From Sarah Hassasine, one of our volunteers to Greece:
I want to put some things into perspective.
Imagine you come home one day and as you pull your car into your home, you silently register how both of your neighbors have left. Many of your friends in the neighborhood had been talking about leaving as well. You go home and close the door and sit down to dinner with your family, silently registering the lack of meat, less bread and no fruit on the table. The streets are deathly quiet outside. You miss the honking and the voices that used to make up the streets. No one goes out anymore.
You drive to work the next morning and drive by large hordes of people trekking with their families across the highways. Little kids on their fathers’ shoulders, and toddlers trying to keep in step with their parents. They look wide and lump shaped, and you note how they are wearing as much clothes as possible to take with them on their journey. How long will they walk for? Where are they going? They are leaving everything behind to start over. You glance back in your rear view mirror and look back at them wondering, “Should I leave?”
That is how it began for so many Syrian and Kurdish refugees that sit in the camps in Greece today. They had a normal life like the majority of us, they too would get up and go to work, go to school, go to the market, etc. And as the conflict worsened amidst their own borders and bombs were getting dropped, families had to make difficult decisions that would impact their lives forever. Do we stay and risk dying in our own homes here in Syria? Or do we leave and take the risk of a long journey to go somewhere safe and find a new home and opportunity for our family?
That is, and still is, the reality for the people in Syria.
Perhaps you remember media outlets flooding our living rooms and handheld devices with images of thousands of people trekking from across Syria, Turkey and Europe. They sat in snow and rain shivering – hungry and exhausted. But they were resilient and persistent, driven by the hope of reaching safety and security. They left one state of adversity to unknowingly enter another one.
Those images haunted me daily as I went about my life and I made silent promises to myself as I sat in my cubicle that I would extend a helping hand one day. I saw these people as nothing but brave. It takes a lot to leave your home, your comforts and your belongings for the unknown. It takes faith that things can only get better. Ironically, nowadays we greatly struggle with not knowing. We have to know our path and define our future and we feel insecure and depressed if we cannot guarantee the outcome. That is why everything we purchase has a warranty, we want to rest assured knowing that our TV is covered for at least two years. But there are no real guarantees in life. And these people face this reality daily.
People in the camps today in Greece have been shuffled around numerous times. The Greeks come at 5 am, disturbing their slumber and make them pack and move. There is no sense of belonging and there is nothing but uncertainty every day. When they sleep at night, they know tomorrow they may end up sleeping in another camp. There are over 20 camps just in the north of Greece alone and Greece has over 55,000 refugees from Syria.
I want to share with you what I experienced when I finally fulfilled my promise. The opportunity arose this past summer and I was able to dedicate one full week in three refugee camps.
Flying into Greece’s second largest city, Thessoliniki, I suddenly found myself anxious, what was I getting into? I had a huge suitcase of medical and school supplies with me and a lot of baby clothes to donate. I brought activities to do with little kids, but all of this did not mean I was really ready for what awaited me.
What does being a refugee really mean? And what is a humanitarian crisis? We throw words around daily in the news but there is a complete disconnect on the state of their actual existence and the politics on the ground. And going forward, I will not coin the people refugee as I want to humanize them to you because that is what they are, people like you and me, who are currently struggling to find their home again.
To start, we all like our habits and our comforts. Some of us have our favorite restaurants on certain days, we prefer to only go to the bathroom at home, or perhaps shower at a particular time of day. We satisfy our cravings and desires relatively quickly. We have cultivated our identity, our lifestyle and relationships through our routine, our city and our culture. You pop into Starbucks for your usual grande drink and debate whether you will gym it or not and what happy hour joint is best for each day of the week. Now imagine if all of that is stripped away. Nothing is familiar anymore.
Every day you are only given a piece of bread wrapped in plastic and a juice box. That is it every day. On good days, you are told to go line up for some tuna, or noodles, or eggs. One donation per tent.
