Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Found in Translation: making the connection

I speak no Farsi, the primary first language of residents at the Oinofyta refugee camp. And most of them speak no English. Fortunately, there are some people there - mostly men or children - who speak both. Some of the men worked for the U.S. in Afghanistan as translators. And the children at the camp have picked up English quickly, as it is the common language of the volunteers.

So there is usually someone around who can help the rest of us understand each other.

One Friday evening I was speaking to the residents, through my translator Kakar, at the weekly community meeting. If residents have been accepted as registered in the camp by the Greek Ministry of Migration, they get cash cards via the EU through MercyCorps, which provide them enough for basic sustenance. If they haven't been accepted as registered - which is the case for residents who have arrived at Oinofyta in the last four months - they don't have cash cards.

No one knows why registration is not happening. At the present time there are 63 residents without cash cards. Do Your Part is the American nonprofit I volunteer for, and we feed the 63 residents.

At the community meeting, residents asked about the cash cards, as they had at every community meeting for the last few months. And I told them there was nothing we could do, but that as soon as we knew something, they would know something. I hated saying the same thing the residents had heard multiple times before. I felt like I was a part of the problem, even though I knew I wasn't.

After the meeting I asked Kakar to help me continue the conversation with a group of eight women sitting together at a table nearby. The women were older residents. Their faces were familiar to me, but I had not spoken to them before.

"How many of you receive cash cards?" Four women raised their hands.

"And how many of you do not?" The other four.

Kakar translated as the women told me their concerns. They talked over each other, not shouting, but with urgency. The women with cash cards did not have enough money for their families. The women without cash cards, being fed by Do Your Part, did not have enough food for their families.

After a few minutes of listening, I said, "Kakar, please translate for me, sentence by sentence."

Then I said, "If I were the queen of the world, all of you who have cash cards would have as much money as you need. And all of you who do not have cash cards would have all the food you need."

I added, "But I am not the queen of the world."

The women nodded and laughed. Through the words of the translator, they heard me, as I had heard them.

The next afternoon, the women were sitting at a picnic table outside in the late afternoon sun. As I approached their table, they smiled and gestured me to join them. Sumaya, an 11-year-old girl, was standing near her mother. This time, she was my translator.

The women asked me their first question. "How old are you?"

"Sixty-eight." Then I looked at the woman across from me. "How old are you?" Sumaya translated. "Forty-eight." Then the others. "Fifty-one." "Fifty-six." "Forty-seven." "Fifty-nine." "Fifty-three."

I was the only woman with gray hair, but every other face at the table was lined and worn.

The second question: "How many children do you have?"

"Eight," I said. "How many do you have?" Around the table we went again. I had the largest number of children. "But," I said, "I have had two husbands." Everyone nodded. For some reason, that made sense!

The next day, one of the women brought me a flat loaf of warm bread. Delicious, fresh from the oven. And the next day, a different woman, the same wonderful bread.

From that day until the day I left the camp, when I would meet one of these women, we would exchange the greeting of left cheek kiss, right cheek kiss, left cheek kiss. And from the lined, worn face, a pair of bright eyes would smile at me.

I wish I were the queen of the world!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

What the Bag Lady learned in Greece this time

I've been to Greece four times since August of last year.  Each time I have volunteered at the refugee camp in Oinofyta, about 45 minutes north of Athens. But this is the first trip when I've spent any time in Just Greece.

For the last five days my husband Art and I have been staying in the village of Pyrgos on the island of Tinos. We took a four-hour ferry ride from the port of Rafina, near Athens, then rented a tiny car for a 45-minute drive on winding roads to get to Pyrgos. For the first three days we didn't leave the village; we slept and ate simple meals and slept some more. We absorbed the quiet of the island as we let go of the energy and activity of Oinofyta. 

Tomorrow morning we leave Tinos and return to Rafina for an overnight before our 6:00 a.m. flight out of Athens on Tuesday. We are ready to go home, refreshed and relaxed after our nearly six weeks away.

