Taking charge of stress

Cherry-blossoms-pic by Iva

“Somehow, we’ll find it. The balance between whom we wish to be and whom we need to be. But for now, we simply have to be satisfied with who we are.” 
(Brandon Sanderson)

Perhaps you have a balanced life, some people do, with enough rest, enough play and interaction with family and friends, healthy life-style, and a balanced working-life. You may even take time to invest in your prayer life. If that’s you, well done. Keep doing what you are doing, as it is serving you well.

Most of us, on the other hand, will struggle with stress from time to time. Whenever we 
are overwhelmed in any one area of our life, it may be helpful to find ways to de-stress and 
do whatever will help us get out of our head at least a few times a day. We may already have 
things we do that are helpful in this regard, so these suggestions are only meant as pointers. Use them if they help you, leave them behind if they don’t.
“Stress management is all about taking charge: of your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with problems. No matter how stressful your life seems, there are steps you can take to relieve the pressure and regain control.”*

Listen to your body

No matter what is going on in our life, our body will feel it. If you need rest, let your body tell you and try to make room for things you find relaxing. If you need friends, a listening ear, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for support. If you are not eating well, make sure to include at least a few healthy meals throughout your days. This may seem so obvious that we take it for granted at times but looking after out bodies is as important as it is looking after our soul and our hearts. Self-care is crucial if we want to have a good quality of life.

Exercise

Exercise is as important for mental health as much as for our physical wellbeing. Whether it is swimming, cycling, walking, running; if we have a lot on our mind, physical exercise will somehow clear our head from worrying. At the moment I use an app with a variety of exercises; it helps me to schedule exercise in my week. You, however, find whatever suits you best. Even short walks in fresh air, in the park, will do the trick.

Explore creativity 

Whether it’s writing, photography, pottery, cooking, or something else it does not really matter as long as you try to express yourself in a creative way. It is not about being perfect in something, 
but rather about having fun. Creativity invigorates us and opens up new possibilities. 
It challenges our way of thinking, in a non-threatening way. It can also help express some of 
the heavier emotions that are better to be carried by the paper than by ourselves.

Pray 

When we have a lot going on, it is easy to convince ourselves that we do not have time to pray. However, taking time to connect with the Source of peace and love will only help us when 
life appears like a stormy sea. Even ten or twenty minutes a day spent in God’s presence will 
make a difference. We can read a Scripture passage and pray with it or simply come to the Lord 
and share how we feel. It is good to allow the moments of silence, of listening, to penetrate 
our reality. God invites us to come to Him as we are, knowing that no matter how we feel, 
we are loved.

These suggestions are not exhaustive. When we find ways to de-stress, we will gain more energy and enthusiasm for life. In turn, worries might turn into challenges, something perhaps we can even enjoy, and obstacles might prove to be new opportunities. This will come only with practice and regular effort, but eventually we may end up being creative even in how we live our life, and that would have made all the difference.

* (http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-management.htm)
© Iva Beranek
Photo by © Iva Beranek

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The power of saying ‘No’. 8th amendment

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Overall, it seems to be easier to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’ in social circles, work environment, in terms of self-discipline or in many other situations. We don’t often hear someone say, “I really struggle saying yes?” On the other hand, we all struggle with saying no at times.

In this light, I find it interesting that at least sometimes political arguments are framed in such a way so that the less popular opinion (but not necessarily less valuable) is represented with a ‘no’ vote. I am not sure if that is intentional, knowing that psychologically it can be harder to voice our ‘no’. Harder, perhaps, but equally important.

In the upcoming Irish Referendum on the 8th amendment, if I could vote, I would vote ‘no’.

When you firmly hold to the conviction that human life starts at the conception, fully aware that the science over the last decades confirms this conviction, it is very hard to wrap your head around anything that would want to deny the right to life to yet-not born members of our human family. I googled ‘conception’ and the online dictionary gave me this definition: “the action of conceiving a child or of one being conceived”. Even a simple dictionary acknowledges there is a child present at the start of the pregnancy.

