Thursday, September 29, 2016


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


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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Back in Greece; Working in Athens

I've been back in Greece almost a week now after a three month stay back in San Francisco, but it already feels like much longer. I'm in Athens this time, rather than on Lesvos, working in a camp in the industrial neighborhood of Eleonas. It's an official government camp, with very little NGO presence--MSF pulled out not long ago over some dispute in the way the camp was operated--but a volunteer group called the Elea project works there trying to make the camp more livable for the residents. Currently there are about 1,500 people living in the camp, and another 750 in a different camp right next to it. The other camp is run by the military with no volunteer presence, but I've heard they're slated to be joined, and our population will include the second camp. I also heard that the wall between them will stay up, though. I don't know why. It seems counterproductive.

In many ways the camp is much better than either Moria, the official registration camp on Lesvos (now a detention center) where I worked, or the spillover, volunteer run, Better Days for Moria camp. If you've read earlier blogs you know that in Moria, housing consisted of overcrowded, tiny Ikea huts without electricity, and that housing at Better Days was in tents, also without electricity, though charging stations were available at both camps. But the electricity supplied shipping container houses at Eleonas are much nicer. They have private bathrooms afford some privacy to the residents. Many have beds with mattresses, though some are still sleeping on thin, yoga-style mats.

The geography of the camp is much different too. Instead of hilly, rocky, and muddy, the land is flat, graveled or paved, and dusty, and the flatness makes the area of the camp consequently seem much bigger. There is room for sports and biking, which the residents very much enjoy, although the women have asked for an area where they can play sports in relative privacy, and that might not be possible.

A few trees have been planted, but they provide no shade yet. A garden area is in the works, with herbs and flowers. I haven't seen or heard of any vegetables being planted yet, but food distribution here doesn't just consist of prepared meals but includes occasional bags of vegetables--potatoes, tomatoes, onions... as well as packages of bread at every meal. Since volunteers work only until 10:30 pm when we all have to leave the camp, breakfast is distributed with dinner. Everybody complains about the prepared meals, and they are far worse than those on Lesvos. When I did food distribution two days ago, the meal was potatoes in tomato sauce. Starchy foods like rice and potatoes are the staple. Meat is served once a week.

Other than the sports area and equipment, the volunteers have started a number of activities for the residents. I have been involved in a women's expression group, run by a young Spanish psychologist, henna night (where seven and ten year old Afghan refugees Shabanaz and Maida decorated my hands, and I decorated others), movie night (Kung Fu Panda--the kids loved it), and some game playing. There are also yoga and fitness classes, a bike workshop, a football tournament (that's soccer to my US readers), story time, and various other activities of the like. Some English classes just started for the children, but I haven't been involved yet. My main project, and the one I'm most excited about, at Eleonas will be setting up a library. Currently, though, the only container building we have access to for the library serves as a storage area for clothes and toys.

The weather is just beginning to cool a little, so winter clothes distribution will start soon, but clothing distribution in general is not an everyday task as it was on Lesvos. Here the refugees know they will be staying some time (though they all desperately want to move on) and there is space to do laundry. Clean wet clothes hang to dry between the rows of shipping container houses, some of which are beginning to reflect their inhabitants' aesthetics, with curtains, or a few plants. I have yet to be inside one, though Farah, a lovely Iranian woman, has invited me for tea any time. According to the ministry rules, we are only allowed to stay 15 minutes inside a refugee's home.

There are already toys floating around, but the Project Elea team is still trying to figure out an equitable way to distribute the toys that are in storage in our future library. Apparently, too, nobody wants to distribute the pile of donated Barbies. I understand their concerns, but if the decision were mine, I would go ahead and give them out. Unrealistic Barbie is not that big a deal compared to what these children have seen, and bringing them some happiness is important.

This post has taken me two days to write--yesterday I spent most of the day looking for an apartment--and now it's time to go to camp. I'll try to write more often. As always, thanks for reading, thanks for caring.