And…cut!

I’m writing this blog post from my apartment in Rome, Italy with my mom in the next room packing for our next stop, Florence. I am ecstatic to travel across Italy and yet, it’s weird not packing next to Isabelle in my Thessaloniki apartment. It’s even stranger to be taking a train rather than the 20-person-full Greyhound bus. The weirdest part of all…I even miss the whole journalism part too (don’t tell Carlene 😉 )

Right now, aside from the aforementioned feelings of weird, I don’t think I have even begun to process what I just did during these past five weeks. To tide my loyal fans over (and to satisfy the required posting of blogs) I have put together a 7ish min montage of my time in Greece. I would like to pre-apologize to Mike, for I have used zero tripods in the making of this clip, BUT I did include audio fades and one transition.

Enjoy.

If you have been reading this blog, then you know of my roller coaster of emotions in my “On…” series. While those feelings were true to their core, while on this trip, those represent just a small snapshot of all the moods, feelings and thoughts I’ve had in this short period of time. I hope that I can someday put all of them into writing, either on this blog or elsewhere, but honestly I don’t see that ever being possible. Anger from this trip will fade into melancholy and acceptance, sadness into a tiny fraction of what it was and sadly, even the extreme happiness found in Greece will turn a less vibrant shade of yellow as the small details slip away.

However, this trip should not be looked at as fragments of a whole but as a huge, amazing, extraordinarily-hard-to-describe-no-matter-how-much-I-want-to experience of a lifetime that I will forever cherish and remember as something that has helped me to grow as a journalist, a friend and an overall person.

Thanks for reading.

Now, onto pizza, pasta, gelato and a well deserved break from reporting.

The “others” – Greece’s forgotten refugee population

Story by Sophie Cannon ·

This post can also be found at https://nujournalismingreece2017.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/the-others-greeces-forgotten-refugee-population/

OINOFYTA, Greece – United Nations tents and isoboxes are scattered around the grounds, shoeless boys play soccer in dimly lit halls and seemingly happy murals decorate the walls of families on boats. But on close inspection, the people are actually painted as ghosts, lost at sea.

Inside the refurbished factory building-turned-camp, the daily lives of the refugees unfold. A communal kitchen anchors the space, hallways branching off into one-room living spaces and community rooms. This appears to be the image of the refugee crisis straight out of news reports, broadcast to the world since 2015. But this is not what the world has come to know as the Syrian crisis. These are the others – from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

A mural painted by one of the child residents of the camp, depicting those who were lost on the journey from Afghanistan to Greece.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

The Oinofyta refugee camp, located about an hour north of Athens, is home to 500 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, with 5 percent from Iran and 5 percent from Pakistan. These refugees have fought through war-torn lands and sailed across the same seas, and yet, because of their nationality, they are often not given refugee status in Greece.

The UN classifies a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.” However, even though there is ongoing war or conflict in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, the individuals who show up on the shores of Greece are not given that title. Instead they are defined as economic migrants and asylum seekers, all labels that can result in deportation back to their home countries.

“They are not from a country [where] there is peace,” said Ehsan Labib from the United Afghans Community in Greece. “The only difference between Syria and Afghanistan is the difference in the war. In Afghanistan there are suicide bombs, ISIS, the Taliban. There is not safety.”

Afghanistan is currently an unsafe country due to the presence of the Taliban, an Afghan terrorist group. Many of the Oinofyta residents have been personally targeted by the Taliban, condemned to death through letters they received from the group before they fled.

One of those residents who could not give her name due to the Taliban’s call for her death, has been hiding in the camp with her children. Her father was murdered by the Taliban and they have since put out a call for the death of his extended family.

“These people are in even more in danger because they are targeted individually,” said Lisa Campbell, executive director of Do Your Part and project manager of Oinofyta. “About 50 percent are being targeted individually. But if you are running from the Taliban and can’t feed your children, then you are not safe.”

The targeted woman cannot read or write and is currently trying to meet her brother in another European country, a process called reunification. The Afghans that arrived before May 20, 2016, still qualify for family reunification. Any who arrived after are not afforded that option due to the EU – Turkey deal of March 18 that same year.

 

There have been 229 Afghans who have come through Greece looking for asylum in 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, the 500 residents of the Oinofyta camp, which opened in May of 2016, suggests there are far more than the government and UNHCR report.

