MORIA’S UNACCOMPANNIED MINORS WEILD THE POWER OF A PENCIL

By Alison Waldman

November 2020

I think I’ll need to change my name if I ever get to the US. It may frighten people,” was the first thing fourteen-year-old Jihad said to me. As an unaccompanied minor, his name was his only remaining connection to his parents and former life in Syria, both of which he had already lost. His name, he explained, does not signify war or violence. Rather, it refers to a “great accomplishment resulting from a struggle”. His mother was in labor for thirty hours. He was her “Jihad”. So much loss for a child. How unfair to even contemplate relinquishing the beautiful name chosen by his parents. I choked back tears, struggled to find comforting words and was grateful for the healing and relaxing experience that my drawing workshop would hopefully provide.

There is a familiar bustle and rhythm to life in a refugee camp that is at times not altogether different from life outside the barbed wire. Meals need to be cooked, clothes need to be washed, diapers need to be changed, wood for the make-shift mud ovens needs to be chopped. Routines, laughter, games to occupy the time — all offer an occasional sense of normalcy. But first impressions mask the harsh reality of life in refugee camps: the overcrowded conditions, inadequate shelter, lack of privacy, susceptibility of women and children to sexual assault, shortages of water, food, toilets and showers, and of course the interminable uncertainty. Yet the refugees I have had the pleasure of meeting are some of the most positive, resourceful and self-reliant people I have ever encountered. And none more so than the unaccompanied children I worked with in the spring of 2019 in Lesvos, Greece — the Gekko Kids. 

There are approximately five thousand unaccompanied minors living in Greece. Some are hoping to reunite with parents, older siblings or family members in northern Europe; some are sent by their parents to escape violence at home; some are separated or orphaned en route to Greece. Among refugees and asylum seekers, these children are among the most vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, rape and trafficking. Many run away from the camps, fall prey to traffickers or are living in dangerous conditions in order to avoid deportation. The Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos was home to the largest number of unaccompanied minors, over one thousand, before it burned to the ground in September earlier this year. Most were boys between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Many girls were pregnant or had infants as a result of rape in the camps. Months turn into years for these children, as delays in the registration and family reunification process are compounded by the lack of legal support and the overburdened asylum service. And while Greece has urged the EU to share the burden of relocating and resettling these unaccompanied children, only a handful of countries has pledged to receive some of them. 

Determined to address the lack of access to safe living conditions and an education, the nonprofit Together for Better Days launched a magical and transformational program for the hundreds of unaccompanied children in Lesvos. Their Gekko Kids program offered the physical and emotional space for unaccompanied teens to connect with one another and learn, among other things, English, computer skills, photography and math from certified volunteer teachers. And perhaps serendipitously, only a few blocks away two women, who founded and operate the Poliana Arts Center, decided to offer art workshops for these refugee teens. Katie and Anique recognized the restorative power of creative expression to heal the emotional and physical trauma experienced by these children. 

On June 1, 2019, I walked into Poliana’s cozy stone art studio and met my students, thirteen boys ranging in age from twelve to seventeen. (Most unaccompanied minors are boys, as it is considerably less safe for girls to travel on their own.) Equipped with a translator and hundreds of markers, acrylics and watercolors, I slowly explained why I had traveled from Washington, DC to meet them. 

I had repeatedly rehearsed in my head what I would say to and request of the thirteen students seated at tables in the Poliana Art Center. I told them that this was an opportunity for them to speak to the world via their art. What did they want the world to know about their lives and their hopes and dreams? If they could say one thing to people everywhere, what would that be? I told them that their drawings would be part of a traveling exhibition to promote awareness of the continuing and worsening refugee crisis and to encourage tolerance towards the millions of forcibly displaced migrants. I was not surprised by their perplexed stares when I explained that many people in the US do not realize that the crisis remains unresolved. And I hoped that they would be pleased and proud that their artwork would travel to universities, nonprofits and businesses throughout the US — a journey to open hearts and change minds. The irony, sadly, that their artwork would travel to places they would likely never see was not lost on me. 