This is the text of the Irish Constitution that the Irish people will vote to retain or repeal in the referendum on 25th May: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

What is wrong with that? Honestly. If the mother’s life is in danger or if mother is ill, then she can be treated accordingly. In this article for example you can read about the cancer treatment for women who are pregnant. The treatment can start during pregnancy, with no danger for the unborn child.

Those who want to repeal the 8th use words like ‘compassion’ and ‘respect’ in their campaign. Compassion and respect are things I value myself. Since ‘yes’ campaign writes about them, these values must mean something to them. However, as someone I know recently said, “We cannot be selective in our compassion”.

I understand, not every child is conceived in ideal circumstances. Those women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies, need our utmost support and help, but suggesting that the mother and her unborn child almost become ‘enemies’ cannot be based on compassion. Last week I was walking around St Stephen’s Green and I saw, not for the first time, the ‘yes’ posters covering the ‘no’ poster.

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I hesitated with posting the picture. Primarily because I do not want to show it as a ‘shame’ mechanism. I was angry when I saw it. But instead of writing angrily about it, I decided to bring it into prayer and to pray for the needs of the people who did that. I don’t know the reasons why people had the need to do it. However, covering the opponents poster with your own poster is not only immature. It is called: silencing.

Interestingly, International Missing Children’s Day is celebrated on 25th May. If the ‘yes’ vote goes through, it will be worse than silencing. Some children will really be missing, from our families, schools, public life, …from our wombs. “My body, my choice” is an interesting one. If I were pregnant, the child in me would not be ‘my’ body – it would be a small body of the child in me, but it would not be ‘me’. Where is the compassion for the child not yet born?

child-who asked me

Since I did post the picture of the ‘yes’ posters, I want to address what is on one of the posters. The poster that says ‘stop shaming women’ always startles me. I always feel like it points the finger and I ask myself: me? I am not shaming women. Who is shaming women? Can you not be more specific? People who do not agree with abortion – because it takes the life of a child – have not been speaking judgmentally about women who have had an abortion. I have heard a few priests share how in their pastoral role they have helped women to regain self-worth and know they are loved by God, even though they felt inner turmoil after the abortion. Same as any one of us, when we bring to God what we did wrong, under various circumstances, God forgives, and restores our self-image. That is the language I have been hearing from the ‘no’ side. Absolute ‘zero’ shaming, but actual compassion. Recently at Mass the priest mentioned one woman who had an abortion telling him something along these lines, “people think abortion is a ‘quick fix’. But there is no quick fix for grief and regret”.

Please inform yourself fully before you vote on 25th May. A lot is at stake here. Let our compassion not be selective. May it include the child as well as the mother.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 8th May 2018)

Offering daily reflections on RTÉ

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This is in the studio of RTÉ Radio 1 in Dublin, where earlier in the year I recorded scripts for the programme “A Living Word”. These short daily reflections were on air from Monday 29th January till Friday 2nd February and for those of you who missed it, you can hear them online at this link. You will need to scroll down to the actual date, where it will say my name, click on each day and enjoy.
I will be recording new scripts over the next few days and they will air soon too.

If you would like to join my mailing list about my speaking and writing adventures, comment below with your email address.

To those of you who celebrate: a very Happy Easter!

© Iva Beranek

New Year’s resolutions turned into goals

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The wind is hustling outside my house as if it has something important to say, and I can hear the rain washing my windows as well. The year is young, but the wind does not know it. Some people start the New Year with resolutions, determined to better their life in one way or another. Do you?

In January 2005 I remember writing ten things I wanted to achieve in the future. I wrote them on a small paper in a pub in Belfast, during my first visit there, before I moved to live in Ireland. I did not limit the list to the year ahead, those were merely guidelines, pointers for me to follow along the way. I was surprised to find that paper years after, and was happy to see that more than half on that list has been achieved. I remember some of them, not necessarily in the order I wrote them. 1. Move to Ireland, 2. Find a course to study (in Ireland), 3. Do something that scares you, 4. (I can’t tell you this one), 5. Start another hobby, and so on.

