Sunday, November 27, 2016

I Don't Want to Leave

I can't believe I have less than a week left. I don't want to leave. Running the women's self expression group, although I had doubts about taking it on, has had a huge impact on me. Though not many women come on a regular basis, I have become very close to those that do. We mostly don't share a language, but we have an amazing translator--a seventeen year old Afghan woman who is simply lovely.

There is one Afghan woman who comes regularly to the group that has an eight year old daughter in a wheelchair. A couple of sessions ago, she talked about her daughter. Nadia used to be able to walk and run and lead a relatively normal childhood. Though she was diagnosed with some sort of degenerative neuro-muscular disease (I'm not certain what, but think muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis...) at nine months old, medication kept her disease from progressing quickly. For reasons I don't know, her medication was stopped when she was four years old. Her mother told us that the doctors said she didn't need it anymore, that she'd be okay. However, that was not the case.

At some point, trying to escape the war in Afghanistan, the family moved to Iran, (I have heard this from quite a few of the Afghan refugees, but they are discriminated against in Iran, and sometimes deported--my lovely translator told me it's because the Afghans are mostly Sunni and the Iranians Shi'a).

Nadia's mother told me that the medication was restarted at some point, I'm not sure when, but that she has not received any for two months, here in Greece.

I have written about Nadia before. She is the little girl who used to turn the jumprope so cheerfully and willingly for those who could still run and jump and play. I was shocked a few days ago to see that her disease has progressed rapidly in the time I've been here. She would not be able to turn a jumprope now, even if we still had one. She had to bend her head low to eat a cookie her mother gave her.

In the women's meeting where Nadia's mother talked about her disease, she also told us how difficult it was to give her a shower. Imagine trying to hold up a soapy child who cannot stand on her own. I talked to the IRC (International Rescue Committee) child protection officers on camp about a shower chair but got nowhere. I have talked to them several times about Nadia, but nothing ever happens. So I talked to Project Elea, and yesterday at the women's meeting, we gave Nadia and her mother a shower chair.

It is such a small thing. She really needs to be allowed to go on to Germany or somewhere with excellent medical facilities to get the help she and her family need, but that's not likely to happen. Certainly not anytime soon. In the meantime, her father and mother continue to push her wheelchair across the rocks, jolting her terribly, and try to cope with her growing needs. The burdens of being a refugee are heavy enough without the added weight of a handicap, and there are many. Rashid who has a twisted leg and walks through the dense gravel on crutches, the new family in which both parents are blind, five or six people in wheelchairs, and many with psychological problems. Trauma...

And all of them live in limbo. They don't know if they will be allowed to go on somewhere else--where there might be job opportunities (Greece is so economically depressed there are none here), to join their families elsewhere, or whether they will stay in Greece and try to make a life. One special Iranian woman just got approved for asylum in Greece, although she won't get the final papers for several months at least. She is happy about it because it means an end to limbo, but she has grown daughters in Holland she is not allowed to reunite with, and her schizophrenic brother has head trauma from being beaten by the Greek police at some point.

My translator is here with her father, one sister, and one small brother. Her mother, two more sisters and a brother are in Germany. They don't know yet if they will be allowed to reunite their family, and will not know anything for months to come.

Another young woman has been approved to go on to Germany and leaves next week, but she is being sent alone, without her mother and sisters. She has relatives there, but is afraid to go alone.

Then there is the woman whose husband has Norwegian citizenship. They have two small children together who are also Norwegian citizens. The husband came and lived with his family in the refugee camp for eight months, but had to go back to Norway to work, yet the Norwegian government has decided that their marriage is a marriage of convenience, and have refused to allow her to join him.

One of the women I've become close to in the women's group is a 27 year old that I would have guessed was in her forties, she looks so beaten down. Since I have known her she has tried at least three times to go to Germany with false papers. She is eight months pregnant and desperately wants her baby to be born in Germany. This is her eighth pregnancy. Forced to quit school at eight years old because of the war, she was married at thirteen. Two of her children were killed in the war, and she miscarried one child due to the war. She has three living boys here with her and her husband. I don't know what happened to the other child. She has a shrapnel scar on her cheek. Neither she nor her husband can read, but they are lovely people, kind and generous.

