My old late friend Tasso von Jena was an artist who explored themes such as human duality, seen in his image above. When I look at this piece of art, I see that duality. I also see both heads come from a unified point.
Tasso was crazy, and he was genius. An artist. A sailor. A vagabond. I knew him when he lived in a hut in Mexico. Literally.
At one point, he lived under a tarp. He was my first ‘homeless’ friend, and his living conditions challenged my privileged American upbringing. His friendship prepared me for the things I’ve seen since his death.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Ati homes. The Ati indigenous tribe members in Malay, Aklan, Philippines, live in modest nipa huts. They do not have faucets or toilets. They don’t have foyers and closets. (In fact, many local Philippine homes are like this – not only Ati.)
Many Ati homes in Malay are far from infrastructure – no roads or sewerage or trash collection. They often are built on steep, rugged land.
Earth’s privileged populations call these homes primitive.
Yet here is a profound fact about these ‘primitive’ homes: they are a million times better than what refugees face around the world in temporary camps.
The Ati homes are theirs.
Refugees running from war, drought, hunger, unimaginable poverty, gangs, etc., have nothing other than what they can carry. They have no ‘homes’. They have no country. Often, they travel alone – without family. Often, they were in a professional class, accustomed to a life similar to mine with running water and electricity, education and income.
After my double mastectomy in Croatia, I looked for a way to volunteer for refugees. I found Project Elea at Camp Eleonas in Athens, Greece. Theo agreed to give up a month of his life and join me.
It was the most difficult experience I’ve had on all of our travels since 2015. I’ve never been able to adequately write about it. (Read my letter to my family about the camp.)
At the same time, it was also more elating than any experience – even when we stood before Michelangelo’s David, which I believe is the most beautiful piece of art in the world.
The duality of emotions from refugee camp experience makes me a strong believer in the unity of our existence – that we are all ultimately equal despite our differences. One race, as the saying goes.
Since our time at the camp, I have often thought about Project Elea, the program for which we volunteered. We taught English, helped with homework, fixed bicycles, played games with kids, helped man the used clothing ‘store’, and more.
The camp was an organized, well-maintained place. As seen in the photo below, trailers were used as temporary homes, some of which we painted to help brighten conditions. There were 2,3000 people living there in late 2018 when we volunteered there.
The pandemic and recent world events have changed things for the worse. There are several hundred more people living there.
I stayed in a WhatsApp group for Project Elea volunteers because I might go back one day.
I want to share a recent message from the managers with you about the current conditions:
“… During the last 18 months, the situation and living conditions at Eleonas have seriously deteriorated. The population has increased to 2700-3000 people from whom hundreds are living in makeshift shelters and tents in all common spaces and corners of the camp. More than 50% of the population no longer receive cash assistance. The major site management support (SMS) IOM has phased out their presence in the camp and Project Elea is now working alongside the municipality of Athens alone.
The fundraiser is to create nutrition packs to supplement the food needs of some of the most vulnerable families from among those without cash assistance, it will not cover everyone and its not a permanent solution but it is necessary at the moment. The growing number of education programs will also be supported through the fundraiser at a time when all kids at camp missed the entire school year and adults lack opportunities …”
Link to the fundraiser on GlobalGiving.org: https://bit.ly/2XreJvh
We made a donation, and we hope our well-to-do, generous readers can make contributions, too.
The above artwork is courtesy Project Elea. Visit their website for more information on the fantastic, selfless, impactful work they do! https://projectelea.org
A note about volunteerism with the Ati:
Our work with the Ati began because I saw indigenous tribe members who were hungry and thirsty as they fished on the beach on a blazing hot day in mid-2020. I thought, ‘Wow, these people need help!’
With generous overseas donors, we brought them outdoor spigots of drinking water, electricity, a henhouse, a new foot bridge, a rebuilt community center, gardens, fruit trees, and so much more we haven’t even written about.
Theo is my humanitarian hero for his blood, sweat, and tears to help our Ati friends have slightly easier lives. Part of his inspiration was the experience at Camp Eleonas in Greece.