You share 15 porto-potties with 500 people. The toilets are emptied daily but the odor is putrid and overflows into the camp. You learn to hold your nose at first, but then the smell becomes normal. And they are not clean. You carry toilet paper in with you each time you go. They do not flush. Imagine if you are a woman on your period or you just don’t feel well and have to throw up or have an upset stomach. Everyone knows your business.
You share 10 showers with 500 people. The showers are in a large crate with curtains to “separate.” But there are no windows inside and so it is very steamy and hard to see. The water does not drain so dirty water gathers at your feet. Forget about properly shaving and grooming. And the women share 5 shower heads with all the children. It is never empty and there is no privacy.
Where are the sinks?
Outside in the open air as well. One row of sinks for the men and one for the women. There are no mirrors, just sinks. The same sink you use to rinse a cup, wash your underwear, wash your baby, get your drinking water and wash your face. You share those 10 sinks with 500 people.
Afterwards, you have your living conditions. The refugees were all given tents to live in per family. Most tents have 7-10 people in each. They sleep on the floor on blankets. Usually families of three generations are all in one tent. I also saw some tents of just young boys, they were sent on their own by their families. They always sit together and sprawl out busy on their phones. Waiting. Everyone spends every minute waiting. There is nothing else to do. I saw a teenage boy crying in a corner and that image stays with me daily.
The refugees cannot just leave the camps. Most are controlled by the Greek military and are in remote locations where there is nothing nearby but warehouses, farmland, and sadly even sewage facilities that emit God-awful smells. One camp, Frakapur was on the border of the sewage land, flies were everywhere, you get tired of swatting them away and they just become normal. And yet the people of Frakapur mill around the camp, play soccer in the field and make it work. That is the beauty of survival, you keep going and create norms despite the conditions.
Some camps are closer to big cities and more open and so you will find young men who go and come back throughout the day, restless and yearning for a change. Those that do leave will try to barter with the gypsies to buy vegetables. They try to exchange their plastic wrapped bread for tomatoes and other vegetables. Some come back with olives, excited for something familiar, yet foreign in their setting in the camps.
“We Syrians know food, we have the best food in the world, and now all we eat is this bread every day,” said one lady to me sadly. It is not the kind of bread they are used to. These people are used to pita bread, not croissants or bread rolls. However, my greater concern was the lack of nutrients in their diet. Right now, all the food that the camps are getting are through donations. Donations go a long way and allow organizations to buy protein like tuna and nuts. The organizations also purchase bananas and watermelons and whatever else is in season. When I was there we distributed pita bread daily and also gave each tent a bottle of olive oil. Given that the people are in tents and cannot really cook, we gave them foods that are easy to eat and do not require real cooking. And even with so little the people would see me and always invite me into their tents for tea and bread and watermelon. It brought them joy to host and I experienced such gracious hospitality sitting on the hard floor of a tent listening to stories sipping tea than I have in most 4-5 star Yelp rated restaurants.
Some camps are putting in community kitchens so that families can prepare some dishes to share because the people cannot cook in the majority of the camps. While I was visiting Karamanilis camp, a young boy came by with a tray of hot donut hole falafels that he had just fried in the community kitchen. It was the best falafel I had ever had in my life. It dissolved on my tongue within seconds, leaving me to reach for a second, third and fourth. Syrians do know food.
We all joke about being hangry and how no one should talk to us til we eat. Imagine 55k people like that, every day, all the time. I worked in camps of 500 people and the level of despair, depression and defeat thickened the already hot summer days. Hunger spills over into irrational acts and pure frustration.
Every day when you walk onto a camp you see the same sadly stricken faces in the same outfits, it is like ground hogs day every day. It was the kids though and their energy that makes the camps so lively. The adults carry sadness, but kids run around and play and they bring an element of light to the dismal reality.
In just one week I witnessed a protest in one of the camps towards all the families that were pregnant. The standard treatment was that if a woman was pregnant she would get extra eggs as protein. But other families got jealous and demanded equal treatment for families regardless of a pregnancy. Therefore, in the end, no one got extra eggs and the pregnant women remained in the same category as everyone else, increasing the risk of malnourished and sick new born babies.
In one week, there was a girl who died because she felt sick and the ambulance took over an hour to get to the camp.
