Door to door……….25 hours. Tired, didn’t sleep much on the flights home so just need to stay up for the next couple hours then will crash!
Yesterday we played tourists and all of us (except Sara as she had work to do) went to the Acropolis in the morning then we all met up for lunch. Walking home from lunch Amanda spotted one of those escape game places and we spent an hour escaping from the “insane asylum”room. We made it out with in the hour, thanks to Amands’s math skills! We all also had to pack up- although that was the easy part since we all just had carry ons we have been living out of.
For dinner we all met for one last time at the restaurant on our hotel roof top- Rita joined us and a couple of other volunteers who work with CTF were also there. It was a lovely full moon view of the port- a perfect way to end the trip.
It was an honor and joy to work with such beautiful women both inside and out. I honestly don’t think i’ve laughed and cried so much EVER in my life. In the end we visited 10 camps, drove over 1,100 miles, handed out 10 (stuffed) van loads of aid, had many a sing alongs in the van, individually asked Sara between 7-12 times a day what our plans were, laughed, cried, snorted……..one could not have asked for a better group.
We all will be processing this for some time- I feel honored to have had the time I did in Greece to see with my own eyes on the ground what is happening, and in some small way help. Thanks for all the kind words and support-a hearty shout out to the villages at home that helped keep our families running in our absence.
Found out from another aid worker who is staying at our hotel that E2 (port area 2) had indeed been moved, but just down to E 1 -1/2. She said it was mostly peaceful-with only a little resistance. Their NGO was asked to not come back until 11:00AM today instead of their usual 8:00AM arrival. Such is the whim of the Army. They buy and bring down extra food for the kids and mothers.
My guide Laurel aka: Siri/Tramp was not on my side this morning as we drove out to start our day. She had run over the children’s store Bimbo (ok, the real name is Jumbo-but I can only remember Bimbo) to grab some last minute things for the baby shower. Sara had run to a bakery to get some cookies and a cake for the shower and the rest of us were
charged with getting to Starbucks to get some coffee for ourselves and for Katrina at the Warehouse. The latest strategy is to kill her with kindness………….or in our case, with Starbucks coffee. We were going to take a van load of aid to the Kurds and Afghan camps and needed to be ready for the fight. We had packed up some aid when we were there earlier in the week and hid it. We were hoping it still was there.
Because Tramp was not at my side we got mad crazy lost. It was actually funny- we just could not get to where we were supposed to be going- at one point we were going down a street with maybe 1/4″ between the parked cars and our car-eventually we did make it-the bakery when told what the cookies and cake were for gave Sara another cake. Most Greeks are amazing when it comes to this crisis.
We drove straight to the Warehouse- the squat surrounding the area has grown in the last 2 days. Wondering if some of the people from E2 have made their way down here. Our stash was still hidden and Katrina was not even there! We loaded up the van-like LOADED- everyone including me (ok, I only had the pillow from the hotel) had extra stuff at their feet and on their laps.
It was an easy hour drive to Lavrio. Our weather has been lovely- maybe 80 and sunny our whole trip. Very nice. When we arrived at the camp I backed in, and we were greeted by
the people in the courtyard like old friends. No Army at these 2 camps, but there was a Red Cross person. We had the guys unload the van for us after we said hello to everyone. We then sent the English speakers to go and get all the pregnant women. We were told there were 12 pregnant women in the camp. We had “reserved” the tea room-a common area where someone has set up tea and snack sales . Within minutes the women and their children started trickling in. We had the baby bags we had prepared earlier in the week to give to them: a couple undershirt, onesie, hat, socks, wipes, diapers, blankets, mom pads, small gifts for the Mom (no “push”rings). Just the basics.
The tween girls kept trying to get in-the boys would have nothing to do with us. After the bags were passed around we passed around the cake and cookies. The tea room people had made tea for everyone. The small children got suckers, slowly the room filled with more and more women and children. It was a true party. At one point one of the women had 4 of the teenagers come forward and they sang us about 5 songs. Everyone was singing along and clapping. We sang “Lean on Me”-
After a couple hours Danielle went over to the Afghan camp to start cutting hair (she had brought her instruments from home)- they had requested it earlier in the week. I drove the van over (it is literally the next building) and Sara found the camp “leader”. This camp is not so clear as to who is in charge-there is not a central storage area like in most camps. It is also smaller with 17 family units and about 100 people. We eventually got it figured out and all the aid was put into one room-almost immediately people started pulling Sara into their rooms and saying the aid would not be distributed evenly- so of course we got involved.
We walked around making sure all of the aid was distributed. Most was basic: clothing, food, shoes……I had brought the stroller i’d brought from US- one of the families really wanted it-it took some talking but I eventually got it out of the leaders room. I knocked on the door there were 8 men in the room, the stroller was out of sight and I just walked in the room like I was looking for something else and asked about it. Oddly I got all emotional – I choked up with frustration. Frustrated that they were fighting me for a stroller, frustrated that these people were even in this situation. I then asked them what else they needed – there is a person that works loosely with CTF who has been working mostly at the port area- with that closing soon she is looking now to get regular deliveries to the camps instead of these SOS’s that go out and whom ever can runs aid out to them.
