The Humans in the Refugee Camps: Why We Need to Take Responsibility

December 10, 2015 ~ Demetra Szatkowski
an Iraqi baby in his hat from distribution

an Iraqi baby in his hat from distribution

I have neglected to write for a few days and so the stories are all starting to jumble up inside my head.

The 13-year-old boy who spoke such good English that he helped us translate and brought all the volunteers soup and tea.

The Syrian man who told me he was a lawyer and his wife was a doctor and so he does not want to sleep here in these conditions. Why can’t he buy a plane ticket now? I don’t know, I said. Those are the rules.

The men and babies sleeping outside in the cold on the freezing concrete near registration. With only one blanket each.

The way the camp is changing now and more big tents are being built and so the clothing distribution has changed. It’s now inside a big container with a window out front, and railings to try to keep people in a moving snake-like line. I tried to explain to the people around me that I didn’t think this was a good idea. “It just won’t work,” I said.

I was told by the man building the railings that he has been doing this for festivals for years and that he knows what he’s talking about. I was also told by a boy from Canada who arrived two days ago and has “9 years experience” and was in the military that he knows better than me and that this is what we need. Honestly, I was totally shut down each time I spoke.

Side note: most volunteers are amazing people. There are also a lot of little ego wars going around, along with sexism and (surprisingly) racism. More on that another time, in another post.

My problem with the walls and the little windows and the rails is that all it does is create this “us and them” mentality. We need to keep them in line. We need to control them. We need them to behave a certain way. We need this big barrier with this tiny little window. We need 10 volunteers to do the job that two of us were doing before. 

It didn’t work, by the way. It was chaos the first day and it was even worse the second. Men were pushing and yelling and jumping over the ropes and crushing each other.
And the worst part? The camera man who appeared at that moment. I could see it in the headlines: “refugees rioting for clothes.” My friend and I yelled at him to leave. Don’t you care about them? We shouted. Don’t you care at all?

Anyway, the chaos was mostly our fault. Not understanding the psychology of it, we had closed all day because of moving and let the crowd build up. We forced people into lines. We made it seem like there wasn’t enough supply and that we were afraid.

The man who built the lines came by and started to tell us the only problem was that we needed more volunteers for crowd control. “We can’t spare that many people,” I said. “There just aren’t that many volunteers and it’s not sustainable.
Take the rails away. Let us do it how we did before.”

He refused to listen to me for a good thirty minutes until another (male) volunteer agreed with me.

They moved the rails.

It caused chaos. We still had just one rail going straight across and everyone pressed up against it, yelling and reaching for things. We started handing things out quickly but it just didn’t stop. It was better than before, but it was too late and I didn’t know how to diffuse the situation.

A woman came by. “Let’s put them in a line,” she said. “They will go in a line.”
I was super stressed and running around and semi-yelled, “if you want to try you can but it has to happen quickly because this is just crazy.”

But she said calmly, “it’s okay.” And she started to talk super gently and quietly and as she spoke the whole crowd just started to quiet down and she said “do you notice how the energy is shifting? We need to shift the energy.” And she was right.

We were able to move people gently into lines – without rails – and everybody relaxed and that was where we stayed for hours.

*****

I’ve adjusted a lot more to being here. It feels like there are two different things to adjust to; figuring out how to live in Greece and learning how to volunteer.

I’ve figured out the washing machine and have become comfortable hitchhiking. I know where some good restaurants are and know where to buy my groceries. I have learned to work sometimes 17-hour shifts. I have learned to accept the fact that I am constantly freezing and hungry.

All of this makes the littlest moments even more important. Other volunteers bought a few drums and a guitar, and we gave it to boys sitting around a fire. We heard songs from Afghanistan and Iran and Morocco. It was so beautiful to see everybody smile and laugh and sing together, and to hear the different languages as everyone tried to communicate with one another.

A troupe of clowns have been coming every day, too, which is so totally bizarre and out of place that it also seems to fit right in. Watching them, so silly among the rocks and the dirt and the filth, making people laugh in such awful conditions, it really seemed to me that this is what circus must have originated as. Something not bound by any rules of appropriateness or safety. Something that is just pure absurdity to bring a smile to people’s faces.

*****

I worked the night shift in the tea tent a couple days ago with a girl who is also from America. There was a constant flow of people all night long. I discovered that many refugees end up not sleeping at night. It’s so cold that many sit by their fires and talk all night long, and fall asleep during the day when it’s warmer.

As Amy and I were serving chai, a boy from Afghanistan came up to the door. While we were getting him his drink, he asked where we were from. Usually, me saying I’m from America gets an impressed reaction. This time, when we said America, he just kind of glanced down.

“Oh,” he said. “America killed my father.”

He explained that the attacks on Afghanistan by Bush had killed his father in 2004. “Bush was very bad to us,” he said.

It was a really friendly interaction – it wasn’t like he held us responsible for the actions of our country – but I just can’t explain what that feels like. To to have someone casually tell you that their father was killed in a bombing. To know that it was your country that did that. To feel guilty even though it’s not your fault. To know that many people at home wouldn’t care that this boy lost his father because of our wars.

It makes the stories real. It makes the statistics real.

Amy told me that she had met quite a few refugees who had signed up to be translators with the US Army. When they signed up, the US promised them a safe passage out of the country if they helped us out. One man had been waiting for his application to go through for more than two years, while the US ignored it. He never heard back, and ended up taking the risky journey across the sea instead. It seems it’s pretty common for our country to go in, use people, and then leave them to figure it out.

And nobody knows stories like that, because very few meet the people that it’s happened to. Nobody talks about it.

*****

I got a lot of negative, rude comments on an article written about me in the Citizen’s Voice recently. Many of them from people who have never met me, claiming that I hate America and how dare I insult their beloved country.

I don’t hate America. There are a lot of things about America that I love and that I think are great. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of things wrong with it. There are things wrong in every country in the world. America is not an exception.

The thing I have the problem with the most is the exact thing that those comments on that article displayed with such arrogance: many citizens and leaders in America have a view of the world that is self-centered, self-serving, and racist. Our policies and our actions tend to symbolize that.

You can love something and criticize it at the same time. I think America has a responsibility to be better. And that starts with us.