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What I Learned Volunteering with Refugees in Greece

A children’s activity under against a mural created by the refugees. Image by Roberta Elliott

At Piraeus, the port of Athens, every day as the clock in a nearby watchtower strikes 2 pm, a carillon plays the theme from the movie classic, “Zorba the Greek.” Down below luxury liners, having just plied the Aegean, enter their slips and disgorge sun-sated, archeologically enriched tourists, some having just completed a trip of a lifetime.

At the far end of the port, a very different story unfolds. In airless tents broiling under a Mediterranean summer sun, made even hotter by the black asphalt underneath them, some 2,000 refugees are encamped.

These dueling scenarios are just the first hint of the endlessly surreal aspects of the European refugee crisis that I will encounter during my two weeks volunteering in Greece. Hebrew has a word for it: “davka.” Nearly untranslatable, it can variously mean, “contrarily,” “paradoxically,” “against all expectations,” “surprisingly,” “go figure!,” you get the idea. As it turns out, this was a davka trip, if ever there was one.

I had been preparing for months, determined to return to Europe after a meaningful stint volunteering in Austria last fall. Jewish and the daughter of a Viennese refugee from Hitler, I have resonated to the challenges of the current waves of human displacement – more than at any time since World War II – in ways that I could never have anticipated. In the last year, I have sought every possible contact and connection with refugees.

With Greece as the epicenter of the crisis, I decide early on to make that country my target. I soon learn the smartest way to prepare for such a trip is by employing social media to the max, especially Facebook, host to hundreds of refugee assistance groups. After months of careful research, I determine that I will split my two weeks between Ritsona Refugee Camp, planned and organized by the Greek military – assigned the care and feeding of refugees – and the port of Piraeus, temporary home to 2,000 refugees who have refused to be relocated to official camps. Two weeks before leaving, an urgent call goes out through Facebook for condoms at Piraeus. The Red Cross, tasked with distributing contraception, has failed to deliver, and I am determined to answer the call: the last thing women/families on the move need are pregnancies. I contact a midwife friend who immediately orders 1,000 condoms on line for $63.

Little do I know at the time these condoms will become a metaphor for my time in Greece.

On my first day in Athens, I get a later start than I would have liked, arriving mid-afternoon in its huge, crowded and confusing port. I am to deliver 500 condoms to Amurtel, a tiny women’s group. Upon arrival, I have no idea where the refugees are, where Amurtel is, or even where the entrance to the port is. Eventually, I find the main gate of the port and learn that the refugees are at the far, abandoned end, about two miles away. The first cab driver I ask refuses to take me there. Then I find a cooperative driver who speaks English and takes me, with a warning that driving shifts are about to change and we have exactly 15 minutes to get the job done. I jump out at the building that looks like it holds the most promise. After circling a couple of times I finally find some volunteers who tell me where Amurtel is – in another building a quarter mile away. Jumping back into the cab, we race over as I promise my cab driver I’ll be back in three minutes. Once again circling the building, I find English speakers and, in moments, the tiny trailers that house Amurtel. They are thrilled with the delivery and so am I – I feel like I have found a needle in a haystack! I sprint back to the car, beating the shift change. Nike, victory in Greek, is all I can think – and that I can do anything!

A children’s activity under against a mural created by the refugees. Image by Roberta Elliott

The next day, I make my way to Ritsona, where I eagerly anticipate working in an organic garden that had been described on FB. Excitement turns to dismay when I arrive to the news that the garden is no more. It has failed davka for lack of water. Ritsona had been established in March, and as of this writing there is still no water or electricity. Rather than finding a sustainable garden, I find an unsustainable life style with 150 families – close to 800 souls – living there.

Conditions are so miserable that recently, a deeply cynical advertisement appeared in Airbnb for Ritsona camp: offering “a real opportunity to experience life as a Syrian refugee. While EU politicians talk about refugees, you can have an authentic refugee experience – tents, wood-fire cooking, 41 degree heat, marginal sanitary situation.”

Yet the refugees – mostly Syrians, but also Kurds, Yazidi, and Afghanis – comport themselves with a grace and dignity that I would not have been able to muster were our roles reversed. Though the majority are fasting for Ramadan, they invariably greet volunteers with huge smiles, open tents and bottles of water – they have nothing, but davka are giving us water out of concern for us.

What refugees have in plentiful amounts is, of course, time. Theirs are lives of endless waiting. A cliché, but by far the biggest challenge to the displaced. To fill the vacuum, the various NGOs – at Ritsona there were at least 4 or 5 – provide children’s activities and classes in English, Greek and other subjects. But, despite the volunteers’ best intentions, no amount of planned activity is ever enough. One day as I amble through camp, I notice a young woman crocheting. A fiber enthusiast myself, I engage with her and within moments realize I could make a significant contribution by providing yarn, knitting needles and crochet hooks to any woman at camp who wants them. Charged with enthusiasm, I convince one of the NGOs to split the cost with me, and drive to the market in nearby Calkhida, where I buy ample supplies to bring fiber respite to some two dozen knitters and crocheters.

Yazidi girls get knitting supplies provided by the author. Image by Roberta Elliott

Then there are the intensely personal encounters. During my time at camp, I become friendly with a Janis Joplin lookalike who is a Syrian mother of three. Though we have no practical means of communication, somehow we still manage to connect. She is a real character, who isn’t fasting for Ramadan and makes short order of telling me the only reason she is wearing a long, black traditional dress is because she had nothing else to wear. Through her oldest son, I learn that the father is in Germany and they are trying to get there, but the four are stalled indefinitely in Greece.

