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Sept. 4, 2015

Dear Friends,

This morning was my first introduction to the beautiful poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab American of Palestinian origin.

Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
In fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.

Somehow I drew comfort from her words.

For months the UNHCR has been warning of a mounting refugee crisis on the Greek islands and repeated calls for Greece and the EU to take steps to address the situation. (UNHCR: “Numbers of refugee arrivals to Greece increase dramatically,” News Stories, 18 Aug. 2015)

The latest UNHCR figures show the number of refugees arriving by sea from Jan. 1st to August 14, 2015 to be 158,456. This doesn’t include the numbers entering Greece by land through Turkey. The total number crossing the Mediterranean this year include 158,456 to Greece, approximately 104,000 to Italy, 1,953 to Spain and 94 to Malta.

A long-time trusted Iraqi friend and his oldest son are two of the newly arrived refugees to the Greek Islands. For exactly twenty-one days I had no communication from this friend, like a son to me. For the last years his life has been under threat and he has already suffered an assassination attempt. Knowing my/our worry, he has always been faithful to keep in touch, never allowing more than a few days to pass without checking in. Three weeks went by with no word, and my distress grew with each passing day.

Finally, this message arrived on Aug. 29th: “me and [his oldest son] reached Greece via the seas. We are stuck on [a Greek] island. There are so many kids and women here. We didn’t get food except three pieces of biscuits. Many babies are sick. Every day three or four ships moving people from her to another island….we still waiting rescue…the mobile battery will finish.”

Three days later from another island: “We are sleeping in the streets, the camp has only six tents and the number of refugees around 500. I stay the whole night guarding [my son] from street dogs and some bad refugees. I hope within two or three days will be out from this island.”

Sept. 2, 2015: “I wish I have enough battery charge to send pictures from here but I will try my best. I think it is a historical moment to live on this island and see with my own eyes how western people are treating eastern and helping them. The refugee conditions on this island are really terrible, but most people understand that Greece is a poor country and they are trying to do their best for the huge number of refugees.

The total number of refugees reached 3,200. Most of them Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Algerians, Moroccans, Iranians and from Tajistan. There are individuals, foreigners and old people, who came for vacation and decided to help people. The UN role is very weak, only two or three people here. The priority is for the Syrian people and then Iraqi people. As Iraqis we feel frustrated because we have been waiting, while all the Syrian refugees have gotten their departure papers. Because of limited budget, as long as we stay here we are using up our money.

My plan is to reach any European country that will give asylum and reunification with my family (left wife and six children in Iraq, all of whom are in a very dangerous area). I have been told that Finland accepts Iraqi refugees…but today we heard that Germany, Holland and Sweden recently welcomed Iraqi peoples, so I am confused which country I should choose. However, it is a bit early to think about this matter. We have been told that tomorrow registration will start, so I hope we can get papers tomorrow or a couple of days later.

Unfortunately, I have lost my passport at sea because our boat was so overcrowded and the Turkish Sea police chased us and we were told by the smugglers to throw all our bags into the sea, but this is not so big a problem as many people have no passports.”

He writes about his wife and children in Iraq, all of whom I have before my eyes as I lived with them, shared life with them. They are like my own family. His wife “is happy and sad at same time. She happy because we survived and was so worried especially when we had no contact during our travel. She didn’t have any idea about the risks of crossing the seas. She is crying because her son is living in such conditions. I try to hide our suffering, but [our son] complains to his mom from the bottom of his heart….now they cry for each other.”

Yesterday a friend directed me to an excellent article by Jesse Rosenfeld entitled “This Is What Greece’s Refugee Crisis Really Looks Like.” (Sept.1, 2015) I recommend this piece as it bears out all of our friend’s first-hand account. Rosenfeld met two young men from Basra, in southern Iraq, on the road in the Greek Island of Lesbos. After risking everything to get to the island, they were almost killed by a moving car as they napped on the side of the road after walking for 10 hours. Rosenfeld recounts that one of the young men left his wife and children behind due to threats: “He blames one actor above all else: the United States. ‘America killed the people and destroyed Iraq. They just came for the oil.’”

Today, Sept. 4th, our friend emails: “On the night we fled from home, over a dozen men were kidnapped from our village. It was a miracle we escaped. To date they have not been found.”

Rosenfeld writes “…in the transit camps on Lesbos, there is no sign that Europe will take responsibility for a political crisis that is driving thousands of people into these unlivable conditions. Instead, the job of taking care of the refugees has been left up to local volunteers and a handful of under-equipped NGOs.”

The question foremost in my own mind is: What about the responsibility of the United States who unleashed this war on Iraq, a war based on self-interest and lies? A war without end that has unleashed unspeakable terror in the whole region!

We who bear the heaviest burden of guilt are silent. And the burden of guilt grows heavier and heavier as a result.

Cathy Breen, New York City,