Another woman that comes regularly to the group wanted to be an engineer. She wasn't allowed to study engineering because in Afghanistan women are only allowed to be teachers and doctors, and only so that their will be female teachers and doctors for women. Now she doesn't want to be an engineer anymore; she wants to be a judge and go back to Afghanistan to judge on human and women's rights. She and her husband regularly consider going back to Afghanistan because they have no hope of leaving Greece and there is no work here. Her husband is a medical technician and speaks several languages. He used to translate for some branch of the US government in Afghanistan, but they have not helped. I have met quite a few Afghans who worked for the US but have been cast aside. Of course, anyone who left and went back would be in even more danger because they would be targeted, but those who worked for the US would be even more of a target. I try to discourage them from going back. It isn't safe. She is pregnant and so depressed about it. She doesn't want to bring another child into the hopeless limbo they live in.

Refugees here on their own have almost no hope. One Afghan man told me his story last night. How his boat had to turn back the first time. How it was sinking again the second time, and leaking fuel into the boat, and the Greek coast guard ship that spotted them originally refused  to help, telling them to go back. It was on March 19, the day before the EU/Turkey deal went into effect. Ultimately, the Greek coast guard did pick them up. He had chemical burns covering his legs from the fuel and sea water, but if they had turned back and tried later, he would have had even fewer rights because of the EU/Turkey deal. As it is, he, like most, is in limbo, and asked me if he had a future.

I feel so helpless. The problems are so huge and all we can really do is minimally relieve the pain for a moment.

I don't want to leave. It's so ironic that they are all so desperate to leave and can't and I don't want to leave and am forced to.

I worry about them all.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Post Election Post

I haven't written a blog post in a long time. Partly because I'm so busy and exhausted all the time. I am at camp 8-9 hours a day, usually six days a week, often doing physically demanding tasks. But also because this camp is so different--the days run together, one after another, with a sameness that somehow defies description. Yes, there are moments, and stories I've thought about writing, but been too tired. Then when I do have a little time the stories seem lost in the routines of the days. We have a meeting. We might work in food distribution at lunch or dinner--all the tasks around food distribution are mentally (explaining for the millionth time why we can't give a box of sugary juice for every member of the family--we simply don't have enough to go around) or physically (bending to count out apples or onions, prepackaged bread or "cake" they get for breakfast--shades of the French revolution! "Let them eat cake,"--if you're working on packing the boxes) exhausting, or both (making impossible decisions and bending and lifting and carrying if supervising).

We may work clothing (which I avoid like the plague) running back and forth, in and out of a shipping container trying to find one shirt, one pair of pants, one sweater, one pair of shoes... that both fits the "customer" and is to their taste--not to mention bras, underwear, socks, pajamas--for each member of first one family and then another.

We may work with Little Squirrels--our equivalent to day care--or Big Squirrels--6 and up--or work in bike workshop fixing the broken wrecks of bikes many of the children have. We may teach yoga, turn a jumprope, set up a movie--without always having the right equipment--run a women's group, guard a women's or adults' space (from the seemingly thousands of bored disruptive children or the young men who just want a glimpse of a woman exercising), bring out the chess and backgammon boards, run a dance class, run an art class, run a sewing workshop...

I sometimes think that trying to alleviate the boredom of many months in a refugee camp is the single biggest challenge we face that we, as volunteers, have any power to affect.

And so the days run together and I've been here over two months already.

But today, today was different. At least for me.

Today I came to the camp after a day at the Embassy, voting, and reminding me of how when I was a kid anyone could just walk right into the American Embassy anywhere in the world (citizen or not) and state their business, and of how now to enter the fortress requires searches and passport... I came into the camp after a night of relentlessly watching the election returns for President of the United States, my computer screen split between a map with a running map of trending and won states, red and blue, and a map showing how many electoral votes each state carried. I watched Trump come out of the starting gate fast, and painfully slowly, but steadily, rack up the numbers until it was over. By that time it was about 8:30 am here in Athens and I had been up all night. Trump had won. Both houses of Congress were Republican.

