
it’s safe enough, in this country you can try to write
the poem that can never be written,
the poem that invents
nothing and excuses nothing,
because you invent and excuse yourself each day.
Elsewhere, this poem is not invention.
Elsewhere, this poem takes courage.
Elsewhere, this poem must be written
because the poets are already dead.
Elsewhere, this poem must be written
as if you are already dead,
as if nothing more can be done
or said to save you.
Elsewhere you must write this poem
because there is nothing more to do.
Posted By Mattea Cumoletti
Posted Jul 10th, 2016