North Africa, West Asia

Seeking refuge in refugees

Glimpses of life in a Greek refugee camp through the diary of a young volunteer.

Sarah El Sheikh
5 July 2017
NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Refugees and immigrants at the port of Piraeus, Greece. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Day one: excitement

Today I arrived at a refugee camp near Thessaloniki, excited but also fearful.

More than 150 families (mostly Syrian and some Iraqi) live in this converted factory. In spite of the number of inhabitants, the place feels soulless. I haven’t talked to the ‘residents’ yet, but I have randomly run into some children playing. 

I arrived at the camp with three other people from Croatia, former Yugoslavia and the US. Today was mainly an introduction for us new volunteers. 

A large part of the introduction was about trauma and managing trauma. The children, especially, are traumatized. Sudden crying, aggression, mood swings; you may never know what the trigger is. For some, it could be a picture or piece of news. It doesn’t have to be something “negative” in the typical sense; it can be as random as the smell of grilled meat. We were also warned about trauma transmitting to us. 

The camp is in quite good shape and seems to be run well by volunteers; it’s soulless though. I was looking for a sense of “emergency.” But wait…. Why would I underestimate the struggle of these people just because they don’t live in tents? Why has it become the default to see tents? Because they’re refugees?

Day two: madness

All the volunteers at this point in time are white people who have gone out of their way to come help and spend time here at their own expense. They do not speak Arabic. I do not understand how they are supposed to run a camp for 150 families if they do not speak their language? 

The anti-orientalist part of me is mad at these white-skinned hard-working kind-hearted volunteers. Who do they think they are to assume how these refugees want their lives to be run? Why do they think that a “fitness class” followed by dancing is such a brilliant idea? I despise them, pity their helplessness, but also admire their attempts. 

Some women show up to class, but I cannot help but feel bad for them. How desperate do you need to be in order to show up to a “fitness class” given by a European when your family is either dead, in another country or waiting to be reunited?

But why am I, in turn, assuming and judging? Why am I so mad at these kind gestures? Maybe because I feel they are attempts to “civilize” or rather “westernize” the inhabitants of the camp? Turns out, I am sensitive about cultural invasion. 

Some of the children were speaking to each other in English. They seem to have very quickly picked up the language. Smart kids they are. But speaking to one another in a language other than their own was scary. I am mad. 

I am mad at the way the place is being run, but I know the volunteers are doing their best. I am mad at the very ugly reality. I am mad at every Arabic-speaking person who has not even thought of coming here to help. 

Day three: startled

Today I briefly met Abo Abdu, who was very excited that I speak Arabic. The water has been cutting off for five days and he, like everyone else, is frustrated.

“Do you want the kids in schools to think that Syrian kids stink? We’re not like that, sister! We had everything in Syria and we lived like kings. We had homes, water, food and cars. We were something. We only fled our country because of the war.”

A juggler came to entertain the kids. They were very happy, laughing at his games and tricks. He was funny and patient, trying his best to speak Arabic. I thought he was French/Moroccan maybe.

During the show one girl asked “what’s in this bottle?” The juggler said “water, soap and a special powder from Israel” - (silence and moments of awkwardness).

But the silence and awkwardness only happened in my mind. All the children wanted was to play, they didn’t pay much attention to what he'd said. But I did and I wondered, “how dare he come to cheer Syrian kids up? Why was a juggler from Israel brought in?” 

Wait, I am from Egypt. I come from a fascist, racist and oppressive state. He was born in Israel, like I was born in Egypt. None of us asked for it. It’s not where he comes from that matters, but what he chooses to do, and he chose to volunteer his time and energy to entertain these children. He’s Israeli like I’m Egyptian and that’s it.

Day four: dignity

One of the volunteers from the US, who’s been here for nine months now, pulled me out of the middle of a conversation: “Hey, I want you to come translate something for me. The women are mad and I must have a talk with them.”

They are mad at everything in the camp. The water has been cut. No hot water. They’re not happy with the food distribution - quality, quantity, everything.

