Journal From a Refugee Camp: Week Two

Mytilene, Greece – December 2015

This is part three of a journal I’m keeping during my month working at a refugee camp in Greece. Part two, covering settling in at Camp Pikpa and starting work, is here.

December 14th: Reality sank in this morning. A very overqualified volunteer had went back to her 9-5 job in the US, meaning the rest of us had to pick up the slack.

It was a lot of slack.

Several of us teamed up in the morning for around 45 minutes to take out and sort all of the trash and recycling, something she had done by herself. Another volunteer took on the nearly full-time job of washing dishes.

I spent the rest of the morning cutting out letters with an American volunteer. The letters were of the Latin alphabet and I drew their corresponding Arabic letter on each side of the letter. As we hoped, some of the children began playing with the letters and spelling their names! We can’t have much in the way of classes since we have such a fluctuating roster of children, but having kids leave Pikpa with a basic grasp of phonetics will be a big win if we can pull it off.

I spent the afternoon at Moria with two friends, although we didn’t do a whole lot. Moria is run by the United Nations and has roughly 20 Non-Government Organizations floating around. There is often more need for help there than at Pikpa, but it is more difficult to be registered and approved. I headed over to the Olive Grove (where the non-Syrian and non-Iraqi refugees are sent) and did a bit of translating, but an Iranian-British woman was more enthusiastic and clearly more capable at this than myself, yelling orders and commanding respect as she marched through several lines of refugees.

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That evening at Pikpa was fun, with a traditional Irish band coming to play for the children. The parents joined in and even let their guard down as they clapped enthusiastically to the beat. As I started dancing, a young Afghani man grabbed my hand and began dancing with me. I didn’t really think anything of it at the time as holding hands with other men is seen as a sign of friendship in many Arab countries (save your angry comment, I’m fully aware that few Afghanis are ethnically Arab). We danced nonsensically for a couple of songs before I left for the nightly job of preparing meals to be sent to Moria. Unfortunately, he flirted uncomfortably with me over the next week and generally begged for my attention.

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December 15: This morning brought two pleasant surprises: students from a local high school were visiting to help out around the camp, and work was getting done at Pikpa camp before 11:00 AM. I’m still not used to the Mediterranean concept of punctuality. Truth be told, if I meet the Greek god of time Chronos in the afterlife, I’ll kick him square in the ass. Needless to say, today’s 10:00 AM start brought an unusually large smile to my face.

The smile wore off when we realized that we would need to redo much of the students’ work. They had assembled metal shelves to use in our pharmacy, but used too many brackets and had run out of nuts and bolts. We spent much of the afternoon undoing their work and redoing it the correct way.

The evening was spent first packaging meals to go to Moria, then cleaning the residents’ (refugees) bathroom. Many of us were very upset that the tennis club that owns the property that our camp is on will not allow the residents to use the same bathrooms as the volunteers. While I still disagree with the policy, I now understand where it came from. I had to handle feces in the middle of the floor along with Turkish (squatting) toilets that had not been flushed. My cleaning partner had to remove feces from one of the showers. We considered ourselves lucky to have volunteer-only showers as we bleached every surface of the residents’ bathroom.

December 16: Before the morning meeting, my friend R asked me if I wanted to help a boat of refugees who had just arrived. We jumped in his car and drove three minutes down the road to where dozens of people wearing fake life jackets were climbing out of a rubber raft that had just arrived from Turkey. I handed out crackers and gloves to children as R handed out fresh socks. This was the first time that I had seen anything that I donated being handed out, and it was an amazing feeling to see refugees fresh off the boat staying warm with the scarves and hats that I brought to the island.

I know that sorting boxes, translating shoe requests, and building shelves are all things that help the refugees… but the hour at the shore handing out the socks and gloves that I brought with me felt better than the previous two weeks combined. What a perfect morning!

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The Aegean Sea near Pikpa, with Turkish mountains serving as the horizon

Shortly after that, all of the newcomers were warm, dry, and on a bus to begin their processing in Europe.

I spent the rest of the day building shelves for a shipping container. The evening was spent packing meals and getting to know our new tent mate, a young woman from Norway.

December 17: Today we finished the shelves that we had started the day before.

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Our work crew in front of the shipping container

The evening brought another new tentmate, a young Californian who had been living more recently in New York. This meant that we had three Californians (plus a Norwegian who had lived in New York) staying in the same tent halfway across the world. We didn’t have a lot in common besides the obvious nationality and volunteer work, but we all have a strong connection. Your relationship with those around you is the most underrated aspect of travelling. While questions from friends always focus on the women, food, and monuments, my favorite memories always involve the people. Having great tentmates can make a bad trip good and a good trip amazing. Having good tentmates helps you forget about how cold it is and the reasons you are now bleaching the walls in the bathroom.

December 18: Today was full of new faces and small projects. One of the priorities was to rain-proof the camp before the next rain came, so we spent several hours moving gravel around paths and doorways to prevent residents from tracking mud everywhere.

We were told there would be a demonstration that night, so we all packed into a hippie van and went to the central square to watch. The protest ended up being 45 people dispassionately watch one man with a microphone who spoke exclusively in Greek. His speech focused on Europe’s refusal to accept refugees who aren’t from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He called Greece a prison camp where the “others” couldn’t leave without penalty, and demanded an opening of the Macedonian border (Note: The border between Greece and Macedonia  at Idomeni is where most refugees bound for Europe are taken, but a recent decision to only allow refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan has created tension and fights at Idomeni). We stuck around for 20 minutes, then went to a bar down the road after realizing that the gathering wouldn’t grow bigger.

December 19: I spent the day as a Farsi interpreter at a supply tent at camp Moria. I was excited to do this for two reasons: First, I prefer helping people directly rather than handling support tasks; second, I wanted to validate myself to one of the Greek woman who run Pikpa who called me a liar about speaking Farsi… oddly enough, our rapport improved after I told her to go f**k herself. My job was to talk to the men who arrived, determine if their clothes were wet or destroyed, then figure out what sizes and preferences they had for their new clothes or shoes.

If you’re a misanthrope or ever want to experience heartlessness, work here. I felt agony as I had to explain to people in sweatshirts that we didn’t have jackets for them. Forcing a teenager to either accept old dress shoes that were a size too big or leave with only his soaked and destroyed tennis shoes made me feel like a cartoon villain. The day continued like this and I felt horrible afterwards. One positive memory was speaking Spanish with an Algerian man, who then translated what I said into Arabic for another man and relayed the message back to me in Spanish for me to explain to the men who sort the clothes. Weird.

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The front gate at Moria

December 20: Today was Sunday, my weekend. I hitchhiked into Mytilene and spent the day at a hotel downtown, basking in the overheated room and sun-meltingly hot shower.

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