Here's what I learned in Greece this time:
  • When people go to a taverna for a coffee or a beer or a meal, they talk. They converse. They laugh. Usually they're sitting at little tables outside. Often they have known each other for years or decades. Many of them smoke. Some of them have phones, but as they sit at the little tables they talk to each other. They linger. Except for the young people, who seem entranced by their devices.


  • Every little cafe has its own version of Greek salad, or beetroot salad, or fried potatoes. 
  • I know the Greek words for good morning, good afternoon, goodbye, yes, no, thank you, thank you very much, and iced cappucino. That has been enough. (I also know the Farsi words for hello, translator, get out!, what?, and thank you). 
  • If you have to climb six flights of marble stairs to get to your house, you can do it more easily if you take a deep breath at the bottom of each flight and rest for a few seconds between them.


  • Hanging clothes on a drying rack is a fun surprise.  


    • The Greek bureaucracy is sluggish and inconsistent, not well integrated among its various components. I have learned to shrug my shoulders, as do my Greek friends. One said to me, "Every day I break some law. If I obey one law, I may be breaking another."
    • A stop sign is really just a yield.
    • Every now and then I see a car-chasing dog with a limp, but most of the time they're pretty skilled chasers.
    • Women, middle aged or older, don't seem as concerned about their bodies or their appearance as in the States. I've felt quite comfortable without makeup or a slim body or trendy clothes here. I love the lack of hype.
    • We, and the refugees, and the Greeks? We are all the same.

    Sunday, September 3, 2017

    Saying goodbye again

    In two days my husband Art and I will leave Oinofyta, the refugee camp where we have been volunteering for the last 31 days. We'll take a ferry to the Greek island of Tinos, where we'll relax and recuperate for a week before flying home to Seattle.

    So it's time to say goodbye. Again.

    In Dilesi, the village on the Aegean where we live, I'll say goodbye and thanks to "the Pakistani guy" who runs the minimarket and patiently installs every data chip I need for my phone without asking for my passport every time. He knows I'm part of Lisa's team. I may stop at Katarina's restaurant and say thanks to her and her family who have welcomed us several times a week for an excellent Greek meal. I'll stop by the coffee place where they knew my drink (cappucino fredo with a sprinkle of chocolate) after three days.

    At camp, we've been invited for lunch again by Amir, who lives in tent 49. He's from Iran and speaks very little English, but he's fed me three times in the last month. We sit on a blanket on the floor of his tent as he brings us bowls of food with high fives. He shows me pictures of his wife and son on his phone. He tells me his story. He was a trainer in the Iranian army, but he's not a Muslim, so he had to leave.

    I'll have a chat with Elias, a welder in Afghanistan and also here in Greece. I met him first when he came to see if his glasses were ready. An optometric group was here at camp just before we arrived last month. Over a hundred pairs of glasses were ordered for residents, and Elias' were late. He came after work every day for a week to ask if they had arrived. When they did come, he thanked me with face lit up when I handed them to him - as though I'd made them for him personally. Yesterday he brought a finished piece of artwork to show me: a peacock made from rolled paper. A truly unique, beautiful creation.

    I'll exchange a handshake with Esmatulla, an older man who returned from Serbia recently with his family. When he sees me he says, "I am fine, how are you?" and then he laughs, knowing he's deliberately delivering a backward greeting.

    I'll kiss several women (left cheek, right cheek, left cheek) as I give them a hug and say, "Salam". I have had conversations with them, and we all remember.

    At least half a dozen residents will knock on the door of our office trailer for one reason or another - a noisy neighbor, maybe, or a pair of shoes they really need from the warehouse even if it's not their day to shop, or a request for an extra room because, after all, they have a large family, or to ask whether mail has come for them from their sister in Switzerland. I may need to ask them to find a translator or I may be able to figure it out on my own using gestures and a smile. They may not know we are leaving, but that will be all right. I will carry their faces along with me anyway.

    I'll probably hug or shake hands with the volunteers who are staying on, thanking them for the great gift of their time and talents.

