Volunteering in the refugee camps – final thoughts.

Nearly one in 100 people have been pushed out of there homes due to political instability or war.

4.9 million Syrians, half of them children, have fled their country and are now refugees.

Greece has over 62 refugee camps, housing over 62,000 refugees in total. Although the media coverage on this has dwindled, the crisis is far from being over.

This seemed like an appropriate start to my wrap up blog post regarding my time spent volunteering in the refugee camps in Greece. And now for the more personal:

I’ve been home from Greece several days, and the question, “How was it?” is still a struggle for me. No matter how much thought or effort I put into finding the right words, they will never be sufficient. That being said, I’ll start with the easiest… the physical descriptions.

The camp at Oinofyta, where I spent most of my days, was housed in a large warehouse, which had been subdivided into small housing units (or rooms) that line long hallways, all connecting a main center hall.   As far as the size of the rooms, I went into a few that had a double mattress on the floor that took up about half of the space. I’m assuming they were all of a similar size, with some of the larger families inhabiting two adjacent rooms. The hallways in front of the rooms were filled with miscellaneous items that wouldn’t fit inside, such as strollers, empty boxes, clothing, stray pieces of furniture, trash and of course a variety of shoes right in front of the door as shoes were never worn inside. In the mornings, I’d see women sweeping out their individual spaces and tidying them up, yet no one seemed to tend to the hallways, which were filthy. Most of the common walls had been painted, some by kids with colorful hearts and words of love and others by more skilled painters with poignant messages of both hope and hopelessness. The living units were numbered, in a somewhat logical order, starting with 1 and ending with 105, although 105 was a room I never found, hard as I tried, when I was doing community outreach for the eye screening. My wanderings up and down the hallways in search of rooms became my way of meeting the residents, who were always quick to help me out in my search (we were told to refer to the refugees as “residents” rather than refugees as it was much more positive).  This was when I had some of my most memorable conversations and began to feel less and less like an outsider curiously peeking in.  Although the children often couldn’t tell me how old they were (birthdays are not a day that is cerebrated in the Muslim culture) they never hesitated when I asked their room number, and could usually give me the room numbers of everyone with them as well. An outside flight of steps led to a bank of small bunk rooms, each housing 8 to 10, where the single men slept (ages ranging from 16 on up). I spoke with one man after embarrassing myself by waking him and all of his roommates up when I knocked on his door to let them know about the eye screenings and had to ask,

“How late do you guys sleep anyway???

He told me usually until early to mid afternoon. The reason being, they don’t go to bed until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning because it’s quieter and cooler in the camp at night. There is very little for the men to do, especially the single men, so boredom and depression have become the norm.  There are a handful of tents outside of the warehouse that housed the men who did not care to be around the children.  Their tents looked pretty basic, like Army issue, but I was told that that was what they preferred.  They pretty much kept to themselves.

Ritsona, where I also spent some time doing vision screening, is a camp of approximately 750  residents, who were originally housed in tents but now are all in ISO boxes, or mobile units. They are predominately Syrian and because that they fled a war torn country, they have full refugee status, which allows them to receive help from organizations such as UNICEF or the IRC (International Rescue Committee). Refugees are still coming into both camps and some are leaving to be re-settled in other parts of Europe, although the leaving is happening at a much slower rate.

The children seem to have free run of the camp and at a third of a total population of around 600 at Oinofyta, there are quite a few of them. Even kids who are still in diapers are seen wandering around by themselves, finding whatever they can to entertain themselves with.  These kids were so independent and creative, out of necessity, that they could entertain themselves for hours with a piece of string if that was all they could find. On one of my last days at Oinofyta, 3 kids hung out with me and entertained themselves for an hour and a half by taking turns spinning each other around in an office chair. That simple.  They were a laughing, sweating, shouting trio of joy who moved back and forth between Farsi and English (the English to include me) with unbelievable ease.  Kids are kids are kids, sometime regardless of their past, their present or their very unsure future.  I marveled at the simplicity, the imagination and the raw joy that these kids were able to indulge in on their own.  No coaching, no supervision, no props necessary.