Shoes, always the shoes. No one has decent shoes- we did bring 2 huge boxes but it was not enough. The also wanted razors and clothes for the coming hot months. Oil for cooking. I could not promise them these things-but said I would try and make sure that their list would be given to someone who might be able to bring items out to them.
Laurel and Gillan were in a room making friendship bracelets with the young girls of the camp. They were having a great time- the girls picked it up in no time. I sat on a mattress on the floor with the mothers. One woman who looked to be my age was in fact only 32- we find that people look decades older. One of our interpreters (he was 28 but looked 40) told of walking out of Afghanistan across Iraq. He left because he had been a coach and “bad men” told him he had to tell his students that “the government is bad”. So he and 20 other people he knew started walking. He said at one point they traveled at night and had to cross a river with water that rushed up to his neck. He said they put women and children on the men’s back to cross.
Anther young interpreter who was helping Danielle who was cutting hair turned out to be 19. I would have sworn he was 30. His English was excellent- he had spent a year at University. I told him he should study for 1 hour a day. He said “how?”. I said “on your phone”. He said “it got lost on the way to Greece”. Also on it pictures that will never be recovered, contacts lost forever.
We left the camp with lighter hearts after all of the squabbling had died down- but a little sad as this was our last day visiting camps. We are all drained- while uplifting work we are all tired. Anxious to get home and see our families but heavy hearted leaving so many in dire conditions. About 90% of this crisis is literally being handled by volunteers. From Greece, from around the world. We cannot unlearn or unsee what we have experienced this past week.
We made our way to Poseidon Temple along the coast not far from Lavrio- it sits high on a hill with views of the sea and surrounding islands. We had a snack then lounged along the cliffs, sunning our legs and talking. The temple looming near to us. We could see for miles-eventually we all loaded back into the car and made our way to a sea side restaurant just below the Temple grounds. This would be our last night together as a group – tomorrow night we will be joined at the hotel restaurant by all the people who have been helping us Chloe with the baby bags/boxes, Rita from CTF, Fadi from the Warehouse and a couple more. Time has flown.
What a day! We all had to set our alarms to be upstairs for breakfast at 6:00AM- our goal was to leave at 7:00AM to drive 5 hours to Petra, a new camp that had sent out an SOS a couple of days ago for aid. The Warehouse had pulled the aid requested and we were to drive it up. The van was PACKED. The back area and the 3rd row were stuffed with water, baby milk, food,blankets and clothing.
We got on the road about 7:30AM after all was said and done. It was a beautiful drive North of Athens- 10 tolls later we pulled off the expressway and were at the foot of Mount Olympus! We only had GPS coordinates to go off of to find the camp. We wound our way up to the foothills of the mountain-at one point we spotted a camp- tents set up. We did a quick U-turn and asked if this was Petra- they said no- further up the road.
We wound our way up the mountain road, getting glimpses of red poppies, shepherds with sheep and/or goats and the snow covered top of Mount Olympus. We finally saw the sign for Petra and within minutes were stopped by the Army-all of the camps have an Army presence, most also have a police car parked out on the street. We all know the drill- give them our papers (in our case our passports). We then were cleared to head into the camp.
The white tents are a give away always. This time, the tents were set up on the grounds of what used to be an insane asylum. It actually was a beautiful setting- this camp is strictly Yazidis from mostly Iraq. There were about 900 people who had arrived 4 days ago. Once cleared by the Army we were told to drive down to the camp and were met by the NGO who is supporting the camp. 2 young German girls gave us a tour (we basically have determined that this whole crisis is being managed by 25 year olds on holiday doing humanitarian work instead of running from pub to pub) and helped us find the camp leader. Once found he asked us to back the van near their warehouse. I did so and before the van was unloaded the Army showed up with vans and we were told to move. Kind of like when your boss asks you to “jump high” and you say “how high”.
We settled on the hillside- as soon as you stop walking or sit down a child either grabs your hand, or in most cases a child on each hand, or if you are sitting comes and sits in your lap. Our favorite time is when we are fitting mothers with carriers and one of us gets to hold the baby while the other adjusts the carrier on the mom or dad.
Soon the word had spread in the camp and mothers with children started showing up – we all got to work fitting carriers on babies and mothers or sometimes a sibling or a father.