    I'll visit Oinofyta Wares one more time and maybe buy another of their custom bags, the kind with a long shoulder strap. I'll say goodbye to Sam, our long-term volunteer who runs the enterprise, and tell her to go home by 8 p.m. every night before she wears herself out - even though I know she'll ignore me.

    I'll find Lisa. She'll be in the office, or in the computer lab, or in the shade space smoking a cigarette with her phone in her hand. I'll tell her we're leaving and she'll make an ironic comment of some kind and she may get a little teary eyed. I will tell her how grateful I am for this piece of my life and she will thank me for what I am doing, and we will probably not hug, but we will both know how it is to work together and to know each other. And tomorrow I'll greet her on Facebook in the morning and the evening, as I have done for months, and she'll tell me she doesn't have time to chat, or maybe she'll vent a little about the aggravations that come along with the job she's doing. And, once again, I will say, "Art and I will come back if you need us." And she will say, "That's good to know."

    And then we'll drive across the dirt and gravel grounds as children stand gleefully in our path or reach their hands through the car window. We'll wave at the half dozen men standing at the gate, only this time we won't say, "See you tomorrow."

    Because it's goodbye again.

    Tuesday, August 29, 2017

    At Oinofyta camp: Where will they go from here?

    The 450 residents at the Oinofyta Accommodation Center never asked to be here. They were just passing through Greece, most of them, on their way to more northern European countries like Germany, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Belgium or one of the Scandinavian countries. The timing of the closing of borders was bad for them, and they remained here in Greece.

    Some of them left camp on foot with smugglers. Some made it and some were stopped and returned. Then the last border closed in Hungary.

    Some left camp by plane with false passports - I've heard upwards of 4,000 euros per person (about $4500). Some made it from the Athens airport, but then security was ramped up. Then some made it by flying first from a Greek island and then to Europe. I'm thinking someone at Oinofyta found a good smuggler, and word of mouth is the best advertising.

    Yesterday I heard that a resident who made it to Luxembourg, when applying to register in that country, had their fingerprints matched from earlier ones taken in Greece, and is being returned to Greece. I suspect that will happen more often as the rest of the EU finds ways to curb the influx of refugees.

    So, where will they go from here?

    Some vulnerable families are being provided with apartments in Athens where they can receive the extra help they need. One of our families left camp last week and is now living in an apartment in the city.

    Many of the Oinofyta residents will apply for asylum in Greece and make a new life in this country.

    Do Your Part, the nonprofit organization I volunteer for here in Greece, will now provide train fare for people wanting to take classes in Athens. Any classes. Greek and English instruction is an excellent first step.  One of our residents, a welder in Afghanistan, took Greek classes here and has now been hired by a local company as a welder. He rides his bicycle eight miles every day to work at the town just north of Oinofyta.

    Camp coordinator Lisa announced the educational opportunity at last Friday's community meeting. A resident goes to class and gets a letter from the school confirming their enrollment. Do Your Part then provides money for the train ticket - 70 euros for a monthly pass. Since Friday, at least five people have decided to go to school. That will be a good thing not only for the educational and professional opportunity, but for a way to get out of the camp environment where they wait for something to happen.

    If you're interested in helping a refugee get to school, you can donate to doyourpart.org and specify the donation is toward a train pass for school.

    Meanwhile, a few mischievous residents jumped on the roof of our office trailer this weekend. There's an open strip in the roof now, and it's expected to rain early tomorrow morning. I believe it will be fixed with a sprayed-on foam insulation. Hopefully before the rain arrives.







    Saturday, August 26, 2017

    What? Another Facebook week at Oinofyta camp?

    I feel guilty posting summaries of my week based on Facebook posts. But not too guilty. 

    For one thing, so many interesting and funny and heartbreaking and baffling things happen here, it would be hard to choose what to blog about. 

    For another, I have more than a dozen Facebook friends who live in the camp. And my blog post shows up on Facebook. I have done that on purpose for a while now because I found myself writing many of the same things on Facebook and on my blog. And some things happen at camp that I think should remain at camp. I want to protect and honor the lives and experiences of my Facebook friends who live and volunteer at Oinofyta.

