Final thoughts on Greece

I’m on the plane headed back to Boston now, still more than 1,800 miles away, as I write this. I figured now would be as good a time as any to reflect on the past five weeks in Greece.

It’s hard to put into words how challenging and rewarding this experience was. I doubt there is any other Dialogue of Civilization that is more time intensive or demanding. It’s just not possible to give anything less than your whole self over to this reporting program and, at times, that was far from being easy.

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Isabelle and Isaac working in Thessaloniki. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

There were points during which I struggled a lot — over questions of whether it’s morally responsible for students to report on refugees as an educational experience. There are things I wish I could re-do, specifically during my reporting at the refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, but I have made my peace with it. I hope in the end that I did more good than harm.

The experience reaffirmed for me that my upcoming co-op working on a girls’ education project in Jodhpur, India, is exactly where I need to be next. The role of journalists reporting on conflicts and social issues is immensely important but, for now, I don’t want to just bear witness and record the suffering of others — I want to try to help, and be a part of the solution.

While I learned more about who I am, both as a journalist and a person, I also got to learn more about other people on the trip. I was already lucky enough to be going on this Dialogue with Isaac, who really is one of my closest friends, though my frequent snarky remarks toward him may suggest otherwise. I’ve always been in awe of his incredible writing skills, and I’m so glad that we were able to step outside of our comfort zones together and produce, film and edit our first-ever video story. I’m also thankful that we were able to stop laughing at each other long enough to record our voiceovers and stand-ups (sorry Mike).

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Look! We ARE friends.

Before the trip started, Carlene said she had a gift for choosing roommates and, wow, was she right. I’m not sure how my life was ever complete before I knew Suma Hussien. She is all the good things in the world: funny, talented, smart, adventurous and compassionate, to name a few. I am going to miss all the little things with her: whether it’s getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in our Thessaloniki dorm room because we refused to close our balcony door or talking for hours late at night from our beds in our Athens hotel room.

 

Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait. 

There are so many other people I could go on and on about, but really, our Dialogue must have hit the jackpot for the most talented and kind group of people. I feel like a better person for knowing and working with all of them.

It was great working closely with professors Carlene Hempel and Mike Beaudet, both of whom have been such incredible mentors to me throughout my journalistic career at Northeastern. We were also blessed with amazing people from the American College of Thessaloniki, who never took a day off from suggesting story ideas, teaching us Greek culture and helping out with translations — Theo, Maria, Kristina and Yvonne.

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Shout out to Mike for suffering through my 1,000 questions about video. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg
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Big thanks to Carlene for dedicating so much of her time to editing my Chios story. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

Okay, you get it, the people were amazing. I know this isn’t an Oscars acceptance speech, but it’s hard not to gush about all of them. Beyond the people who made this trip great, I also had some experiences that I never thought I’d have, many of which left me thanking journalism for keeping my life both interesting and humble. Those include, in no particular order:

  • climbing Mount Olympus, home of the gods
  • seeing the Parthenon for a second time
  • sitting down for iftar dinner during Ramadan with prominent leaders in the Muslim Association of Greece
  • having coffee in the home of a professor as he showed Isaac and me videos of research he did on demonic possessions in Sudan
  • reporting from one of the most overcrowded refugee camps in Greece
  • having dinner and exchanging emails with two exiled Turkish reporters who were imprisoned for more than a decade for their journalism
  • attending the Athens Pride concert celebrating equality and LGBTQ+ identities
  • feeling a spiritual peacefulness at Meteora, a monastery seemingly suspended in the air

There are probably a lot of other life-changing things that I’m forgetting at this point, not to mention all the not-so-big moments that impacted me as well, but it’s time for me to start wrapping up (only about 800 miles away now). 

So I’ll end on this note: Another thing that Carlene said at the beginning of this Dialogue was that if you can do this (meaning this intense five-week reporting program), then you can do anything. I think I finally believe her.

Hello, Athens!

After a two-day road trip, we finally reached Greece’s capital city and the hotel we will be calling home for the next two weeks. Yesterday marked our first full day in Athens, and it seems like everyone is collectively overjoyed to be back in the heart of a bustling city.

