The amount of support (financial AND emotional) that we have received leading up to and during our mission to Lesvos was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I know we have been representing so many on this mission and I promise that we did our best to represent you well. Team Vermont did good work that would not have been possible without you. Thank you.
Many of you have asked what it was like 'over there'. Buy me a beer sometime and I'll tell you everything I have the heart to share, but for those of you whose paths I may not cross, I wanted to write a bit about Lesvos, the refugee crisis, and what it felt like to be there. I want you to know what your support meant to me and to those we served.
I often write when we do service abroad. Sometimes I share it, sometimes I don't. And no, I don't 'blog', so don't ask. Usually, what I write is more clinical in nature; what we saw, who Seth treated, or how. I write about desperately poor healthcare systems managing to demonstrate incredible efficiencies, providers whose level of commitment astound, individual stories here and there.
I remember patients' names. Not all of them, mind you. A decade of work like this and it gets blurry... but Pierre, George, Joesph, Thomas, Reaksa, Idi, Yonas... even if I don't remember their names, at least I can pronounce them. This was different. Other than one Ishmael, I was shit out of luck. I couldn't even learn enough to reliably ask 'are you ok?' in Arabic, Farsi, or Urdu. To have the recollection of so much suffering, so many faces, and so few names... it hurts in a way that is new to me.
I could have written of our mission by describing the muddy slopes of 'Afghan Hill', where thousands will sleep in the cold tonight; the desperation in the clothing provision line when, at 4am, the supply of mostly hand-me-down men's shoes ran out completely, with dozens of refugees still standing in soaking shoes or completely barefoot in 35 degree temperatures; or, the faces of the refugees as they hand their crying children out of dinghies and drop to their knees on the beaches.
I don't feel like writing about that right now - instead, I'd like to share my thoughts about one little boy who sat in my lap 48hrs ago. Courtesy of the aforementioned language barrier, I know next to nothing about this boy - including his name. In the face of a crisis more massive than I could've imagined, it was the not knowing of something as simple as his name that lead me to write of my experience in the way I have here.
Because we did not share a spoken language, there are a few creative liberties here - I don't know what his favorite toys actually were, whether or not he loves books, the specifics of his plight, or if his father was taken in the night (although his mother was traveling alone). Based on the heart wrenching stories we heard during our time on Lesvos, my assumptions are likely good ones. Bear with me - Pulitzer Prize material it most certainly is not, but, here it goes anyway:
I am sorry.
Five-hundred thread count sheets and a hot shower in an airport hotel. Hot coffee. An omelette. A blue passport. A laptop in a bin on a conveyor. The click of an airplane seatbelt. The sound of wheels gaining speed on the tarmac. Just like that, I am gone. And you are still there.
On the ground, I power through the work to do; clinch my jaw, blink my eyes, take a deep breath, keep it together. Leaving is different. I face the window. I cry. I always cry. Today is no different. Seth is already asleep, his hand on my knee. I do not make a sound but cannot stop the tears sliding down my cheeks. I am gone and you are still there. The world is not fair.
I am sorry.
I know that you had favorite toys. A truck, a bike, a soccer ball. I know that they are gone forever. I am sorry.
I know that you had friends and that you loved to play and laugh with them. I know those friends have scattered like tiny marbles across the earth. I know many of those friends are now gone forever. I know you miss them. I am sorry.
I know that you enjoyed going to school and you love books. I know your school is gone now. I know you have no books. I am sorry.
I know you were forced to stand in your town's central square to witness a public execution. I know that no child should ever see such horrors. I am sorry.
I know that your Daddy was dragged out of your house one night. I know that your Mommy cried. I know that he never came back. I am sorry.
I know your Mommy loves you. I know that her eyes are not the same, I know that she doesn't laugh and snuggle with you like she used to. I know that your Mommy is hurting and scared in a way that no Mommy ever should be. I am sorry.
I know you have already walked for weeks and that you are exhausted. I know that you have been hiding in the woods. I know that you are hungry because your Mommy saved every penny to pay a smuggler for your passage to Lesvos. I am sorry.
I know you were shoved onto a small rubber dingy tonight. I know that the adults desperately nudged you towards the middle so that you were as safe as you could be. I know that you had never seen the sea and that you cannot swim. I know that you were so scared. I am sorry.
I know your Mommy spent the last of her money to buy you the life jacket you wore, praying it would save you if your dinghy capsized in the Aegean. I know that the life jacket she bought for you was full of hay and would've left you to drown in the sea had the wind and waves been too much tonight. I am sorry.
I know your clothes are soaking and I will help you change out of them. I know that they are the last possessions you have from your life 'before'. I know that they will be heaped onto the massive, SUV-sized pile of wet, discarded clothing behind this little tent clinic. I am sorry.
I know you are so cold that you can hardly move, so cold you have even stopped shivering. I will wrap you in a warm blanket. I will sit you on my lap in front of our space heater. I will hold you, and rock you, and whisper to you that everything will be ok. I know that this is not true and that you do not understand one word I am saying. I am sorry.
I know your journey is not over. I know that later tonight I will dress you in ill-fitting (but dry) hand-me-down clothing. I know that they are not yours and they are not what you want. I know that there are cold nights ahead with only cardboard between you and the concrete you will sleep on. I know that there will be hunger pangs, bleeding feet, and tears. I know that your future is uncertain and that I cannot change that. I am sorry.
I know you are just a boy. I know that you have been robbed of everything that makes you human and that you will never be a child again. I know that much of the world doesn't want to welcome you with a warm blanket and open arms, to share in your suffering, or even to see you. I am sorry.
I know my heart was changed irreversibly the moment you rested your head under my chin tonight, just like you were my own little boy. I know how much you needed that blanket, but even more so how much you needed the love. I know many things, yet do not know how this could be happening to you. I am sorry.
I am gone, but I bore witness. I am only one, but I am somebody. I am you and I am sorry.