    So, until my husband Art and I end our month-long commitment as volunteers in the camp, I'll be cheating a bit in this blog. We plan to spend a week at the end of this trip to Greece being tourists. We have considered Crete as a destination but are now leaning more towards one of the smaller, less touristed islands, for some quiet days before our return to Seattle.

    So, here's Facebook for the week.

    August 20, 10:24 a.m.
    Peaceful Sunday morning. I will go into camp today for about half an hour to do three tasks that cannot wait until tomorrow. Otherwise, we will read and relax today.

    August 22, 1:11 p.m.

    Whoosh! Four volunteers from Spain leaving camp today. Three volunteers arriving from Portugal. Volunteers are cleaning rooms, supervising the computer lab, driving to the train station, preparing lunch, distributing water, hugging children. Such a fine day!

    August 22, 10:01 p.m.

    Home by 8:30 tonight. Eating pork skewers and bread baked by a camp resident. A fine day all around.

    August 23, 3:16 p.m.

    Very busy day. Mediation, communication, tour with donor, cleaning out empty rooms, finding a couple of volunteers to take the hour-long CPR class this afternoon, talking to another camp agency about repair of several broken windows. Brief lunch with our other volunteers. I am getting to be quite fond of this job!

    August 24, 3:25 p.m.

    My last full day as camp coordinator! Mixed emotions, as usual.

    August 24, 3:52 p.m.

    A resident gave me fresh bread, hot from the oven. So delicious! I took two bites, and others ate the rest. Such a treat!




    August 26. 1:24 p.m.

    My friend Lisa is back at camp. We will be working together until Art and I leave on September 5 to be tourists for a week. It is good to have Lisa back at Oinofyta.

    Saturday, August 19, 2017

    My Facebook week at Oinofyta camp

    So much has happened this week I can hardly remember. So I'm going to cheat a little by compiling my Facebook posts for this week.

    August 12, 8:49 p.m.
    Two scoops of ice cream for dinner!

    August 13, 10:33 p.m.
    Sunday. Day of rest. Several naps. Adopted by a friendly dog at dinner. He followed us to the ice cream place and waited outside for us! We walked back to car and he trotted off to find another friend.

    August 15, 9:57 a.m.

    Still very busy at the camp, but my learning curve is getting a bit shallower. I work with good people! Last night two of our Spanish volunteers cooked the evening meal - Cuban rice. Tomato sauce over fried bananas over rice over a fried egg. Delicious!

    August 15, 12:36 p.m.

    I stand against racism with 460 refugees - Afghan, Pakistani, and Iranian - and dozens of workers - Spanish, British, Swiss, Colombian, Greek, and American - here at Oinofyta camp in Greece.

    August 15, 7:32 p.m.

    So, we have an emergency. A fire is approaching Malakasa, the refugee camp just down the road. We have been told that somewhere between 250 and 700 people are being evacuated to our camp. Or maybe not. At any rate, we are preparing for a bunch of people. Talk about disaster relief!

    August 16, 10:21 a.m.

    All is quiet at camp this morning. We should soon have official notice that the evacuation from Malakasa will not happen. Our three team leads spent the night at camp. Everyone else went home and slept.

    August 16, 7:44 p.m.

    We were on standby again today for the Malakasa evacuation because the fire changed directions. At 7 we were notified that we can go home.

    August 18, 3:23 p.m.

    Very busy Friday. I could use a clone of myself and at least three other people.

    August 20, 12:00 p.m.

    Saturdays are supposed to be quiet at camp! So far we have two significant donations from groups arriving at the warehouse, and the water not working for any bathrooms, and electricity out in part of the camp.

    August 20, 3:30 p.m.

    Water and electricity are back with us, deliveries are complete, and all of our volunteers are enjoying a lunch prepared by a resident.

    August 20, 7:44 p.m.