On the way to Athens, we stopped at Meteora—a 14th to 16th century monastery built into tall rock formations—and Delphi—a town famous for its 4th century BC Temple of Apollo, home to the all-important oracle. Both visits were wonderful, but Meteora was especially fantastic, from the breathtaking views of buildings perched on rock formations (Meteora literally means “suspended in the air”) to the colorful artwork and religious artifacts decorating the inside.

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Only six of the original 24 monasteries have survived at Meteora. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

The day was so serene and it felt, quite literally, like a breath of fresh air; a welcome break from the hectic mood of our final week in Thessaloniki. During this trip, we’ve all had to report on some difficult issues and cope with significant amounts of stress, but the magnificent nature at Meteora helped clear my mind. It put things into perspective about just how beautiful and amazing the world can be.

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Carlene and I overlooking the wondrous views at Meteora. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

Now at the beginning of our second full day in Athens, I have not gotten to explore the city much yet because Carlene and I devoted yesterday to putting the final edits on my story. The process was a lot more complicated than usual—as it involved understanding complex asylum processes, sensitively handling heart-wrenching stories of escape and survival by refugees and overcoming multiple language barriers. But after a couple rounds of edits and four hours on the rooftop deck of Carlene’s apartment last night, we finally settled on a version we were both happy with around 1 a.m. The story should be going live sometime today, complete with videos from Suma and Ellie.

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Carlene and Suma hard at work last night on a story. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

Though I haven’t wandered Athens much yet, I still picked up some first impressions. I love the unique vibe of the city. I love being right in the center of it (as opposed to 20 minutes outside like we were in Thessaloniki). I love how ancient monuments and markets stand next to modern buildings and 15-foot murals.

I want to see all the art, music and attractions in the city, and try out all the incredible food. In addition to the awesome sushi dinner I had with Suma on Wednesday, I ate last night at Nolan, a Greek-Japanese and Michelin-starred restaurant (which I didn’t know until yesterday means a very, very good restaurant).

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Gwen, Suma and I eat at Nolan. Food not pictured because we ate it too fast. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

There is so much I want to experience, and I’m nervous that we only have about a week to report for our final stories. But I’m also excited to start on my newest endeavor—a video story with Isaac about the first mosque being built in Athens. I’m also thrilled to live in a hotel for the next two weeks as I’ve always wanted to since watching The Suite Life of Zack & Cody as a child.

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I know the next two weeks are going to fly by, and I can’t wait to see what this new city has to offer.

This blog post also appeared on the Northeastern University School of Journalism website.

Climbing mountains: Mid-trip reflections

It’s that dreaded point of our Dialogue: the (slightly more than) halfway point. Three jam-packed weeks have passed, the most recent week or so marking so many memorable moments, both big and small.

At the end of last week, we toured the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum on Friday and visited underground royal tombs preserved from the 300s in Vergina on Saturday (with our group almost getting kicked out of the second museum for unknowingly taking prohibited flash photographs).

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Paxtyn appreciating some ancient artifacts at the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum (the one that allowed photographs). / Photo by Olivia Arnold

Sunday and Monday, I went to Chios to report from the Souda refugee camp, one of the most overcrowded refugee camps in the country. In Chios, I witnessed so much suffering and what it looks like when the international community turns its back on people fleeing their conflict-ridden homes.

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We woke up around 5 a.m. Monday for our second day of reporting in Chios. Here, you can see the coast of Turkey, located just 4 miles away, where many refugees journey from. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

But I also met so many people to be grateful for: the courageous refugees (Abdullah, Salem, Sobhi, Jaser and Aifa) who shared their heartbreaking stories with us, the dedicated volunteers (Leslie and Helena) who support life-saving programs, the refugees working at the Chios People’s Kitchen who prepared an amazing lunch for us, Greek restaurant owner Kostas who perseveres in the face of community backlash for helping refugees and Oya and Hassan, a married couple we met over dinner, who are also Turkish journalists who served 10 and 16 years, respectively, in prison for their journalism. All in less than 24 hours, I observed the best and the worst that humanity has to offer.

