It’s nearly midnight in Greece, and I’m following a long-term volunteer at the refugee camp on a path up the hillside. I step gingerly over scrub brush, peering in the dark; she knows the path, and leads the way. We’re searching for a friend of hers, Mohammed, who took in a small stray kitten — one of many cats and dogs wandering on the island — that then became sick and weak. We’re bringing him cat formula.
When we make it to her friend’s ISO-box, a storage-crate-like structure that 10 or so live in, he is gone and the men who live with him are sitting on benches and the hard packed dirt of the hillside, talking and smoking. They invite us to sit. She knows several of the men, and settles in to talk. There’s a buzzing florescent light somewhere nearby, around the corner of the ISO-box; it’s enough to see people’s faces.
One of the men is kneeling on the ground next to a hot plate, warming a small glass cup of liquid and holding a second glass at the ready. When it’s hot, he pours the liquid into the other glass and repeats. It’s a smooth motion, practiced and meditative, like an experienced baker kneading and pounding out the dough. It’s hypnotizing, a little, like a campfire; whenever the liquid stretches between the two cups, it catches all the available light.
The man sitting next to me introduces himself. “Mohammed,” he says.
“Oh, you’re the one with the cat,” I say.
He shakes his head. “Different Mohammed,” he says. There are a lot of Mohammeds here, the same way there are a lot of Johns back home.
We try to keep up the conversation, but don’t get far; one of the other men starts to laugh at us. “You don’t speak any French,” he says to me. “And he doesn’t speak any English.” I grin, and lean back against the warm metal of the ISO-box to listen.
The men gathered here outside are from Gambia, Senegal and Congo, at least the ones I understand. The man with the cups speaks clear English, and he’s another friend of the woman who led me here.
“There are rich Muslims, you know,” he says, his eyes never leaving the cups in his hands, unhesitating in their motion. “Saudi Arabia, Dubai — they have money. But it’s you Christians that come to help us, from America and France and Amsterdam.”
“Why do you think that is?” she asks. She is American, and a Mennonite: she wears a doily over her hair and long skirts every day, the tangible signs of her religion. She leans forward in her chair.
We end up talking a lot about religion at the camp. All volunteers at the camp promise not to evangelize, no matter their faith; Greece is a Greek Orthodox nation, and It’s illegal to proselytize across the country. But religion is at the forefront of everyone’s minds — it’s noticeable everywhere, in the head coverings the Christian and Muslim women wear, the way we greet each other, the way men and women interact, the way we say thanks, the way we swear. The differences between people are exaggerated here, in close quarters, and faith seems more visible.
A lot of people want to talk theology: where each of us comes from, what we believe. People talk about their faiths, about their childhoods, about the choice they made and ensuing struggle to cross into Europe. Maybe it simply rises to the surface here, where people who have faced tangible evil gather, still reeling from the events they fled. It prompts the old question — why would a good God permit this?
While some volunteers seem uncomfortable under the no evangelizing rule, I’m glad it’s in place. I’ve never liked evangelists. They make me feel guilty, shameful, even when I know I’ve done nothing wrong, even when I hold their same faith. They demand something from me that it feels they don’t deserve. And I’ve had the luxury of living in a nation where my faith isn’t obvious. I don’t wear Christian T-shirts to work or have a cross tattooed across my bicep; you can’t see my religion from across the room.
Here, though, people stop me and say, “You’re Christian, right?” People thank me, bless me as I pick up trash along the main drag. One teenager wraps her mother’s hijab around my head, eager to show me how it’s folded in Syria, how it’s different from the way the Iranian woman next to us folds hers. A man hears my accent and says, “American! Are you a Christian?” I say yes and he smiles, wide: “Me too!”
I’ve never been in a place where my faith has felt this visible, a neon sign to those around me.
The man kneeling on the packed dirt sees me watching and smiles. “You want some tea,” he says, and offers me the full cup. It’s green tea, and shockingly bitter. I finish it and hand the cup back; he begins to make another, pouring again between the cups. When we rise to leave, they invite us back, thank us for Mohammed’s cat formula.
The next day when I arrive at the camp, the other volunteer pulls me aside, smiling.
“I saw Mohammed this morning!” she says. “He named the cat after me.”