‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’ Reflections from a refugee camp

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By Casey Crow
Special to The SUN

Photos courtesy Beyond Words International
Volunteers for Beyond Words International provide healing arts programming for women and children living in a Syrian refugee camp in Thermopylae, Greece over the summer. The local team, photographed above, includes Kelly Ziemer, Casey Crow and Paula Jo Miller, who worked alongside international volunteers to provide instruction in English and math, as well as implementing art and dance therapy.

As the leaves begin to change and autumn slowly descends on our mountain town, it is difficult to imagine the adversity faced by millions of people around the globe while we are surrounded by such beauty.
Several Pagosa locals, myself included, recently returned from our pilot project with Beyond Words International (BWI) in Thermopylae, Greece, where we witnessed firsthand the suffering that characterizes forced displacement, but also the incredible resilience of the human spirit.
BWI is a nonpolitical, nonreligious 501(c)(3) that aims to bring healing to survivors of trauma through the arts in the U.S. and abroad. Over the summer, our team set out to provide healing arts programming for women and children living in a Syrian refugee camp.
We worked in partnership with Happy Caravan, an organization operating long-term on the ground in two refugee camps in Greece. We worked alongside international volunteers to provide instruction in English and math, as well as implement our own art and dance therapy programming for 80 children each day.
Despite the lack of coverage in the media, the refugee crisis in Europe remains dire as ever, with nearly 60,000 refugees awaiting processing in Greece.
The conditions in these camps are horrific and inhumane. Thermopylae is considered one of the better camps, yet even here, trauma is evident and an attempted suicide occurred during our first week on site. The majority of the children we worked with have grown up in conflict or camps, spending years traversing Jordan, Turkey and the Greek Islands. Many were born in refugee camps; and, thus, were never educated at all.
I want to illustrate the depths of the hardship these individuals face on a daily basis, but, more importantly, I want to convey the remarkable strength and resilience that allows them to continue embracing hope for a better tomorrow. The children we worked with are more than just “refugees.” This single label is not the only thing that defines them. They are intelligent, strong, dynamic and ambitious young people who have chosen to keep pressing forward despite countless reasons to give up.
Each day, we were challenged to create a curriculum for students of vastly differing levels of education, while keeping them engaged and challenged. We implemented a variety of art and movement therapy activities to allow children to express themselves through nonverbal means. One such project was called “Painting Your Heart.”
Local abstract artist and BWI team member Paula Jo Miller explained, “This project offered the ability for the kids to express their feelings through visual expression and creativity, without having to use words. We created a legend on the white board using colors that correspond to emotions. We explained that they could color the heart using any method, but it was important that they follow the legend. We also explained that they could use more than one color because often we feel more than one feeling. They were so excited to paint and made a point to keep looking at the legend to select the colors that represented their feelings.”
Every week, we gathered in the school, formerly an abandoned restaurant, to dance. It was incredible to watch dance work as a unifying force among the students. During class time, the children would inevitably divide themselves between boys or girls and Arab or Kurd. Yet, as soon as the dancing began, everyone joined together. The boys and girls danced side by side. Both Arab and Kurdish students joined hands to dance a traditional Middle Eastern dance called Dabke. When the founder of Happy Caravan, a Syrian refugee himself, came to visit and watch a dance class, he was shocked.
“You are tearing down walls,” he said, “the wall of gender, Arab and Kurd dancing together. I can’t believe this. It is really beautiful.”
Our team members also worked with a partner program called Happy Academy to provide English and technology instruction to teens and women. Miller formed a close bond with one resident.
“One woman, in particular, wanted to work on her English skills, so we sat together for many hours each day and talked, we read poetry together and we wrote haikus, a healing form of Japanese poetry. In her best English, she told me and created poems about her family’s story of living in and traveling from Syria and how they came to be in the camp in Greece. She shared about her son’s rare disease which puts him in the emergency room every month, yet they cannot get the medical help they need to proactively address the disease. She told me that because her husband is Palestinian, he is considered to not have a nationality. Therefore, he can’t have a passport, which is required to move to a country where they wish to seek asylum. Both are university educated and want to work to provide for their family. Instead, they live in a cramped space, in a country where they feel unwelcome, and they are unable to work. They have little hope for leaving the camp and beginning a new life like they once had in Syria,” she shared.
Our time in Greece was characterized by dramatic highs and lows — moments of heartbreak and frustration, but also waves of gratitude and hope. Toward the end of our trip, the children put on a beautiful concert at a local museum. I’ll never forget the image of our students standing hand in hand, faces radiant, singing at the top of their lungs: “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow/don’t stop, it’ll soon be here/it will be better than before/yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone!”
This project has once again convinced me that the arts carry an undeniable power to cultivate hope, healing and connection.
Having returned from our pilot project in Thermopylae, our BWI team is currently looking to our next project, this time with asylum seekers in our own backyard. In October, three of our volunteers will travel to the Texas-Mexico border to provide emergency aid to asylum seekers in partnership with an organization called Team Brownsville (TB). TB is a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian assistance for U.S. asylum seekers at the Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas. While the asylum seekers were once placed in detainment camps in the U.S., as a result of a recent Supreme Court ruling, most have been sent to Mexico to await processing. Many are fleeing endemic violence and crime in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Today, 36,500 asylum seekers are stranded on the border in Mexico, most with no food, clothing, or shelter. Of those, 600 asylum seekers (100 of which are children), live in tents under the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. Living conditions are poor, with little infrastructure and high levels of violence, including kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, armed robbery and sexual violence.
Our BWI team will assist in preparing and distributing hot meals and other emergency aid to those living under Gateway Bridge. In addition, we have an opportunity to create healing art and dance programming for a weekly enrichment school in the area. We are currently taking Amazon and Walmart gift cards to purchase food, water, diapers, prenatal vitamins, powdered milk and tents.
To learn more or to donate online, visit our website at www.bwintl.org or find us on Facebook. To support our work, send a check or gift cards to P.O. Box 2503, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147.