    Still here at camp, waiting my turn for a ride home. Twelve people, one small car today.

    Saturday, August 12, 2017

    Nine days now at the Oinofyta camp

    We've been at the Oinofyta refugee camp for nine days now. The camp coordinator, Lisa, left on Wednesday morning for a much needed two-week break. She is with her family in Virginia. I am taking her place as camp coordinator. I am four days in with thirteen to go. My husband Art is the shopper for camp and volunteer house, and the breakfast and lunch fixer for the volunteers. And the errand runner.

    I've had some moments of despair and some of delight. The despair comes when I'm overloaded with issues I don't know how to resolve. Not the big issues, like:
    • Why we can't accept new residents into the camp even though we have a few empty rooms (the answer is that this is a rule currently imposed by the Greek government; we must comply with the rule). One family has been sleeping on the ground within  the camp gates for five days now. They are pleading to be given a room. Some residents want them to stay. I say, "This is a Greek law. We must obey it. I am sad but I cannot give you permission." Or
    • Why 48 of our residents have not received permission to live in the camp (they came here before the new Greek rule was put in place), so they have no money cards (a monthly stipend available to most refugees). We have sent emails to the Greek agency in charge, but have not yet received a response. In the meantime, we feed the 48 people.
    These big issues I can live with, because I know I am powerless. I am decent at letting go of that kind of thing.

    It's the little issues - some of them cultural, some not:
    • A resident's phone was stolen. They will pay 20 euros to get just the SIM card back.
    • A volunteer's set of camp keys has gone missing.
    • A resident left her room for five minutes, and her entire monthly cash stipend disappeared.
    • Dirty diapers and watermelon rinds litter the camp grounds.
    • In my office, I listen to a doctor talk to me about the medical challenges at camp.
    • I can't figure out how to answer Lisa's Greek phone. Or how to recharge the radio.
    The moments of delight? Examples:
    • A nine-year-old child sees me and comes up to me and wraps their arms around my waist.
    • A three-year-old child paints my mouth crookedly with her lipstick.
    • A young man decides it is worth the inconvenience to be ready for a bus at 3:30 a.m. on Monday so he can go to his asylum appointment at 9 a.m. in Athens. When I say, "You've had a bad day" - through a translator - a faint smile replaces the scowl for a moment.
    • I put chocolate out on my desk and the volunteers get a small reward for their large work.
    • Art buys small chocolate- and cream-filled donuts from the bakery on the way to camp. I split them in half and by noon they have been eaten by volunteers.
    • Amir in tent 49 fixes me lunch one day, and brings a salad the next day to my office.
    • I give a shoulder massage to a volunteer and it helps her headache.
    • Our team of 12 shares a Friday night meal at a wonderful restaurant in the village where we live.
    I think I've said before that the Greece refugee issue is no longer much in the news. Some NGOs are cutting back on their resources here - or leaving the camp entirely. They may go to new camps - in Iraq, for example - where conditions are far more dire. Our Oinofyta residents are housed and fed and they have activities available to them. Some of them have jobs. But they are all here because they can't go anywhere else. All the borders to the north in Europe are closed to them. That was where they wanted to go. Now they are in Greece. They may stay here and become integrated into the culture. They may decide to go back to their homelands - Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iran. They may try to cross the border illegally. A few may successfully be reunified with family members in Europe. 

    In the meantime, they are here. 

    Even when I feel like what I most want to do is go home - which happens from time to time during stressful days - I know this is where I am supposed to be. Not in Brier, Washington, where the temperature is less than 101 and everyone speaks the same language as me and I have my own bathroom and laundry facilities and a cat that ignores me most of the time. Instead, here in Oinofyta, where I hear Farsi and Urdu and Greek and Spanish and I share a bathroom and a washing machine with others. I am surrounded by inspiring young volunteers and strong, tough residents, and little children, and boys who kick the ball onto the roof so they can climb onto it.

    We are here, doing what we can. Doing our part.

    Garden seating area, built by volunteers

    Lunch - residents and volunteers