We worked for about 15 min when Sara came up and said we needed to “go immediately”. We were so confused- she was NOT kidding and said “now”. We quickly finished our fittings, threw the carriers we had clipped onto our waists into the van and loaded up to drive away. She was told in very clear language to leave the camp at once by the Army. All NGO’s operating in the camp were being kicked out. Amanda started to cry over the frustration of the situation. Mothers were lined up waiting to be fitted- out of the corner of my eye I saw a boy running towards the van. It was the son of one of the boys whose mother i’d fit a carrier on earlier. In his hand was a piece of paper- he said “yours”, I took a look at it and knew immediately that it was a note from the person whose carrier his mother now had. These carriers have been collected from around the world and mothers have written lovely notes to the new carriers owners- messages of love, support and hope. I told him thru a broken smile trying not to cry that “no, for you-your mother”.
Once again the children were begging us for shoes, they would point to their feet, fitted in
flip flops or they would peel back the broken shoe top and say “shoe”? We all were upset pulling away from Petra- 1/2 of our van was filled with aid we didn’t even have time to unload- so stupid! We quickly decided to try the other camp we had stopped off at earlier.
As we wound our way back into town our mood was somber – we easily found the other camp and asked where the leader was. It seemed to be on the site of an old children’s camp- there were play areas, play structures and open areas. It was so nice-the Army guy was up top by the road and was SUPER nice. He welcomed us and had us back the van into an area and some of the men and boys helped us to unload the rest of the van.
We then set to work fitting carriers. Sara went with the leader of the camp as he announced over the loud speaker that we were here and waiting to start to fit carriers. People came streaming out of the tents. So much fun! For some reason we fitted almost as many Dads as Moms. Soon it was time to head back to Athens as there was a long drive home.
While these camps are mostly nice- running water, w.c.’s, showers. Their isolation ultimately will not be sustainable as these people want to work and settle in. Also that fact that so many are in tents that in 6 months will be horrendous living in because of the cold.
On the way back to Athens we pulled over to take pictures of goats, poppies and a selfie
with Mt Olympus in the background.
We have a therapist with us on the trip-Gillian, she makes sure we are processing what is happening and we all are either journaling or blogging. Kind of throwing up the regurgitated scenes that we have seen, and that can never be unseen. We actually all laugh a lot-like pee your pants laugh-
Dinner was at the roof top restaurant of our hotel- we have a clear view of Port area 2, usually we can clearly the rows of tents-the rumors were true……no tents.
We all have turned into late night owls in our room- I share with 2 fantastic women who each have left 2 kids at home and a husband (not the same husband-Amanda is from Canada-BC and Danielle is from Rhode Island). They have put their lives on hold to bear witness and help in some little way the shit show this refugee crisis is. We are usually up until after midnight posting on social media, writing in journals or playing a few games of Words with Friends at the end of the day.
After breakfast and our daily update from our leader Sara – which we all promptly forgot what she said and in varying ways ask her about another 200 times a day “what is it we are going?” “which camp?”. It drives her crazy. Personally to not be in charge is fantastic for me- a role I could get used to. OK, I do drive but I have Tramp (well der, since I’m the Lady she is the Tramp- team LD!!!) telling me where to turn- how much further, my personal Seri in my ear. And for the record, I have started referring to myself in the 3rd person……
We wound our way around Athens to Chloe’s house- she lives right across the street from the American school and is a transplant from Paris who lived here in Athens in middle school and now is back here 4 years with her 15 year old son. She has a college home stay business she runs from Athens- her new home. It is always fun to see how other people live in other countries. Her flat is fabulous – just like we expected.
the American school and is a transplant from Paris who lived here in Athens in middle school and now is back here 4 years with her 15 year old son. She has a college home stay business she runs from Athens- her new home. It is always fun to see how other people live in other countries. Her flat is fabulous – just like we expected.
She has felt a deep connection to the pregnant and new mothers at the camp-and like many everyday Greece people has taken it upon herself to do something. It was her idea to do the baby bags for mothers just before they go to hospital to deliver. We shopped for her project the other day-she is also hoping to partner with the Finish baby box company to give new mothers a bag of goodies and a box. We were at her flat to stuff 15 bags for 1 of the camps we were to visit today. We were going to deliver 4 bags to mothers who will be giving birth within 2 weeks.
We then loaded into the van and followed Chloe about an hour away to our 1st stop- Oinofyta. It is a new camp (30 people maybe 7 families there 4 days)- where we were delivering blankets and aid to the families. Tents next to the freeway- open field-out in the middle of nowhere with industrial buildings being the closest businesses. There is an abandoned building that is huge- I guess they use it for football/soccer in the evenings.
We parked near a big bus that the 7th Day Adventists had sent that is the medic bus- the actually medic was from Switzerland. He leaves tomorrow but anther person is coming to take his place. Sara (our leader- now nick named Muffy) has been texting him all week. So basically this guy shows up from Switzerland to be a medic in a camp and the next thing he know he is leading the camp. Supposedly 300+ people from the port will be resettled here any day now. This morning during breakfast we saw on local TV in the breakfast room live shots from the port area – the rumors must be true.