Having so little also led to a lot the kids “stealing,”  which I’m putting in quotes to soften the word a bit.   While I realize that stealing what is not yours is in no way excusable, I can certainly understand where their motivation comes from. Notepads, pens, sunglasses, water bottles and anything else that wasn’t nailed down was at risk of walking out of our space. It became a bit of a game for the kids and often they’d return the item shortly after it had walked out of the door, usually with a coy smile and a hug.  The kids gave up everything they had to make the dangerous journey and that need to recoup belongings was ever present.  While helping some of the volunteers out with a craft project at the summer camp, this really came into play for me.  I had cut up bits of paper to be used to decorate signs and had placed them in piles in the center of a work table while waiting for the kids to join in.  The first girl to the table immediate scooped up all the paper bits with her outstretched arms and pulled them towards her, carefully covering them to insure no one else would get any.  When I told her she needed to share, she looked me straight in the eye and with an intensity that I hardly thought possibly from this tiny, sweet child, shouted, “NO SHARE!!!” And she meant it with every bit of her 3 feet of being.  We solved the problem without tears or tantrums, and as frustrating as incidents like that were, they were also so easy to understand.  Part of me wanted to remove the girl from the craft table, step in with some discipline,  tell her to think about what she’s  done and all that,  and the other part of me wanted to give her more paper bits, my shirt, my shoes and whatever else she wanted. These kids have  gone through situations that we can’t even begin to imagine, crossing countries on foot then getting into overly crowded boats to continue the dangerous journeys on water, with many of them having to throw all of their belongings overboard because the boat was sinking with weight.  Keeping their entry in mind made frustrations as such seem very trivial.

These kids have no boundaries, no structure (short of the a few hours of  school in the morning and afternoon camp sessions the volunteers provided) and very little to play with or occupy their time, yet I rarely heard the whining cries of boredom and “there’s nothing to do…”  One of the regulars to the vision screening room was a 2 year-old who the residents called “moosha” or “mouse” in Farsi, which was an appropriate nickname for her as she was tiny and quick.  She’d wander in, often with a cucumber or a big piece of fruit in hand that she was munching on, looking for something to do but even more so, looking for attention. My last day there, she wandered over to the computer, picked up the mouse and started pretending it was a telephone. She’d hold it to her ear and say “Hello??? Hello???” then would hand it off to me giggling, and I’d do the same. This went on for quite some time. She spoke Farsi and I don’t, but language wasn’t always necessary to communicate.

Now for the harder part on my “What was it like?” descriptions…

The emotions…

Getting to know some of the faces behind the stories that I had read so much about before hand, of dangerous crossings across countries on foot then across water in overly crowded boats, was humbling to say the least. Conditions in the countries that were fled (in Ritsona, primarily Syria and in Oinofyta, mostly Afghanistan), had to be so horrific that families were willing to put themselves and their family’s lives in incredible danger, only to end up in a psychological and legal state of limbo that has been going on for most for over a year – far longer than any had anticipated. Babies have been born in the camps (27 at Oinofyta to date) who are now walking and talking and are considered stateless – children with no country. Germany, a country that many of the refugees hope to immigrate to, does not automatically grant citizenship to those who were born in the camps, leaving these kids without citizenship to any country. There really was so much heartbreak and frustration that I felt like I became a gatekeeper to a sea of emotions, knowing that there was only so much I could take in for the sake of my own sanity.  That process has continued for me, even after settling into my regular routine for the past several days.

These refugees are not statistics or headlines or political fodder, but rather, they are real people. They are the sad and hopeless eyes of the mothers who would hold their baby out to me with pride, wanting to know if I wanted to hold him/her. That was especially hard for me when one woman’s baby was the age of my grandson.  They are the fathers, who made a point of proudly showing off their English to me with “hellos and how are you?” in English as I passed them in the hallway. They are the sticky hands of the children who would grab my hand, and walk along side me, always desperate for any attention they could get. They are the families, grasping onto whatever hope they can find while days become weeks, and weeks become months and now over a year has passed and still they wait. I was told by so many that they feel forgotten and unwanted. Those were times I was grateful to not speak their language as I had no words to give in response, whether Arabic, Farsi Urdu or English.