I had envisioned a noisy room full of typical teenage chatter but instead was surprised by the silence in which they seemed most comfortable. Perhaps a much-needed respite from the chaos and unpredictability that permeate their lives. I also expected that they would need time to think about what they wanted to draw. Yet they began to sketch immediately, as if their bottled up parts had suddenly been uncorked. Released from years of muteness, their stories and journeys spilled onto paper. And then it dawned on me. They had begun conceiving their messages to the world years ago. 

When the middle school he attended in Syria burned to the ground with most of his friends inside. 

When the Taliban came to his northern Afghanistan town and “removed” his teenage sisters. 

When at the age of eleven and oceans away from Lesvos he witnessed his mother’s murder. 

When he had almost made it to Lesvos and he was robbed of all of his belongings, including photos of his family, on the Turkish side of the sea.

When the overcrowded rubber dingy he was in capsized in the Aegean Sea and he watched helplessly as a toddler slipped under the water. 

And despite the availability of watercolors, acrylics and colored pens they gravitated towards the pencils. In truth, the messages in their drawings need no embellishment. Perhaps years of deprivation had taught these children a truth that often eludes so many— that sometimes less is indeed more. 

Note: Jihad has not changed his name, as it would complicate the paperwork essential to the asylum process. Only a few of the teen artists remain in Lesvos. Most of them were transported to mainland Greece or flown to countries in northern Europe following the fire at Moria. As of the Fall of 2019 Gekko Kids is no longer operational in Lesvos. Together for Better Days has relocated to mainland Greece. The exhibition, Hope in the Face of Despair: The Power of the Pencil will be debuted and displayed at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York in 2022.

Alison Waldman is a Washington, DC-based international aid worker and refugee resettlement and employment specialist. She has worked with the IRC, HIAS, Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities to resettle refugees throughout the DC-Baltimore region. Her first trip to Lesvos was in January 2016 and she is looking forward to returning post-covid.

Saputara story

Saputara, is a 19 year old woman currently living in the Kalindi Kunj camp in New Delhi, India. I spoke with her on the telephone via her husband Halal, a 23 year old Rohingya man whom she met at the camp. They have two children together. The only word we could directly exchange,sans translation,was Namaste, a common greeting in Hindi language.

The family ran towards near the nearest hill, when got to know that their neighbours were attacked. Young Saputara was scared that she will die too at the same time she did not want to leave her house. 

She was just 10 when she left her village, Bondu near Mangdau, Northern Rakhine, for good. She fondly remembers the spot near the pond where she would play, often with friends. She lived in a crowded household of eight members including herself. When a house close to hers had been attacked,the family knew they had to leave. . Several families including hers ran towards ‘Moora,’a big hill. They left barely with any possessions, merely the clothes on their back and a couple bottles of water to satisfy the entire family. They hid behind the hill for a while, watching their back and then eventually decided to take the boat to Bangladesh. 

Saputara’s family left their village with no belongings. Their sole possessions were two plastic water bottles.

I asked her if she had ever been on a boat.She chuckled sheepishly told me that was the first moment she felt like she might die. Although the sea was close to her village, she had never been on a boat so massive.  She and her family were dropped somewhere along the Bangladeshi coast before walking towards their first camp.

They reached Cox Bazar and settled in Kutupalong Refugee Camp. They met others from their community there. Saputara and other children played at the camp. She told me about her dreams of studying and making something of herself. Saputara saw other children going to school and thought that one day she would too. Things were deteriorating at the camp; they lived in make-shift tents and had to stand in long lines for drinking water or to go to the toilet. There weren’t many employment opportunities for her ageing father. 

Saputara would hear school bells at near her camp at Cox Bazaar and she would dream of studying one day. She wanted to go to school like other kids. 

The family therefore decided to migrate to India in hopes of getting a job and securing a better and stable life. They traveled in a truck, walked to the border and reached Kolkata in the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal. From Kolkata, they took a train to New Delhi where she is currently settled. 

Saputara’s loss is fresh; it isn’t a distant memory. In addition to her home, she lost two of her siblings on the  journey.

I asked Saputara if she understood why they had to leave their home.  

