The images that have stuck, Part I

My time is winding down here on Chios. Tomorrow is my last day of “work.” Friday, I’m going to go to Çesme, Turkey for the day to check out what things are like on that side of the strait. On Saturday, I fly to Athens. I will be there for 5 days and am looking at both volunteering in one of the camps in the city as well as extending my time there. We’ll see. I can’t believe a month has already passed.

Today and yesterday were more of the same in that I organized containers, dealt with new cloth arrivals and went shopping. I will update how all the GoFundMe campaign contributions were spent in the coming days after everything is said and done. There haven’t been new refugee arrivals in two days, the previous day because of the weather and today, even though gorgeous (at least on Chios), possibly because of the bombing in Istanbul.

I will write more about my reactions to leaving at a later date, but today will (and in a Part II) focus on some of the more powerful images that resonated in my heart and mind, those snapshots that you carry with you. For those of you who have been following diligently, there may be some repeats, but I think most are new. Here we go:

First view of Tabakika

I arrived for the first time on Chios at 18:00, dropped my things at my hotel and grabbed a taxi to Tabakika, because help was needed urgently and I arrived there at 19:00. I had no idea what to expect, what Tabakika looked like, what Tabakika was, what was going on or, simply, anything at all. I think I didn’t even have the name right then.

It was dark and there was only one light above the door (see pictures). I dragged a full suitcase of cloth donations from friends in DC out of the taxi and across the pea stone to the entryway. All I knew is that I had to ask for Mary at the Clothes Distribution, whatever that was (joke on me now). I crossed that threshold into Tabakika and my senses were just blown away.

The place was packed with over 300 refugees. The lights were on, but were very dim and they highlighted the bodies that were slowly moving about, standing in line and laying on the ground along with the breath that was coming out of people’s mouths. The smell was strong: dust, human body, old factory. And the people just appeared to be cold, hungry, with few possessions and, in a way, in misery. There was a low rumble of chatter, pierced here and there by kids playing and mothers shouting for their children. “Struggle” was in the air, in both the positive and negative sense.

(Full blog post of the first night: Clothes distribution)

Old Greek woman in the port

During my first week, Tabakika was not full one night, but a 3-year old boy had drowned off of one of the incoming boats near Chios, so the people on that boat were detained while an investigation was carried out by the Greek Police (blog entry). It was late, food had yet not arrived and it was cold. People were mostly huddled in the large tent, but some kids were playing outside and the light was fading.

An old, heavyset Greek woman, probably in her 70s, stooped at the waist and bundled against the cold, slowly ambled her way into the open area in front of the large tent pulling a “grandma” cart behind her. No Greeks enter this area when there are refugees around, or ever for that matter. She stopped suddenly and opened up the cart and pulled out ice cream and cookies and beckoned the children to come closer to take them. Hesitantly at first, one by one, the kids went over and gratefully received the items and called to the others in the tent to come over. Mothers came with young ones and kids sprinted up to the woman. The woman calmly and patiently handed out everything, with spoons and napkins, until the cart was empty. She then closed it up and walked away as slowly as she had arrived.

Siblings

There are many families arriving from Turkey and I would say most have more than one child. This means that there are a lot of brothers and sisters present. What has stayed with me are the older siblings looking out for the younger ones. I’m not talking about a 13-year old sister with her 5-year old brother. I refer to seeing a 7-year old boy with his 4-year old brother, looking after him in the same way an 18-year old would. Or a 4-year old looking out for a 2-year old. Yes, we see this everywhere on the planet, but not in this way. There is a sense of maturity, gravity and responsibility, far, far too heavy for their age, in the way they carry this duty out. It was striking. There was tenderness, understanding and focus that belied their age. You are sad for them yet proud of them at the same time.

Language apology

I was sitting in a café one evening with a drink and a book and a young male refugee, probably in his early 20s, came in and sat down to get a pizza and Coke. The Greek waitress went over to him and they were chatting a little bit, obviously struggling through trying to figure out what the other was trying to say, but they were making progress. At one point, the Greek waitress said, “I’m so sorry for not being able to speak to you in Arabic” in English to him. There was a sincerity and frustration in her tone, voice and body language that you knew she was genuinely unhappy about not being able to speak to him in his own language. It was touching and powerful. Her feeling bad for not speaking Arabic (Greece does not even border an Arabic-speaking country)? Who would expect her to? I just thought this was incredible given the circumstances, the politics and the uneasiness/tension that sometimes exists with the local population.

The bathrooms

I was walking out of the Tabakika main hall to the back area where the bathrooms (port-o-potties) are situated. A well-dressed Arab woman rushed up to me staring at me incredulously asking me in broken English how I expected to her to go the bathroom in those disgusting bathrooms that were not clean or proper and smelled. I will never forget that face.

Theft, but…

The “green” container outside the main hall is our primary backup container to the clothes boutique. Boutique door to container door measures about 6 meters (~19 feet). We leave the green container unlocked most of the day, because there are enough people around and we go in and out so often, it would just be a hassle to have to unlock it (with a key) each time we needed something.

On a busy day a few weeks ago, I came out of the office container area and saw a older teenage refugee boy hurriedly close the green container door and run into the Tabakika main hall. I walked into the hall and I saw him showing his friends under his shirt how he had taken a package of 8 girls socks, what was closest to the door in the container. He looked up to see me looking at him and his face froze into a mix of panic and pleading. That look I will not forget. I gave him a “Really?” shrug/eyebrow rise and let him go on his way.

Part II tomorrow

Photo: The backup to the backup container with emergency clothes boxes ready to go in the back.

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Josh

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