Blanket distribution

You can find today’s work and GoFundMe spending update below, but I’ve decided to continue to try to play catch-up with an entry I’ve been meaning to write since my first night here: blanket distribution.

You’ve probably read my reaction to the first night I worked in Tabakika. Blanket distribution helped me arrive at some of those possible Facebook status updates. I’ve been here 3 weeks now and I still have yet to experience anything like what it was to distribute blankets.

I arrived at 18:00 to Chios airport and was in Tabakika by 19:00 not knowing what planet I had just landed on and trying to hold myself together. Four quite intense hours later, it was communicated that it was time for blanket distribution, which was regularly done at 23:00, and that we needed to be briefed on how to carry this out. What could require a briefing about blanket distribution?

People are cold, maybe a little wet, they are miserable, hungry and are far away from home. They just crossed the strait between Turkey and Greece in the dark and some are clearly traumatized. They are in Tabakika, one of the more dilapidated, dusty and dim buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s nighttime and people are tired and sleep-deprived. They are confused, communication is almost non-existent due to limited Arabic, Farsi/Dari, etc. interpreters. They are waiting to be registered, one of the more stressful moments for these refugees, because so much hinges on that first meeting with the border police.

I was asked to help get the UNHCR blankets out of the one of the containers and get them out of their packaging. They come in strapped bundles of 25 and are quite heavy. The straps are very tightly wound around the outside box, which you have to cut open with a knife, and then pull out sub-bundles wrapped in plastic of 5 blankets each. I prepped some 300+ blankets to be distributed.

I can’t remember who gave the briefing. It was either one of the volunteers who had been there for some time or one of the UNHCR staff. The UNHCR staff member, who spoke Arabic, was going to tell everyone to sit down and that we would go around the room and give the blankets to people one at a time. We would carry 5-10 at a time and go down the lines around the edges of the building, and to the groups in the middle, give out the blankets and then go back outside to the container area to pick up another set and go back to where we left off. There were around 8 of us, mostly volunteers. We were to go out in groups of two. When do you use a buddy system? Yeah. Everyone was on edge and it was tangible.

I also can’t remember how many times I went out with blankets or how many I handed over each time. I just remember being immediately confronted by men at every turn (no, they didn’t stay seated) and tugged at, pushed, yelled at, almost cried at with men saying “baby, baby” (meaning they had a baby that needed a blanket). The worst was losing contact with my “buddy” and being surrounded by 15 men and I couldn’t move or escape they were up against me so much. I think I had 3 blankets left at that point. My situational awareness was on overload. I don’t think I was afraid of getting hurt, but the press and aggressiveness of the men was a little nerve-wracking. I shouldered down, moved forward and gave one blanket to the last man in my way (didn’t even matter if he had one already or not) to get him aside and then just left a blanket with a seated old man and another to what appeared to be his grandson next to him as the other men pursued me. Out the door to reload and do it all over again.

There were blankets for everyone. This was communicated. But, it didn’t matter. Not a bit. I was just stunned at the desperation and the borderline violence of how it all went down. I have not seen this with food or anything else. People sometimes don’t eat for 24 hours or more, but don’t react this way. What is it about a blanket that makes people behave thus? Would I if I were in a similar situation?

Apparently, this is just how blanket distribution works each time. Or did. The powers that be smartened up (and ponied the money up, basically) and decided to give a sleeping bag/blanket to everyone when they get their bracelet upon arrival to Chios. Or theoretically, as that did not happen the other night when they kept arriving in droves and were braceleted at the door to Tabakika by whoever could get to the bracelets and number them in time before they entered the main hall.

There is a whole cynical, but not untruthful, side to this as well that I’m refraining for writing about. I haven’t come to terms with how to express that perspective yet. I may do it in one post, all at once, or never at all.

As for today…

There wasn’t anything THAT exciting about today. I spent part of the morning making purchases with the GoFundMe campaign contributions:

  • 45 plastic containers, because I’m going to reorganize the clothes distribution system in Tabakika
  • 600 pairs of socks (80 kids, 220 women, 300 men), because we’re almost out
  • 100 sweatpants, because the last guy who bought some bought XXXXXL, which are not very useful to say the least. Maybe as a sleeping bag.

I will update the GoFundMe page tomorrow with the expenses after everything is delivered/paid for. When more funds hit my account, the spree is on.

I then spent the rest of the day unclustering and reorganizing the main backup clothes container (otherwise known as the “green” container, because, yes, it’s green), which looked like a tornado had gone through it to compound the problem of an already unruly initial stocking. I’m the only one currently here who seems to not mind doing this type of work, so there is always plenty to do. My secret is that once in a while I need the quiet. Combine that with the puzzle and logistics of trying to figure out the best way to organize/distribute clothes in time and space and the hours just fly by.

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