As is what happens during most camp or squat visits an English speaker comes forward and is our interpreter the rest of our visit. Today ours were 2 Afghan young girls. When- it turns out they had been at the same camp in Turkey and found themselves settled in the same camp in Greece. Innocently I asked the 1st girl- about her family. She was 16, here with her mom, dad, 2 brothers and a sister. I turn to the 2nd girl, she said she was 13 then her face crumpled, she covered her face and began to sob. Like body heaving sobs. I Gathered her in my arms- all the time thinking of Mae at home, almost same age but vastly different lives. It took her a couple of minutes to say “I am here with my aunt and
uncle and my 2 cousins I do no know where my parents are”. She had just finished tell me she wanted to go to college and be a lawyer to work for women rights. Jesus……..
We went from tent to tent with blankets and women beauty bags from an organization called “Women 4 Women”. Lauren/Tramp was playing volleyball with a group of kids. There were no babies to hand out carriers to. It
was such a difference from most of the camps that we have been to that are bursting at the seams. This camp soon will be too-but for now eerily quiet.
Ritona was a bit easier to find- Chloe had been there many times. It is supposedly “the best” camp in Greece, not many needs. We arrived to a wooded area- from the road you cannot see the camp. We parked the van and followed Chloe to the women and children’s tent. On the walk over we saw the rows of white tents in the clearing of the tall pine trees. We were greeted by a Canadian volunteer who happened to come up from Levos (where the Pope was last week -it has quieted down so she thought she would see what help is needed in the camps). She had just graduated with a degree in nutrition and was appalled by the food that was being provided
to the people from the Army. Starch and carbs- it was the same for all camps. But she
had made a menu for the Army to bid on that included better options, this contract would be in place for 3 camps for 9 months, and she was hoping to hear if Army was able to meet her list. One day you’re all like “i’d like to go to Greece and help with the crisis” and the
next thing you know you are negotiating contracts for meals for over 2,000 people!
Chloe has a list of all 12 pregnant women and their due dates. We were tasked with going to the tent where the woman lived and giving them their bags of new baby swag. We always double or triple up when we leave our group- we found the 1st woman- she was going in next week-this would be her 5th child. Some of the tents have small little sheltered rooms added on by using blankets for walls, branches/trees from the surrounding forest for support and rope to keep it all together.
The location was such that the closest market was 5km away and the taxi ride was over $50USD round trip. Some people take 1/2 a day to walk, some pay a taxi and others just eat the rations given out. We were only able to give out 3 of the baby swag bags. We did get to play with the kids some, hold some babies and hand out a few bags. One of the pregnant women had already returned to Athens- it will be hard to find a new life in the middle of a forest, surrounded by farms miles away from the closest mini-mart. People are bored, children run wild, we met a pregnant woman who was an Arabic teacher back in Syria- I asked her how long ago she had come to Greece she said “we crossed in the death boat 2 weeks ago-you know the death boat?”. She was one of the lucky ones who did not leave a son, daughter, husband…….to the depths of the Mediterranean.
We headed out from the hotel about 9- we were going to go to the Warehouse to work a bit then load up to bring things to a squat in town later today and for the 2 camps we will be visiting tomorrow.
It had only been a day since we’d been to the Warehouse and in that time a squat of about 50 tents had sprung up at the entrance- we made a note to ourselves to stop by after our work in the Warehouse to fit carriers on the newly arrived families.
We have become the “shoe girls”. We just automatically go back to the far reaches where the shoes are to be sorted. It is a crap job. While 3 of us were sorting the other 3 were pulling items for our squat visit today and our 2 camp visits tomorrow. Katrina runs the day to day operation at the Warehouse-Fadi is also there, he is the face of the Warehouse-he also collects and delivers aid to the camps. Sometimes in his van, sometimes in huge pallets loaded onto semis.
Katrina is about 65 years old and is one who rarely finds joy in life. It has been my personal goal to butter her up so that she doesn’t give us a hard time when we pull the aid we need. I know, crazy as it sounds-she is VERY protective of the Warehouse. Today’s treats were scissors and Easter chocolates (Easter is not celebrated here until May 1). 2 days ago I brought her cookies and coffee, but the 2 bags of coffee disappeared. Fadi always has a smile-if in any small way you or your organization is looking for a way to work with the refugees and perhaps the camps are scary to you- please consider work in the Warehouse-
There are about 55,000 refugees in Greece today. Many refugees are reluctant to go into camps because they ultimately want to settle in Germany or Sweden- we have noticed an increase of police activity and presence the past few days. The rumor is that the refuges from the port area will be settled in the Ikea pod camp-Skaramagas in the next few days.