I wasn't, and still am not, a Clinton supporter. But the reality of Trump in the Whitehouse--Trump in control of the nuclear, subnuclear, chemical, biological, laser, and conventional weapons that both parties have so using so cavalierly for so long (in Iraq for longer than the US was in Vietnam) is a sobering thought.

And I carried that exhaustion and that fear to a refugee camp where about 1,500 of the tens of thousands (in mainland Greece alone) of refugees created by those US policies and practices reside in semi-squalor, bored, hopeless, and alienated through no fault of their own. And I carried the burden of American citizenship with me. I knew that I wasn't up to playing games. I thought maybe I would hide away in the shipping container we call Area 51 (because its house number is Alpha 51 and it is such a mysterious black hole of curious donations--you wouldn't imagine what some people send) and sort toys by age group so we can do a toy distribution. That way I could be alone while still helping.

But then something happened. The wind had been heavy all night as it often is in Greece in winter, and as we approached camp the already grey skies grew threatening. The wind picked up, tearing at the already shredded tents we use as common areas, knocking over a portable basketball goal complete with the huge chunk of cement used to weigh it down, and kicking up a dust storm to rival any Arabian desert khamsin. The sky darkened and low, ominous clouds looked like some kind of biblical retribution for US folly.



Simone, Ellena, and I headed for yet another storage shed to retrieve the rain ponchos we had sorted for distribution and the clouds broke, deluging us with horizontally slashing rain and small pellets of hail. We ran back and forth through the gravel bottomed pools the paths had become, carrying boxes and bags and handsful of rain ponchos, handing them out to anybody caught out in the storm, and especially to those waiting, without shelter, at clothing distribution, at food distribution. Two strong young refugee men joined us--one of whom, a Palestinian, has become a particular friend. Within minutes I was soaked through. I had started the walk over without my jacket, but I don't know how much good it would have done anyway. Hours later, my shoes are still sodden and my pants soaked to above the knees. My shirt hangs drying on the doorknob.

But I got to help. I got to do something that had an immediate positive impact on the lives of the residents I had come to help. And I felt like, in just the tiniest way, for just a moment, I had atoned.

I needed that today.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Children

A volunteer I worked with on Lesvos has just sent me a file of photos and statements from refugees and volunteers that she compiled into a multi-media documentary that showed at a gallery in Canada all summer.

Reading it left me with tears in my eyes.

I was one of the participants, and as I read my own responses to her questions, I reflected on how harsh I sounded compared to the others, how jaded.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to me. I am pretty jaded. I never saw the horrors that many of the refugee children have seen, but I've seen plenty, and like them and so many children around the world, from a young age. So yes, I'm jaded, but I do still have hope. But I'm a realist and the world can be a very ugly place ,and I feel like some of us have to point it out if we ever want it to change.

There was ugliness this morning. A tiny Syrian boy with heartbreakingly beautiful eyes pulled one of his many horrible and unacceptable stunts. I think I may have mentioned him before as one of the children throwing stones on the day I wanted to just give up.

One of the volunteers had her camera out taking photos (she and I are currently the designated photographers, versed in the rules and cleared to take pictures) and playing with some of the children. They always ask to have their pictures taken, but we aren't allowed to post photos showing anybody full face. Anyway, she had left her camera bag on the bench beside her, and suddenly I glimpsed something round and black in the child's hand. I didn't see it well, but was pretty certain it was something to do with the Ellena's camera. I hoped it was just the lens cap. It wasn't. The child saw me look and immediately made a break for it. I alerted Ellena and we gave chase. He ran between the rows of shipping container houses, and then under them. Never a good idea since, of course, there are rats in the camp. (Fortunately, I don't see them often, and there are traps, but nevertheless...)

