New Years Retreat 2018: Brothers before Refugees

Brothers and Humans before Refugees

Part 4 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

January, 2018

It was the first gathering and first night together of our New Years retreat on Aegina Island. Although we were not far from home, the raucous life and cries from Athens seemed like a distant world behind us. Our Aegina oasis on the other hand, with its jungle-like garden, serene ocean two hundred meters away, groves of pistachio trees surrounding us on all sides, aged beauty of its historic residence with wooden floors, old garden statues, and multiple balconies overlooking the dark aqua sea with island and peninsula mountains in the horizon – it was an utterly majestic setting, and she enveloped our souls into its wild and heavenly embrace. Because of the generosity and vision of her stewards, we were able to afford this beautiful center and express our deep aspirations. This was a unique New Years retreat combining international volunteers, refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Greek residents. While paradise surrounded us, even more magic was unfolding within its walls.

Groves of bare pistachio trees and a forested garden surround the castle-like retreat center on Aegina, our island oasis for five days together.

Instead of heading up top to the presentation room with its impressive views of islands and stars, we gathered in the communal room downstairs for our first gathering together. Its lofty ceiling and windows expansively overlooked the garden’s jungle, offering us a relaxed and casual, yet inspiring atmosphere for us to connect, release, and be embraced. While the group contained several strong friendships, many of us were totally new to each other. Furthermore, it was the first time that several of us, including volunteers and refugees, had ever experienced meditation, let alone a full retreat.

Sensing some shyness and hesitation, we decided to shatter any nervousness right from the start with introductions that combined laughter with light-hearted embarrassment. “Please share your name, where you’re from, and imitate the calling or movements of your favorite animal…” Everyone was shocked and laughed at my absurd suggestion, but then became quietly focused on themselves and their upcoming animal presentation after seeing that I was serious about it. Giggles, outright laughter, some admirations, tons of embarrassing moments, and success! We were bonding and overcoming our social fears, not merely as volunteers and refugees, but more like kids playing and sharing freely in a tree house together. As we went around, it was clear that Mohsen, a new friend from Afghanistan, had by far the best callings out of anyone, and was able to beautifully imitate several animals named in the circle. Now we were ready to dive in further.

A beautiful brother.

“This retreat is a gift to ourselves. It’s a gift to our bodies and minds to deeply rest, to release what we’ve been holding in the city, in our homes, our jobs, our relationships, and in our hearts. The wild beauty of this island, the lulling sounds of the ocean embracing us, and especially the kind and supportive friends around us, all these elements are allowing us to release tension, to let go, and to touch something deeper in ourselves. We may invite ourselves to touch the deep wells of peace, compassion, and spaciousness within us…”

On the one hand, I was used to providing very clear guidance on meditation practice, including upright posture. On the other hand, I felt cautious about overly encouraging anyone to sit or be in a way that felt strange or uncomfortable for them, especially those with different religious and cultural backgrounds. After stopping to breathe for several moments, I settled on a middle way and shared, “Here is the way that some of us here have learned to cultivate peace and joy in our bodies and minds. You are welcome to join us and experiment it yourself. But don’t merely take our word for it. See for yourself what feels comfortable, beneficial, and right for you.”

Mohsen, our friend from Afghanistan, lay back against the couch with his eyes closed, as I slowly coursed into our first guided meditation. The couches were not very supportive for a typical upright position, and already Mohen’s posture looked more conducive to falling asleep than meditating. But we didn’t have proper meditation cushions and our most essential task was to allow him and everyone else to begin feeling deeply comfortable with such raw silent awareness. Cultivating this collective quiet presence was new to him and others, and we wished to enter it slowly, for this doorway would allow us to enter further realms of deep authenticity, contemplation, brotherhood and sisterhood, and genuine transformation together. At least, we hoped.

We sat (or laid against the couch) in quiet stillness together for fifteen minutes, as we guided a basic mindfulness practice focusing on one’s body and breath, touching the simple yet profound joy of being fully present and alive. Whether people were meditating, or passing out on the couch, who could tell?  

Under the surface, our silent candlelit awareness slowly started seeping in, infusing drops of peace and compassion into the skin, muscles, bones, and heart of our newly born Aegina family.