Another year I wrote down how I wanted to write more hand-written letters, and I did. For a few years, I nurtured this tradition faithfully. I noticed that when I write something down it remains in my memory and keeps me focused more than if I merely think about it.

In recent times I stopped writing lists, and instead I started doing something practical throughout the year, something I can then continue building on in the new year. For instance in October 2014 I joined the gym with 50m swimming pool, and I loved it. Often swimming would calm me down if something upset me, it wasn’t only good for my fitness but for my general wellbeing. While I am no longer a member of that club, and I have not been swimming since the summer, I have a built in exercise in my schedule. It’s not perfect, but it works.

Now I prefer to focus more on goals rather than resolutions. I like to start working on them before the old year turns into new, so I already have a momentum in January.

Strange for me as a writer is that I don’t like talking about them, unless it is with a selected few who will cheer me on. One would think that writers want to tell you everything, but we also have our personalities, same as everyone else does. For a writer who is also an introvert there is an interesting dance between the desire to share your thoughts and experiences wrapped up in the craft of the written word, and the need to keep things within, ponder on them, like Mary did, until you have something valuable to say.

Among other things, I decided to start this year with gratitude. I have already been paying attention to things that make me thankful. Gratitude is not a magic trick, but it does help in supplying us with a better attitude. Recently I had a difficult day, because I spent more time on my own than even an introvert needs. I went for a walk and started recalling everything I was grateful for. It shifted me into a more positive mindset.

The practice of gratitude is one the best gifts we can give ourselves. Life is much more beautiful when we clothe it in the fragrance of thanksgiving.

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.” (Chesterton)

Every new beginning is full of promise. Make the best of yours.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 2nd January 2018)
Photo with the poem © Iva Beranek

St. Nicholas, a gift-giver

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Today is the feast of St. Nicholas. He was a follower of Christ, a bishop from 4th century, known for helping people in need. One story goes like this,

There was “a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas”.*

I used to love this tradition when I was a child. I was not raised in a religious setting, so I didn’t know a religious significance of the feast of St. Nicholas, nor anything about his life; still the whole thing ignited imagination in me as a kid and to this day I love even a memory of it.

On the eve of St. Nicholas, on 5th December, my parents would say to my brother and me to clean our shoes – properly, with the shoe polish and all, and to put them on the window so that St. Nicholas can reach them in the morning and fill with small gifts. Since we lived on the 5th floor of a building in Zagreb, I thought St. Nicholas was good in flying – how else could he reach our shoes?

It’s amazing how even a memory can recreate an inner feeling of excitement and joy that one felt as a child. Maybe I value the memory more now, from the distance that years provide; it almost becomes like a story from a book, a children’s novel (the only difference is that you are one of the characters). And in a way the memory ‘lights’ something inside me, same as reading children’s stories does to you. Happy feast!

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 2013, edited in 2017)
Photo by © Iva Beranek
* Taken from St. Nicholas Center.

Speaker, retreat leader, poet and photographer

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This blog is a platform for me to share my writing, and I don’t always mention my role as a public speaker and retreat facilitator. I am in the process of spreading out further into the world with offering my skills to the wider society. This is an introduction into what I can offer.

You may wonder “Who am I?”

Not an easy question to answer in a short blurb, but I will try. I am originally from Croatia, and have been living in Ireland for the last 12 years. In Dublin I completed M.A. in Classical Spirituality and a Ph.D in Christian Spirituality. I am in my later 30s, and at least in the faith circles in Ireland that is still considered ‘young’. Reconciliation and dealing with the wounds of conflict have been part of my research interest, as well as my private search for making sense of what I went through as a teenager living in Croatia. Consequently, the Ph.D I completed is in the area of healing of memories. My professional and private life overlap with the interests that I have pursued in study, work and otherwise.

I am a poet and a photographer, and I like to include art as part of my speaking engagements whenever possible.