My first night back, I dreamt I was back at Oinofyta, only not as a volunteer, but rather, as a resident. The volunteers I had worked with for the past 2 weeks didn’t recognize me as part of their group, but instead thought I was a resident. I tried to explain to them who I was, but hard as I’d try, I wasn’t able to speak. I was without a voice and felt I had been forgotten. I woke up in a sweat, out of breath, my heart pounding. The same thing happened again on my 2nd night home, only I seemed to be more accepting of not having a voice, and spent much of my dream wandering up and down the hallways, trying to find the room where I belonged. I’m still struggling nightly in my dreams, which is a pattern with me that started the first time I volunteered in Perú, over 10 years ago.   It seems to be part of my processing mechanism and although it does not allow for an easy re-entry, it has become a predictable part of my journey.  I really don’t know what these refugees are going through on a daily basis emotionally, physically or spiritually, but for one brief moment during my sleeping hours, my psyche seemed to be trying to give me a small taste of what it feels like to feel totally forgotten and unheard. And for these past few nights, if only in my dreams, it has been terrifying.

Since I’ve been home, I feel like I’ve only been present as a physical shell, my emotional system still residing in Greece, not quite ready to join me. This re-entry seems especially difficult for me and maybe that’s the reason why it seems to be taking my heart so long to catch up to my physical body. We are not yet in sync and that’s ok, as this is a process that moves at its own pace, and for that, I’m patient.

It would be easy to paint this whole experience with a large brush of sadness, despair and hopelessness, but that wouldn’t be totally accurate. There was joy… on the faces of the children as several volunteers would make their way down the main hallway, led by a song and a guitar, to indicate that it was time for summer camp, Pied Pipper style. This was the highlight of each and every day at Oinofyta and one that makes me smile just thinking about it. The kids and parents as well, would come out of their rooms, smiling and clapping along with the song. Moments like those helped cushion the underlying pain of feeling forgotten and unwanted that has become so much a part of these people’s lives.

There is an NGO (non-government organization) that is involved in both Ritsona and Oinofyta camps called “I AM YOU.” I was so struck by that name and how appropriate it was. I AM you, and you ARE me and we have to be in this together for the sake of humanity. Another NGO, and the main one at Oinofyta, is called “Do Your Part.” And so I try. I know that what I do is only a drop in the ocean, but if that drop can send ripples out far enough to open up the heart and mind of even one person, than I’ve done something, not near enough, but something.

It will be a long time before I completely process the magnitude of this experience, but for now, as I work through it, those sweet innocent faces of the children and the pained faces of the adults come into focus for me  nightly and have claimed a piece of my heart.


Eye checks, check.

Yesterday was good… my eye check partner, Tim, and I checked a dozen or so eyes yesterday of children ranging in age from 5 to 18.  2 failed.  We had hoped to see a lot more kids but Mohamed said it may take a bit for this new program to catch on.  He tried to drum up some “business” for us by going into the living quarters and knocking on doors.  Many of the mothers simply said their kids eyes were fine.  I’m sure vision problems are not first and foremost on their minds right now.  But word eventually got out and we had a bit of a rush at the end of the day.  I’m sure as the days go on and more and more find out about it, we’ll get the numbers of 30 screenings a day, which is our goal.  Shae and Lynette are next door to us, doing the same thing, also seeing about 12 kids.  There are over 300 in Ritsona and the hope is to get most of them screened in the next few weeks then the process will move on to the 18 and older crew.

The kids caught on quickly to the process, and we were surprised by how many of them had a grasp of English, though limited, enough to understand the directions the antimatter bear gave them on the computer software (the Arabic language didn’t seem to work so we were stuck with the English, which was just as well as we did have a handful that didn’t speak Arabic either.  Only Kurdish, with limited English.

