I am currently in the throws of exploring what it means to be human. Here on Earthbound, each day is like taking thick doses of reality, swallowed by the surrender to the world’s beauty. I find myself constantly swimming between the polarity of beauty and pain, joy, and despair. One moment I am running through pine forests as the Mediterranean sun is setting over the Greek Isles, and the next, I am looking over a mountain of decaying life-jackets that each once held the life of a fellow human being fleeing a brutal war zone. It is a lot to take in. But I am finding that my perceptions, experience, and understating of the world and our place in it is ever expanding.
I have a tendency to view us humans in a negative light. When flicking through the news and learning about current events and the purpose and history of governments, there always seems to be an underlying essence of ‘the bad guy’, and in a way we are. We have been destructive, selfish, and ignorant, but loving, caring, and compassionate simultaneously. In short, we’re a mess. Looking from afar and seeing the deep betrayal us humans have committed to each other, to earth, and to life itself can be a very painful reality to come to terms with. But is that all? Are we simply just parasites that kill one another and rapidly infect the Earth with our lust for power?
No. There is a crucial other side of us that the media and I tend to brush out of focus.
During the last week of September, Earthbound visited a high school in Athens. There we were given the gift of listening to one of the teachers share her experience of volunteering at refugee camps all across Greece. Her name was Ioanna Pliatsika (a very humble History teacher who wore bright orange chukka boots.) She told us that the bottom line of every story a volunteer can share with the public is normality. How, when working and living with the refugees, it became clearer and clearer to her how similar and how “normal” they were.
They are completely normal. Even though they have all the obstacles of the world before them that could easily make them abnormal or mean or hateful, they are normal. Like every one of us they had a home, a life, friends and family, their favorite thing to eat for dinner, dreams, and aspirations, a job, a story. Its just that their circumstance is different then ours, and now, nothing is stable and normal about their lives, but they themselves are just people trying to survive.
This struck a chord in me. So often in times of crisis people become statistics, and a whole group of unique and complex individuals with their own life experiences can all fall under two words: ‘the refugees’. When she said this it felt like all of the layers of self-identity that I have accumulated throughout my life had vanished and that with a different hand of cards being dealt to me, I could easily have been in their place; born into a fugitive family, born into war.
Ioanna went on and shared with us little anecdotes from her experience, one of which will never be erased from my memory. She told us of a sixty-year-old Syrian man who was forced to throw away all of his belonging into the ocean to lessen the weight on the boat. Everything he owned was gone, including his diabetes medication. He tried to find medication at the local pharmacy but was denied access due to how rare it was to have diabetic medication come in from Athens. He became very anxious as the days went by. Ioanna met him and listened to his story. She managed to get the medication for him within two days. When he received his medicine he collapsed in tears before her and told her that she had saved his life. He took a ring off of his finger and said, “The only thing I have is this ring. It is my wife’s ring. She was my life, and now you have given my life back to me. It is yours now.”
She then moved onto another story of a crippled teenage boy who couldn’t walk and miraculously managed to escape Syria, get smuggled across Turkey, and cross the Aegean sea to Greece with only the help and kindness of strangers carrying him along the way.
All of these stories – these very real, heart-rending, and inspiring stories – are totems of the resilience of the human spirit. They remind me of the deep care we are able to feel for one another, of the underlying solidarity and equivalence that can be felt between ‘strangers’. With the chaos of society constantly being spotlighted in our awareness, it is easy to forget the beauty that lives within the smiles and small acts of kindness experienced between one another. Acts of kindness and care that when added up, are rippling magnitudes of change in our world. These stories have engrained my belief in the resilience within that keeps us pushing forward in the darkest of times, my belief in the power we hold to connect with things external from ourselves, my belief in the love that unifies and goes beyond borders, in the love that transcends the human condition.
Written by Gabrielle Royo-Fay
Featured Image captured by Photographer Alison Terry-Evans