We were stopped by the police 2 times near the Warehouse- the word on the street is that the police will be
rounding up the squatters and putting them in camps. On the way out of the Warehouse area (used to be the domestic airport- 3 of the huge buildings house refugees, there is a squatters camp and basketball stadium used for aid donations) we stopped to put carriers on the new families in the squatters camp. But on the way there we saw some families walking and stopped and asked if they wanted carriers. We cannot just hand them out- we fit them on the mom, dad or sibling first. Many of the carriers have protein bars stuffed inside with a little letter from the donor and sometimes a little treat. I especially like fitting a sibling and then taking their hand and placing it on the pouch with the donations. You don’t want them to open it then and there- as there is usually a crowd around and chaos reign. But the universal sign for “shhhh” works every time. Their eyes light up when they feel the treats in the porch. A boy of about 10 wanted to be fit- but his sibling was back at the camp-he was wearing mens’s shoes literally about 2X larger then his own feet. I had young girl 13 helping me fit carriers, she spoke a little English-it breaks our hearts to see these young kids being robbed of their childhoods. One of our team members broke down today- silent sobs that cut thru all of us. A small refugee boy about 8 had tapped her on the shoulder while she was fitting a carrier and asked “are the borders opening soon?”
My head spins sometimes from the whiplash speed we enter back into the real world from the refugee world. For lunch we followed Rita along the coast to a fabulous sea side restaurant. We all put our pasty white feet into the Mediteranian – ate fantastic Greek food and laughed. Laughed a lot. After lunch we stopped for about 10 minutes at a spring fed lake- it is used for restorative purposes- it was packed. It looked like 80% of Athens was out and about today. Either driving or stopping by the sea.
sea side lunch
We had about 45 minutes at the hotel before we had to go downtown Athens to deliver some aid to a squat of 150 living in 2 houses. An SOS had gone out yesterday so we brought carriers too. Parking is NOT fun in downtown Athens- when the team entered the house most of the families were on the 2nd floor. When we meet a new community an English speaker usually comes forward to help us. We all were identifying red vests and have a bunch of carriers strapped to our mid sections. Today a young man greeted us-“But first-I welcome you” and offered tea.
We met the beautiful Rita (who is the Athens contact for CTF) and 2 of her volunteers at the port this morning. No improvement with sun light, inhumane living conditions.
Our weather has been beautiful-80 and sunny everyday. Soon it will be in the 90’s and 100’s. Life on the docks is not sustainable, rumor is that these people will be moved to Skaramagas which is the camp we visited today-our van was loaded with supplies that had been packed for us and that we loaded into the van yesterday.
We followed Rita along the coast for about 20 minutes, the location seemed remote from any commercial business, also on the sea. It turns out that this land is owned by the Greek Navy and the camp will be run by them as well.
Very official getting into the camps-we have to show our passports, papers listing the supplies we have are stamped, one saved for the camp, one returned to the Warehouse. This camp has only been around for a week or so. Large containers set row upon row. There are supposedly 1060 refugees living here, but you can see by the construction that many more will be added.
The pods are air conditioned, with electricity, a living room (with a stove), a bedroom, and a bathroom. Actual beds! Not just mattresses piled on the floor. We were quickly surrounded by kids and moms when they saw us pull up. Everyone was looking for diapers and milk. Thankfully we had the diapers but no milk. Most of the refugee’s like to start their day like us, milk in their coffee and a little milk for the children. Should be easy-no?
We handed out a little aid- but could tell the situation could go south anytime so we closed the doors and drove around to the blue building where Rita and her volunteers were helping the 2 Navy guys hand out aid to over 1,000 people. Who.have.nothing.
A CRAZY system. While I was in there a representative from the UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) there with, and I kid you not, a notebook and a pencil taking notes. No aid. No workers. A pen and a notebook. This crisis is the 2nd largest population shift IN THE HISTORY OF THE PLANET and it is, by in large, being run by volunteers from around the planet. The women point to their clothes and say- children. They want children’s clothes, shoes, diapers, milk. VERY basic needs. A Warehouse is less then 10 miles from here FULL of aid from around the world. There were 10’s of 1000’s of pairs of shoes. Our little cargo van is measly band aid on a gushing wound.
As is our mandate, we handed out carriers. LOTS of carriers. This baby was so cute! The mother had taken the time to put a head band on the baby- the Waldorf mom in me was all like: WHERE IS THAT BABIES HAT!!! Baby just sat their nonplused while we adjusted straps, and pads.
We constantly had a band of children following us from house to house- carrying our large duffles of baby carriers. There were 2 boys about 10 who took it upon themselves to carry the huge duffles around making sure we had access to them between fittings. They would shoo away the littler kids who would try and help. Not mean, just firm.
They were the perfect mix of cute with a dash of naughty-the one in the green jacket would “take” my clip and they with grand magical gestures make it reappear-I gave them gum at one point and the rest of the kids would want some, he would point to my vest pocket with the gum- look up at me with those huge eyes and put one finger up- “just one mother, just one”. The guy in the orange shirt wanted me to return with a bike in the worse way. He kept saying “tomorrow scooter?” then he would pantemime riding a bike.
