Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The refugee camp at Oinofyta is closing. Here's what comes next.

This post was written by Lisa Campbell, my friend and Executive Director of Do Your Part, the nonprofit I volunteer for at the Oinofyta refugee camp in Greece. Her words are better than mine would be.

Linda
.....

Hello to all of our friends and supporters,

Fall has arrived and has brought many more changes to the camp and for the residents of Oinofyta. Last week the Ministry of Migration announced that the camp WILL be closing this year, and Friday it was confirmed that they plan to close it in November - next month.

This has come as a huge disappointment to us, but we have been anticipating this inevitable decision for a few months. We have a come up with a plan, and with your continued support and financial assistance, we will be able to continue to provide services to our former residents. These services will be much more targeted towards integration for them into the Greek society. This is necessary because migration to other countries is, in most cases, no longer available, so integration is essential.

As with everything else we have done here, we have consulted with the residents to find out their needs, and they have asked us to create a Community Center here in Oinofyta. We have found a large building to rent which  will provide space for a Community Center where we will still be able to offer Greek lessons, English lessons, Computer classes, a women’s space and some distribution. It will also allow us to move the Oinofyta Wares shop into the space.

Oinofyta Wares began as a social enterprise with the generous donations of several sewing machines and supplies from LDS Charities, and now employs 19 residents. These residents work 5 days a week making products from recycled tents, clothing and other items from the old factory. We are in the process of incorporating it as a Greek business and already have two contracts for bulk orders! The business is run and managed by the residents themselves. Some of them were trained as tailors back in their home countries and one of them is a clothing designer. Others have learned to sew here in the camp. This business will eventually give those who work there the ability to support themselves and become contributing members of Greek society. 

We have been in contact with the Mayor’s office in Schimitari and he is very supportive of our plan. We will be working with them to provide us assistance in the Community Center with teaching the residents how to navigate the Greek medical and social assistance systems as well as helping them find work.

In the past few months, we have been providing more integration activities and programs for the residents. We hired a teacher to give conversational Greek lessons to the adults. This will be essential to them as they move out into the communities. We have also been purchasing monthly train passes for the residents who are going to Athens to attend classes there. We have residents taking Greek, English and German classes as well as many who are taking computer classes. We are currently providing 57 train passes at a cost of 70 euros each. We are still looking for sponsors for this program. Once the residents are resettled in other locations, these train passes will be invaluable for them to be able to continue to get their education from wherever they are living. Two of our residents have been able to secure employment because they were able to take classes to improve their English enough to become translators.

We have been told that those who do not get offered housing will be transferred to other camps. The residents who are working in the Oinofyta Wares shop will be looking for housing here in the area. We are asking for sponsors to assist these families with their rent so that they can become established here in the area and continue to work. Housing prices here in the Tanagra municipality are much less expensive than Athens. For a family of 6 or less, rent can be as little as €250 per month. If you are interested in sponsoring a family for rent, please let us know, and we will give you information on family size and needs.

Much of what we have in Oinofyta as far as supplies and infrastructure will be able to be moved into the new Community Center. Our warehouse will be boxed up and the majority of its contents will be sent to the Pampiraiki warehouse in Athens so that we will still be assisting the refugee and homeless population in Greece. We will utilize some of the items to help supply the homes of the Oinofyta Wares team. We have been given access to a piece of land to place our containers until we can find another organization to donate them to, or sell them to be able to offset the cost of moving everything from the camp.

We will still need volunteers to run the Community Center and we will still need the financial support that we have had in the past so that we can continue to help those who have come here to escape the war and persecution in their own country. 

For those of you who follow our activities here, you know that this is a bittersweet time for us. Many of the families have been moved into housing in Athens and there are still more to follow. What we have learned from those who have gone to Athens is, there is no support system in place to help them integrate. They are dropped off at their housing and left to fend for themselves. This is why a Community Center is so vital to them. It will give them support and assistance to learn how to live here in Greece.

We are very grateful for all of those who have supported our work here in the past and look forward to continuing to be able to offer dignity and hope to our residents through your generosity as they make this transition to life in a new country. If you are interested in helping us continue our work and need any further information, please email me at DYPLisa@gmail.com.

As always, please feel free to share this update with those you feel would be interested.

Lisa

.....

I know many of these families. Their faces are in my head even when I'm home. They are good people. I'm reminded of the saying: "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." I believe we - the volunteers and the financial sponsors - are doing just that.

You can find out more about Oinofyta Wares on their Facebook page or at www.oinofytawares.com.

If you'd like to help these families by sponsoring them for train tickets or for rent, let Lisa know. If you have any questions,  let me know in a comment to this post.

Linda

Friday, October 6, 2017

These things take time

I've been quieter than usual since we got home from Greece just over three weeks ago. Resting and thinking and reading. A couple of lunches with friends, a simple activity at church. I'm not sick, though. Just quiet.

These things take time:

1. Being fully home in body, mind and spirit, after being fully away for six weeks.

2. Sleeping and awakening at times appropriate for the Pacific Northwest rather than southeastern Europe.

3. Becoming accustomed to my older body's response to increased humidity and decreased heat, and taking walks on hills, and driving in traffic.

