Today I felt like I entered a parallel universe… one I knew was there, but in reality, had no idea. I spent most of the day at Ritsona, the Syrian refugee camp, working with 3 other volunteers on honing our skills with a vision check computer program to test the 300 plus kid’s eyes at the camp beginning tomorrow. We then went to another camp about a half an hour away where we met up with the other 2 in the vision screening program and spent the last few hours sorting and cataloging hundreds of donated glasses (most from the 70’s I might add…). This camp, Oynofyta, is primarily refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq so the languages vary immensely, only adding to the language barrier. The camps are very different (I’ll likely spend a week in each) both in their size and set up. Ritsona is larger, 750 residents (it is suggested that we refer to the refugees as residents, not refugees as it’s far more positive…) who are housed in ISO boxes, or caravans as they refer to them. They look like a small trailer and are placed very close together, two or 3 of them sharing a small kitchen and bath. We aren’t allowed to go into their living area for privacy reasons so only saw them from a distance. The other camp has 500 or so residents who are housed in a large warehouse. Their living spaces are partitioned off by I believe heavy fabric with doors that aren’t much more than shower curtains. Given that they are all under one roof, in very tight quarters, I felt a much greater sense of community in my short time there, with kids running in and out of the room we were working in, desperate for our attention. They are, by the way, adorable, and more than anything, I wanted to scoop them up and just hold onto them as long as I could. Of course we are discouraged from that as some of the parents may object and they already have deep seated separation issues. Still, there were a couple of girls that just loved trying on the big-framed glasses while we laughed and played along with them. I’m not sure the language they spoke (several…as there is such a mixed bag of countries represented) but there is some English. One of the girls asked me if I was Greek and when I told her no, she said well you have clothes on like a Greek. I asked her where she was from and she quickly responded, “Sweeden!” With her olive skin, black hair and dark eyes, I hardly think she was from Sweeden, but my guess is that that is where they are hopeful to be processed.
Kids are kids, no matter where they are from and the experiences they have had, and it delighted me to see them being goofy, laughing and simply having fun. Some of the other volunteers who worked with the older children (mostly boys) did comment on aggression issues, which is not surprising given the tight living conditions they are in and the horrific violence that they have been witness to.
I found it hard to let my mind wander to the conditions the kids as well as their parents, came from, but it couln’t escape me and that’s when I became vulnerable to my own emotions. Overall though, it was a very good day and I feel ready to start testing eyes tomorrow! This is a huge project that CCS (the volunteer NGO I’m working with) has undertaken and we are the first ones to use this program. If it works, and if they can procure the necessary funds, this will be an ongoing and growing endeavor throughout the world. I’m so proud to be a part of it!
On a side note, my gluten restriction paid off today…. my gluten free lunch was forgotten and although I said no worries, I’ll eat fruit, Mohammed insisted he could do better and the two of us went to a small hut where a man fixed me the most amazing falafel with salad, no bread. I got to sit with the local men and Mohamed, on cushions and absorb it all. Truly, it was the best lunch I’ve had in a long time. I’m reminded at times like those who cultural anthropology spoke to me so much and why it was what I majored in in college. I hope they forget my lunch again today…. I’m onto something much better!