Recently I led a workshop on prayer and poetry, which was really well received. During workshops and reflection days, I usually combine input, music and facilitated quiet time with occasional time for sharing. In this case the exercise we did was in creative writing, and even those who have not written before, or thought they are not ‘writers’ were surprised to see they can actually write.

“Filling the blank page in front of me was like bringing up fresh water from a deep well within me – although I never knew it was there.”
Vera Papp, one of the participants 

I love empowering people. One of my favourite talks that I give is on Our original goodness. It turns the notion that we are not good upside-down and shows that in our essence there is goodness and that anything not in line with that can as well be part of our human condition, “for which none of us is initially responsible but, on becoming adults, we are now called to be responsible” (T. Keating). It does not mean we don’t need to change and grow but it shows a different motivation for it rather than ‘guilt’. Who would not want to be the best version of themselves if they were given a chance?

I come from a Christian perspective. I am a Catholic. But I have always been drawn to be around those who are different, and I go to those who are different. Even in the context of multi-faceted society, when we allow it, we can notice that ‘we are more alike than unalike’. I would be open to go to groups that are not specifically Christian, if what I offer may appeal to them. In the society that sometimes does not know how to bring people of different convictions and background to dialogue, let us build bridges. Let us share expertise with each other, and empower each other to be our best selves.

Here I would like to introduce myself to those from various Christian churches or businesses, who may wish to invest in empowering their people, invest in self-care, which includes our spiritual needs as well, and invite me as a speaker to their area.

Reflection days that I can offer:

  • “Mirror of God’s love”, inspired by life and example of St. Patrick
  • “Let yourself be loved”, series of reflections based on thoughts by St. Elizabeth of the Trinity. Originally offered during Adoration.
  • “Alleluia in Lent”, exploring deeper reasons why we don’t sing Alleluia in the season of Lent and letting this wisdom bring healing and joy into our lives
  • “Created in the image of God”
  • “Compassion: Seeing with the heart”, on importance of compassion and self-care

Some of the talks:

  • “The Healing touch of God” (originally given during the Life in the Spirit Seminar in the Living Water prayer group, Clarendon street)
  • “Our original goodness”
  • “God already has a solution”
  • “The power of gratitude”

I have spoken in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), Dublin City University (DCU), Limerick University (LU), Church of Ireland Theological Institute (CITI), Gallaudet University (Washington D.C.).

Testimonies:

“I appreciated first of all the way you helped participants to settle down and give themselves the time and freedom necessary to explore and listen more deeply. It’s a rare and most invaluable thing today. As the workshop unfolded, I was surprised to see how naturally writing and prayer could be woven together in a group setting as an aid to seeking out God’s presence in our lives. Your thoughtful and gentle manner encouraged us to go further in a positive way. I found the experience profound and refreshing.”
Br. Jean-Marie, Taizé brother, participant in the workshop on prayer and poetry

“I have heard Iva give a number of talks and reflections over the last few years. Her work is always well prepared and well researched. She speaks with conviction and clarity. She has received very good feedback from the various presentations and meditations she has offered.”
Carol Casey, diocesan lay reader, spiritual director, prayer minister, board member of CMH:I

“I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Iva Beranek for almost a decade now, and in that time have been witness to the incredible depth and reflectiveness she brings. Iva is gifted writer and speaker. Her God-inspired wisdom shines light and healing in the groups she facilitates, retreats she directs, and speeches she gives. Her balance of maturity and intelligence with a playful spirit are an excellent combination. She is a fantastic listener which allows her to tune in to the needs before her, making her an excellent spiritual guide. You will be blessed having her as a part of your next special event or retreat!”
Stephanie Sattler, career consultant, Chicago, USA

I would be delighted to come to your area. If you would like to explore any of the topics above, or a slightly different one, please do not hesitate to contact me at iva.ana.beranek@gmail.com

© Dr. Iva Beranek

Growth makes life worth living

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Growth mentality means we can learn more about ourselves, about life, about God, no matter what happens in life; good and the bad. I have had times when I moaned, ‘why do I always have to grow?’, but that time is not now. Usually when I moan it is because I expect to get something out of a particular season of learning. But that is a misconception. Growth is a gain in itself.

