It’s been nearly two months since I returned from the refugee camp in Greece. My roommates and I unlocked the doors of our new home, still littered with cardboard boxes, and started to resettle our roots. Transplanting is always hard, and not all plants survive the process; but it helps if there’s support, fresh air and plenty of water.
What does it take, to become a refugee? How much will you endure before you make this drastic, dangerous choice? What will it take for you to pick up your family and what you can carry in your pockets and leave the people you grew up with and everything you’ve built and make the trek across your country, across other countries, over risky waters, against open and armed opposition, to come to a land where you don’t speak the language in the hesitant and temperamental hope that they might let you stay?
I think you have to believe that no matter what you find, no matter what you find, it will be better than what you leave.
The refugee camp used to be a Greek detention center, surrounded by a cement wall topped with barbed wire, people coming in and out the open, but guarded, gate.
There was not enough space.
Rooms the size of my living room were divided by blankets hung with rope to make room for five, six, seven, eight families — maybe a 4-by-6-foot space for a father, a mother, and their two young children. They slept on the floor, on top of blankets. Privacy had disappeared long ago. In the single men’s housing, bunk beds filled the rooms, and tents filled the gaps between the rooms. ISO-boxes, storage-crate-like structures for expanded housing, were tiered up the hill inside the camp: windowless, with sometimes-functional electric lights, and people shared bunk beds or slept on the floor.
One of our jobs, as volunteers, was to find places for new arrivals to sleep — making space where there is none, setting up ever-smaller tents in ever-smaller spaces, hanging new blankets to divide another room into smaller family sections. We needed to persuade the current residents to allow new people to be shoehorned in: clogging up the shrinking walking space on the floor, forcing more of your children to share bunks, making everyone breathe shallowly in the stuffy tents.
I made a friend at camp who taught me her name. (She was nine years old, I am told — I am a horrible judge of ages.) On our first day as volunteers, as we learned to navigate our way through camp, she and her sister were waiting for their mother and stopped to stare at us, sneaking closer. They teased us, learned our names, showed us children’s magic tricks, taught us the names of their stuffed animals, shook our hands and then hugged us and kissed us. They greeted us every day they saw us, and asked after us on the others. My friend taught me a few of the basics of Arabic — or at least some handy sign language that worked across languages!
And when my new friend took me to her home in the ISO boxes, there were no bunk beds and few blankets on the floor. With sign language and google translate, her parents worked out how to tell me that she and her sister used to have two older brothers — dead when their house was bombed, they explained, showing me the wreckage of their home on a cell phone screen.
How bad does it have to be before you go?
When I was a kid, I used to stop and stare at planes when they passed overhead. I didn’t notice until another volunteer pointed it out that when planes passed over the camp, the children became silent and still, waiting for it to cross the treeline on the other side.
So my friend and her family are in Greece, trying to find safety in a country that has not yet granted them asylum. It takes me weeks to feel comfortable in a new place, months to let myself put down roots, sometimes years until an acquaintance shifts into a friend.
How long did the little one know me before she kissed my cheek and tried to hide under my volunteer vest? Five minutes? A day before my friend memorized my name? It was a week and a half, maybe, before their family made me feel welcome on the floor of their ISO box.
How can people — children, parents still grieving — possibly stay that open, stay that kind?
I don’t have a lot of answers.
More to follow.