With the help of another Syrian child who crawled partway under the unit where the small boy was hiding, we recovered a second lens. The little boy who had taken the lens was furious and picked up a rock a little bigger than a grapefruit and threw it at my head.

It missed me, but I snatched him up and went to find somebody who could show me where he lived. The whole time I was carrying him, we struggled. He, trying to pummel me with his fists; me, trying to hold his wrists to avoid getting hit. He did manage to get in a few blows to my face and torso, but he really is tiny so no harm was done.

I knocked on the door of his house and his mother came out. She doesn't speak English and my Arabic certainly wasn't at a level to explain what happened, but with lots of hand gestures and a few words, I  tried to explain what happened. I wanted her to know what he was doing. I wanted her to take some responsibility for the child.

Like many of the children he roams the camp unattended most of the day and well into the night. An Arabic and English speaking refugee man came over and translated. The mother seemed not to care at all until the child landed his hardest blow to my face. Then she slapped him across the face, and pulled him out of my arms and put him inside the house. I didn't want her to slap him. I just wanted her to pay some attention to what her child was doing.

Leaving their house, the man and another volunteer woman explained that the husband/father was in Sweden and the woman was alone and the child had suffered some trauma.

Yes, that's an old story, and not limited to refugees. Some of you know how much I can relate to those circumstances, and no, it's not easy. It's not easy at all, and I wasn't always a good parent myself, but I still can't understand how the mother can completely ignore the child and expect the rest of the world to take on all the responsibility for him. I had seen her a few times before, but never, ever with the child.

And this same child I've seen blossom when given a little attention. I've had run-ins with him before. He's an avid rock thrower. But at other times, when I or one of the other volunteers have managed to see him doing something positive, and praised him for it, he's like a different child. It's in those moments, however brief, that those big eyes melt your soul.

But we don't have the resources to really help. If we went to the IRC or UNHCR the child might be taken from the mother. Would that be a good thing? I don't know how to answer that. The child is certainly being neglected, as are many at camp, but for a child who has lost so much already, would it really help to take him from his mother? On the other hand, what's in store for him if things continue the way they are? Nothing good, likely.

There is another small boy here who seems to be in a similar situation; I never see him with his mother either. He too roams the camp alone all day and into the night. But for whatever reason, he is the camp darling. The volunteers coo over him constantly, and his behavior, while certainly not always perfect, is generally okay most of the time. Is it the attention he gets from volunteers that makes the difference? Would extra love and attention for the rock thrower make a difference? Probably. But it's really difficult to turn your love to someone who is such a problem, especially when there are so many children who are sweet and personable. The twelve-year old or so boy who is teaching me Farsi words, and translates whenever he's asked, and always has a smile, the eleven or twelve-year-old who helped us retrieve the camera lens and who held a discussion with me and one other young boy in which he argued that just because he and his friend were Sunni didn't mean they should think all Shi'a were bad, that you couldn't just lump people together by such criteria and decide they were all good or all bad, the eleven-year-old girl who has a great sense of fashion and a winning smile and always, always, does so much work for her family, picking up food at distribution and hauling it back, the little girl in the wheelchair who smiles as she turns the jump-rope for others, even though she can never jump herself...

There are so many children here. They have all been traumatized. Some of them have somehow taken that trauma and learned thoughtfulness from it. Some of them have learned only fear and hate, it seems. I wish there were enough volunteers to give them all the one on one time they need. I wish their parents weren't so traumatized or alienated or stressed to give them the care they need. I wish that were the case for parents and children everywhere.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Recruits

I just realized it's been a week since I last posted a blog entry. Sorry--there's been a lot going on to talk about, but I've been pretty busy and falling behind. For one thing, after I get home from a day at the camp (roughly 1:30 pm to 11:00 pm--long but I can sleep to a humane hour) I generally get into some sort of political discussion with one or more people at the hostel. I've met some incredible people, many of whom have since become involved. There are two German guys I really hit it off with, Max and Joel, who donated medical supplies before heading off to a perma-culture workshop. They both worked in the ambulance service in Germany and have expressed interest in volunteering when they get back to Athens.

