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.