“They are treated as second-class refugees,” Campbell said. “Nothing will get better until the UN grants them refugee status.”

Oinofyta is staffed by volunteers from Do Your Part, a non-profit organization that started as a response to Hurricane Katrina and now does humanitarian work all over the world.

“I knew nothing about how a refugee camp is supposed to run, so I built a community,” Campbell said.“We have 500 people now and have gone as high as 756. The camp is capped at 600 now, but I doubt it will get that high again.”

However, because of their non-Syrian status, refugees are stuck in the slow-moving process of asylum and many have been sent back to their home country, where danger awaits them.

In May 2016, Skype phone lines were created for a pre-registration process. Displaced people call into the Skype account and once answered by an Asylum Service Office, a number is handed out, like a ticket at a deli counter, to wait for an appointment for an asylum interview. Again, this process treats Syrians and non-Syrians differently.

“Syrians had their dates set and interviews within a month,” Campbell said. “The ‘others’ were eight, nine, 10 months away. Some are just now having their interviews. Not one Pakistani has gotten through the Skype lines until one month ago.”

Lisa Campbell at her desk in her air-conditioned isobox office. She holds daily office hours here, and it is the base of operations for the running of the camp. The walls are decorated with gifts from residents.
Photo by Hsiang-Yu Wu

Receiving a number is only the first step to becoming legal. The number grants the status of asylum seeker, not the refugee status that affords more benefits. The real test is passing the asylum seeker interview, held all over Greece at various embassies and government buildings. But first, waiting.

“You can wait for six months, sometimes nine months,” Labib said. “Then they give the answer and if the result is positive, the next thing they give you is permits and paperwork. If the result is negative, they give you two chances. You have to apply once again, and if you don’t in about two months or 60 days, you must leave this country.”

Some gain asylum and some are unfortunately sent back to camps or worse, to their home country. Oinofyta camp resident Elias, 25, and his brother, 21, both from Afghanistan, sought asylum and were afforded different answers.

“I came with my brother and he is still on Lesbos,” he said through a translator. “When he went to asylum review, they sent him back to Lesbos and me here. I was sick so they let me stay because I had a knife wound. I asked to stay here, in Greece.”

Unlike Elias, when it comes to asylum location preference, many want to be anywhere but Greece. They pay smugglers to help them and their families cross the many borders between their home country, Greece and their final destination.

“Any place is better than here. For living, for studying, everything,” said Salim, 25, a resident from Afghanistan in the Oinofyta camp. “I came by foot, by car, by boat, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran and Turkey to Greece. We stayed in the mountains, the deserts, any place. It cost about 9,000 euro (about $10,000) to the smugglers, I sold my car.”

Even if all goes well and refugees receive a number, go to their interview and get approved for asylum, unlike the structural programs in place for Syrian refugees in other countries, there are no services available to Afghans or others.

“Once you’ve been granted asylum, there are programs for integration,” Campbell said. “Greece doesn’t have that process in place yet. They don’t qualify, according to the UN, for relocation and they can only apply for asylum in Greece. They pay smugglers to get them out.”

Because of this, many of the residents of Oinofyta have given up in trying to get out of the camp and Greece as a whole, and unless they use a smuggler to get them out of the country, when the camp eventually closes they will have nowhere to go. Campbell predicts the camp will close within the next year or so, saying that on average, only about 1 percent of residents get resettled.

This is coming all too soon for many of the residents, as they arrived less than one year ago from the most dangerous and exhausting journeys of their lives. When resident Parsa Qavami, 46, from Iran, came to the shores of Greece, his journey was not an easy one. Originally trying to get to Italy, Qavami ended up on the shores of Greece and found himself in prison there.

Parsa Qavami, pictured in front of the camp. His family was left behind and they plan on following when he finds a more permanent refuge. He is one of the few Iranians in residence at Oinofyta.
Photo by Bradley Fargo

“We spent eight or nine days in the police station,” Qavami said. “One day we were taken to the hospital for blood tests and then 35 people were set free. Myself and four friends were then sent to the central jail. I still don’t know why I was in jail for six months.”