This little love was one of the 1st carriers we fit- it was just Mom and her 5 kids- since we were invited into her home we were able to give all the kids little treat from our packs. This is not possible with large crowds around- it would be impossible to give them all something so we love these moments. The mom was so grateful – at one point she leaned back and grabbed a box, about the size of a small moving box. Inside were 5 oranges and 5 juice boxes. Literally the only food in the house. She insisted we both take a juice box-we politely declined. She was insistent, we all finally agreed that we would share a box between the 2 of us. To have nothing and to give- gladly, with a smile.
One of our team members was in a family’s home, there was a girl about 25 who spoke excellent English-she was telling Lauren that she had been in medical school in Syria and would like to help by translating-everyone is bored. Even the adults. These camps are often isolated – the only visitors are the aid groups who communicate via Facebook sites as to what is happening at which camp, who needs what, the camp contact…..if a new camp or squat appears an SOS goes out as to what is needed.
Our plan is to return to the same camps we were at yesterday on Tuesday with items for the 12 pregnant women at the camp. So we spent a couple of hours at a mega children’s store near to our hotel loading up goody bags to bring to the women and children. We all had been given money to buy things for the refugees by family and friends and this is one of the projects we are using the money on. We filled 4 carts with goodies for the pregnant Moms and games and balls for the older kids in the 2 camps.
Today a mother came up to us asking for books “ABC” she kept saying, and pantomiming writing-she wanted supplies to teach her child to read and write. Many of these kids have not been to school in years. And by the look of the pace of things, it may be some time before they are back in school.
Breakfast at the hotel is provided- it is in a small room with curtains drawn to the bright morning light and an 80’s music track for back ground music. We meet there every morning not only for breakfast, but for our leader Sara to give us a run down of what will be happening that day. While we are busy in our rooms looking at our Instagram feeds, checking Facebook and decompressing-Sara is in her room figuring out what our week will look like- chasing rumors of new squats (places where refugees have just set up camp-sometimes in the middle of the city, out in the open) who need support, which camps are open to aid groups and which camps have not already been visited by CTF.
To day we learned we would be visiting a camp about an hour away called Lavrio. We had been asked to stop at the warehouse and pick up some aid that the camp directer had requested. They had heard we were going to Lavrio the next day so when we were working yesterday they asked if we could stop by first. Of course.
The van got loaded to the top! Between our 2 huge bags of baby carriers and the aid we were literally stuffed.
It was a nice drive down mostly 2 story roads- the sun was shining, we would get glimpses of the sea at the beginning and end of our trip. We arrived to what looked like an old school- “U” shaped with a courtyard in the middle. This camp had was made up of all Kurds from Syria who had arrived in Greece about 2 months ago. The different school rooms were each given to a family who in turn made them homey with beds along the walls, capet on the floor and curtains on the window- a sense of pride was evident in the care taken to make this home. We were asked repeatedly to sit down and have some food and/or tea.
It is customary to take your shoes off before you step into a home- so the halls where a smattering of shoes, kicked off on the way inside.
We met with the director of the camp in a community room – we were offered tea, sugar was added. My kind of people! This woman here has 10 children and is in Greece with one of her 5 daughters and her grandchildren- one of which was a beautiful 15 year old-she walked with a limp and a cane, her lower leg was swollen to what looked like a very painful level.
We then split up between the 6 of us into 3 groups and went out to find babies-seriously, what is more exciting. The older kids and a couple of the adults who could speak English came with us. The first baby we fit was about 14 months old- she was so cute. The hugest biggest blue eyes! All smiles and coos-
Her mother while not able to tell us in English how happy she was, her smile told us everything she could not. We then went down the 3 floors of rooms and someone would go before us and call out to see if there were any babies in the rooms-if they were we their rooms we were invited inside or, out in the hallway fit the parent with the carrier. Sometimes there were a couple of kids in which case we would fit both the mother AND the father. Always such amazing smiles from both the kids and the parents.
After a couple of hours we met in the courtyard- Sara had heard that in the building next to this one was a building filled with families from Afghanistan.
So 3 of us went over there to fit carriers. This population had only arrived within the month so were not as settled, but they obviously cooked with garlic because the whole building smelled amazing!!! The different groups are separated in the camps – better for all involved.
The families were so warm, the fathers were always there also wanting to be fit with a carrier- in our last room, the mother had a small boy go and get a girl who turned out to be 18. She wanted her to translate. Apparently little aid had gotten to them, there were adults without shoes, or shoes with holes in them, not many clothes for the adults or the children. The 18 year old translated a list – pants, shoes, sheets, socks, hair dye (the mothers request- even with a head scarf on, she wanted those roots covered) …… the warehouse is STUFFED with aid…..but no real way except volunteers packing, sorting then driving the aid to the different camps. Insanely unjust- we promised to return in 5 days as the Kurd camp had also given us a list of things they needed.