4. Deciding what I will do with my time and energy when the Oinofyta refugee camp closes and I'm not going to Greece every three or four months. Not just my time and energy, but the passion and involvement that keeps me out of my own head and fully engaged in something bigger than me. Or whether I'll go back to my "normal" life and activities - and if I do, whether that will be "enough".

5. Considering how I want to participate in civic affairs in the current political and social climate. That would be both outside my home and online. I can decide to remain silent and not read the verbal wrangling and name-calling and feel the hostility. Or I can decide to participate, my message being "if we're respectful to each other, we'll be more inclined to be heard and to listen." And then being respectful to everyone, and listening.

6. Pondering whether, as a mediator, I have an ethical responsibility to participate in our current cultural challenges. I think that might be the case.

7. Figuring out how to discern whether what I'm reading and hearing is true.


I am blogging a little less often these days. That's because I want to be aware of the threads of thought in my mind and see if I can find a commonality among them. I find that's usually the case, and once the theme becomes clear I want to write about it. In the case of this blog, it's about transitions.

These things take time.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Bag Lady's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

It happens now and then. I have a bad day. I'm an optimist by nature, but every now and then the stars do not align.

Yesterday was that day. Here's what happened:
  • For the last five years we've carried an umbrella liability policy. I figured if we had a business issue we'd be covered. Yesterday I read the policy and then called the insurance company. Turns out, nope, the policy would cover us if we were sued under our homeowner or auto policy for more than the policy limits. But not for a business interest. "You're on your own, honey," I said to myself.
  • I owe the Bank of America $1.50 in interest charges. We had a credit card bill arrive while we were in Greece. The bill was for $11.30. Before we got home, we missed the cycle. When the new bill came I owed $11.30 plus $1.50. I paid it. Then the new bill came. I still owed $1.50! I called the bank and, after making numerous selections on the automatic line, finally chose, "Yes, I want a one-time courtesy reversal of the interest I owe." How convenient! I must not be the only person who's gotten on that merry-go-round.
  • My husband Art told me he'd called to check on his massage appointment and had been told he didn't have one. We both have weekly appointments. His had been cancelled for today and all the others, through November, had been cancelled also. I called about my appointment. No appointment, for today or any time in the future. Someone had a field day with the delete button, apparently. I had been looking forward to that time on a table in a peaceful room. I was annoyed but there was no one to shout at. Besides, I am not a shouter.
  • I am the treasurer for a nonprofit company that grew tenfold last year, so we can no longer file a postcard with the IRS. Instead, we have to fill out a longish form with numbers I have no idea about, since I was not the treasurer last year. We hired a CPA to do the tax work for 2016. The return is due on October 15. Three weeks ago I sent an email to the other principals asking for the information I needed to send to the CPA. No response from anyone. Yesterday, I sent another email. This time I sort of yelled. I don't yell very often either.  I got a response, but I had unkind thoughts about the quality of other people's helpfulness.
  • I failed my optometrist's vision test. I've had two cataract surgeries in the last five years and I haven't been wearing glasses to drive. I was fine without the cataracts. Yesterday when i took the test, the top line of letters on the chart looked like Chinese and the other lines were blurs. Turns out my distance vision is quite bad. Who knew?  So now, in addition to an office prescription (computer and reading) and readers (reading only), I have to buy distance glasses. I went to Costco and paid $379 for the glasses.
  • My iPhone battery died when we were in Greece. I have a second phone I used there, waiting until I got home to replace the battery. The same iPhone has a crack across the screen. I took the phone to the Apple store for a new battery, which costs about $80. The guy told me that when the tech person opened the phone to replace the battery, the crack on the screen would get worse. He suggested an upgrade; I could replace my iPhone 6 for ONLY $299, since the model been discontinued. I decided to put it in a drawer and use my other phone.
  • I had a slightly heated discussion with one of my grown children for the first time in several years. He and his girlfriend had come to Seattle for the weekend. I saw them for ten minutes. His version of the story was that he tried several times to get in touch with me to come over for a longer visit. My version is that I held several parts of my weekend open to see him and he didn't make it over any of those times. The truth is somewhere in the middle, I guess. I managed not to say several things my own mother would have said to me. But barely.
  • I had a spat with my husband about the remote. We were watching the Seahawks game. He changed the channel and all of a sudden the players on the screen were wearing different uniforms. I said, "Why did you change the channel?" "It's halftime. What's it to you?" I said, "There are two of us sitting here and you don't check with me. You just change the channel." He said, "You always want to be in charge." The conversation went downhill from there.
As I look at this list, I realize I may be cranky. That doesn't happen very often. None of the issues in the list are a major deal. But there are more issues than usual. I suspect it's because since I got home from Greece two weeks ago, I've been quieter than usual. When I was working in the refugee camp I was in near-constant conversations, with very little down time. Now I am taking that time. And the world is interrupting me.

Breathe in, breathe out. Be grateful. That's what I'm telling myself.

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.