He described the jail as unbearable. “We were forced to eat breakfast during lunch, lunch was at 4, and dinner at 11 to 12 so we wouldn’t be hungry when we woke up,” he said. “When we would say we were sick, we wrote it down but they were lying and they wouldn’t give it to the doctors. Because of the jail, I ended up with a stomach issue…I had developed a growth on my liver. I don’t know how I got it but they told me it was from contact with dogs, but I had never touched a dog so I don’t know. It was maybe because of the drinking water in the prison.”

Once a self-employed backgammon set maker and award-winning body builder, Qavami is one of the few Iranians at the camp, and with his focus on his family back home, he has little time for grievances or friendships.

“I try to not make friends or talk to anyone,” he said. “The majority comes here to stay. Here, for some people is like paradise but for me and with the way I think and the life I had, it’s not.”

As a part of this community, both Campbell and Labib try and make the lives of the Afghans in Greece as productive as possible. In Oinofyta, there is a fully staffed tailor shop, a hair salon, a workshop and a garden. In the United Afghan Community in Greece, Labib makes it his goal to show just how educated and helpful the Afghan refugees can be, if given the chance.

“We have two goals,” Labib said. “We want to show this country that these refugees that come here, they were doctors, they were engineers, they were teachers. The second thing we want to do is to make opportunities for these Afghans so they can do something here, in Greece.”

Regardless of whether the 500 residents of Oinofyta or the thousands of Afghans in the country decide to stay in Greece or apply for asylum in another European country, Labib makes it clear that the only way to really help the refugees is to stop separating them  into categories.

“Thousands is thousands. If the Europeans countries want to help the refugees, they must not make a difference between Syria and Afghanistan,” Labib said. “When we give bread to someone who is hungry, we must give for two. Right now, the Afghan refugees and the Syrian refugees, both of them are hungry, and we cannot give bread to one and not to the other one.”

On Support

On my walk back home from the subway this evening with Asia, (a walk that deserves another blog post itself, stay tuned), there was a short lull in our seemingly never-ending conversation and in that temporary pause between inside jokes and echoing laughter, I realized something. I had only really met Asia five weeks ago and yet we have grown so close and shared so much during this emotional, rewarding, stressful, fun and challenging trip.

This dialogue has taught me many things. One major take away from this trip has been learning just what an amazing support system can do and why I very much need the kind of system this group of 18 individuals has given me. Throughout this post I am going to give a few shoutouts, but truly, every student on this trip has taught me something for which I am forever grateful. I appreciate you all more than you will ever know.

To start, I have learned to believe myself. No, I did not forget to write the word “in” here. I have learned that my truth is my truth and I need to believe it. After Olivia read through a work of mine she told me not to believe that it didn’t hold up and that it could not only stand on its own but should. I started out thinking it was worthy, and when I faltered in that thinking, I needed her reminder to believe in my gut and in my work.

I have also learned to share, hopefully not for the first time as I hope Kindergarten also taught me the basics of that. I don’t mean share as in the sharing of work, credit or praise. I mean share as in sharing my feelings with those I trust and not worry if I am burdening them or dragging them down. My roommate Isabelle can attest to this, as can Asia and most likely Paxtyn (freshmen have to stick together), but I have had talks/cries/rants with them more on this trip than in my entire first year of college and most likely longer than that. In those moments, they encourage me to let it all out, wanting to help not because they have to but because that is what a friendship is all about. In turn, I have done the same with no negative feelings or negative energy surrounding myself afterward, but it’s harder I suppose when it’s you that needs the support. I used to think I was infecting them with my sadness or anger, but now, after much assurance from Isabelle, I know that I am not and we can (and did) all go out an hour later to enjoy the town we have right outside our hotel doors.

I have learned that my work should reflect myself in it and I have to be proud of everything that leaves my workspace and is published on another with my name on it. David, while reporting on the protests of Thessaloniki, reminded me of that, while trying to get each word right on our long story. I have always loved to write and loved it almost as much when I see my name published in bold next to anything I have had a part in working on. A once self-proclaimed “slut for bylines” I have now fully realized just how much my work means to me and don’t just want a byline but want a byline I am proud of having above an article I fully support. While writing a story (yet to be published, stay tuned maybe) in Athens, I was proud of how it read, beginning to end. When I later found out that some of it would be scrapped, and not just in simple edits, I realized how deeply I connect to my work. I was reminded by Asia that loving what one has produced and standing by its quality is to be applauded, no matter the consequence. I am no stranger to edits, but I am also not one to have her voice snuffed out nor produce half-assed work for the world (or anyone who Googles my name) to see. Another thank you goes to Cody for helping me in getting my stories out there and hopefully onto the pages of Google, offering to help me pitch stories to the real world after the trip. (If you decide to move to Minneapolis, HMU for a tour.)

