If you are joining my Souda posts for the first time here, please see Souda Refugee Camp Part 1 for an introduction to this series ... to Souda camp, what it is and what I'm doing there.
Today I will select three things to share:
(1) A refugee from Syria with a bullet that’s been lodged in his leg for five months, it recently moved under his skin and was causing him such pain that he couldn’t walk; he’d been lying in his tent for the last five days without moving. A volunteer, Jan, discovered this situation and brought it to the attention of one of the camp doctors who said he needed to go to hospital but because it wasn’t a life-threatening (??) emergency, the doctor wouldn’t call an ambulance for him, said he could just take the bus. The bus? Seriously? When you cannot walk? Jan, pretty beside himself with anger, ordered a taxi with his own money, found a translator for the man and took him to the hospital himself.
(2) We were just closing down the women's clothing "store" (same as the kid’s clothes store the other day -- 3 items per woman, not to be stingy but to ensure enough for everybody) and preparing to serve lunch when she materialized at the fence. She was tiny, almost child-sized. She wore jet-black pants underneath a long, dark-blue form-fitted coat that came down to her calves, with striking gold buttons and gold trim on the cuffs and seams, up to a high collar. It was a style I'd seen commonly when I was a tourist in Iran. Her delicate head was swabbed in a simple white hijab, but it was striking against the blue high collar. Dainty shoes cradled her dainty feet.
I accompanied the tiny woman in at the last minute. She had arrived on the island a couple days earlier, new to the store situation, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t get through to her that she could take three items of clothing between the tops and bottoms. We left out the crates with size small clothing in them for her, and while she perused the clothes that once belonged to someone else, with me at her side, the other volunteers were already re-positioning the fencing around the tables to start arranging and preparing for lunch distribution. The tiny woman rifled through the pants and shirts, picking one or two out and holding them up, and putting them back. I watched her rather intently behind my mirrored sunglasses as a range of expressions crossed her face.
Her face told me that when she heard from other women in camp there were new clothes available, that she could go pick something out, she envisioned a selection as stylish as the clothes she wore. Rifling through the crates, a reality began to set in on her that these weren't new clothes, they were cast-offs. She dug almost frantically to the bottom of the crates. Her movements were not frantic, no. It was only because I was focusing on her face that I could see her composed movements straining against her dignity like a horse ready to break out of its gate. In her homeland, if she saw this crate at a bazaar she'd want to toss the clothing to the ground and demand, "What the hell?" She looked desperate ... Is this really all there is to choose from? Finally she selected only one item -- a shirt, the cutest one, which is the one I would have chosen for myself. It must take awhile for a woman to let go of her pride in her appearance, her individual sense of fashion, to be able to pick out clothes that simply fit reasonably to supply a rotation so that clothes can be washed from time to time.
I could see the first light of the enormity of her change of situation dawning on the tiny woman as she walked away from the crate clutching the one shirt. By now the fencing had been put together to close off the tables completely in anticipation of the food trucks arriving. I had to open a slot for her to step through the fencing. It was strangely one of the hardest things I’ve had to do yet. She walked back toward the tents, the epitome of aloneness, confusion, vulnerability, abrupt change. I couldn't take her by the hand and flee with her to my rental car, drive her to my hotel room and subsequently take her home to a new life in my luggage. I understood with more clarity my own situation then as a volunteer: that I needed to *act* with compassion but *observe* with dispassion. Otherwise I'd be crushed.
(3) Today at lunch was the most crowded I have ever seen the food line and we ran completely out of food before anyone from the Vial (military-run) camp got a single meal, though they waited in line, some for almost two hours. All accounts I've heard of the meals at Vial include words such as or similar to "gruel," and inevitably, "maggots." The U.N. runs a bus service during the daytime between Vial and Souda, and many Vial refugees come here hoping for a better meal. But they are only allowed a meal if there is food leftover after Souda residents have been given a window of about 1.5 to 2 hour to fill their cards.
These fellows below often came -- the man on the right was Syrian, with a degree in architecture and specialized in "green" architecture, designing solar and energy-efficient buildings. He spoke good English and had a very good humor. I first met him when I was manning the women's food line, which was often empty while the men's was full, and he came into it not realizing the distinction of this line. This was not uncommon to happen and, always presuming people did not speak English until they proved otherwise, I "explained" this was the women's line by charading with my hands along my own body a woman's figure with long hair and womanly curves. Once he realized his mistake, we had a very good laugh and then we began speaking.
This day, even people with Souda camp meal cards who came up near the end of the distribution period, as if it’s not demoralizing enough handing over a card telling the purple-rubber-gloved stranger how much food they’re allowed, when they’re capable of earning their own and would love to be in their homeland doing so, were met with purple-gloved strangers shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Sorry.”