I also befriend a twenty-something Iraqi woman who had fallen in love with a boy in her hometown of Erbil, but refused to leave Iraq with him before she finished law school. He fled without her, making it to Belgium. She made it to Baghdad, and then to Turkey, where he met her earlier this year and they married. He returned to Belgium, where he has applied for asylum, and she reached Lesvos and then Ritsona just before the gates to Europe closed.

When I ask her if she is sorry she hadn’t gone with her now-husband when he left Iraq, she claims that she is glad to have done it her way. He nearly lost his life while crossing from Turkey, she tells me, whereas she was able to finish school and her journey hasn’t been all that bad. That evening, I take her to the airport – refugees are able to travel freely throughout Greece – to meet him. He is davka coming to a refugee camp for a two-month honeymoon with his bride. In the car, on the way back from the airport, he gives her the engagement ring he hadn’t been able to afford until now.

Encounters such as these throw into relief why I have come. Not to work in a garden, not to hand out insect repellant, not to separate toothpaste from toothbrushes which, at the behest of my volunteer supervisor, consumed an entire afternoon. Not to deny a refugee family a meal because they are not presenting me with the proper papers. Not to witness the endless jostling between NGOs whose coordination with each other is fitful at best. Not even to distribute yarn. No, davka, I have come to explore the heart of the refugee, to learn as much as I can about people who have been forced to flee everything they’ve ever known for everything they don’t know. To learn what separates them from me; to try to imagine being in their shoes. Or is it to imagine being with my father’s as he fled for his life so many years ago?

And then there were the condoms. At the beginning of the week, I had given a portion to an NGO at Ritsona that ran a women’s space, a place where women, especially those pregnant or nursing, come to spend time with each other, away from their men and families. As I wrap up my week, I realize I haven’t seen any signs of those condoms, despite spending ample amounts of time with the women. When I seek out a supervisor, I am politely told that they are planning a sex education class – this for women some of whom already had six children! – and that the condoms will be distributed in class. When I ask when that will be, I am met with a blank stare.

In utter frustration over the lack of urgency in the face of a real public health crisis – at Ristona, there were more than 30 pregnant women out of 150 families – I take back most of the condoms. For me they had become a metaphor for bureaucracy and the endless rules set by the NGOs, who seemed to prefer order to compassion. Or, so I think as I head to Piraeus.

The port encampment is not an official camp, like Ritsona. Nor is it one of the “squats”, which have sprung up throughout Athens, where refugees have taken over abandoned buildings. It’s a hybrid of sorts with the Greek military providing food, showers and lines of fetid porta-johns. A week before I arrived, unrefrigerated food had gone bad as the result of the military delivering it too early in the day. 150 people were taken to the hospital with food poisoning; two pregnant women miscarried during the incident.

For two days, my job is to hand out shower toiletries: toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, razors, body soap, and clothes detergent. At first, things go quite well. I develop a warm rapport with the refugees, they leave satisfied, and I feel good. But as time drags, I notice that I am seeing the same faces – the same people are asking me for the same toiletries over and over. Are they hoarding them? Are they getting them for other family members? A sense of indignation sets in and I start to resent their grabbing extras at the expense of those who aren’t asking for seconds and thirds. I have become hardened like the volunteers that I had so recently dismissed as uncaring! While being ashamed of myself for my changing attitude toward the refugees, I davka am bemused at my self-righteous objections to all the rules that I had encountered earlier. I now appreciate why they exist, and feel they actually make some sense. Once I figure this out, I am able to make compassionate judgments and exceptions, which keep everyone, myself included, happier.

My mood further lightens when I shift my work to Amurtel where I had so triumphantly delivered condoms 10 days earlier. One of its trailers houses a midwife and baby-bathing station; the other distributes supplementary nourishment to pregnant women and nursing mothers. Most of the refugees at Piraeus are Afghani. If I thought my communications skills were limited with Arab speakers (I speak about 10 words of Arabic), they are really restricted with these Dari speakers. However, there is probably one place where special communication skills are not necessary and that is in the baby-bathing space. There is something so universal about a mother bathing her baby – in the palpable, two-way love at play in the bathtub. In those few days, I witness many babies getting the filth of Piraeus washed off, but one mother and child will stick with me forever.

A happy baby girl throws a kiss. Image by Roberta Elliott

She is not classically beautiful, but has unforgettable features and such a light in her eyes. Her son is about a year old. He never smiles, but he also never cries. Not even when his mother rinses his hair and he gets a pitcher-full of water in his eyes. He is serious, stoic, and intensely dignified as his mother scrubs, his father beams with pride, and I help: three adults fussing over one naked baby boy. He stands there ready to take on the world and whatever it has in store for him.

Meanwhile, sitting in full view in one of the trailers, but davka forgotten and undistributed even by me, their enthusiastic and proud bearer, are the condoms I’d delivered at the beginning of my trip – a visible symbol for all the complexities of the last two weeks. The high intentions with which I and my fellow volunteers had come to Greece, mixed with the arrogance of knowing what is best for the refugees, has ultimately given way to a humble understanding that what appears to be so obvious and easily attainable may not necessarily be so. Although my trip had started out with a victory, in the end, I realize I am powerless to permanently change the refugees’ lives. What I can indeed provide are modest kindnesses that will ease their journey. In the end, I understand that this is not a “power” relationship – I am not somehow superior to these refugees and in a position of offering them something. Rather, together we share human exchanges and in doing so enrich each others’ lives. These are the thoughts that percolate as I leave Piraeus for the last time – in the shadow of behemoth ships, under the burning sun, as Zorba plays from the watchtower and we all davka continue on our journeys of a lifetime.

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