I am grateful for people who have journeyed with me throught my growing pains, through the moments when inspiration floods you with new life, who listen, nurture, challenge and enable my growth. And the people out there who have ‘growth’ as one of their values inspire me. Investing into growth, reading, searching, exploring both within and without brings richness to life that would not be there otherwise. And the glimpse of the spark that God put into each of our hearts gets a chance to breathe a few more deep breaths…

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 27th October 2017)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

 

 

 

The Journal of Strength

 

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I don’t often sit in front of an empty page to see what will come as I type, like one would sit in front of an open fire admiring the flames as they dance. But even now as I thought of it, my eyes fell on the little icon on the top that tells me ‘write’. As if concluding my thoughts it said, ‘come on, come and write’.

This evening is calm. Clouds have withered away, there is a light in the neighbouring house. Birds are probably asleep, though it’s late it is still daylight.

A few months ago, someone told me to start a journal of my strengths, especially to help me with rough days. She told me, “You are strong. And you have to exercise your mind same as you exercise your muscles”. By writing about it I remind myself that I am strong, even though on more challenging days it feels as if the opposite is true. One thing I noticed. I redefined strength. In my view strength is not not-being-vulnerable. Quite the contrary, my strength is that I acknowledge my vulnerability but I don’t stop there.

Here is today’s example. Entry 83. I am strong because I let myself feel even unpleasant feelings of loneliness and despair – they lie to me about my weakness, but I am strong because I face them.

“They lie to me…” and they do it fiercely. Earlier in the year I faced one of my very intense fears and people told me I was brave. But fear makes you think you are a coward simply because you feel it. Then you unmask what is behind a ‘lie’ and realise, I’m simply human. I don’t slay fear fearlessly like a heroine would slay a dragon, but I faced it and it remains conquered on the pages of my journal.

Sometimes I read through the journal and get encouraged by words I wrote. Entry 44. I am strong because I use my vulnerability for connection (with others) not isolation. Yes, there is a tendency towards isolation at times, but even here by writing about what I learned on my own skin I hope to cross boundaries of my own house and enter into yours. With a simple thought, a few words, and perhaps a torch that brings light, should you need some.

Entry 48. I am strong because I am happy today. And you know what, this made me smile.

We often identify with our emotions, especially if they are intense, no matter whether we call them ‘good’ or ‘bad’. As if they tell us, “This is who you are”. Well, thank you, for it is true you are telling me something about me, whether ‘you’ are joy, or anger, fear or unrest. However, when I take time to stay with you, with all your persuasion that you are overpowering, you lose your capacity and I expand mine. Therefore, while you are part of me, you are not me. But you don’t have to be an enemy either, through you I grow, I become more human, more alive.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 7th July 2017)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

A gift of being real (ramblings of a writer)

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It has been a while since I wrote something substantial. Not that I had nothing to say, my head was often full of various speeches that would formulate into wonderful rhetorics in the most unlikely circumstances. Most often I got the inspiration in the morning as I was getting ready to go to work, while eating breakfast and drinking coffee on the go. Topics would come into my head, either related to my own life or whatever was a buzz of the day, and I would tell myself snippets of a potential speech, but of course there was no audience listening to me. I would open the fridge to take something to eat, and a few profound thoughts were on my lips. But, for some reason, I did not take time to write those things down. Each of those fleeting thoughts ended up being like a wind writing its story through the falling leaves of autumn trees.

Sometimes I wonder why there are times through the year when I struggle with writing. A person is probably not a writer if they don’t struggle with writing. Why would they? They wouldn’t even think about it. They would commit their time to something else and be quite happy about it. I am not a painter, so the fact I don’t take time to paint is not such big a deal. Yet if I had the gift of painting and I wouldn’t do it, I would probably be aware of it.