Bonnie is from New York, and was in Athens for some kind of neuro-science conference. She explained it but I didn't get it enough to remember it, really. When I told her what I was doing in Athens, she was eager to help. Bonnie was particularly interested in our plans for a library and is talking to friends in the publishing business and has interested a Brooklyn teacher in coordinating a project with Elea and her high school service learning class.

Then there was the "Kiwi" (New Zealander), and with him, the Australian woman. Jamie was in the top bunk across from my bottom bunk when I came into the room after camp one night. We introduced ourselves and he asked me how I was. I responded tired and he wanted to know why. Well, of course that led into a longish conversation about the refugee situation, and Jamie expressed an interest in volunteering. Normally, Project Elea (and most of the other volunteer groups) don't take people who don't commit for at least a week, but a large group had just gone home and we were a little short on volunteers and I got the okay for Jamie to join us. I was going in early the next morning to do some sorting in our chaotic storage space--we needed to fill some gaps in our clothes distribution room--so Jamie was going to follow at the regular time. I got a call from him telling me about Katie, an Australian woman who had worked in a refugee group home in Germany. She had experience, and as I said, we were short-handed, so Katie got the okay too.

The Elea coordinators were happy they said okay. Katie was great for the couple of days she was there. Jamie is still there and will do his first supervisory shift tomorrow. He came for two days and is now finishing up his first week and thinking about staying longer. He has about three more weeks on his visa, and he still hasn't made it to Delphi, his original plan for last Friday.

And then there's Vasilis, an artist who works the night shift at the hostel and is hooking up Project Elea with a museum to hold an art show of refugee works. There seems to be something about hoteliers named Vasilis in Greece...

It's amazing how the networks grow...

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Women

As a woman myself, and having studied women in Middle East History, specifically, Middle Eastern womens' situation is of great concern to me. Most of the refugee women have spent much of their lives in extremely male-dominated, female-suppressed societies. Though this is less true for the Syrians, it's extreme for the Afghans and the Iranians--and as Syrians are the most privileged (by the EU) and are much more often able to leave for one reason or another, the majority of our camp residents are Afghan or Iranian.

Since most of the women live in cultures where womens' space is private space, gatherings for women are problematic. Other than out in the open, we have two large tents (like the Rubhall shown and described in earlier posts from Lesvos) where activities are scheduled. One of the tents has been divided, providing two semi-private rooms. I say semi-private because the doors don't have latches, and even with a volunteer guard at the door to maintain privacy, children, especially the boys, simply duck under the outside walls of the tent.

Other than in the food line, there are few women to be seen walking around the camp.

A lovely Spanish volunteer who is a psychologist started a women's expression group a few weeks ago. When I arrived, I joined the team for this event which is held Monday and Friday evenings. The first time I attended was pretty good. Probably about 20 women came, and we had an Arabic translator for a brief time, as well as a couple of women who could speak some English as well as their native Farsi or Arabic.

We were able to convey that we were each to count off the fingers of one hand with:

1. our name
2. our country of origin
3. our age
4. Something we liked about our physical selves
5. Something we were good at

A lot of us liked our eyes or our hair, and a lot of us liked, or thought we were good at dancing. We had music, and though getting a connection to play it was a little challenging, many of us danced. There was, and continues to be, a little bit of a rivalry between two women in particular, one Syrian, the other Iranian, on which country's music we should play, so we're going to make a mix on a flash drive to forestall further bickering over the music.

The next session was not as well attended. Our lovely volunteer leader wasn't feeling very well to begin with, and was a little down. It's hard to spread the word about events sometimes, and it's hard to get people to come out to an event--I learned that at kaleidoscope, my former performance gallery.