“They were killing us because we are Muslims,” she said, unable to elaborate on who ‘they’ are. “[India] is not my country. If I go back, they will kill me.” The only thing that matters, she says, is that she now feels safe. 

The Kor Family

Alex Kor is the son of not one, but two European Jewish Holocaust survivors. Alex is a doctor in Indiana, where he was raised. Being the son of two survivors imbues him with an obvious yet unspoken sense of compassion and wisdom. His mother, Eva — famous for her work ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust would not be long forgotten –was a force to be reckoned with. Eva, along with her twin sister Miriam, survived Auschwitz camp, one of the most deadly concentration camps under Nazi control and was a victim of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele twin experiments. 

            When Alex recounts his mother’s story, you cannot help but be impressed by the willpower and survival instincts of a young girl who was only ten years old. While in the camp, Eva was injected with a substance and became very sick. She was so sick that she was relocated to the “barracks of the living dead”, where Nazis sent victims when they were likely to die. Eva developed a fever and knew if she couldn’t get her fever down, she would likely be removed from Mengele’s experimental cadre and her odds of survival would diminish. Eva was determined to survive and fooled the Nazis into thinking her fever had gone down by tweaking the thermometer. She was reunited with her twin sister and the experiments resumed. To Eva’s knowledge, she was one of the only survivors of the barracks of the living dead. 

            Alex’s father was less vocal about his story until much later in life. Alex says he’s surprised on occasion when he learns new details about his father’s experience. Mickey hailed from a larger city in Latvia. In 1940, he was moved to the Jewish ghettos when the country was occupied by the Germans. His father already passed away and his mother was killed in the Rumbula Forest Massacre, where Nazi death squads killed over 25,000 people on two separate days in late 1941. Eventually Mickey was brought to Stutthof Camp in Poland and then Buchenwald. While in the camps, Mickey focused on finding ways to survive from one day to the next. Eventually, he was led on a death march by the Nazis where he escaped and hid in a barn for two days. Mickey was eventually liberated by US soldiers and befriended an American Army colonel, Andrew Nehf. Colonel Nehf eventually arranged for Mickey to come to the United States and stay with a local family in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Mickey remained for most of his adult life. 

            Eva’s journey to the US was less straightforward. Eva and her sister Miriam were liberated from Auschwitz camp and then sent to a convent to live. The girls had yet to find out the fate of their immediate family, which included siblings and their parents. Unfortunately, everyone perished during their imprisonment except the young girls. While at the convent, an aunt discovered they survived and arranged for the girls to come back to their village, which was now under Soviet control. Conditions under Soviet rule were harsh and Eva immediately recognized the efforts the Communist regime undertook to sell their propaganda. On a stroke of luck, their aunt was able to secure Israeli visas and the family moved to Israel in the mid-50s. In Israel, both Eva and her sister served in the military and adapted to their new lives. Eventually, when Mickey visited Israel,  Eva met Mickey and luckily for Terre Haute, moved to the US where she undertook her life’s work of advocacy for Holocaust survivors.

Eva and her sister served in military once, they got a safe passage to Israel before moving to the 
United States. 
Picture courtesy – CANDLES Holocaust and Education Center, Terre Haute, IN

            There is a gravity to being the child of genocide survivors that most of us will never understand. Alex says  it made him more aware of the world and that from a young age. While he never faced intense anti-Semitism Alex says he was always aware of its quiet pervasiveness, even in the relative safety of his community, where his mother was a well-loved public figure. Early in his career as a medical doctor,  career a patient who had visited his clinic a few times implied that because Alex was Jewish he was likely going to take all of the patient’s  money. Instead of lecturing the man or kicking him out of the office, Alex told him that he was not going to take all his money and in fact Alex would provide the rest of his treatment pro bono. The lesson was one Alex’s mother would surely be proud of.