And another girl was attacked by a man as she brushed her teeth and her throat was slit open. She survived but was hospitalized.
In one week, I met the Mayor of the neighboring village who joined my team for lunch to learn about the camps and how the people were living.
In one week, the learning center was ransacked at night and supplies were stolen from the cabinet. The next morning when we opened the “classroom” all the little kids huddled around me to tell me who of the older kids did it.
What I experienced and learned felt like three months. I could only imagine three months on the field. I would collapse in bed emotionally exhausted after long 12 hour days. But it was the most fulfilling 12 hour days of my life. I felt that my energy was going somewhere positive.
I went in as a humanitarian volunteer, planning to help with the schools and help teach English. My first day alone I taught English to 5-7 year olds, 7-10 year olds and adults. Then in the evening, I led yoga and salsa for the children. There are so many kids everywhere and they loved it.
Every day was different though, you never know what will happen when you wake up and what the political climate amongst the camps, the Greek military and the other international organizations will be. My second day I go downstairs to breakfast and find out the Greeks banned volunteers for the day because they wanted “a break” so we ended up going to the warehouse to sort through clothes donations to hand out to camps. The warehouse was hot, spider webs were everywhere and we even saw lizards slither between boxes. I tied my hair up and rolled up my sleeves and worked with the team to divide piles for children, men, women and babies.
Babies are on the rise. Sex is a coping mechanism, how and when people make babies is beyond me but it makes perfect sense. They have a lot of time on their hand and they need a release. But the concern is the nourishment of the mothers and babies. Already while walking through the camp I had two pregnant women come up to me separately desperately asking for food and for a change of clothes.
“I will deliver any minute and I have nothing else to wear but this outfit and nothing for the baby…” this Kurdish woman is tugging at her shirt and pointing at her huge belly and I empathetically take note of her tent number and document her needs: clothes and food. The basics. Can I really help?
Even when on the ground helping, you feel helpless. That was the overall feeling that I carried for seven days. I taught English to the kids, I translated in the medical clinics, I painted a library (a shack-like building), I did food distribution, conducted camp surveys by going tent by tent and just made it a point to talk with people and sit and listen, and yet I felt helpless. Because I was seeing it and living the dire crisis. I was smelling the odors. I felt their hunger and I sat in their tents on the hard surfaces. I got to leave at night, but they stayed.
The days I worked in the clinics were the most exhausting and the most rewarding. I would mentally shut down for at least an hour after we would leave the camp giving myself time to process the day. In the clinics, people were coming in with problems that were a result of living in the camps. Often times, I gave up translating the doctor’s orders and talked about how their malady was due to the camp and it was temporary. People came in with full body fungal infections (head to toe), bug bites all over their legs and arms, malnourishment, dizziness, PTSD symptoms, bed bugs, UTIs, eczema, shortness of breath and headaches. Those that came in with heart and chest pain needed to go to the hospital, but even ordering labs or prescriptions was trying. Who would pay for it? Who would take the patient to the hospital?
I remember we asked one young mother to remove her clothes to see her infection and she was covered head to toe in a full body infection. There was not enough cream for us to give her. I hid my own tears as she sat there sobbing. I ended up sitting next to her hugging her and suddenly it became about her life in Syria and how she had never gotten sick before and since she left it has been nonstop between hair loss, fungal infections and bed bugs. What can you say?
Most doctor’s appointments became a therapy session. “Who will ever marry my daughter!?” one mother frantically whispered as her young daughter showed us her full body eczema. While I understood the cultural concern my heart went out to the young girl terrified in the corner. I knelt down and took her face in my hands, “You are so beautiful, so so beautiful. This makes you more beautiful.” Her mother wept.
Each camp is run by a different volunteer and different international organizations are on the ground. The majority of the volunteers I met were German, Spanish, and Italian. The main camp that I worked in – Iliadis – was run by an American woman who was not being paid, she was just devoting 100% of her time, 7 days a week to running a camp. No easy feat when you have 500 people asking for food, hospital runs, favors and asking daily when their situation will change. I don’t know how she slept at night. She was on call 24/7.