Most of all, I have realized that I am not alone here. I have always had someone to go to dinner with. I have never sat alone on a rooftop bar or at a beach or even in a taxi. More importantly, when I am feeling a certain way, there is always someone who is feeling that way too that I can talk to. When I have had frustrations on this trip there has always been a hotel bed to sit and rant on, everyone exchanging similar tales of grievances or annoyance. When I have good days reporting, Isaac is always there with a bottle of wine and everyone else is there to drink it and celebrate too. We trade stories, complaints, laughter, edits, suggestions and most likely germs too (thanks Brandon + the grads for getting me sick), and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

Support is not easily come by in a world (and profession) riddled with rejection and harsh criticism. When you find those people who support you but also don’t sugar coat the truth, cherish them, spend five weeks with them in a high stress environment, and please try and keep them around for as long as you can.

Here’s to the last three days, lets make them count and I’ll (inevitably) see you all on the rooftop bar in a bit.

Scrambling the Patriarchy

As the title of this blog hopefully suggests, this post is about eggs.

Last night, after working in the hotel for the past few days (check out my latest story here and stay tuned for my next one coming soon), I decided it was about time to check out the night life in Athens.

Thessaloniki, despite being criticized by some of my friends here, provided some of the best nights out. Sure, there were some nights that we didn’t find a good club and ended up at a smoke-filled bar, they were still fun, safe and for the sake of this post, egg-free.

Back to last night, after leaving a cool underground bar with an amazing bar tender, Olivia, Luke, Isaac, Paxtyn, Gwen and I were walking around the neighborhood when all of a sudden…

**CRACK*

An egg flew from the open window of a car full of hoodlum boys racing past us. The egg in question rocketed straight into my ribcage, leaving an oblong-shaped bruise and more importantly, putting a rotten mood on my night. (Rotten egg, get it?)

It’s not the egg itself that bothered me. It’s the fact that I no longer felt safe in a neighborhood that I was here to explore and make my own. We continued on our path, determined to barhop, but the whole time I felt uneasy (or over easy…? Can’t help but make a few egg puns. They crack me up.)

The next day, Asia and I took the subway down to the marketplace to scope out some street art and find a new angle for her story. On the way back, not only did I get stared at and was the unfortunate recipient of once-over glances from a very creepy 60+ year old man, the eggs made another appearance.

Standing in front of a convenience store of all places, on our way home from our night of graffiti and chocolate cake, the now familiar sound of boys yelping and the deafening *CRACK* of, yes, another egg, came whizzing towards us, crashing into the pavement by our feet and splattering our shoes with yoke.

This time, all we could do was crack up (sorry, did it again).

Since I have been here, I have definitely noticed the apparent sexism and creepiness of the men here after about 7 p.m.. Sadly, sexism is something that all women, no matter the country, deal with daily. In the field of journalism, that may mean that a interviewee may not talk to you or speak in a demeaning way. It means only going out in groups, preferably with a man and not a group of two girls. It means returning by sundown and not wearing shorts, despite the 85 degree weather.

Here, I guess it means getting an unwanted omelette pitched at you at 50 mph from a car full of immature boys.

I can laugh about it now. (Come on Greece, you are in an economic crisis and you are wasting perfectly good breakfast food?!) But in all seriousness, it can feel pretty gross sometimes to be a target of anything from catcalls on the streets (so far its been about 20+ times) to the fear of being egged every time I leave the hotel.

Boys, didn’t your mom ever tell you not to play with your food? Calm down, make an omelette and take a break from being obnoxious. I’m egghausted.