Eva and her sister Miriam were liberated from the Auschwitz camp but they had lost their entire immediate family. 
They went to live with their aunt who had survived the Holocaust and ultimately arranged for Eva and Miriam to move to Israel. 
Picture courtesy – CANDLES Holocaust and Education Center, Terre Haute, IN 

            Prior to her death in 2019, Eva Kor established herself as one of the most prominent Holocaust survivor activists in the world. With a relentless veracity, she worked to preserve artifacts from the Holocaust and took students to the remnants of concentration camps across Europe. Eva even opened a Holocaust museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, that sits on an unassuming site off Highway 41, or “third street” as known by the locals. With an unbelievable amount of grace and character, she also led a campaign aimed at forgiving Nazis that had participated as captors and killers during the Holocaust. Her husband continued this work, as recently as last July, publicly declaring his forgiveness for a Nazi guard from Buchenwold. 

Alex Kor recounted his mother, Eva’s story. She was about 10 years old when she was injected with a substance that made her extremely sick. She had high fever was unlikely to survive. Picture courtesy – CANDLES Holocaust and Education Center, Terre Haute, IN

Although Eva passed, her family continues telling their stories to ensure that the Holocaust will not be forgotten and to preserve  the lessons for future generations.

SURVIVING GENOCIDE – Stories of Rohingya and Holocaust survivors

By Nicole Altomare and Ayushka Anjiv

October 12, 2020

Nazi Germany and modern-day Myanmar may seem worlds apart, but the notion of ethnic and racial superiority, which underscores genocidal violence, is the same. Whether a survivor speaks Yiddish or Rohingya, they suffered by the orders of governments that could only charge them with the crime of existing. To explore the shared survivor experiences, we spoke with 58-year old Alex Kor, a child of two European Jewish Holocaust survivors and Saputara, a 19-year old Rohingya Muslim woman, who escaped Myanmar and currently lives in India. 

Picture 1: Saputara, a Rohingya refugee woman who fled her village at the age of 10 and now lives in a refugee settlement in Delhi | Picture 2: Eva Kor, a Romanian-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. She was subjected to human experimentation under the direction of SS Doctor Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during World War II., Picture courtesy – CANDLES Holocaust and Education Center, Terre Haute, IN | Picture 3: Mickey Kor, Eva’s husband, survived life in the Jewish ghettos, two concentration camps, and lost family to the Rumbula Massacre, where Nazis killed over 25,000 people in two days. Mickey lives in Indiana where he receives daily visits from his son, Alex. 

For Alex, there seems to be an ease of recounting his mother’s story. She was after all a world famous activist and survivor of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twin experiments at Auschwitz Camp in Poland. Even as a young girl, Eva could recount the rising tide of antisemitism in Romania in the late 1930s. Eva’s father and uncle scouted places to live in Israel, but the family ultimately decided it would be too difficult to leave with young children. Alex’s father, Mickey Kor, lived in Latvia before he was caught by Nazis and sent to Stutthof and Buchenwald Camps in Poland. Eva and Mickey were both forced by the German government to flee their homes and ultimately move to concentration camps as the German army made gains throughout Europe. It’s estimated that over the course of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler killed around two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, or roughly six million men, women, and children. Although Mickey and Eva survived, both lost numerous family members to Nazi Germany’s insidious eradication efforts. 

Eva and her sister served in military once, they got a safe passage to Israel before moving to the
United States.
Picture courtesy – CANDLES Holocaust and Education Center, Terre Haute, IN

Similar to Eva and Mickey, Saputara’s story starts when she was a girl. At age 10, Saputara was forced to leave her village of Bondu near Mangdau city in Myanmar along with seven of her family members.  A nearby home was attacked and her family was forced to leave the village. This was well before the ramped up efforts of the Myanmar government to force Rohingyas to move, but reflective of the longer term abuse the Rohingya have suffered. As they escaped their village, Saputara recalls that her family was unable to bring anything but the clothes on their back and a few liters of drinking water for the journey. They made it to a hill and were able to hide from their attackers. Eventually, they secured passage on a boat. At the time Saputara didn’t know where they were going and she was so scared she believed she was going to die. When she got off the boat, her family stepped onto land in Bangladesh. Just like that, she was in a new country. 

The family ran towards near the nearest hill, when got to know that their neighbours were attacked. Young Saputara was scared that she will die too at the same time she did not want to leave her house. 

