Saturday, October 29, 2016

A day in my life at an Afghan refugee camp in Greece

Yesterday was Friday. Usually not our busiest day. However, one of our long-term volunteers left unexpectedly for home in the morning for a family emergency. And one of our short-term volunteers was sick, at home in the volunteer house in Dilesi. While she was taking it easy, she was tasked with other volunteers’ laundry. A gift, since we have a washing machine but no dryer, and we’re gone from the washing machine until late in the evening. However, the washing machine is temperamental so the laundry didn't get done.

I’d say I was a “runner” yesterday. Here’s what I did:

  • Swept the team trailer.
  • Straightened and reorganised the team trailer, getting guidance from Lisa, the camp manager, with every step.
  • Fed and watered Jackie, the camp dog.
  • Dumped all the trash - one load with the help of two boys, who carried the box with glee on their heads and didn’t drop it until we were right in front of the dumpsters.
  • Ran a computer charger and a floor mat to the computer lab and an unneeded watering can to the warehouse.
  • Surrounded by six Afghan men (personal space is nonexistent, so I felt like I was in what I imagine a mosh pit to be like), signed them up for photos to be included in their lottery application. They have to have a high school diploma to qualify, and they all insisted they did, though I knew for absolute certain a couple of them were not telling me the truth. Oh, well, the next-step person will call them out. Nine million people around the world are competing for 50,000 opportunities to emigrate to the US. Every family in our camp is applying. They have half a percent chance of getting an interview, but it is worth standing in line for up to two hours.
  • Hid in the volunteer restroom for 20 minutes so no residents would see me with my red notebook and want to add their names to the list, even though they’ve had two days to do it and the photographers are leaving this afternoon.
  • Washed the volunteers’ dishes at the cold water sink used by the residents. Standing side by side with an older resident (actually, she’s probably close to my age but looks much older and is missing a few teeth), I used cold water and no sink stopper to wash our dishes. I was closely watched by the older resident and a couple of young girls, who pointed out soapsuds on a bowl I had neglected to rinse off. 
  • Listened to Lisa recruit one of the photo crew members to work as a replacement long-term volunteer.
  • Put on my mediator hat and talked to the photo crew member to help her clarify her values and thoughts about accepting the volunteer opportunity. The young woman has decided to stay.
  • Welcomed a young couple just arriving at the camp. They looked very tired.
  • Listened to my friend and fellow volunteer Jann tell me how she has trained three computer-savvy residents to enter the data for lottery applications. She was able to take a ten-minute break for lunch while they continued work on the applications. She is really good at empowering teams, in the US and in Greece. I am so glad Jann wanted to come with me this time.
  • Listened to Lisa mourn her inability to get online to send critical emails because the computer lab is using most of the wifi bandwidth.
  • Listened to a resident tell Lisa about a nearby family where the husband and wife fight every day, and heard her tell the resident she would take care of it.
  • Had a conversation with a resident to clear up confusion between her and the team handling lottery applications.
  • Worked on the accounting books for 45 minutes out of ten hours.
  • Went to dinner in Room 24. When we are invited, we always go. We want to honor the Afghan tradition of hospitality. They have so little, but they want to share with us, who have so much.

  • Returned to the volunteer house to sleep in a real bed, with hot running water and quiet all night long.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The first five days at "my" refugee camp in Oinofyta, Greece

I left Oinofyta refugee camp on August 27 after volunteering for six days. I returned on October 19 for another two weeks.

It has been less than eight weeks since my first visit ended. Some things are the same: children chasing each other and kicking a soccer ball and riding bicycles and roller skating and playing with Jackie, the camp dog. Women hanging laundry and cooking and gathering. Men gathered in clusters and playing volleyball in the evening.

But some things are quite different.

There is a sewing room now. Donations of sewing machines and fabrics and notions mean women can make fleece linings for their babies’ sleeping boxes, and clothes for their children and themselves. I notice that both men and women Afghans sew, and that they use no patterns when cutting fabric. They’re freeform and they look good. I brought fabric and notions donated by my friend Lillian in an extra suitcase and they are already being used.

There is a beauty/barber shop now with simple furnishings, two chairs, mirrors and the equipment and sundries needed. One of the volunteers is going around the camp with a translator to identify the barbers and stylists and manicurists. These people can volunteer for hours they’ll work. They will not be paid, but they’ll receive certificates so that, when they settle in a final place, they’ll have proof that they kept their skills up while in the camp. One of the camp residents will carry the key to open up and close the shop.