Anyway, no women showed up for the first 15 minutes or so, and we volunteers spent the time throwing around ideas of what we could do and whether or not we could accomplish anything without translators, and finally decided that we would bring (in addition to the tea and cookies we always bring) some girly things--nail polish, hair ties and bobby pins in pretty colors, some sewing supplies--and that we would make a real effort at inviting women to come. Some women did eventually show up that evening, and we talked and danced a little.

When the day came for the next meeting, our volunteer leader had written out an invitation and we had it translated into Arabic, Farsi, and French. It wasn't in Urdu as I recall; I'm not certain the translation group that works in camp has any Urdu speakers. With our multi-lingual invitations in hand, we split up to go door to door throughout the camp, asking women to come.

Over 60 women showed up!

That's maybe 20-25% of the women in camp. It was phenomenal. We had women from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (even without the Urdu), Sierra Leone, and Somalia in attendance. People were painting each others' nails, divvying up the hair supplies, and talking to each other, often with gestures. We also had paper and colored pencils and some women drew. This is one of the drawings from that night I found particularly poignant. It needs no explanation.


And of course there was dancing. The two women who each want their music played danced, as they always do, and more and more women joined in. There we were, women ranging in age from teens to we older women, from different countries, religions, ethnicities, speaking different languages, all dancing together. Many headscarves came off; the dancing got wilder. We were having so much fun and being so noisy that apparently we made it difficult for the arts and crafts session in the next room to function. Whoops. But oh, we did have a good time.

If you read the blog entry just prior to this one, you read one of the most depressed entries I've ever shared, and sometimes it's like that. But sometimes, sometimes, we all come together as people to people and everything works and I know why I want to be here so much.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Some Days I Despair

I started a blog post a couple of days ago that I was really excited to write because I was feeling so positive about the topic, but I was falling asleep writing it and decided to finish it the next day--yesterday.

But then yesterday was awful.

The heat was oppressive, and in camp, amid the dirt and dust, and with all the glare off the pavement and the metal housing, no trees, no grass, trying to breathe felt like a struggle. Walking from the metro station, through the noisy flea market with Barbie and Monopoly and Dora the Explorer and Star Wars reminders of the globalization that accounted, at least in part, for the desperate poverty of those selling their dumpster-dived wares on dirty blankets in front of deserted and dilapidated industrial buildings baking in the sun was kind of horrifying. I was already drained by the time I reached the refugee camp.

Nothing went well yesterday. The camp of 1,500 probably has 800-900 children in it--children who have lived their whole lives in the horrors of war, children who left war behind only to become refugees--no school, no real home, impoverished, their parents on edge all the time...children without childhoods.

We volunteers try to do our best. We organize activities, dole out juice on the occasions we get enough for everybody, give hugs, whatever might alleviate the boredom and poverty and insecurity that is the day to day reality of refugee life, but there are only about 30 of us on any given day--sometimes even fewer, and resources are scarce. Many of the parents have trouble coping, too, and need our help with the children. They made the enormous decision to flee their homes and throw themselves on the mercy of a world which has ultimately shown little mercy. The world debates their future and they have no say over it. They traded the life-threatening horror of war for the life-eroding horror of human smugglers, a perilous sea journey, and an overcrowded, under-supplied camp with the hope of reaching a safe haven and a chance to restart their lives.

But then, one by one, the borders started closing. Nobody wanted them. Nobody was willing to share their nation. Very few actually give a damn.

And now, after months of living in a ghetto many are losing hope. Some talk of going back to Syria or Afghanistan, of risking bombs rather than continue their refugee existence without recourse or dignity, dependent.

And at times, like when the heat is as oppressive as it was yesterday, or the movie doesn't work like it didn't last night, the fear and the tensions and the anger and the despair are palpable. The children almost rioted over the movie and the respective parents of fighting children themselves began to fight.

It was a day where everything went wrong. It was a day that made me question why the hell I was putting myself through this when I could so easily ignore it all. It was a day that ended as dismally as it began, as I walked back to the metro by mountains of garbage, limping on a swollen painful ankle from a cluster of bites from who knows what, despairing that there was anything they, or I, or anyone could really do.