Eva and Mickey Kor were also forced to leave their homes as they were taken to camps in different countries, with different languages. Ultimately, they both relocated to new countries again after the war. Eva eventually made her way to Israel as a teenager and Mickey, after a few years in Europe and, with assistance from a US soldier that aided in his liberation, was brought to the United States. A common thread of survivorship is the debilitating task of learning to communicate in unfamiliar countries with unfamiliar languages after having your home stripped away from you.

Eva and her sister Miriam were liberated from the Auschwitz camp but they had lost their entire immediate family.
They went to live with their aunt who had survived the Holocaust and ultimately arranged for Eva and Miriam to move to Israel.
Picture courtesy – CANDLES Holocaust and Education Center, Terre Haute, IN 

Genocides are atrocities that are often understood only in context of scale or proximity to our own culture. In the West, we learn about Nazi Germany’s determination to eradicate European Jews during the Holocaust and we learn about the casual slaughter of multitudes of Indigenous people spread across continental North America. We rarely learn about more recent efforts, like in Myanmar,  that result in intentional extermination efforts of marginalized peoples in faraway places from cultures that aren’t uniquely intertwined with our own. Using the Holocaust as a point for comparison, we can draw parallels between the experiences of survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, and the Guatemalan slaughter of Mayan peoples. These genocides occurred fairly recent in our history, yet we still consider genocides  as atrocities of the past. We often overlook the people experiencing displacement and violent attacks in more remote corners of the planet as we go about our daily lives. 

Alex Kor recounted his mother, Eva’s story. She was about 10 years old when she was injected with a substance that made her extremely sick. She had high fever was unlikely to survive. Picture courtesy – CANDLES Holocaust and Education Center, Terre Haute, IN

The Rohingya crisis reveals uncomfortable patterns of targeted extermination as in the Holocaust. The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority living in the West Rakhine state of Myanmar. They speak ‘Rohingya’ which is a different language than the majority of Buddhist Burmese speak and they are currently the targets of mass and extreme violence by the Myanmar government. The current human rights catastrophe began on August 25, 2017, following an attack on the Myanmar security forces by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, but the systematic eradication of the Rohingya community had started long before. 

Saputara’s family left their village with no belongings. Their sole possessions were two plastic water bottles. 

In 1982, Myanmar introduced the 1982 Citizenship Act of Myanmar to effectively strip the Rohingya of their citizenship. The law was similar to the 1935 Reich Citizenship law enacted in Germany in 1935, which stripped German Jews of citizenship. The Citizenship Act excluded Rohingyas from citizenship by virtue of their ethnicity and created a system designed to abuse ethnic minorities. The 1982 law rendered the Rohingya stateless, unable to escape their tormentors through international immigration. The 2017 incident or ‘the Second Exodus’ exacerbated existing violence by the Burmese Army. What culminated was a series of attacks on the community including mass attacks, property destruction, rape, and governmental confiscation of property. According to a UN fact finding mission the attacks were indeed planned and coordinated to eradicate the community. Similarities between the governmental approach of the Third Reich and Myanmar don’t end with citizenship policy:the violence survivors from both eras endured serves as a reminder that hatred is not bound by geography or culture.

Saputara would hear school bells at near her camp at Cox Bazaar and she would dream of studying one day. She wanted to go to school like other kids. 

 When asked if he was concerned about the lessons of World War II and the European Jewish Holocaust fading as the last of the survivors pass, Alex highlighted recent studies that show that a distressing percentage of young people in the United States do not know what the Holocaust was nor do they understand its significance. With an alarming lack of knowledge about arguably the best understood genocide in modern history, it would stand to reason that lesser known massacres fall off the radar of public consciousness entirely.

It may seem like the lessons are fading and that the world is falling into despair, but we can be heartened that people like Alex, his parents, and Saputara are willing to share their stories. These narratives are vital resources in laying  an educational foundation for us to combat hate. If we don’t remember the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. 

Saputara was just 10 years old when her family fled from Myanmar. She spent her adolescence in Refugee camps with bare necessities. She is 19 now, married with two kids. 

Feature edited by Lauren Bohn