There is a simple kitchen now, so women can prepare meals inside rather than on cement outdoors. There are sinks for washing food and dishes.

Washing machines have arrived and are being prepared for use.

There is a small library, with books in Farsi and in English, for children and for adults. I brought a Richard Scarry picture book and a copy of Goodnight Moon. I hope I’ll have a chance to sit with a child and read one of those books before I leave.

I hear more English being spoken. The children are picking up the language quickly and they practice their new skills with the volunteers. English classes are offered and more of the women speak at least a few words.

The men who play volleyball had a competition with those of another Afghan camp nearby. They played at Malakasa on Monday and the home game was on Friday night. Numerous residents and volunteers attended to root for the home team. We lost both games, but some fine volleyball was played.

Yesterday it poured down rain and everyone got wet. The building roof isn’t completed yet so many rooms leaked. Water dripped into tents. Even the volunteer office.

Lisa Campbell is the camp manager. Here's her Facebook post from Saturday, two days ago:

Today it is raining - no, pouring. The families living in tents are working feverishly to direct the rain away from their tents. The temperature is 51 F and bone chilling. These families need to move inside and even though I have had an architect draw up plans, no large government organization has funding available so they have asked Do Your Part to do it. Does anyone have a spare €120,000 laying around they would like to donate? Sigh................  or, on Facebook, search Oinofyta.

Do Your Part is a small nonprofit. Every dollar donated goes directly to where it’s needed. No middleperson. No administrative fees. My friends Vicki and Monte sent a check last week. The money was deposited in the bank in Virginia and, the next day, it was taken out via ATM in Oinofyta, Greece. Part of the money was used to buy medication for children suffering with chicken pox at the camp. Just as I’m working “on the ground” as a volunteer, any donations go the same way. I love the directness of this giving.

The volunteers this week were from Spain, Germany, and the US. We range in age from 18 to 68. We form a quick community, an international group engaged in a common cause.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

From standing in a field to walking down a hall

The Vashonistas met for five days last week at Lavender Hill Farm on Vashon Island, across the bay from Seattle.

We met the first time for a weekend four years ago, when we were all bloggers. Now we've expanded our time together from two nights to five, bonding further each time we gather. This year, for the second time, we formed a writing workshop, guided by Deb, who is one of us and also a facilitator for the AWA (Amherst Writers and Artists), a protocol for writing based on prompts - phrases, poetry or evocative objects.

This year we added a new activity: kayaking!

In our writing, each of us had some kind of insight during our workshop. For me, the change in my life from last year is represented by a comparison of last year's writing imagery with this year's.

Last year, I saw myself standing in a field, my gifts at my feet, waiting for whatever comes from the Universe telling me what I should do, how I should serve. Since I wrote that piece, I've become involved in working with refugees - an outcome I would never have imagined.

This year, the image in my writing is in walking down a long hall, lined with closed doors. Each door can be opened. Each represents a choice I can make - or not - for my life. And we all know what's at the end of the hall.

That's what happens in these writing workshops. We write because "The person writing with pen to paper knows more than the person sitting in the chair." What comes out during these writes is sometimes quite surprising. 

Next Tuesday I leave for Greece again. This time I'll be at Oinofyta refugee camp for two weeks rather than just six days. Part of the time I'll be setting up their accounting system. For the rest of the time, I have no idea whatever. It might depend on what door I open.

I'm curious about which door it might be.

Monday, October 3, 2016


Last Monday I got a massage and vertigo. For four days I was quiet. I canceled half of the activities on my calendar, including a volunteer session at small claims court. The vertigo wasn't too bad, but I thought it would be wise not to drive.

Inside my house in the cooling autumn weather, I went through a file cabinet and threw out half the paperwork we've accumulated over the past 20 years. I read. I slept.

I have had a very busy summer, with lots of travel. I am slowing down now.

I am thinking about my five guiding values: spirituality, health, community, curiosity and purpose. Those values still hold. My spirituality is shifting and stirring. I've been thrown out of my own orbit by my August volunteer experience at a refugee camp in Greece. I feel oddly isolated; the only people who understand what happened to me there are people who have had a similar experience. The isolation is not a bad thing.

In two days I'm going to Vashon Island -- just across the Puget Sound from Seattle -- for five days, with four other bloggers. We will be doing a lot of writing. My mind is so quiet I don't know what's in there to write about. That's not a bad thing either.

Then I return to Greece for another two weeks. I expect it will be different the second time, and that is fine.

My mind is full of quiet. Not peace or bliss or joy or enthusiasm. Quiet.

Actually, that's a good thing.