We returned to the Kurd camp to find our other team mates playing with the kids- so fun to see the smiling happy faces- well there were a few tears but not many.
When we first arrived in the Kurd camp I noticed a boy about 10 holding his arm up- we were asked if we could transport him back to Athens to see a Dr with a X-ray machine to get it set. Sara asked and permission was denied-the long arm of insurance reaches even to refugee camps in small town Greece. I had a bandana on me and fixed him a very basic sling to at least keep the arm from moving- soon a car arrived to drive him into town. The Red Cross had been called 2 times the previous day, no one came.
We were asked repeatedly if the boarder was open- one. big. huge. rumor mill. These people are going to be in these camps/squats for a very long time. The latest news from Levos-where the Pope visits today is that the newest route has the refugees landing in Itlay- Sicely about 2,000 a day. Levis is the island in the south that was getting the vast majority of refugees until about a month ago when ships started intercepting the rafts in the ocean and returning people (illegally) back to Turkey.
We were running out of time as we had to meet back at the warehouse to reload the van for the camp we are visiting in the morning. So we said our goodbyes- and headed back to Athens. When we arrived at the warehouse all the items tomorrows camp had requested had been pulled so all we had to do was to load up the van once again. Back to the hotel for about an hour then headed to a sea side restaurant for dinner- it was very good. But mind bending to go from a camp with people who don’t have shoes to dinner on the sea. Life does not make sense……
So the Greeks had an old airport……well really two (one domestic, one International), and when they got the Olympics a couple years ago they built a shiny new airport and used the old airports to build venues for the Olympics. So the building that housed the basketball games is now simply know as the Warehouse.
At first glance- it is overwhelming and crazy. But as the time during the day wore on, we could see the order. We were assigned to take already sorted boxes, confirm their content and pile them up against a wall, we were sorting mens and women’s winter clothing. There were a couple of other volunteers that would bring us the boxes and we would take boxes out that were not labeled correctly and these boxes would be placed in the area they were needed.
There were about a dozen volunteers working, languages from all over the world. Slowing going thru the donated boxes, sorting and placing items in the correct box to be given to the refugees at some point. And here is where I will suggest to you (and me too…….totally guilty). The next time you are getting a box to send to be donated, please don’t include those plastic shoes with the broken strap-well only one of them since your darling daughter lost the other one, or the t-shirt stained red down the front from throw up. These items were not worth shipping around the world, only to be thrown out.
While we were there a huge semi truck was loaded with pallets of clothing, food…….and was going to one of the camps up by the Macedonia border. It is the camp that has been in the news with the tear gas attacks that have happened 2 times this past week (Idomeni). *Mom we will not be visiting this camp-I promise.
One of the volunteers we met at the warehouse was once herself a refugee from Kenya. Rosemary and her 3 children joined her husband here in Athens 6 years ago. 3 months after she arrived here she got the phone call that her husband had been struck by a car and killed. She was so beautiful- her spirit was amazing. She felt that she had been helped so much as a new refugee in Greece when she arrived that she gives back now by feeding 200 people 2 times a week. She also realized that with so many orphans in Kenya, and that she owned a house there not being lived in, she charged her mother in law with hiring someone to live with 6 kids who were either orphans or living with elderly grandparents who were not able to afford to send them to school (school while free in Kenya, the students still need money for school uniforms and books). She sends back to Kenya about $60USD a month and is able to make a difference in those children’s lives. She works as a nanny here in Athens and hopes to travel for the first time back to Kenya this year when she expects to finally get her papers so that she can go back and meet “her kids” in Africa.
We ended up working for most of the day- eventually I ended up sorting the children’s shoes. I’m hoping that moving forward that all groups spend at least a day here sorting, as this job will NEVER be finished with a dozen or so volunteers. Anyone looking for a place to volunteer in Athens this is it- they will need help for a very long time!
For dinner we took the metro into the heart of Athens and met Chloe who is a French woman living here in Athens and has decided on her own to work with the pregnant women and newborns. As we were having dinner with Chloe and hearing about her dream of providing baby boxes to new mothers and babies (like they do in Finland). Unbeknown to us at that dinner Carry the Future has partnered with an organization that will be providing baby boxes to the camps in Jordan. The Universe is good, and all providing!
We had a practice session trying on carriers with each other before we hit our first camp tomorrow.
I have been assigned to be the DD (designated driver) so enjoying driving these beauties around in our big ass 12 passenger van filled with aid-
All of our checked baggage is for the baby carrier that Carry the Future gives us – so everything we wear and all the refugee loot we want to give away goes into our carry-ons
The flights were uneventful- flew from Phoenix to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Paris then Paris to Athens. I’m all like PLENTY of time in Paris to do a little duty free shopping……WRONG. By the time I wound my way from 1st flight to the 2nd, I was the last one to the gate in Paris- but did make the flight! Slept about 5 hours on the long leg and about another hour the 2nd- so feeling rested. Arrived in Athens about 4:30pm local time- went straight to the hotel and met our rock star team. The 6 of us are divided between 2 rooms in a basic (but very clean and fantastic location to ports) hotel.