I think my biggest takeaway from the day came from watching the behavior of the boys, especially the 8, 9, 10 age group.  They were extremely aggressive with one another – throwing rocks, fighting and circling each other in real animal stances to show dominance.  I had tested two of them, who Mohamed referred to as the “baddest boys in the camp” and to say they were a handful would be quite an understatement.  While I tested one, the other was running around the room, grabbing things, throwing them, taunting me with threats to push different computer buttons etc.  I know boys will be boys, I had two at those ages so know the score, but this felt very different to me.  They would go from charming, adorable boys to aggression so quickly.  Eventually, they left to go join up others in their age group (where volunteers from our group would have the opportunity to corral them…) and two younger (five or six?) boys became the show for us.  They would circle one another in acts of dominance then the rock throwing began (much of the ground is rock, much larger than gravel and just the right size it seemed for throwing).  They would pick up a rock and reel their arm back as if to throw it at the other boy then slam it onto the ground, almost as if they had gotten caught once and were told never to throw rocks AT someone.  When I mentioned it to Mohamed, he pointed to one of the little boys and said, “Him?” When I answered, “Yes,” he told me that only moments earlier he had seen that boy’s mom throw a rock at him out of desperation because he wouldn[t come when she called him.  Kids learn.

So often throughout the day I had to circle my thought pattern back to the understanding of where these kids, and their parents, have come from and what they have been witness to.  These are clearly acts of PTSD .  The kids have few boundaries in the type of living situation they are in and seem to wander around the camp without any supervision (I watched two toddlers, pacifiers attached to their clothing, who were climbing on chairs with absolutely no one watching them).  It is so hard not to place my own value system on their behavior, which keeps me in constant check of remembering the horrific violence these families have been through, especially the innocent children.  They can’t unsee what they have seen or unfeel what they have felt and so such emotions are played out in the aggression I witnessed yesterday.

I skipped the group dinner in our “assigned” restaurant last night and had dinner with Lynette and Michelle, two sisters who I’ve really come to enjoy, and we talked about the aggression over dinner (while watching the sun set over the Aegean Sea – had to throw that in…).  Michelle works with 5 to 8 year olds and said she saw a 5 or 6 year old boy constantly bullying one of the girls.  This isn’t easy.  I’ve got to remember the history of where these people have come from and don’t want to paint with too large of a brush here as this kind of behavior and those “baddest boys of camp” were definite the exception, and not the rule.  The kids overall were a delight.  They are beautiful with their big brown eyes, olive skin and black hair.  In addition to our vision screening, we also did BMI scores (height and weight ratios) and many were underweight or very over weight, which no doubt could be attributed to poor nutrition.

I have found a nearby coffee shop and my morning routine is to walk there, get a latte, then walk along the boardwalk and watch the sunrise while I relax and contemplate the new day’s arrival.  Although not quite the exercise I was getting before with my hour walk around the horseshoe-shaped sea walk, it comes much closer to giving me the gentle start to the day that I need.

I feel very safe here in Chalkida and really enjoy the pace of life here.  It’s a nice oasis to return to every day.

Ritsona Camp – day one.

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!

I’ve arrived…Chalkida, Greece. Home for the next 2 weeks.

After what seemed like days of travel – KC to Minneapolis to Paris to Athens then an hour drive to Chalkita I have arrived to my home for the next two weeks. It was a shot in the arm to see Mohammed at the airport (Mohammed was the director of the program in Rabat, Morocco, where I volunteered a few years ago).  The woman who was seated next to me on the flight from Minneapolis to Paris asked me about my travel plans while we were exiting the plane.  I told her and her eyes geared up.  She was American but from Israel and was headed there to see her family.  She praised my efforts, we said brief goodbyes, then were on our separate ways (we didn’t talk at all during the flight, so it was a rather quick “introduction”).  She later caught up with me in the airport as I was finding my way to my next flight, and gave me a hug and wished me a safe journey.  That was an encounter that will stay with me.  Her gesture meant so much, especially as I’m entering a huge unknown here….

I’m staying in a small hotel a short block from the water. Chalkida is on an island just an hour away from Athens so is a popular vacation spot for the locals. I’ve not yet been to the camp where I’ll be working, but can already say that this spot will feel much like an oasis at the end of every work day.
Our room (I’m sharing with a woman from England), is small, but adequate, and “air conditioned”, although I do have to put that word in quotes. It’s hot, exceptionally hot for this area, I’m told, and after today’s projected high of 109, we are supposed to be in for some cooling tomorrow. 90 will never feel better. The camps are totally exposed, no trees, so it will be much worse.

There are 25 or so of us, all staying in the same hotel, most from the USA and a few from England. Today will be an orientation day – learning more about the camps as well as our job assignments.

I’ll have much more to day tomorrow, no doubt, but so far, I’m feeling content, happy and filled with anticipation….