New Holocaust museum will preserve lost Jewish identity and history in Thessaloniki

Story by Sophie Cannon ·

*This story also lives at our main site at https://nujournalismingreece2017.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/new-holocaust-museum-will-help-preserve-thessalonikis-violent-and-rich-jewish-history/* 

THESSALONIKI, Greece – From the street level, it is a nondescript gray building guarded by a single security booth. Inside however, there is a blend of rich Jewish culture, where an orthodox rabbi leads services to a crowd of Sephardic Jews ranging in age from an infant to a 95-year-old woman humming along to his chants. Wine imported from Israel flows freely around the dining room.

This is the Jewish Community Center of Thessaloniki, where the melodic sounds of Hebrew echo through the crowded room of about 70, bumping into Greek, Spanish and Yiddish along the way. In addition to some travelers from Israel, invited to attend the weekly Friday night ritual, it’s a typical turnout for Shabbat (or Sabbath) dinner in the small but still alive-as-ever Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

Once called “The Jerusalem of the Balkans,” the second largest Greek city of Thessaloniki is trying to rebuild its Jewish identity on the very land where it was destroyed 70 years ago. At the railway station where 50,000 Thessaloniki citizens once boarded cattle cars to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, the new Holocaust Museum of Greece is set to begin construction at the end of this year, and will be open to the public in late 2019.

On June 15, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, in an annual meeting. Mayoral adviser Leonidas Makris said they will likely make a statement of support for the new museum at the meeting, to take place in Thessaloniki.

“The museum will narrate the history of the Jews in Thessaloniki, their significance to the life and prosperity of the city and their fate during the war,” said Meira Kowalsky, a partner at Efrat-Kowalsky Architects, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, one of the construction companies contracted to build the museum. “We hope that it will enhance dialogue and tolerance between communities based on a better knowledge and respect of the past.

At the western entrance of the city, the old railway station will be transformed into a six-floor, circular building, spanning more than 75,340 square feet. In addition to the museum, there is a proposed education center set to be adjacent to the old rail station – though information on dimensions, scope and cost won’t be public until later this year.

The powerful symbolism of the location is one of the most important aspects of the space as it’s the exact station where 95 percent of the city’s Jewish resident were deported to death camps at the start of Nazi occupation in Greece.

The site for the new Holocaust Museum of Greece, built at the old train station through which the Jewish population was deported to concentration camps during the war.
Photo by Sydne Mass

The museum has secured funding from two different donors: 10 million euros (or $11.2 million) from the German government and the same amount from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a private Greek philanthropic organization that funds projects geared toward arts, culture, education and social welfare.

In addition to the monetary sponsors, the Greek parliament is in agreement across party lines that there is a need for the museum, with support from the leading Syriza party as well as from the official opposition party, New Democracy.

“This is a dream we have had since 2013, with the mayor as well,” said Larry Sefiha, vice president of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, an elected board of local Jewish leaders. “We had a plan of making this museum, a good collaboration with the mayor [Yiannis Boutaris] and a design. We have assurance from the prime minister [Alexis Tsipras] and the head [president] of the Hellenic Republic [Prokopis Pavlopoulos] and also the head of the opposition party as well.”

The Jewish history of Thessaloniki runs deep within the historical framework of the city, despite the small Jewish footprint in Thessaloniki today. Sefiha said the city’s Jewish population is a fraction of what it once was.

“The community used to be vivid and vibrant,” Safiha said. “The majority of the population was about 70,000 of 150,000 total residents. Before the Holocaust, there were 50,000 after some moved out of Greece for economic reasons and after the war until today there are about 1,500.”

Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, decimating the Jewish community. The majority of the population was sent to Poland by train. The lucky few who were not caught by the Nazis hid in the mountains of Greece, awaiting news that the war had ended.

With a Jewish population slowly returning to the city, the next step is rebuilding the past and providing education for future generations. In addition to documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust, the goal of the museum is to educate and drive home the lessons learned from it.

“We want to not only depict the Holocaust as an event, but to educate and combat anti-Semitism, racist and any ‘anti-’ feelings,” said Marcel Hassid, administrator and employee at the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. “To not only learn about the event itself but the underlying situation and its tie into the current situation is very important.”

That sentiment is vital in combating anti-Semitism around the world, and here in Thessaloniki as well. According to an Anti-Defamation League 2015 report, Greece’s anti-Semitic rating is at 67 percent, based on survey responses from a random selection of the population. This is compared to a 10 percent rating of the Americas. The majority of the population, 90 percent as of 2015, is Greek Orthodox.