In addition to relaxing and rejuvenating our bodies and spirits, our retreat’s purpose was to learn deeply from one another, especially by encouraging everyone to share about their authentic experiences and needs. Having arrived on a deeper level together, we were ready to begin listening. We invited everyone to give their personal ‘weather report’ in the moment, as well as tell about their intentions for coming to this 4-day retreat. One by one, people spontaneously voiced what was alive for them,  while the rest of us listened deeply. After about an hour, only Mohsen was left. We sat in silence for a few minutes, giving him the space to offer his unique voice. Not wanting to pressure him, I prepared to close the circle, but cautiously asked him a last time. He raised hand slightly and glanced my way in affirmation.

“My whole life I have struggled. I have struggled for so long. Peace, calm, what you speak of – I don’t know what that is. I never knew what that is. Walking in the garden, relaxing, swimming in the ocean, I don’t know what that is. People in my country, they struggle. This is the first time in my life I have tried something like this – meditation. And I really appreciate you for sharing with me.” Mohsen turned to look at me as he spoke. The light was dim in the room, and I could only see the dark shadow over his eyes. Yet his deep dark eyes still conveyed something perfectly to me – the soft intimacy and peace of sharing something precious together. He turned back to the circle, and continued. “I try it now, and I think it helps me.” My heart sank into deep appreciation, knowing that our community was able to offer this young man who has struggled so much of his life, some moments of real peace. Even if it was just a few moments, it was what we had come here for. I felt my chest sigh quietly in relief, as I sensed that our aspirations had already come to fruition, had already realized themselves. Even if this is all we had succeeded in, it was enough and worthy all our efforts to manifest this retreat.

Mohsen dove in further, fearlessly sharing his thoughts with us. “I am living in Athens now with the label of fucking ‘refugee’. I hate that word, that label. First, I am a human being. People don’t know me, don’t know where I’m from and my experiences. I am not just ‘refugee’. They don’t understand me, but they think they do.”

“I have a few friends who are really good – a few. They spend time with me, we go places together, and we have a nice time. Really, they are so great. But they are few compared to the others. The others who aren’t open to me, or don’t say anything to me, even as I say hi and say something to them. But they don’t say anything back, they only talk and spend time with each other.

“What really upsets me, what I hate, is that people think that they’re better than me, better than refugees. The way they talk with me, or don’t talk with me, and how they only spend time with each other, and not with refugees, that upsets me so much. They think they are better than me, and so I work hard, I work so hard all the time to prove that they are not. They are international volunteers but why are there? They do not come to help. I asked them one day, ‘Why are you here?’ And then they say, ‘Oh, for fun.’ For fun? For fun? How can they say that? They think this is fun for them? This is our lives here.”

Mohsen bent his head forward and put his hand near his eyes, covering most of his cheek and eyes. It was difficult to see his face, but we still felt it. As he paused and took in some moments of silence, with our ears and hearts we could still see his eyes and expression in the shadow of his hands.

Light and darkness dance with each other, both in sunsets and in our lives.

After a few minutes, a new tone conveyed clarity and strength, but with the continued pain of exasperation. “Normally, I am not able to say these things, and they build up inside me until I explode. I get upset and then I go drink and then I go talk to them about it when I am drunk. And then people get upset that I talk to them like this. I say that I am talking like this when I am drunk because I am not able to say this to them before. I need to talk about it but I don’t know how… This is very good, talking here with all of you. It’s good for me.” Mohsen’s voice started becoming more relaxed, with hints of gratitude peeking through with a sense of relief. We could feel the storm of his feelings returning to the ocean of calm and clear skies that we typically see in him.

“I am happy that I have this time to spend here with all of you, with open-minded people. For this I am thankful.” Mohsen paused pensively for another moment, before decidedly putting his palms together in front of his chest and deeply bowing to the group to close his sharing.

Mohsen’s words blew us all away. Most of us had just met this young man. And yet, here we were, on this island together, listening to him share some of the deepest sentiments and struggles of his life as a ‘refugee’ in a foreign world. We were volunteers, yet he shared the pain of volunteers in his life; we knew him as a ‘refugee’, yet he shared the pain of living with label; we were mostly white Europeans and Americans, yet he fearlessly opened up our understanding such cultural divisions. Mohsen clearly felt the atmosphere of safety and care in the room grow stronger around him, and he trusted it to embrace him, so that his truths could spread its wings and fly out towards all of us.

