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.