“In Syria, I expected to die at any moment. Now in Greece, I’m actually dying every day.”
Since posting a photo from inside a refugee camp a few days ago, a number of people have contacting me asking me to share more about that experience. On the whole, I feel wholly unqualified to talk about it at all. But, talking with people I’ve met in the past few days and reflecting on my own ignorance of the situation, I’ve realized it’s important to say something. It seems like everyone, myself included, has so many questions about what life in a refugee camp is like and about the exodus of refugees from the Middle East in general. Although I like to think that traveling can bring greater clarity about the way the world works, it usually only makes me more confused, so I guess this is an attempt to sort through some of the confusion.
Full disclosure: I know extremely little about the situation in the Middle East that has driven hundreds of thousands of families away from their homes and even less about international immigration laws. Most of what I read in the news these days are smug op-eds in the New York Times about what a wreck Donald Trump’s campaign has been and how much he has already damaged the country, so I can’t really pretend to be informed about much else beyond that. This isn’t a think piece. Most of this is just ripped straight out of the notes I took at night after a long day at the camp. It consists of my unfiltered thoughts and feelings about what I’ve experienced over the past month. If you find anything I’ve written to be problematic, offensive or misinformed, please share your concerns with me. I just want to make sense of all of this and I sure as hell can’t do it alone. Anyways…
I spent the past month volunteering my time at the Karamanlis refugee camp, just outside of Thessaloniki, Greece. Although many of the camp’s residents are Syrian, many of them are not and they have come from countries all across the Middle East for a variety of different, though related, reasons. The vast majority of them arrived in Greece six months ago with the hopes of crossing the Macedonian border and seeking asylum elsewhere in Europe. Then the border was closed.
Now they’re stranded here.
A number of the people I volunteered with spent time in Lesvos receiving refugees as they came in on boats from Turkey. They all have stories about pulling tens of thousands of people off of boats, often staying up for days on end to receive refugees coming in at all hours of the night.
My work was nothing like that. It was incredibly unsexy. Although I taught a handful of yoga classes in the camp, the vast majority of time was spent in a hot and dusty warehouse sorting through endless boxes of clothing and distributing them to families living in the nearby Frakapor camp. This largely consisted of constantly disappointing people because I never had quite what they were looking for and, if I did, could never give them as much as they wanted. I’ve been told this is a good tagline for aid work in general.
It’s probably not politically correct to admit, but this work sucked. A lot. It involved so many layers of frustration that it’s difficult to actually get to the bottom of why it was so emotionally taxing. At the most basic level, the refugees were frustrated that they couldn’t get the clothing that they wanted. Men’s undershirts, men’s underwear, flip-flops, bras, and men’s shoes size 40-42 are incredibly high demand. People only donate so many of each of those and, in many cases, the quality of the donations is flat out shitty. (Side note: I will never look at donating clothes again the same way. If I don’t think something is good enough for me to wear anymore, why should I think that somebody else would be happy to take it?)
People’s frustration with the inventory was often transferred onto me and it wasn’t uncommon to get berated about the many shortcomings of the boutique. This almost inevitably led to me becoming frustrated with the refugees’ inability to accept that we just straight up didn’t have what they wanted. Oftentimes the shirt we suggested fit well, but it was the wrong color, or the perfect pair of cleats was missing part of the sole and turned out to be not quite so perfect. We had done everything we could and it still wasn’t good enough. Spending all day in a dusty hotbox, it became unfortunately easy to let my patience slip and internally question why the refugee I was working with couldn’t just accept the situation and take the best possible thing we had to offer them. After all, we weren’t running a retail store.
But that was always immediately accompanied by an additional level of frustration directed at myself, frustration at the failure of my own empathy and compassion. Because why should the refugees just have to accept their situation? In many cases it seems as if it would be the best thing to do to achieve some sort of piece of mind. The situation is what it is, and certainly doesn’t show any signs of changing. Picking an argument because I would only let each person take one undershirt doesn’t really seem like the most productive or satisfying use of anybody’s time. But how could I possibly blame anybody that I had to disappoint? Most of these families have never had to live off of the charity of others. Many of them were well off in their home countries and could have gone to the store to buy whatever color of shirt they wanted. Ultimately, the entire situation is more frustrating than any single aspect of it, which is why it’s difficult to make sense of any of this or express how I feel with any degree of coherence.
Because my main feeling toward this consists almost exclusively of a very, very long string of expletives. After my time at the camp, I’m on the move again. I just walked out of there, got on a train, and later today I’ll be crossing the border out of Greece into Macedonia that hundreds of thousands of refugees have wanted to cross in the past six months and have been unable to. Solely because of the country that I was born in. That alone makes me better than them in the eyes of the world.
Again, it’s difficult for me to convey the magnitude of how fucked all of this is. Over my final few days at the camp I spent less time organizing boxes in the warehouse and more time in the camp, drinking coffee with some of the families and chatting to whatever degree we were able to with their children acting as translators. Although I was doing less actual aid work, that time gave me an entirely new appreciation for how horrific the entire situation is.
Families have been on the move for years, first in Turkey and now in Greece, with absolutely no idea when they’ll be able to leave or where they’ll be able to go. These camps have become a holding station in which the past has been decimated and there is no future. The present stretches on endlessly without any promise of improvement. Even if people donate money, clothing, and their time, the impact that it has is so marginal in terms of what the refugees actually need. Living conditions improve in the camps, which is undoubtedly of some significance, but what sort of life is that?