The majestic golden eagle, Afghanistan’s national bird; an icon of freedom and strength.

When someone entrusts the sacred gems of their interior world to me, it is one of the most precious gifts in life that I can receive. I later asked Ioan, one of his closest friends and who invited him to attend the retreat, whether he had shared these deep reflections before. Ioan said he was amazed how much Mohsen had shared, how powerful his words were, and that he had never heard him share such sentiments before.

Throughout the next few days, Mohsen fully immersed himself in our retreat. We enjoyed walking meditation in the garden and down to the ocean, sunset meditation at the beach, mindful eating during silent meals, mindful hiking to an ancient olive grove together, writing reflections on the new year, and another sharing circle. The longer we spent together, the less we remembered who was ‘volunteer’ or who was ‘refugee’. We were all just kids playing on this island together, just boys and girls touching moments of joy, peace, and freedom together. Perhaps we were all refugees fleeing from the chaos of city-life, and we were all volunteers, continuously gifting and serving each other in various ways to make the retreat possible.

One of the many moments that stood out the most during our retreat was watching Mohsen’s determination one morning to cook us a traditional Afghani meal. The night before Mohsen left the retreat a day earlier than us, he expressed an unshakeable wish to offer us a gift from his homeland. Mohsen awoke earlier than everyone else and started the long process of sautéing eggplants, cooking rice, preparing eggs, and crafting the secret sauces of his land ancestors.

With our backpacks filled with both Greek and Afghanistan delights, we set off together for our hike on New Years Eve.

We hiked that day to an ancient olive grove, where trees had nourished former monastic communities in a sacred valley up to two thousand years ago. The great grandmother olive trees were not only the perfect inspiration for our reflections together, but also for our special New Years eve Afghani meal. We sat between these beautiful ancient beings, and relished Mohsen’s offerings. Not only was the meal uniquely delicious, but we savored Mohsen’s happiness as he offered us all a true taste of his homeland. With each bite of mouth-watering eggplant in sweet yogurt sauce, we were instantly transported from this Greek island to the roaming hills of Afghanistan. If listening deeply to Mohsen share his struggles was like the rain soaking into the earth and seeds, then offering his homeland meal was like the sunshine pouring down upon his blooming flowers.

Behind the camera, Mohsen captures us rejoicing over the feast.

Mohsen made it clear to us that our retreat together on the island meant the world to him. The night he left, we had a big hugging circle around him, and he kept sharing with everyone how much, ‘I fucking appreciate you all and this time!’. Had he bloomed among us?  Or was it us who had bloomed because of him? Perhaps it was true friendship who bloomed instead, revealing her brilliant petals and sweet fragrance to all of us. Yes, true friendship, with her timeless blossoms of inclusivity, compassion, and joy.

Because of the magical diversity of our group, this was one of most amazing retreats that we had ever organized, and Mohsen’s presence in our circle was perhaps the biggest treasure. It allowed those of us who had never been refugees, to see the world through his eyes, and receive the lessons he had to offer. The extent to which his genuine story will help and guide us in our continued work as volunteers cannot be overestimated.

Bringing people together from different worldviews is a catalyst for even greater transformation in our lives and maturity in our worldview. Our deep wish is to have another retreat in the future, with more migrants from abroad, Greeks, and international volunteers coming together to practice peace, and share our unique gifts with each other.

With blue sky, rocks to climb on, great friends, and a fresh smile on our hearts, what more could we ask for?

Special thanks to our kind and generous hearted Sangha friends who had offered scholarship funds for this special New Years retreat in Greece. (Especially Elli & Rob, Anne Woods, David Percival, and Sue Rempel. Your support was the last condition for us to bloom). Thank you!

Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of our Sangha retreat...

With 2,000 year old Great-Grandmother Oak behind us, what more inspiration could we ask for to reflect deeply this New Years?

Sangha sunset meditation on Aegina…

Sangha Family!

A mindful lunch together…

 And the 5 year old children within us were set free!!!…