I took the day off today. My ankle was huge and inflamed and I couldn't put on my shoe, but more than I needed to rest my ankle, I needed to rest my eyes from the sights, my nose from the smells, and my heart from the hurt. My ankle benefitted from the rest and the swelling has gone down significantly, though it is still hot and painful, but my heart doesn't feel any better.

Today, via the Whatsapp of the Better Days at Moria group I was with on Lesvos, I heard the news that thousands of refugees and aid workers were evacuated as tents were burned in the camp. BBC said a riot started at the news that there would be mass deportations.

No, my heart doesn't feel any better. Some days it's hard to find any hope. Some days I despair. What have any of us done to deserve this?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

How Spelling My Name Wrong is Opening Doors

In the babble of languages spoken in the refugee camps, English is the lingua franca. Since I really only speak English, I lucked out. The refugees' native languages include Arabic, Farsi (both Iranian and Afghan), Urdu, Kurdish, Pashtu, French... while the volunteers' include English, German, Greek, Dutch, French, Spanish, Polish... Communication can be awfully difficult and frustrating at times, but sometimes funny attempts to exchange information can also build friendships.

We volunteers wear nametags, and of course I've written my name in English on the badge, but I also added my name in Arabic. Farsi shares (mostly) an alphabet/script with Arabic, and as I can write my name in Arabic-- سارة -- I added that as well. What I didn't realize is that Sara in Farsi appears to be spelled slightly differently than Sara in Arabic. The letters in Arabic are sin, aleph, ra, ta marbuta (the round one with the dots over it on the right) while in Farsi, it's spelled sin, aleph, ra, aleph, or ساراز  

My misspelling (in Farsi) has become a conversation starter with a lot of Afghans and Iranians, and when they find out I have a few words of Farsi they really appreciate it, but wonder why. When I tell them I used to live in Iran, the Afghans are mildly interested, but the Iranians instantly become lifelong friends.

Most of the refugees have some English by this point--the first word they all seem to learn is "problem", and the children, of course, are learning particularly quickly, but many only have about as much English as I have Farsi or Arabic. In other words, barely enough to be useful. One of my personal goals for this round of work is to teach English. Education doesn't really fall under the purview of Project Elea, but every interaction is an opportunity to help with language.

As word has gotten round among the Iranians in camp that I used to live in Iran and speak a (very) few words of Farsi, more and more are approaching me for help. To my delight, much of my work day in the camp is now spent sitting and chatting with various Iranians, swapping languages. My Farsi is improving, and I hope I'm improving their English. To give them that skill, or  to enhance it, would be reward enough, but we get so much more than language from the exhange.

A couple of days ago I sat talking and laughing with two young men in a back and forth mix of English and Farsi, until I was called away to help an Iranian woman with English. We wrote simple sentences in her notebook--"Hello, how are you?", "I am fine, thank you.", "My name is...", "What is your name?", "I have a son named...". Again, there was much bonding and laughter over our bungled attempts at each others' language.

Then yesterday, while knocking on doors to share information about an activity we had planned for women (carrying a paper with the info written in English, French, Arabic, and Farsi), I met an Iranian man who wanted to learn to dance. He complained about his muscles being tight, and knowing we offered yoga for men, but not knowing the exact time, I offered to return after the women's activity with the day and time men's yoga was scheduled.

As promised, I returned a couple of hours later to tell him yoga was on Tuesdays at 6 pm. He invited me in for tea, and I sat with him and two other Iranian men, answering questions, practicing English, and, as always in these situations, laughing a lot. It turns out he didn't just want to stretch; he wants to learn ballroom dance. Project Elea doesn't have that in the schedule now, but who knows? Maybe at some point we can offer it. Some other volunteers told me that a former volunteer kept offering to teach the Lindy Hop, so you never know. Ironically, it was in Iran that I learned to ballroom dance.

Anyway, all these attempts at language, by virtually everybody in camp, volunteers and refugees alike, are all attempts at understanding each other. And after all, isn't that the goal? Makes me glad I don't know how to spell my name.