Pamphlets from the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki in Greek, Hebrew and English to accommodate the many visiting Israeli and American tourists.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Greece comes in as one of the highest in anti-Semitism on paper,” said Erika Perahia-Zemour, curator and employee of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, which is dedicated to documenting Jewish life in Thessaloniki before the Holocaust and also serving as a small memorial. “It is because of the very power in the church, the influence of the church.”

While the rating is high compared to the U.S. and many other countries, mayoral adviser Makris said the anti-Semitism here in Greece is different and not generally expressed as violence as it is in other places.

“It is true that there are reports of high anti-Semitism in Greece. Our culture is more outspoken, not embarrassed or politically correct about our feelings,” Makris said. “If you take a survey of the average Greek about how they feel about the Jews, it is going to be negative. However, almost 1 million Jews are coming from Israel for holidays but no violent attacks have ever happened and it happens every day in Britain. Greeks speak loudly but do not react violently.”

While funding for the museum has been secured as of early this year, according to Makris, the project still has a way to go before breaking ground. The building permit is still entangled in the slow bureaucracy Greeks have become accustomed to.

“In Greece we go too slow, but this was big history. Ninety-six percent of the community is a lot to lose,” said Lili Antzel, guide and employee at the Monistir Synagogue, which is the only synagogue currently open in Thessaloniki. “It will be positive if it happens, though. People know the Europe side of history. The things about the Germans and France and Poland, but they don’t know about the Thessaloniki Jews.”

The Jewish population of Greece was largely Sephardic Orthodox, and originally came from places such as Morocco, Spain and the Middle East. The community spoke Ladino, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish, causing a majority of their history to be lost in translation. Ladino has practically gone extinct.

“They spoke Ladino until the day they left, so the language barrier prevents us from knowing a lot,” Antzel said. “We do know that they had schools, teaching Kabbalah (a Jewish mystic interpretation of the Bible) and other things. Prominent rabbis from all over came during the 16th to 18th century. It was always a multicultural city.”

The Jewish community of learned individuals, scholars and business people was wiped out, not once but twice – first when a fire in 1917 destroyed the city center of Thessaloniki, which housed most of the Jewish people, and again during Nazi occupation.

Most of the 1,500 Jewish people living in Thessaloniki are still Sephardic and Orthodox in practice.

“We are 1,000 members, 20 percent are Thessaloniki survivors and their descendants and the rest are people that came back after the war,” said Perahia-Zemour of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. “I’m not sure the community will continue. Numbers are diminishing. We hope we will hold like we did after the war.”

Despite the small community, there are still a few buildings in Thessaloniki devoted to serving the Jewish population and preserving its history.

A digital mock-up of the proposed new Holocaust Museum.
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki.

“There were 42 synagogues in Thessaloniki, and all were destroyed except this one, as it served as the Red Cross warehouse during the war,” Antzel said of the Monistir Synagogue. There are also two others, Yad Lezicaron, housed inside the same building as the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki office, currently undergoing renovations, and another inside Modeano, a home for aging Jewish people.

Inside the Monistir Synagogue, besides the pews, everything is as it was before the war, from the arc that holds the Torah to the three crystal chandeliers hanging above the red velvet seats. Hebrew, a language not often heard in Thessaloniki, is the common tongue here – making this place stand apart from the rest of the city as a frozen moment in time, when the Jewish people were the lifeblood of society.

“All the celebrations of the families happen here. Bar mitzvahs, weddings…,” Antzel explained. “The community helps a lot too. Now that the economy is not so good, we all help where we can. We have Israel programs, donations to the poor. We give what we have to help.”

Upon completion of the museum, the government and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki hope it will not only help empower the community in the city, but also help those who have connections to the Jewish population of Thessaloniki find the answers to their questions.

“Once the construction begins, it may take two to three years to complete the building,” said Kowalski, of the architecture firm, which has built other Holocaust museums around the world. “The project in Thessaloniki is particularly important since it would be the first museum to tell the story of the Sephardic Jews in the Holocaust. Our design for the museum is contextual and refers to the architecture of the city of Thessaloniki.”