I think I know what has been stopping me. Apart from being busy, and needing rest in my free time, there is something else. I prefer writing honestly, but I have not been allowing myself to let it flow out of me without trying to polish my thinking. I am not quite sure why I wasn’t allowing myself to commit my thoughts on paper. Not everything needs to be public. I could have written a journal, and perhaps my soul even demanded it. If we don’t let the thoughts out they fester inside. Sometimes the best reflections come through the written word. I often learned new things while writing, so why was I blocking myself in this learning process? Perhaps I don’t need to know the answer, just acknowledge it and integrate it somehow into my writing. I’m telling myself, “Write a journal Iva, don’t keep your thoughts in. First of all, you write for yourself, because writing is what makes you ‘you’. You don’t have to write in order to be read, even though of course you want that too, but don’t put pressure on yourself”. If I write for someone else I will always want to be excellent, whereas a journal doesn’t have requirements for this or that. I think I just need to write, honestly. Whether it’s good or not, who cares.

I was in Greece at the end of August; you may have read about it here on my blog. No, I didn’t go on a holiday. I volunteered in a refugee camp for a week. It was not an easy experience, though very valuable. I didn’t do it in order to gain something for myself, but I did get a gift while I was there. I was writing about my experience, as raw as it was, and shared it with my Facebook friends. My best friend said those reflections were one of the best things I had ever written; because I wasn’t censoring my own thoughts. I just said it as I saw it. That week in Greece gave me a gift of being real. Perhaps that’s what a place that is stripped to its essentials does; it stripes you to yours and you cannot but be real. That is exactly what I need in my writing, and not just in writing. I need this gift of being real in my life.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 23rd October 2016)

Experience from the refugee camp in Greece – unedited diary

Recently I spent a week in a refugee camp in Greece. Four of us from Dublin joined Remar S.O.S. in their work in a camp outside of Athens. In our prayer group we kept the refugees in prayers over the last year, and especially the countries they come from. Sometimes you have to bring your feet to where your payers were. Personally I wanted to go and see what the situation was like, away from the news clips, but in a real day to day life.

Just a day before the trip I celebrated eleven years of living in Ireland; coming to Ireland was my biggest ever dream come true so far. It took around ten years of longing, dreaming, waiting, praying, wondering, before the dream came to be. I am glad it was not quicker than that, because it makes me appreciate some of the feelings others might be having as they wonder about their future. As I was travelling to Athens that Sunday morning on 28th August, I was acutely aware that for every dream come true there are probably at least hundred shuttered somewhere else in the world.

Every day during the trip I was writing my row, often emotional, thoughts on Facebook about how the days went, and  I want to share some of it here.

28th August 2016 (Sunday) 

I want to share some of my initial impressions. You have to bare in mind I am still fairly ignorant, at the end of the week I may have other things to say, but this is raw, unprocessed, honest.

We went to the camp straight from the airport, helped until the evening and then back to Athens. We are going there again in the morning, every morning. Even before we were told that we cannot take photos at the camp, I decided I won’t, at least initially. It just didn’t seem respectful, and also I have a tendency to find beauty or to turn ugly into beautiful, but here it would give a wrong impression. The conditions are just so bad. My unedited thoughts about the camp are, “this is a place where dreams die”. If I had a family, I mean if my family was a refugee family, I would not stay there longer than a day; but I probably wouldn’t have much choice. And then I would probably die inside, or something would. Unless you are really a surviver type and tough situations make you dream more, but I suspect in general those people are exception.

People smile at you as you walk past them, they are absolutely beautiful, almost like their soul opens up with a smile; children run, play, guys try to flirt with you, even if they don’t know your language. That’s kind of normality and I think I would cling onto that normality for dear life if I had to be there, ‘stuck there’, as I’d say most are. I don’t know what gives them hope. I haven’t spoken to a lot of them, but one other volunteer said things that resonated with my first impressions.

I heard there is a poet in the camp, and he wants to write a book. Well, he seems to be keeping his dream alive. I hope to look for him tomorrow and talk to him. I don’t know how to finish this, as I said it’s raw, unprocessed, unpolished.