Maybe they know enough English to understand the word, maybe they only understand the gesture – the hands held out uselessly at the end of the shrugging shoulders. Most of the regulars from both Souda and Vial that I’ve seen get turned away at the end of a distribution period are gracious, and some even say “thank you” to the purple gloves turning them away. They can plainly see we have no food left, but if I were in their shoes, I’m not sure how gracious I’d be.
Yet, in spite of all that, the tiny woman new to the island clutching her one shirt in her hand as she stepped through the gap in the fence still haunts me most.
Today … of course several notable things happened. But here’s what’s standing out foremost in my mind as I’m settling down toward bedtime with a glass of mastiha liquor -- made from the sap of a tree that grows only here on Chios and nowhere else -- and a bag of stale popcorn. There are two Greek twin brothers who show up in camp daily and help out with the refugee efforts. One of them rides this insanely artistically duded-up Harley motorcycle. The other rides a scooter. So funny. But the brothers both look like pirates.
Erik and I were standing next to the motorcycle in the parking lot outside the camp waiting for another volunteer to whom we were going to give a lift. An Afghani refugee and Erik struck up a conversation about the motorcycle, and Erik mentioned the motorcycles that we have (so I was soon included in the conversation).
The Afghani said he has three, named them each. I first thought to myself, how does he have three motorcycles here? I quickly then figured he meant that he *had* in the past three motorcycles. But then he clarified in the course of conversation that his three bikes were still in a garage at his mother’s house in Afghanistan. His younger brother (17 years old) was tasked with keeping them safe in the garage and his mother had the keys so that his brother wouldn’t be tempted to ride them.
He went on and on about how nobody at all was allowed to touch them. The whole time in the back of my mind I’m wondering what the point is, but eventually he revealed that he hoped (I believe secretly *presumed*) that in “maybe ten years or so” he can return home and be reunited with not only his human family but his beloved motorcycles. It was a stab in the heart to realize the hopes that keep people going. Ten years ago it surely seemed reasonable to presume that by 2017 things would be at relative peace; this young man would have been but a teenager, surely never guessing he’d be here separated from his family in a refugee camp. Is it reasonable to presume that in 2027 relative peace will have arrived and he can be reunited with his home? I’m skeptical. But all he has is hope.
There are several pregnant women in camp. I feel almost physically ill to think that they may birth those babies in this camp -- where people are crammed in so tightly together, with nothing resembling adequate sanitation, and plagued by rats (people in the tents say they run over their pillows at night). And even more ill to realize this is a place so much better than the one they came from.
We volunteers must leave the camp as soon as we’ve finished handing out dinner portions, which is typically by 8:15 pm. (because we were specifically invited to the wedding in Part 1, three of us stayed in later that one night) But we hear from *every*body that every night there are fights in the camp and on the U.N. bus back to Vial, down south. It’s so hard to figure because men seem quite well-behaved here (except in the tea line they can get unruly). Everyone says it’s the Afghanis who are aggressive and start the fights. I also had in the back of my mind the whole time talking with this motorcycle enthusiast, is he one of the fighters?
I’m so surprised that everyone here doesn’t get along in a spirit of solidarity. But there you go -- there it is right there, the senseless inanity of ethnic, religious, political, tribal, etc. conflict. The refugees are ultimately in the same damn boat and still have to fight within it. For the most part I feel sad for the people here, but there are times when I feel angry with them -- even while they’re telling me their futile hopes, even while they stand humbly in line with a piece of paper that tells them how many plastic cups of yogurt, how many tomatoes and pieces of pita bread they’re entitled to have me plop in a bag with my purple rubber-gloved hands.
This morning the tiny, slight woman who touched my sad heart at the clothing "store" the other day was in the breakfast line; it would appear she is indeed all alone, as she presented only one camp card allotting her only one portion of food. Please don't turn me into the authorities when I kidnap her and bring her home in my suitcase. The odds of being granted asylum in Greece seem heart-breakingly slim, but I don't know the actual percentage who receive it, could be greater than I perceive. Though we did see our favorite teenage boy approved and sent off to Athens yesterday. It was a wee bit sad for us, he being one of our favorites here, such a nice, friendly kid, maybe 14 years old.
Why does it say "not Ali Baba" on his arm? Well, Erik wrote it there as a joke. This phrase circulates around the camp constantly, that someone is or is not an Ali Baba ... in reference to the Arabian Nights folktale of Ali Baba, who steals a bag of coins. So in other words, Ali Baba is their synonym for "thief." Most of the time this was used in a playful manner ... there were several types of jokes and practical jokes that just never seemed to cease amusing the male refugees. Ali Baba references as one example.
