Shared stories vol 5: the worry engrained in their faces

"The UNHCR temporary camp again: Cups, shoes, ball games, clothes, power, and internet access. I meet E. and Z."

Oct 8: Boats are arriving again, but not near Skala. With little happening on the water nearby for the moment, Gill and I volunteer with the Refugee Rescue land crew at the "Stage 2" UNHRC temporary camp after our early morning SAR patrol. To make sure that Mo Chara remains SAR ready, we take turns going up to Stage 2. After my emotionally overwhelming experience the first time around, I am unsure what to expect.

One immediate difference: Whereas my first stint at Stage 2 was to prepare the camp for new arrivals and to help them get settled, the current group has been there for a couple of days already, waiting to be transported to Moria the next day. After two days, people are restless. My job today is to help the refugees if they need something and to provide some company.

When I get there, there are a couple of arguments going on between the refugees and volunteer staff. One is around the disposable styrofoam cups that are being handed out. If there are 40 refugees, 40 cups are provided, and people are expected to keep them for later. Many of the cups first handed out ended up in the waste bin and some get cracked or taken apart by children and pieces of them are littering the camp. When people ask for more cups, they are refused. This is the day where I learn that a simple disposable styrofoam cup is a valuable commodity in a refugee camp and needs to be safeguarded or you won't be able to get a drink later.

There's another to and fro that I get drawn into. The shoes handed out to a teenage boy are far too large and he's hobbling around barefoot on the coarse crushed gravel rather than wearing them. After talking to the volunteers I find out that we don't have any more donated shoes in the right size. With the help of other refugees and more impromptu gesturing, we manage to explain that we'd like to help, but there is not much we can do. At best, Moria might have some shoes that will fit.

As I start wandering around, I see a little girl barreling across the camp in shoes that aren't tied up, so I flag her down and tie her shoelaces. She barely holds still long enough for me to tie her shoes before she takes off again. Her lively spirit makes me smile and reminds me of my own children when they were younger. There's so much activity here that seems familiar, even if the setting of a UN refugee camp continues to feel strangely abstract.

There are many children in this group and Emma--one of the other volunteers--and I start passing a ball around with some of them. Soon, other children join in and eventually the older boy whose shoes didn't fit becomes part of the game, having borrowed his grandmother's slippers. He takes charge and changes the game to piggie-in-the-middle, where some children stand between the other players and have to catch the ball as it gets passed over them. If they do catch it, the players change spots and repeat the game.

This change turns the game into something much more organized and it helps us build a quick rapport with the children. We all laugh as we fumble the ball from time to time, but the children are clearly enjoying themselves. The same boy starts calling out some English words he's learned to direct us and he teaches us the Arabic word for "high" when we pass the ball. At some point, the game turns a bit rough as he is trying to crank up the pace--he clearly needs more exercise than the confines of the small camp can provide--and the younger children start to drop out. Emma and I step back as well, but the game continues for some time among the older children. Later on, we see three men in their twenties playing piggie-in-the-middle. Clearly, playing ball is one welcome way to shake off feelings of confinement and restlessness.

After finding some disposable diapers for the parents of a baby, I sit down on a bench near the large tent and get to witness an upset younger boy who had been playing with us earlier. He's teething and his two front baby teeth have already fallen out, again reminding me of my own children when they were younger. One of the girls took the ball he was playing with and ran off with it. He's clearly upset and his grandmother and father are trying to reason with him. Immersed unexpectedly in a family scene, I have the father on one side, the boy on the other, and his grandmother in front of me. I try to reassure the upset boy, but lack the words. Meanwhile, the girl with the ball is nowhere to be found, smartly hiding out of sight.

The father is named E. He is maybe ten years younger than I am and in his mid-thirties. I learn that the family is Kurdish. He's a friendly soul and goes on to show me pictures of volunteers he's met, from the time he came off a refugee boat to the UNHCR temporary camp he is in now. I recognize several of them and we go through the names to confirm them. He points out one of the volunteers as "Sam," but I call him "Samuel," so we figure out the difference between full first names and short forms with hand gestures and some basic words we share. We talk about where we are from and about family names. He seems genuinely interested and already knows one other volunteer from Canada, but only as "Canada." I don't recognize the volunteer from the picture, so his true name remains a mystery.

E. asks me about the cost of Greek SIM cards, as he hopes to buy one. There's no internet access at the camp and there's not even power unless a generator is run. He thinks that the earliest he can buy a SIM is near Moria. I realize that maybe there is something useful I can do here and fire up a mobile WiFi hotspot on my phone for him. E. is clearly very grateful for this and he uses the WiFi hotspot to quickly contact a number of different people and share news with them. It's like a window to the world has been opened up briefly and others gather around E. to catch glimpses of what is going on and to discuss what they hear.

E. has a brother or brother-in-law named Z. who is injured. Z. is limping badly with one leg and his hand on the same side is bandaged up. I try to ask him if he is OK or needs help, but he's clearly in good spirits and whatever injury he sustained hasn't dampened his mood. He's smiling and chatting with people everywhere in the camp. E. asks to take a selfie with the three of us. I ask to take one, too, and when I look at it later, I can see the worry ingrained on their faces along with their smiles. (I'm told that the policy is not to take pictures that show faces at UN camps.)

A fall chill is in the air tonight with a stiff breeze and some people are cold, but we don't really have additional clothes that can be handed out. After sitting outside for a while, I am getting cold, too, and walk around the camp for a bit. It's near dusk and I capture the last rays of the sun through the mesh fence from the camp. These fellow human beings have witnessed sunset through a mesh fence at least twice already, and will likely witness many more the same way. I find the experience to be lacking.

At one point, a mother asks me to fill up a water bottle for her young child. There are policemen guarding one side of the camp where the exit is, right near the tank of potable water. It's clear that she does not want to come close to them, so she asks for help. I walk over, fill the bottle and return it to her, wondering about what kinds of experiences she's had in her life. (Despite their presence and despite refugees generally avoiding them, the behaviour of the policemen guarding this camp is beyond reproach and one of them shows me how to work the double tap setup on the water tank.) As the evening progresses, others ask for water, too. It's clearly a scarce thing, along with disposable cups, shoes that fit, warm clothes, electrical power, and internet access.

With daylight fading, I fire up the generator as instructed by one of the coordinators earlier. The moment power comes on, there is a run on a small number of electrical power strips inside the main tent as people rush to charge their phones. This, too, is apparently part of their daily existence now.

At the end of my shift, Gill arrives with a hot coffee in hand that Goji's had forgotten to bring to her in time. She is concerned about drinking it in front of the camp, so we agree to give it to someone. As I say goodbye to E. and Z., I discreetly pass the coffee to Z., wave to the older boy who had been part of our game earlier, nod to the policemen at the other end of the camp as I pass by them, and walk out of the Stage 2 camp for the second time in two days.

The feeling I have is one of passing from one world into another. I think about how internet access must be fading quickly for E. as I reenter Skala and about how I might never see any of the people I met tonight again.


 photo credit: Nikolaj Richers

photo credit: Nikolaj Richers