A few weeks on, I still don’t know how to gather my thoughts properly. I was reading an article ‘Prisoners of Europe’ about the bad conditions that refugees encounter in Greece. Many of them “said that the limbo they are trapped in – which has left them far from loved ones, without access to work and education, and without any clarity on their future – has led to a wave of depression and mental health problems”. I did not see that when I was in Greece, but I could ‘feel’ it.

31st August 2016 (Wednesday) 

Every morning I pray through St. Patrick’s breastplate. It focuses my mind in the right way and I come to the camp ‘clothed’ in God’s presence. One image that I remind myself in the morning is of a small bucket of water that I can use for watering a few ‘plants’; in other words I remind myself that I have only a small bucket of water with me (what I can do is limited), so I will not attempt watering the whole desert as that would be futile, but I can always bring blessings (water) to a few people.

Yesterday I wanted to bring joy, today in the morning I thought I wanted to bring life. Pretty soon after we came to the camp I deserted that idea. The place is so desolate that if I thought ‘I want to bring life’, the task would overwhelm me and I would fail at every step. I decided just to do what needs to be done and meet people with kindness, joy and hopefully love. Through the day I would remember occasionally that I have water to give, ‘bringing life’ would come into my mind now and again, but I didn’t stress over it.

One thing in particular struck me today. As I was walking in the camp I noticed that one of the families had a pet bird; most of you would know birds are my favourite animals. Normality of life again, having a pet. But the bird was in the cage, not just any cage, a very small cage. I think it was a goldfinch, so a beautiful little creature totally unable to fly. What is even more heartbreaking about it is that this bird in the cage is like a symbol of this camp. These people are all beautiful but their freedom is limited. They are allowed to come and go from the camp, spend the day in Athens, and many do, they don’t have to stay in the camp all the time. But they cannot leave Greece. Not legally anyway. If they try to leave illegally and they are caught, they will be sent back to their own country. And you don’t escape your home for no reason. What choice do they really have? What freedom? Same as that bird in the cage, their freedom is .. hm, I don’t know whether to be blunt or not, but their freedom is a fake freedom, it’s an illusion. It’s sad, really.

Another thing that struck me was during the conversation with someone, they mentioned ‘home’ and first I thought they meant their own country, but they actually meant the tent here in the camp. I know that when I go on a holiday, or I’m travelling somewhere, wherever I am staying I soon start calling it ‘home’. But this is different. What kind of ‘home’ are these tents for these people? They don’t deserve that name. If I think about it for even a little bit, I find it quite disturbing.

1st September 2016 (Thursday)

Today was a hard day. I don’t even want to write about it. I cried after lunch, though I felt like screaming. And then I cried some more in the van on the way to Athens. I find it hard to see where the people in the camp live, it’s not good. Not good at all. There were good things today too, don’t get me wrong, ….  I don’t like writing negatively here, I’m sorry. I’m used to using this space to encourage and inspire. But the desolation of the camp gets to me. And I wonder, what’s the use of my tears?

They should be living in better conditions. I could not get my head around that they were living in tents that were very much unsuitable for living, and this reality would get me down on most of the days. In this camp, in Malakasa, they have toilets and showers, they are not hungry, they can even cook for themselves, which gives them some dignity, but the conditions where they sleep are so poor that it makes the place really desolate.

I will write more in the next few days about my experience, but for now I want to say that Europe should do more. The people we were with are mainly from Afghanistan, wonderful people, but there are other nations among the refugees in other camps, people from Syria, Iran, and other countries. We cannot abandon them in Greece. They have nowhere to go, they have to stay there, and it does not seem like a good solution for all of them. It is good that Greece took them on board, perhaps generous even considering the problems they have anyway in the country. Yet certain things could definitely improve in the camps there.

I am not a politician, so I do not know what exactly needs to be done, but opening up some of the borders again, and providing an organised help, a thought-through project, may be part of the solution. As well as raising awareness about racism and trying to counter-act it with real human contact which has a potential to remove barriers. People we met were wonderful people, and same as you and I they simply want a better life.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 15th September 2016)
Photo ‘Longing for freedom’ by © Iva Beranek

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