The Greeks assigned organizations to each camp. I went with Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM) who is doing amazing work on the ground setting up learning centers for kids and adults and distributing food and clinic services. They are Seattle based and have two full time staff on the ground in Greece that are impressive and amazing hustlers. Everyone I met was so kind and so selfless, the driving mantra was “refugees first.” In my group alone were Americans, Germans and British. I made lifelong friends.
With that said, it is not all kumbaya because there are politics between the international organizations. The reality of international development is so frustrating when it comes to collaboration. Larger organizations try to push out smaller ones or take their projects and claim them as their own. I personally saw that with SCM and the learning center they built for the kids. Three weeks after they opened it, they were suddenly instructed to stop classes and that another organization will take over. There was no debate and they could not contest it. It came from the Greek government. That organization had friends on the inside. So even when helping, you hit wall after wall and you end up being part of a whole new socio-economic-political reality. The world of development is frustrating. You need resources and power and the right allies, it is never about good intentions and often, the cause is overlooked.
It was amazing to land in Thessoliniki and within minutes shed the skin of Sarah in the US and just be humanitarian Sarah in Greece. I forgot my comforts and my priorities. Suddenly my priorities were what tasks would I be able to do that day in the camps? Will they get eggs and other protein delivered? What activities will I do with the kids in classes?
I had a lot of guilt leaving, I felt like I was abandoning the people. But the sadness was one sided. They are a people that are used to loss and used to people coming in and out. For one week I had had kids tugging at my arms and always on my hips, but when I said I had to leave their eyes were void of emotion and I could only see emptiness. There were no constants in their life. No guarantees. Their camp could get moved tomorrow. One little boy drew me a good bye picture…it was of a heart crying and he was holding balloons of hearts that were crying.
Leaving the camps leaves you a bit jolted for a few days, everything you see or hear after you relate back to a person you met and conversation you had with a person in the camp.
As I grab my coffee at Starbucks I think of the Iraqi refugee that popped into the clinic as I was translating with an iced coffee for me with a smile.
As I listen to my salsa music in the car I think of the little kids learning the steps with me and jumping around to the beat.
As I get ready to go out, I think of the woman who joked with me about finding a husband that will make me happy and “kiss me over and over” to quote her verbatim. Despite it all, the humor and love for life is there.
As I shampoo and condition my hair I think of all the women that asked for conditioner because their hair was getting course.
As I watch fathers with their kids here in the park I think of the father I met who started crying to me telling me that he is tired of being strong for his kids and that he is weak. That he is losing hope. I wonder how he is and what he is doing.
As I go to work in the morning I think of the father of four beautiful kids who told me that he has been working since the age of 7 and had a huge restaurant and catering company and now has been sitting restless in a tent for 8 months. “I left Syria because of the kids, because I want them to go to school and learn. Now we sit everyday doing nothing. If I had known this would happen I would have stayed in my country.”
And that is the repeated sentiment I heard time and time again. The people “stuck” in Greece don’t know what is next. They want to go to Germany. But Germany already has 1 million and won’t be taking in that much more for a while. Other countries most likely won’t open up. So what is next? How long can people live like this?
A refugee is a person with an identity, with a passion, with an ambition and with a home. They had to leave that home not because they wanted to, because they had to. Ideally, Syria would stabilize and they could go back and rebuild in a land and country that they know. In my opinion, that is the best option because having to move anywhere now and assimilate and learn the culture after months/years in a camp would be a huge adjustment. They would have to learn another language, culture, land and adopt new norms. They already struggle with a lot of PTSD. Sure they are resilient but they have also been beaten down due to their journey and this long wait.
What can you do? Good question. Donate so that international organizations can buy food. Volunteer your time if you can, but most of all, spread the word about the refugee crisis. The reality is that people can know there are refugees but they don’t really know what that means and how bad the situation is.
“Did you come for us? To help us?” An old lady asked me as she sat outside her tent, “yes,” I reply kneeling down to sit next to her cross legged, “They know about us out there where you are from?” “Yes,” I reply, hoping I am right.