The volunteer was furious too. Stuck in the middle - being yelled at and a target of anger - most of the time with little to do to make their lives better. I was quite scared and stressed. They were mad and yelling at both of us. They didn’t like the meat, the quality of the vegetables and wanted more “boharat” (spices) to cook with.

My first thoughts, which I kept to myself, were: “wait, what? Boharat? Are you people aware of the situation you’re in? Are you in denial? You guys live in an abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere… and you’re yelling because of the food quality and some spices missing!? I’m here volunteering and I don’t care about what I eat, because I’m aware of the situation I’m in. I don’t care about the quality or quantity, as long as it keeps me going.”

But wait! I’m judging them with my very narrow mind and shallow emotions. How dare I think that way! I’m here by choice, they’re not. I don’t care about what I eat because it gives me self-worth. To me this is temporary. For the refugees, not eating well means less self-worth. It reminds them of how abandoned by the world they are. The few who haven’t abandoned them are the volunteers on site. This is them being mad at the war, death, loss, and their unknown destinies.

The food, spices and water are possibly the only channels through which they can transmit their feelings without being told “it’s alright. It’s because you’ve been traumatized.” It is the only thing they can openly complain about. I admire how relatively picky they were. It told me they’re not entirely dead from the inside and that they preserved their self-worth and still had the strength to demand better. 

Day five: shame

Two volunteers were chatting with three Syrian ladies in sign language. One of the ladies felt a bit ill, so they called me to ask her whether it was serious or not. The lady, Om Batoul, had a neck and back-ache. The volunteer, a yoga instructor, gave the lady a massage, assuming it must be stress. She then requested I ask Om Batoul whether something had been stressing her lately. I laughed. I truly laughed, like it was a joke! “Are you sure you want me to ask her that?” The volunteer then asked me “do you think it’s too personal to ask her?” Me: “not personal, but a lot must be stressing her, not only recently, but over the last six years! The volunteer said that she wanted her to open up. 

So I translated the question and Om Batoul confirmed that nothing was upsetting her now. But the question did bring about the stories of all three ladies.

They all lost their husbands during the war. Two of the women came across the Mediterranean alone with their children. The third, started the journey with her parents and children, but lost both her parents and one of her children to the sea.

“One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths are a statistic”, I thought to myself.

At this moment, one of the volunteers was in tears, crying uncontrollably. The three ladies had tears flowing down their cheeks, but their voices steady. I am guessing that they have become accustomed to crying in silence.

Day six: hope

The children go from being energetic and happy to grumpy and moody. Their parents’ diminishing role in their nurturing and upbringing is noticeable. Demotivation, depression and feelings of uselessness - what is it they can provide? Warmth and love? No. Where’s the warmth in a deserted factory? Guidance and advice? No. How could they, when they’re in a country where they don’t speak the language and don’t understand the culture! Living and bread-winning? No. They wait for food distribution every day. 

Men in particular seem miserable. The women have daily routines; cooking for their children and providing day-to-day care. So what are the men left with? Their role is marginalized. They’ve moved from being their own house heads to now being less useful than their own kids (who have picked up a foreign language quickly; have increased access to the new community, and more energy to learn new things).

They wait for the government (be it Greek or other) to decide the fate of their families. They wait for “some” organisation to carry out food distribution. This situation has made it very difficult to carry out their parenting role, as providers. The family dynamic is distorted. Children obtaining maximum exposure to this new society and parents stuck in the past.

Day seven: purification

Abo Abdu is leaving! Two families have just received news from the migration authority. They will go to Athens and from there they will be informed about the country that will receive them. Both family heads are called Abo Abdu.

Abo Abdu, from my previous entry, was very happy. He came to the shop to share the news with me. The shop is where we display donated clothes for residents to shop from through a point system; they get points at the beginning of each month to cover some of their needs. We agreed on a time for him to bring his family to pick an outfit for each member.

In three days they leave. So he told me “tomorrow we’re baking cake and konafa for everyone, and the next day is the big party. You must come.”