Based on what I saw of other camps and heard from fellow volunteers, the situation at Karamanlis is drastically better than other camps. It is relatively small, supporting around 500 refugees. Their tents are sheltered inside of warehouses. The porta-potties are cleaned daily. Crime is minimal. And there is an adjacent warehouse that has a kids’ play space, a reading area, falafel and coffee shops, a tailor whose space doubles as a makeshift health center, a barbershop, a clothing boutique, and a small gym that offers classes in karate, yoga, and breakdancing.
Refugees could theoretically leave the camp if they wanted to, but it’s hard to imagine why they would. They aren’t allowed to work in Greece and they can’t cross the border into any of the surrounding countries. In the camp they’re guaranteed shelter and a small but certain amount of food from the government, assuming they don’t have it stolen from them by any of the other residents of the camp. It’s a pittance, but it’s something, and more than is assured away from the camp. So we give them food, shelter, clothing, the bare minimum of healthcare, and some small educational opportunities to learn Greek, German, or English, but they’re still here and still have no idea when they might be able to leave. Their entire lives are put on hold.
It would still be awful if this were the usual state of affairs, but it’s quite the opposite. Most of the families here were relatively well off prior to leaving their homes. They had jobs, houses, cars, and had built real lives for themselves. They were welders, police officers, cab drivers. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was a life of their own and one that they had a certain amount of control over. Now they’re forced to rely on the charity of others and whatever the government is willing to throw their way. What is it like to live in a tent off of military rations after having built an entire life for yourself and your family? Incomprehensible doesn’t even begin to describe my inability to relate.
The individual stories are haunting. A Sunni family in Iraq having their house raided by the Shi’a mafia and their car bombed the next day, taking the life of their infant daughter. A Syrian family living in a village taken over by ISIS with decapitated bodies and heads on stakes on display at the entry checkpoint. A man with his children whose wife went ahead into Western Europe with hopes that he was to follow, only for him to arrive in Greece just after the border has closed, trapping him in a refugee camp without any reasonable expectation of leaving or ever being reunited with his wife again. It seems as if everyone has a story like that and the most harrowing aspect of it all might just be how normalized that state of affairs has become. It’s not hard to see the sadness in people’s eyes as they share the story of what brought them to Greece, but it’s told with a casualness that would usually accompany a discussion of the weather.
The shared suffering is so pervasive that it seems as if there’s no longer even anything extraordinary about it. If even one of these stories happened in the United States, it would be front page news. But, instead, the stories go completely unheard. Every now and then a photo of families being pulled from life boats as they come into shore or of a shock-stricken Syrian boy just recently pulled from a bombed out building goes viral for a few days before completely dropping out of public consciousness. No one cares. At least not really. Maybe that’s harsh, but I know I didn’t really care before I came here. There are so many horrors on the news every day that, at this point, it’s lost any sense of reality.
So now what? I’m more convinced than ever that the situation is irrevocably fucked. Band-aid aid can ameliorate the degradation of living in a refugee camp but it will never solve the problems that cause these camps to exist in the first place. The solution must be political and nothing I’ve heard from anyone from the US, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, or any of the other places I’ve met volunteers from suggests that there’s any chance there’s a political change of heart coming any time soon. The United States is on track to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees into its borders over the course of this year, which is all fine and well, but also minuscule considering the number of families needing homes. The problems feel too distant, the faces look too different from many of our own, and the fears and xenophobia that accompany that disconnect are too real.
I don’t know where I go from here. I feel extremely conflicted about the fact that I currently have the freedom to go wherever I want, as well as a severe sorrow that’s different from just about every other sadness I’ve ever experienced. All of my moments of greatest sadness, real, true, honest to God sorrow that weren’t just intellectual or theoretical, have been exclusively personal. They have been moments of mourning for myself and, essentially, self-indulgent. Even as I’ve been at the camp I’ve had moments of self-pity for the insignificant struggles that are the only difficulties of my life. But this is so much deeper than that. The only other remotely comparable feeling of this sort of sorrow I can think of happened a few years ago at the end of a silent meditation retreat upon hearing that Assad had just begun using chemical warfare against his own people. It physically hurts because I know that, for everything we have done as volunteers and for any impact that we’ve had, it is just a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done.
I could have stayed at Karamanlis longer. I have the time. But I had to go. I would continue to make my significant yet small contribution, but I would still need to leave at some point and can’t imagine feeling any more optimistic than I do now. It’s easy to imagine getting lost in the collective suffering of others. Even during our free time, the other volunteers and I would almost exclusively talk about the refugees, their stories, and their situation. It becomes inescapable. It was emotionally exhausting and I could only do it for so long so, selfishly, I left.
I’d like to continue volunteering my time and energy in any other refugee communities across Europe that will have me. Although I think it will help in some small way, part of that desire is just as selfish as my desire to leave Karamanlis. I need to feel a continued connection with that struggle because I’m afraid of getting lost in the distance of indifference again Now that I’m on my own again with the freedom and financial ability to cross borders and visit beautiful places across Europe it’s easy to imagine sliding back into my own bubble of self-indulgence.
Traveling by myself, I am nearly as free as possible to dictate the terms of my life and my story. This seems to me to be the single greatest privilege that a person can have. I feel a very real sense that my future lays in my hands and just about everyone that I have interacted with in the past month has had that torn away from them. Without a sense that we have some power over our own story, what do we have?