The two practical jokes that apparently never got old to them were (1) to come up behind a person, put their arm around behind their back and tap them on the shoulder opposite of the one they stood beside, causing the "victim" to look to the left, say, only to find nobody there and then look to the right to find the jokester laughing; (2) to point to the "victim's" chest, causing them to look down (for me, it would be people pointing to my necklace) and then the jokester flips his finger up to flick the victim's nose. I seriously can't guess at the number of times these pranks were played on me and all the volunteers (or at least the female ones). Yes, of course I got wise to it after awhile, but they derived such amusement from me falling victim that more often than not I pretended to fall for it anyway.
Yesterday one of the Drops coordinators visited a Syrian refugee who is here with her infant child, she's trying to get asylum in Europe so that she can send for her son who is still in Syria and desperately needs an operation beyond the hospital's capability in her home city. If she is denied asylum, she will go home to watch her son die. She was rejected in her first interview today; she will appeal.
There was a sweet gray kitty wandering near the food tent today. Far skinnier than ones who hang out in village centers, but not emaciated. I picked him up to pet and noticed he had numerous ticks on his face. He purred and purred as I and another volunteer petted him; he crawled into her lap, and amazingly, he stayed still for me to pull out all the ticks I could see on his face (they hadn't burrowed too deeply yet).
A refugee saw us with the cat, came up and told us he "knows all about animals," picked up Little Gray and basically gave him an annual exam (minus the temperature-taking) -- checking his tummy, internal organs, fur, teeth, ears, etc. (and discovered and removed a couple more ticks inside the ears). He clearly is a veterinarian or vet tech or something. He had snatched the kitty away from me with a certain relish, almost glee, in getting to use his skills for a moment. I try to imagine Mister and Trixy's vet sleeping in a tent, cold in winter, hot in summer, no animals to poke and prod and say how pretty they are.
A couple days ago, Erik and I got a treat (surely because we have a car and can drive to the other camp). We were told to go help another NGO up at Vial who had arranged a soccer tournament. Our coordinator said, "just do whatever they tell you they need help with." All we did was keep score. Which of course everyone already knew, haha. So basically we got to watch a bunch of soccer matches.
It was only a tiny field, but this NGO, Samaritan's Purse, had found some used astroturf, put it on an otherwise unused patch of dirt, acquired goal nets and even poured concrete for a small grandstand complete with a tin metal roof. All things considered, it was a pretty cool addition to the camp. But the coolest thing, one of the SP people told us, is that the teams (only three people plus goalie because of the small field) were composed of people of different nationalities and ethnicity playing together on a team. So this was cool and encouraging.
Then we came back to Souda and watched a fight break out between two refugees. It happened right near the food tent and the NRC and Drops evacuated all of us volunteers back to the parking lot until things simmered down. We tried to ascertain what sparked the blows, but nobody could or would say, just that "they would be friends later."
Every day is a spectrum of events and emotions.
At Souda. If only these tents represented vacation -- camping and leisure activities -- rather than uprooted and displaced lives, the totality of peoples' homes, it would be a rather lovely scene. The blue sky and the blue water and the flowers coming into bountiful bloom. The ancient city walls. It would be pretty if it wasn't hell. When I was a kid, I liked to pretend I lived in a camping tent and that all my belongings fit in there. It seemed fun to be so minimalist, to imagine everything I owned fitting into that one-room space (I think it was a 4-man tent). Now I see this thrust upon people as their reality, not a pretend game, people who once had so much more.
The weather changed from winter to summer pretty much overnight. Our first days here were cold and windy, now it's hot and sunny. The first few days, I wore every layer of clothing I had, plus some of Erik's; the last couple days I've been sweating it out in a tee-shirt. As the weather warmed, men began jumping into the ocean to cool off.
The Drops also have a small kit of fishing gear -- a couple poles, fishing line and spinners and hooks. Any day that someone wanted to fish, they could use the supplies at the end of the pier. But it was up to them to find bait for the hooks. One day when Erik and I were on fishing duty, there was no bait available for a man who wanted to fish. He thought maybe we could use crabs from the beach as bait. So we went on a crab hunt along the rocks at the sea's edge. I requisitioned a discarded coffee cup to store them in as they were caught. It was fun looking for the crabs, then watching the guy try to catch the zippy little boogers once we spotted one. It gave me a mild case of heebie-jeebies, though, to be holding this cup of hyperactive crabs who I occasionally had to push back down into the cup with a stick to prevent escapism. But it was a new way to pass the time for awhile. The number one complaint of the primary refugee demographic -- single males (whether they are actually single or traveling without their family) -- isn't the shitty food or the crappy crowded tents or the weather, cold or hot, it's boredom. They're bored out of their skulls waiting for bureaucracy to process them. Waiting for bureaucracy to even notice them.
Want to help? Either with a financial donation or your own two hands? Check out these two organizations who are doing the good work.