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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

She sent me a box full of dolls

My friend Beth is an artist. She had accumulated a number of Bratz dolls, with their high-style fashion and their glamorous makeup. She decided to scrub their faces and create a more natural look and to dress them as normal children.

Here are some "befores"

Here are a few dolls after Beth transformed them:

Beth got the idea from this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG-7e1vaB18

Beth posted a note on her Facebook page, asking if any of her friends would like one of these dolls. I responded right away. "I'd like to have them all. I'm sure there are children at Oinofyta refugee camp in Greece, where I volunteer, who would love to have one of these dolls." Beth said that would be great, and she mailed me a box full of dolls.

I checked around to see if anyone I knew was going to Europe who'd be willing to take them along, but everyone who responded was either already in Europe or not planning to go. So I took them to the post office and, for $61, sent them on their way.

The dolls arrived at camp at the end of Ramadan. There's a celebration at the end called Eid, and traditionally children receive gifts at that time. Camp volunteers prepared gift bags for the children, and each of the twelve dolls went into a bag.

I asked Lisa, the camp manager, if pictures could be taken of the dolls with the children who received them. I wanted to send the picture to Beth so she could see the outcome of her generosity. But I had forgotten that if a child's picture is taken, the parent must approve. And all of the parents said no. A privacy issue at least, and perhaps for safety as well.

Now I'm at the camp myself. This week I'll try to find out who got the dolls and see if I can take a picture of just the doll, in the room of the owner. It's a balance of my own curiosity with respect for the culture of camp residents.

Thank you, Beth, for your gift to the children of Oinofyta.