While the number of practicing Jews in the city is small, the stories left behind are an integral part of the second Jerusalem’s past.

“We are not the ‘others,’” Sefiha said. “It’s a part of the history of Greece and has always been a part of the history of Thessaloniki.”

Just a Small Town Girl…?

I have always been one for big cities, having grown up in one way too small for my liking. Boston called my name last year, a welcome escape from the suburbia of Edina, Minnesota.

Leaving Thessaloniki behind for the bigger and more well know Athens, I did not experience the same longing to be in the big city. Instead I felt a pang of sadness and a sense of nostalgia for the city I had only come to know in three weeks time.

Thessaloniki was not amazing because of its grandeur. Its skinny streets with half-closed shops and street cats did not shimmer with the foreign luster I desired when I first came to Greece. Instead, warn shop signs and tobacco scented air became the sights and smells of home. I knew the man at the gyro place down the street and the lady who worked at the deli counter who never once poked fun at my weekly visit for turkey and cheese (to pack school lunches for Asia and I).

As many of my friends here have mentioned, the boardwalk along the Aegean sea captured my heart from the very first (sweaty) stroll down its length. Serving as the compass rose for our small city, I always came back to the sea. While abroad in a new place, the moment I feel at home is the moment I realize that I know where I am and can make my way home from wherever that may be. On the boardwalk, eating a chocolate cake with Asia and Isabelle, I could turn to the left and remember when I chased protests with David and Bradley, to the right is where we took midnight boat rides and straight ahead is the old city, perched on the hill extending up into the horizon.

I am writing this blog post from Athens, in a humid hotel room with Paxtyn by my side, doing the same. I do not long for Thessaloniki, Alexandrias 124 or even the boardwalk, but they will forever hold a place in my heart. The three weeks spent there sounds like an arbitrary amount of time, but when you are dropped into a city and made to find stories, you learn the city quickly and soon after that, falling in love is inevitable.

While it is sad to say, I will most likely not return to Thessaloniki. I have a dream to travel the world, and that does not allow any time for do-overs. It is time for Athens now, a full two weeks to learn, map, explore and write about a new city. Athens is bigger and busier for sure, but after exploring for just four hours today with Theo (our guide of sorts) and Asia, I can tell my heart will be bruised when I must leave, just the same as it was when I left our first city.

Here’s to you Thessaloniki. Thank you for hosting me and helping me acclimate into Greece.

And to you Athens, here I am.

On Limits

I’m sitting halfway up Mt. Olympus, currently feeling far from godlike.

I had tried to push my limits and decided to hike the mountain, something I used to be able to do with (somewhat) ease. About 3 years ago, I had the worst year of my life, resulting in a paralyzed left leg and now, a very weak and finicky one. You can ask me for the full story later, but long story short, I am limited and I hate it.

I was never the most fit kid, but I have always loved nature and exploring. Growing up at a summer camp in the forests of Wisconsin and having a nature trail in my back yard, falling in love with trees and green was inevitable.

Since my (botched) surgery, my love for nature has frustratingly not diminished. The five-hour hikes have turned into one-hour, harder trails into easy and less beautiful strolls. And today, the four-hour hike to see the Gods of Olympus has turned into a $25 cab ride and a $1.50 beer in a taverna not even Hades would want to be at, the rain putting out his fiery blue hair.

Knowing ones limit is something I still have not come completely to terms with. I am not good at saying no, holding anyone back or turning down a group activity. Coined, “FOMO” or “fear of missing out,” I push my limits, medical and mental, to match those around me, and in this case, it is not such a good thing. While I know no one on this trip would say anything mean about me, the fear of missing a great hike, an inside joke or worse, being the butt of the joke is worse than the ache in my leg.

Ever since the first twitch of my big toe, signaling that I wouldn’t be paralyzed forever, I have pushed myself to embrace everything. I shoved my bandaged foot into my heels for the Homecoming dance, bound my ankle to my calf in order to make it to my first day of school and hiked up and down Masada (in Israel) not once but twice.

On bad days like these, on the side of the road in nowhere-Greece alone and waiting for a cab in the rain, I try and remember how far i’ve come and how many limits I have pushed with a positive outcome. Today was not one of those days…maybe tomorrow.