Not much sleep last night- but with a cup of coffee was ready to hit the road! We indeed had a lovely room across from the crashing sea- we had a great breakfast and headed off in our loaded vans to the 1st of 3 stops today. We had some phone business to attend to, the CTF phone we were given to use was not letting us open it and my extra phone with a Greek SIM card had me locked out. We found the 2 different carriers for the phones within steps of each other and were all set to hit the road. First a stop at a couple of bakeries to grab snacks for the road.
The winding road up to Petra, a camp of Yiziti on the site of what once was a psychiatric hospital. The drive was breath taking with a zig zagging route up a mountain. This would be my 3rd time visiting this camp- in March the population was 450, today 1450. The growth was staggering. Where once were neat rows of UNHCR tents was now an additional miss match of tents set up on every flat surface. Our goal was to check on the baby boxes that had already been delivered to the camp to see how they were being used, what was working and what was not.
First thing was to unload our loaded down vans with the aid we had packed the day before in Athens. Our contact Emma was gracious and kind- she works for an NGO that supports the camp- she quickly found a resident who led us to a number of camps where babies resided. As it has rained the night before we traipsed over muddy paths, slipped down hand cut out stairs between different levels of the camps and jumped over running open lines of water. Always with a child’s hand in ours.
At one point I swore I saw a hoof print in the mud, but thought I must be seeing things- only to find out later that wild boars come into the camp at night. Imagine meeting one of them on the way to the port-a-potty half way across camp in the dead of the night. We visited about a half dozen tents- dinner was being cooked over open fires made in discarded oil cans. The air rang with sounds of “my friend” being called to you from the children, from many directions- always said with a huge smile and usually with a request to follow them to see something they wanted us to see. To meet their mothers, to oooh and aaah over smaller siblings. Smiles, so many smiles. The living conditions are so much less than human it is hard to describe. Epically horrible, soul tearing.
The tents we saw were neat and orderly, with blankets stacked against the walls of the tent, used at night to ward off the soon to be killing cold. Supposedly this camp will be moved down off the mountain as the roads will be impassable with the coming snows. It was supposed to happen 6 months ago……..nothing yet.
We are so fortunate to have 2 professional photographers with us- Rachel is from CO and specializes in children’s photography. Tariq Tarey is originally from Somalia, he himself a refugee as a child. He takes portraits of refugees……huge haunting images. Tariq set up a make shift photo studio- is white sheet backdrop taped to the side of a school building. His subjects were mostly men and boys- they would pose, mostly not smiling. Eyes burning into the camera. At one point he asked for some women models. I saw a pregnant woman walking, about 7 months, walking with blankets balanced on her shoulder and carrying 3 bags of winter clothes in her other hand. I motioned for her to follow me, “no, no” was her answer. With a smile. “Pleassssseeeee” I said………..I took her blankets and bags. She was wearing a head scarf. Tariq is able to speak Arabic. Discussions were happening…………we could not follow the words, but the actions spoke much much louder than any words. With encouragement from the surrounding men we saw her defiantly fling her head scarf into the group of men. Her stare into the camera was breathtaking- you could feel her energy burning into the camera. Tonight I learned that she had been a sex slave- a common occurrence among Yiziti women in their war torn home lands. The child she carried was not conceived in love.
As we were driving away from the camp one of the men came to speak to our car- Tariq translated- the message was loud and clear. “Please tell the world that we are here- that we need help, do not forget us.” Soul crushing words when we know that less than 1% of the worlds refugees will ever make it to America. The children want a hand to hold, they have requested marbles, socks and warm clothing. In that order……..their requests delivered with a “my friend”, a huge smile, trusting eyes looking up at you. These are the faces and voices of the refugees.
We left the camp, all of us changed. Our next stop was a much smaller camp that in March was full with 450 refugees in tents spread out over a summer camp facility. Today just 45 refugees call this home- Kurds. All have moved into the camp main building- out of the cold in anticipation of a soon to be winter.
Our final stop was with a new NGO comprising of 5 very ambitious and lovely Brits the have worked with refugees in France and now in Greece. Their warehouse lacked electricity or heat, but their commitment to the refugees and this crisis were fantastic to see. It gave us all hope that perhaps not all is lost- I look forward to watching them grow and expand- their mission is one of pure love and light. Both of which are much needed in these camps.
We arrived at our hotel for the next 3 nights after getting lost only a few times- we found a restaurant near by that was owned by a Greek man who also lived in Casa Grande for 15 years. Such a small world. Tomorrow we will go to the warehouse where the baby boxes have been delivered and start getting those put together for distribution that will take place the rest of our trip. Hope in the new lives that will fill these beds.