I know it’s been too long since the last time I wrote when I start drafting blog posts in my sleep. It’s been a long week, so I’ll give you the digest version with highlights.
I’ve been doing night shifts at Moria, which is the camp where every refugee must register before they move on. I specifically work at Better Days for Moria, which operates outside the interior compound and is open to individual volunteers. The compound is run by a couple of NGOs and we’re not allowed inside. I like Better Days. It’s an entirely grassroots organization, built and run by international volunteers. We have hundreds of people living, sleeping, eating, and receiving dry clothes every day, and we can handle it. That’s pretty amazing. If you want to read an account of the beginning of Better Days for Moria, you can do so HERE.
I’ve begun heading the Distribution tent at BDFM Night Shift. Night Shift is a funny group of somewhat crazy people who don’t mind turning themselves completely nocturnal. The shift is from 01:00 to 09:30 or so and deals with the problems and functioning of the camp at night. This ranges from sitting around playing cards and making hygiene packs on the slow nights, to completely changing the clothes of up to three or four hundred wet people in a night. Sometimes it’s stressful, sometimes it’s hard, but I always feel good about it, even when I’m telling people over and over that I can’t give them new shoes because theirs are okay and we don’t have enough to spare.
I think I’ve made some of the best friends so far here on Night Shift. Because our schedules are so weird we basically only hang out with each other, so we get very close very fast. We’ve got a great core team right now, with me, four Spanish guys who bring a party everywhere they go, a few French people, a few English, and a few refugees. We’ve got two translators with us right now, Shah and Rami, and between them thy cover at least four or five languages. Shah has been working with BDFM for months, but Rami showed up in a boat a few nights ago and jumped right in. We just celebrated his twenty-first birthday today.
One of the nice things about Night Shift is that if it’s quiet we can really chat and get to know each other. Rami is a Kurdish Iraqi tattoo artist whose story includes two tries at crossing the channel between Turkey and Lesvos. On the first try his boat sank and three people died. He’s a good swimmer and managed to get most of the rest safely onto a Turkish Coast Guard boat. A week later he tried again, and that time he made it, even though he says he was the one driving the boat. It’s fairly typical for smugglers to just dump refugees in a boat and make them drive it, even if they don’t know how. He told me, “I love water, I love swimming, but I hate this sea.” I can’t say I blame him.
There was one night when everything was hard, and everyone cried. The buses never stopped coming and we never sat down for the duration of our eight hour shift. Everyone was wet and various degrees of traumatized, there were kids crying, and we started running out of coats and shoes, the two most common needs. At one point it started to rain. Everything was terrible. After the fiftieth or one hundredth time saying “no, your shoes aren’t broken, you can’t have new shoes,” I went and had a little cry behind the sadly depleted coat rack. It’s hard to tell people they can’t have the things they need. Camille saw me, patted me on the shoulder in support, and went back to helping another family. I pulled myself together and dove back in.
We’ve all cried at one point or another. Some of the BDFM team won’t do Distribution, because it’s too hard to tell people no. It never feels good. These are people who, often, come to us with nothing. They have nothing, or they had everything stolen, or the smugglers threw it in the water to lighten the boat, or or or… the list of possibilities goes on. And yet, when they come to us dry, in shoes that are only a little wet, or with trousers that fit but have mud on the bottoms… we don’t have enough for them. We give them dry socks and pieces of emergency blanket to insulate the wet shoe until it dries. We give them hats and gloves and scarves, we give them long johns if they need them. We only give bags to mothers traveling with little kids.
One young Syrian man came to us two days ago at the end of a difficult shift and donated his backpack. He spoke excellent English, and asked us for a smaller bag, some toiletries, underwear, and spare socks. Then he unpacked his backpack, donated everything in it, handed us the bag, and walked away thanking us. I haven’t seen him since, so I assume he got on a ferry. I hope he makes it to wherever he’s going.
Of course, it’s not all work and no play! Well, it mostly is, with the play sort of mixed strategically in wherever we can fit it, but we also sometimes go out and do interesting local things. Henni and I went to a little circus show held in a local community theatre just a few blocks from our flat. There are a few groups of clowns here, entertaining kids and volunteers, and they put on a free show (in Greek) for whoever wanted to come. Despite not understanding a word, I had a great time. There were pirates, Hades, menacing people on stilts, and I’m pretty sure Sappho (did you know it’s pronounced Sap-fo?) made a singing appearance, heralded by nymphs doing acro-yoga.
It’s been a good week. The only big downside is that this is a volunteering community, and people leave very often. Six people I love have gone in the past six days, friends I expect to keep in touch with, but maybe not see again for years and years. Such is the trouble with traveling. On the plus side, I now have friends to visit all over the world…