Wednesday, January 20, 2016

the first imad

within the first few minutes of my first shift at the refugee registration camp moria, i was asked by a woman with UNHCR to take a wheelchair and retrieve a disabled man from the top of the hill outside the gate where he had been dropped by the cross country bus bringing those who had landed at various points on the island.

another volunteer and i pushed the wheelchair to where the man was waiting. not only was walking very difficult for him, he had no shoes. he was also soaking wet. we helped him into the wheelchair, and because he was a large man, pulled with all our strength to keep the wheelchair in check--it wanted to barrel down the hill at top speed.

when we got to the gate at the bottom of the hill it was a different story. here, we were pushing him uphill on a rocky, potholed road. fortunately, the registration area where we were taking him wasn't far. as we had walked with him, i had attempted conversation with my limited arabic. since he had some limited english, we were at least communicating to some degree. his name was--his name is--imad.

when the UNHCR man who joined us at the registration area saw that i was able to communicate on some rudimentary level, he asked me to stay with imad, taking him first to passport check, then to be fingerprinted, then photographed. finally, i was to take him to the doctor.

not all refugees get such immediate attention. most wait a long time, but imad had been fast-tracked because of his disability.

the UNHCR guy sent the other volunteer back with the wheelchair so i ended up supporting imad's weight, and carrying his heavy sodden bag, as we negotiated the short distance across gravel to the passport area.

the police doing passport checks wanted to know why he had previous visas from spain. somehow i was asked to serve as translator (ha!) but between us all we managed to piece together that he was a businessman, a restaurateur, who had enjoyed better fortune before the war.

finally, questions answered to the police's satisfaction, and passport duly stamped, we again slowly negotiated our way across gravel to the building where he was to be fingerprinted.

as imad was surrendering his hand to the officials in charge, a german working in the office struck up a conversation with me. he was stunned to find i was volunteering, that i not only received no pay for my work, but was in fact paying my own way to be there.

following fingerprinting, i helped imad make his painful way across the gravel yet again to be photographed. we then crossed the gravel one more time to the doctor's office, where after helping imad onto the examining table, i waited outside. as i waited, i saw many women coming in to get baby formula. though breastfeeding is strongly encouraged, it seems that many women's milk had dried up in the trauma of their escape, although i only learned that later as one of our tasks is to sterilize bottles.

when imad emerged from the doctor's office, i took him one last time across the gravel courtyard to a small clothing distribution post where he was given dry clothes and shoes. when he emerged more comfortable and well on his way to his new life, a team from frontex waited to offer him a new home. while he spoke with them, i was sent back up the hill inside the camp to retrieve the wheelchair.

this proved no simple task. the woman who had first sent me with it was nowhere in sight and others did not want to hand it over to me. i was an unknown quantity. it took about half an hour for this snafu to be sorted out, then i finally took the wheelchair back down. i was happy to have played a role in easing imad into his new life.

unfortunately, when i arrived, it seemed that imad had turned down FOREX' offer because he wanted specifically to go to norway where his friends were. his money and cell phone having been lost in the sea, along with his shoes, the various officials and ngo reps were angry at him for turning down their offer. i was sent back with an empty wheelchair and imad was left to his fate.

i wasn't happy anymore. i felt like i had failed. certainly the system had failed in some way.

i don't know what happened to imad, and i'm sure i will never know. it haunts me.