This may be one of the only pictures I take while here… I don’t really ever feel comfortable taking pictures of people, and in this specific case; it makes me even more uncomfortable. I’ve seen some amazing photographs out there of refugees in Greece, but it’s just not going to happen with me. So, we’ll see what I actually shoot pictures of, if anything.
This is the first image I saw last night when I walked into Tabakika Registration Centre, although it was dark out instead of light and you can see how weak the lights are in the picture. I flew into Chios at 18:00 and took a cab from the airport to the small bed and breakfast I’m staying at for the first few nights I am here until I find something more permanent. I dropped my stuff and sent a text to the volunteer coordinator I’ve been in touch with to see if they needed help right then. Yup.
I will write a longer piece on how it came to be that I decided to come here, but I managed, through a few Facebook groups, to find out that Chios needed help on the volunteer front. So, I emailed the contact person, filled out a form, had to convince the coordinator I wasn’t a teenager that would need hand-holding (?) and was given approval to go to Chios. It’s not through an NGO (as I don’t believe NGOs have volunteers here from what I’ve seen), but through an informal group of people calling themselves Chios Refugee Support – International.
Thirty minutes after the text, I saw that image as I walked into Tabakika, much darker, with the breath of 300+ people coming out of their mouths, because it’s cold in there, and had to choke back a sob. The coordinator was not present, but he told me to report to Clothes Distribution, which is the first 4m x 4m (13ft x13ft) section of the wooden structure you see with the WC sign on it. That’s been my home for the majority of the time since I arrived.
Tabakika is the first place the refugees go to after arriving on the beach via boats and rafts. “Rescue teams” (mostly volunteers) are on shore waiting for them (and this is how I first found out about this, because Kim Howe, a Fletcher friend, was doing this a few weeks ago on Lesvos), get them off the boats, help them with medical attention and put them on some mode of transport to places like Tabakika. They arrive at these registration centers cold, wet (some with hypothermia), traumatized, having finally arrived in Europe after I can’t even imagine what kind of horrors and obstacles.
They get a registration bracelet, which starts the process to register with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees), which is handling the processing of these people to get them into formal refugee camps. The process to register a group of 50 takes an hour (they do them in batches). Yesterday, 600 people arrived and there were still people left over from the day before. You can do the math. It seems when things are busy, people are living in this building (as shown, sleeping on cardboard on the cement) for up to 2 days before moving to a camp where they get better attended. Tabakika is simply a transition center.
I knocked on the wooden door and was let in to this tiny enclosed space with 4-5 people frantically rushing from the counter on one side where they were attending to these wet and traumatized people (and, yes, still wet from the morning). I was dragging with me a huge suitcase of donations from DC friends (thanks!!!! – everything went in a like an hour). I felt in the way for a while just trying to figure out what was going on. Then, almost everyone too busy to say hi, I started to unpack the suitcase, putting everything in the appropriate places in the cubicle. Eventually I was briefed on what everyone was doing, very informally and on the go, and then just threw myself in with the others attending to those needing clothes.
From what I can tell, there are three NGOs present at Tabakika (Norwegian Refugee Council, Samaritan’s Purse and Praksis). NRC is in charge of the clothes distribution, but all their staff was in training yesterday and today, so this is how it came to be that volunteers were filling in.
You literally come face-to-face with everyone going through the center. You communicate with (or try to – more on that below) a third of them, as three volunteers attend at a time. You replace any wet clothes they have and you give them whatever is in the “boutique” (as they call it) that will make them warmer. When there are so many refugees waiting, it’s a busy pace, as you are trying to get people as dry clothes as possible, but it’s hard to find the right sizes, etc. It’s like you’re getting slammed when waiting tables at a restaurant, but, well, worse in just a few ways 🙂
Pickings are slim. You have whatever gets delivered in containers previously (or kind DC friends). I’ve seen everything from Armani to full-fledged bell-bottoms from the 70s, and nearly every possibility in between, for all sizes. You simply do the best with what you have, which sometimes is not much. You run out of stuff all the time (more on that below too). Last night we were using socks as gloves for kids. I can’t tell you how much that comment I made yesterday on Facebook about the shoes and the kid is true. Over and over again, especially if you can’t find the right (or even semi-right) match.
The people are the most interesting (and heart-smashing) part. From what I’ve heard, about 70% are from Syria and Iraq. The rest are from Pakistan, Afghanistan and places like Eritrea and Morocco. I’ve used French on more than one occasion. Even Spanish once. Mostly it’s Arabic and Farsi that is spoken though, so it’s hard to communicate. But, you manage.
You interact with all sorts of people. From those who are grateful to people who are picky about what color the clothes are to those who sneak in line 2-3 times to get more clothes. You interact with very educated people, people who speak several languages, people who are lawyers and teachers. Those who are kind and those who are not (mostly the former).
I can’t imagine how it must be, due to culture, for many of the women to come and have this very awkward conversation about clothes with a man. You can tell some are not very used to having this sort of exchange. Again, you do the best you can to make them feel at ease.
The kids are what kills you though. Or, as well, what makes all of this worth it. A mother will come to the counter and plop down an 8-month old little girl who is just the cutest thing you’ve ever seen and then you get to, basically, dress her (sometimes to their delight, sometimes to their horror). The most amazing thing I saw thus far was when I gave an 8-year old girl a bright red winter jacket and her face exploded in a huge smile and she basically did a giddy dance, like it was the best thing she’s ever received. Done. That was worth the trip right there.
Yesterday, the first night, was tough. No doubt about it. That will live with me for a while. Today was a bit better. I basically ran the clothes distribution for the day (must have done something right).
Okay, I’m crashing… I’m exhausted after a very long day. Slept only two hours last night, because of jet lag… There are a few things I left out, but there will be other posts. For those of you who remember my previous blog, I believe (now) this one will be similar in that I will omit very little.
As I mentioned on Facebook in response to your incredible (!) comments, let me explore things a bit more before I send you to somewhere for donating funds or items. I want to make sure it’s a legit place where the funds will be used wisely.
Same thing for those of you who wanted more information on volunteering. Will get back to you!
Until the next time…
I apologize for any typos, grammar or flow mistakes in here (and for any future posts). Bound to be some!