We sat around and our leader Sara (who was here a couple months ago) gave us a rough overview of the next week, we were also joined by Rita who works with CTF and is a lovely local woman who has a deep respect and love of the refugees. She works for a multi national during the week and spends her evenings and weekends with the refugees mostly in the port area.
Our hotel is located about a block from the port/piers- after a great dinner we all loaded into the van Sarah rented (this will be our transportation for the week) and drove to the pier areas where there are still some refugees who have yet to be re-settled into camps. We will be visiting the camps during the week, and since Rita has worked with these families for months I imagine we will be running down there some evenings to check-in. Rita has developed a relationship with many of the families and even took a family of 20 to the zoo last weekend.
The pier area is well lit and 3 (of the 12) of the piers had camps set up…..At 2 of the piers there were buildings housing families-imaging an area about the size of 2 basketball courts, sectioned off by grey blankets provided by the UNHCR, each family has an area- lights are blazing, kids are running around. As if they were home, shoes are removed before you enter the area or tent- I saw a mother sweeping her blankets, this is her home.
Mostly this crisis is being managed by volunteers from Greece and around the world- literally people, putting their lives on pause and coming to Greece and Turkey to work with the refugees.
When we arrived there were lines of people waiting for dinner (it was 8PM), women in one line, men in the other. Everyone was given what looked like a curry, a piece of bread and an orange. A volunteer organization from China had about 5 volunteers that were showing a movie- the kids were LOVING IT! Many of these kids have been on the move for months/years. No school, boredom reigns. The older siblings often are in charge of the littles.
We interacted with the groups, felt a little hesitant at first- like I was invading their new normal…….but smiles and hugs are universal- the children want to be picked up, swung around and just loved on. At one point a wave of sadness swept over me…….I cannot imagine living like this, the stories these people will hold in their hearts for the rest of their lives. And yet, there were smiles, welcoming gestures to enter their living areas a sense of welcoming in what is a very bad situation.
First off, it has been a great birthday week- a college friend and her husband were visiting from Pittsburgh so that was an added bonus! Yummy birthday dinner at Pizzeria Bianco with friends and family- seriously feeling the love. Mae was to tired to attend after 3, count them THREE soccer games this week, with few subs she played most of the games and for her that was more than ENOUGH!
Dinner’s, lunches, breakfasts, spa-ing…….all was good. So far the 50’s have not been that scary……..it just gets better!
In 48 hours will be on my way to meet my team in Athens for a humanitarian mission for: Carry the Future (CTF): . Like many people a mom in Los Angeles felt compelled to do something while watching the devastating Syrian war unfold in images on social media. Her action was to have a baby carrier drive to send baby carriers to the refugees as they landed in Greece. This organization is 6 months old and has already sent 7 teams of volunteers to hand out and fit carriers on refugees since it’s founding and has collected over 10,000 carriers. I will be part of team 8- 5 women from around the US and 1 from Canada who leave on April 12. We will be the 2nd to the last team- for the foreseeable future- as the refugee crisis has changed, so to have the needs.
Initially our team was going to meet the ferries as they came into Athens from the islands where the refugees land and were processed. Once in Athens the refugees would start the long trek into the EU, away from the ravages and war and towards a future of hope. With the closing of the Macedonia boarders a couple of weeks ago- we were taxed with the job of supporting the 4,000+ refugees stuck in tents and out in the open in the pier area of Athens. Last week most of those refugees were resettled into camps (these are very basic camps with tents set on gravel)- scattered in and around Athens. So now our job will be driving around in a van crammed with baby carriers and visiting the surrounding camps to fit carriers and distribute aid.
Part of our job is to be a mule for the organization- our checked baggage will be filled with packed baby carriers and we will only have our carry-on to have our clothes for 10 days and items to give out to the refugees. I plan to bring 2 carry-0ns, a stroller (to give away) and a backpack.
This was me with all the refugee loot scattered wondering how it all was going to fit into my carry on’s! Well not Georgie………i’ve told Rob i’m expecting no less than 6 photo’s a day from him of the dogs. I keep thinking of things and adding them to either the list or the bags.
When I first heard about CTF it really touched my heart- I too felt this is something I can do to help these people who have left behind their lives in search of a better, hopeful future for their children. And maybe a part of my desire to go to Greece is to bear witness to this unfolding human nightmare and in some small way make a little bit of a difference in the lives of these people who have seen unspeakable horrors, yet had the courage to move forward toward a better life for themselves and their children.