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The meal prepared for us by the Chios People’s Kitchen, a volunteer refugee-run kitchen that offers cooking courses and meals for schoolchildren in the Souda refugee camp. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

The week didn’t slow down from there. The past six days included touring several downtown markets, tasting my first Turkish delight, lighting a candle in an old church to say a quick prayer and then being hugged by a nun there, community leader Father Athinagoras kissing us all on the head, learning about the Greek Orthodox church in class, attending a lecture by refugee crisis researcher Panagiotis Paschalidis, ending our final class with a toast and some really strong alcohol at 11 a.m., going out to the bars for only the second time since I’ve been here, accomplishing a strenuous (but totally worth it) 5+ hour hike in the rain of Mount Olympus, home of the gods, and filming my roommate shaving her head (she looks amazing). Also: a lot of good food, a little bit of sleep and a lot of coffee.

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Isabelle and I on our hike of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

Three weeks done also means just two weeks remaining. Two weeks left to get a whole lot done, and the pressure is on. Just look at my email inbox from this evening:

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AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

That’s right, folks. I have three deadlines, all for today/tomorrow—personal blogs, scholarship blogs and my edited story from Chios. Not to mention a 1,000-word essay for our Greek culture class at the American College of Thessaloniki due Wednesday, and a scholarship application for my fall co-op due Thursday. Calling today “crunch time” doesn’t quite cut it.

Tomorrow will be our final full day in Thessaloniki, and it seems as though we’re leaving just as we were all starting to feel comfortable. But I’m excited for the next adventure: to live in Athens and start reporting on my next story (the topic of which is to be determined).

Despite all the fun, the past few weeks have been a lot harder than I imagined they would be. I certainly didn’t expect this trip would make me question my values as much as it has, and make me think so much about right versus wrong.

I know that all these experiences—big and small, good and bad—have changed me. At the risk of using yet another cliche, this trip has definitely involved climbing mountains (and not just the physical kind).

This blog post also appeared on the Northeastern University School of Journalism website.

From being strangers to becoming a reporting team

Nearly three weeks have passed since our group first boarded a flight together from Boston to Thessaloniki. At the time, I was friends with just three people in the group of 18 students. The others I had only met a couple times, or not at all.

People who travel together on Northeastern Dialogue of Civilizations always get close. How can you not? For four to five weeks straight, you are living, eating, studying and socializing with the same group of people.

But on this Dialogue, I think we’ve surpassed the standard level of group bonding (if you don’t believe me, there’s a post incoming on Suma’s blog about how we all helped shave her head today).

There’s something special about working on our stories together—watching people’s strengths and talents shine, having our collective blood, sweat and tears come together to produce something wonderful.

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Bridget came with me to interview Maria Bozoudi, an adjunct professor at the American College of Thessaloniki, about start-up culture in Greece. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

I’m amazed every time someone selflessly offers to help another person with their story (whether that be providing photographs or videos, giving a good pre-Carlene edit or tagging along to interviews and splitting the cab fares). Just check out Cody’s profile about 70-year-old classical guitar maker Giannis Paleodimopoulos in the Greek village of Kato Scholari. The piece is incredibly well-written, but it truly comes to life with video by Gwen and photos by Sydne.

My first published story on Greece’s youth “brain drain” would have been nothing without Suma’s photographs and graphic. It was great to be able to work together on the story, mainly from our respective beds for hours on the day leading up to our deadline.

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Suma took this shot of me interviewing an Aristotle University student about Greece’s job prospects. / Photo by Suma Hussien

Last weekend in Chios, I got to see Suma in action again, but this time as a videographer (photos, graphics, filming, editing—is there anything this girl can’t do?) I also worked closely for the first time with Ellie, who served as our on-camera reporter and producer.

Chios was an intense reporting experience, one which left me grappling with feelings of guilt and tough questions concerning morality. But I am thankful that I had Suma and Ellie there by my side for the reporting and in the days following.

I was (and still am) in awe of the two of them. They are both immensely talented, intimidatingly smart and relentlessly hardworking. But beyond being good reporters, they are two of the most friendly, empathetic and nonjudgmental people I have ever met. Having them to talk to after the Chios trip, when we were all feeling the weight of our work, was invaluable in my processing of it all.

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Ellie and Suma “working” on transcribing our interviews. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

It’s fascinating to watch our group transform from strangers to a fully functioning reporting team. I’m now so comfortable with certain people that I have to step back and remind myself: you didn’t know this person three weeks ago. 

