Shared stories vol. 2: a simple gesture (Nikolaj)

Nikolaj thought about volunteering in December 2015 and joined us in October 2017. Thank you for sharing, Nikolaj.

"A night at a UNHRC temporary refugee camp. A refugee touches my soul."

Oct 5: We rotate boat crew and I'm not on tonight, so I join the land crew to be on call for the night. The land crew helps refugees get settled in the "Stage 2" camp, a temporary UNHCR camp in Skala Sikamineas before people get sent to the much bigger Moria camp here on Lesvos.

We get called out shortly after 9 PM to help set up the camp for the people arriving on the next boat picked up by Frontex. I help get blankets and sleeping bags ready whilst others are putting down sleeping mats and making hot food and drinks. The mats are thin, unpadded carpets bearing the UN crest and the sleeping bags are flimsy. The blankets are much better and should provide some warmth in the large, unheated tent that is at the centre of the camp. Next to the camp are a number of plastic temporary building housing supplies, washrooms, and more. There is a tall metal mesh fence all around the camp, and one of the flood lights is flickering off and on, adding a slightly surreal atmosphere.

As refugees come in, I hand them a blanket and sleeping bag each. There are 30 of them, including a number of families with kids. People are young, they are old, and they come from places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or further afield. They all look like they could be your neighbours back home in Canada ... except they are refugees. Many have wet pants, some are barefoot or are wearing only socks and are hobbling over the crushed gravel in the camp. Some are clearly distraught and I try to welcome them with a smile as I hand them their things. We've been asked to be cheerful and smile, but it's an unnecessary request: it's hard not to feel a deep sense of empathy for other human beings so clearly in distress. Parents ask their children to say "thank you" and at some point a little boy just walks from person to person and repeats "thank you" over and over again.

Once we have everyone in the main tent where they will sleep for the night, we pick out those who need dry clothes the most, such as the little boy who is clearly hypothermic when I hand him his blanket and sleeping bag. I point him out to another volunteer who approaches his parents to take care of him first.

After blanket and sleeping bag duty, I end up helping a family and a couple find dry shoes and pants. They know only a few words of English and I know no Arabic or other languages they speak, so we make it work by gesturing with hand signals. It's incredible how quickly you can build a rapport with someone even if you don't share a language and all you need to talk about is shoes and pants. We use our fingers to indicate sizes and once I know what fits them, I walk over to the clothing store stocked with donated clothes, ask for what they need, and then take it back to them.

I can tell people are relaxing as we are helping them get more comfortable. The dry shoes and pants after their dangerous boat ride are clearly a relief. At some point, another volunteer and I lug a big barrel of hot, sugared tea from the kitchen to the tent. Later, some hot food in styrofoam cups is also handed out. If I had apprehensions about working here tonight, they vanish as I spend more time with people. Everyone is willing to help, including the refugees who often translate for each other. There is even a camp cat called "Boo" cozying up to people who are taking turns to hold her.

The pants for one of the women I am helping don't fit, so I try to figure out with her what she needs. She gestures something bigger and I try to mimic her gesture to show I understand. At first, I gesture something bigger somewhat carelessly and then worry that I am indicating to her that I think she is fat. I quickly change my tune and gesture something just a tiny bit bigger with my fingers when my blasted brain finally kicks in. She catches on and we both share a smile.

We are wrapping things up outside for these latest arrivals when the father of the family I had helped earlier comes back out and taps me on the shoulder. I first think he needs a bit more help and I turn towards him, but he only looks at me, takes my arm and places a handful of pistachios into my hand. We share a moment together looking at each other. Lost for words, I thank him somehow. Then he's gone.

It's a simple gesture, but it completely caught me off guard. I still don't fully comprehend what happened in that moment. All I know is that his gesture touched me profoundly. I lack the words. For someone to share what little they have felt undeserved. In me, gratitude and shame, in equal measure. Shame for what I have and for going home to a comfortable bed whilst he ended up sleeping on a thin mat with his family in an unheated tent, on his way to the overcrowded Moria camp in the morning. There was nothing remarkable in what I did that another human being wouldn't have done.

Afterwards, I walk around Skala harbour with my soul on fire, thinking about what just happened. I know I will remember this night.

Meanwhile, there's another black boat exactly like the one we beached before, tied up in the same spot in the harbour. No two days here are alike, except the crisis continues.