The next day, Om Abdu spent hours looking for something new to wear for herself. She was looking for a new dress, but couldn’t find anything. Although there are some new items, there are too few to choose from and not always appropriate and suitable to how she would dress. In the end, she only took clothing for her children.

The place is different, smells warm. The ovens are full of cakes and konafa made by the two families for the entire camp. This sweet warm scent can transform a place (of course only partially!). Plates of sweet warm konafa were being passed around to everyone.

Everyone was waiting for the big party. The music was heard from the warehouse and what I saw was thrilling. Everyone was either dancing or clapping. Abo Abdu took the lead in the dabka with a chain of men after him. The last man held his wife’s hand and then a chain of women and girls ensued. It was the Kurdish dabka, as one of the families is Kurdish. 

The scene was holy. Seeing them truly happy for the first time since I arrived was incredibly moving. The Abo Abdu(s) were keen on making everyone happy before they left - to give them hope. They invested an incredible amount of effort, time and emotional energy during their last few days to leave the camp on a positive note and see everyone hopeful. They really did a great job.

Some of the volunteers wanted to say goodbye to Om Abdu. I was standing next to her. They hugged and kissed. I translated their best wishes of a bright future to Om Abdu. Om Abdu received their wishes thankfully, but then said: “I hope they forgive us if we’ve done anything unkind.”

I was shocked. The whole world should kneel in front of these people and beg for their forgiveness. And you, Om Abdu, are asking for forgiveness because you may have lost your temper at some point in time?! If only you knew how much your request makes me want to cry and ask for your forgiveness! 

Last day

On my last day, we decided to have tea together in one of the rooms. Sett-Awneya was at the shop. I told her I was leaving today. She looked at me and said: "Do you really have to leave today? Are you missing anything? What do you need? [...] We are at the beginning of the month; I have all my points. Pick anything!"

I smiled and said I'm all set and only would like to have tea with her. She looked at my feet, investigated my worn-out sneakers and said: "You can't leave with these shoes. I'm going to get you new ones. They have a good collection here, pick a pair." It took few minutes of reassurance "wallah... wallah" to convince her that I truly have another good pair at home and that I'm flying with a completely stuffed backpack. She finally gave up and came upstairs with me. 

Sitting on the ground in a circle, we laughed and cried. It started with chatter, but at a certain point it became very intense. They do realize that the label 'refugee' which they recently acquired is loaded with negative connotations. All of a sudden, people assume they're ignorant and as if they never had a previous life. It assumes they're desperate and that they should accept anything that's been given to them. It assumes they're a load no one wants; the world is too small to accommodate them. They do realize they've suddenly transformed from humans with full agency to a collective 'thing' - a burden that people and countries avoid. 

Some of them have just got news that Germany (the top receiving country for the population of this camp) has reduced its quota from 500 entrants per month to only 70. It means more time here, waiting in uncertainty hoping to get admitted. 

This piece of news made them very tense. Some of them haven't seen their husbands or children for three years. As the conversation got heated everyone released a bit of frustration. After some of the women shared their horror stories of crossing borders and seas, quite a few were in tears. Moments of silence ensued, and the toughest silence! I couldn't think of a way to break it. 

Shortly after one of the ladies resumed: “My children often wake up in the middle of the night screaming because of nightmares. They wake me up horrified, and we all end up scared in a sleepless night.”

Fatima interrupted: “We often wake up to horrific news from our towns and are left wondering whether our families and loved ones are alive or dead. We wake up to news about children being massacred... We have left our towns, but our hearts are still there. Our memories are there. We can't just forget and pretend nothing is happening, because we chose to leave."

In my mind, I heard the completion of her sentence. "...just like the world has left us!"

It hit me. I realised what conflict she, and probably everyone else in her shoes, is going through. She sees how the world pretends this tragedy is not happening, and how everyone goes about their daily lives normally. It's demeaning and frustrating.

Fatima cannot forget. She doesn't want to. After all, she doesn't have the luxury to even if she wanted to. She's trapped with her fate being decided for her...

A version of these blog posts were first published here.

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