And when you think about it, that’s really a beautiful thing. At first, we had to work together because our grades depended on it. But collaborating for the sake of our stories has been nothing short of a magical process, one that introduced me to incredible fellow reporters and, hopefully, to some long-term friends.

This blog post also appeared on the Northeastern University School of Journalism website.

Today I participated in poverty tourism…

And I don’t feel good about it.

[Disclaimer: I have to get this off my chest, but I am very nervous about how it will be received. I don’t intend this to be a diss at our program. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else on this trip. This post is more of myself than I am typically comfortable sharing, so I hope you won’t judge me, though I really can’t stop you if you do.]

Since getting back from Chios two days ago, I’ve been experiencing a crisis of conscience.

I went on the reporting trip to the refugee camp thinking that these stories need to be told. I knew that it would be difficult hearing refugees recount their harrowing tales of escape and describe their living conditions inside one of the most overcrowded refugee camps in the country. But I was comforted by the thinking that I was doing this for the right reasons. We all went in with good intentions, wanting to report on the situation in hopes of raising awareness and inspiring change or donations.

But the situation was more dire and dark than I ever could have imagined. The living conditions are not just bad, they’re inhuman. Nearly everyone we spoke with had either tried to kill themselves or said they wanted to die. I’ve reported on and volunteered in tough conditions before, but nothing like this.

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A map listing the number of refugees in each city or island (in red) versus its capacity (in blue). Chios has nearly three times its capacity. / Courtesy UNHCR/UN Refugee Agency

I’m left wondering now if it was all worth it—to film desperate people revealing their most painful memories, potentially re-traumatizing them, and for what? An article that will be read by a limited audience in the United States, where our president has quashed any hopes of our country stepping up to help the most egregious human rights crisis of our generation. Besides, there have already been dozens of articles written by highly-esteemed publications documenting the miserable conditions in refugee camps—and truthfully, people either don’t care or still vehemently hate refugees.

The uncertainty over whether what I did was ethically right has been somewhat of a haunting thought, sticking with me just as much as the stories of the people we interviewed.

So I was already sensitive going into today’s trip to Dendropotamos, one of the most impoverished areas of Thessaloniki where the practically invisible Roma population of Greece (commonly known as “gypsies”) resides. There, we were received by local priest Father Athinagoras, a towering figure with a jolly spirit, who led us on a tour around the community. Father Athinagoras is a prominent figure in Dendropotamos, running a youth center for the disadvantaged children in the neighborhood. He knows everyone in the area, greeting them each with a cheerful Kalimera (good morning) as he walks by. The people, especially the children, seem to love him.

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Our group with Father Athinagoras (you can’t miss him). / Photo courtesy Kristina Babali

Father Athinagoras is wonderful, and I’m grateful for the kindness and hospitality that he showed us. But multiple times throughout the tour, I was left wondering what our purpose was for being there. We weren’t volunteering at the school or youth center. A couple students were filming Father Athinagoras for a story they are working on, but there were nearly 20 additional students there just to take part in a guided tour around a destitute neighborhood for the sake of gawking at destitution. That’s poverty tourism in a nut shell.

Perhaps people will think I’m being overly sensitive, but it didn’t sit right with me at the time, and it hasn’t since.

Featured photo courtesy Creative Commons 

Some Chios reflections (or not)

Suma, Mike, Ellie and I are back from our whirlwind reporting trip to the Greek island of Chios, which has the most overcrowded refugee camps in the country.

A lot has happened in the past 24 hours, and I know I’m probably expected to write a blog post about it. So here’s my blog post. But I’m blogging only to say that I really, really, really do not want to blog about this. This is kind of meta: A blog post about not blogging.

If you want to read about our experience as student journalists reporting from Chios, please read this post written earlier today by Ellie. She provides a great overview of the situation in Chios, as well as an emotional account from her perspective that captures a lot of what I am feeling as well, but can’t put into words as gracefully.

I’m still processing it all and I’m kind of in shock. I’m not ready to blog about it yet, and truthfully I’m not sure if I ever will be.

But I will be publishing a news story about it later this week, so be on the lookout for that on NU Journalism Abroad.

Featured photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons