The trouble with being a volunteer is that you are stuck being the “messenger” in that age old phrase about “don’t shoot the messenger”. During my first few days in Piraeus I was the one who had to say no to the heavily pregnant woman who wanted to borrow a bucket to do laundry for her family. I was the one who made a three-year-old cry when I held him back as he tried to run out in front of a car to chase his ball, likely his only toy, which was promptly crushed by a large truck. I am the one who had to say no to the strong smelling man who came and tried to discretely ask for deodorant….It is psychologically so difficult as a volunteer because after months of mentally preparing to help the refugees and ease their suffering, you end up in the position of being the one who repeatedly denies them everything.
When I first arrived at the port it was not the sheer chaos and mayhem that I had expected. It is a large enough place that it does not feel “overcrowded”. I found an information tent and asked if there was anywhere nearby that needed help and was directed to the warehouse. I spent my first day sorting and folding clothes and then we did a distribution. People had to line up and then tell us what they wanted, we would bring it out and then they could either take it or leave it. Needless to say we had plenty of things that no one needed or wanted and never enough of the ones that they did, which didn’t surprise me because I would have been hard pressed to find anything that I would have dreamed of wearing in the fifteen woman’s boxes. Everyone wanted us to go back in and look again, but we already knew that we were out of jeans (in normal sizes) and leggings. The worst was watching the look on the teenagers’ faces as you paraded a bunch of hideous clothes in front of them. Many people only have one outfit and are hoping for another one so that they can do some laundry. I think that of the twenty-odd women I served only two actually received an item that they were satisfied with. Re-reading that I realize it makes it sound like the women were being pickier than the men. They weren’t especially, but men and women line up separately for distributions since there is a lot of pushing and jostling and the female volunteers usually serve the women. Meanwhile on the men’s side the two lines had degenerated into a blob of people swarming at the fence waving their arms and shouting out what they wanted. With that kind of chaos it didn’t take long before a fight started, which meant that we all retreated into the warehouse, closed the door and told everyone to disperse and come back in a few hours.
Today started with a lot of stress for both volunteer and refugee about not knowing what the day would bring. At 10 am the rumour was that the police wanted to port to be cleaned out by the end of the day, by force if necessary. To anyone in a position of authority I offer the following advice; Think about how a large group of desperate people in a precarious situation might deal with these kinds of rumours. With the closure of the Macedonian border and the new EU-Turkey deal there is already a lot of tension because refugees don’t understand why they can’t keep travelling and are worried that even if they arrived before the cutoff day they may still be deported. In addition, a lot of the Afghans are worried that other countries will do like the FYROM and suddenly decide that Afghans are no longer welcome. Needless to say, this does nothing to ameliorate existing tensions between Syrians and Afghans. Why would refugees want to leave for parts unknown in a foreign country to be in a camp that is run by an army, especially given the high likelihood of their having already had negative experiences with an army?
All morning we frantically prepared hygiene packs for everyone to take to their new camps. It always feels very unfair because you know that as you keep making the bags there is less and less inside. You start out with two toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, shaving cream, soap, shampoo, pads and wet wipes. By the end you are down to a little chunk of unwrapped soap, a foil emergency blanket and 3 sanitary pads- without knowing whether it will go to a man, a woman or whole family. In the end, busses arrived, waited for people to get on, and then when no one did the bus drivers got in a snit and drove away. No one wants to go anywhere else because people who are unsatisfied with the camps keep returning to the port and therefore all the feedback that refugees at the port are getting regarding camps tends to be negative. The camps have been quickly constructed and inhabited before most of them were really ready, with no electricity or running water and very little other infrastructure. Some camps have a nicer “vibe” than others, but the details of exactly which camp was less than satisfactory is often lost in the collective idea that “camps” are not so nice.
Many refugees also come by to volunteer, it breaks the monotony of their days and makes them feel useful. After the distribution fiasco yesterday and with rumours of everyone being forced onto busses into camps today, we tried to stock clothes on shelves like in a store in the afternoon. Some one did a call for volunteers and a team of six showed up. Everyone is eager to volunteer in the warehouse because of the perks – you get to rifle through all the clothes and maybe take something half decent with you- if you can get it out discretely. There is also a big box of volunteer candy and most of the volunteers who smoke are happy to pass out smokes to hard workers. Balance must be maintained by having equal numbers of Afghans and Syrians so that no one gets preferential treatment. Our team was really great, working really hard and improving dramatically. I suspect that it may have been some of their first times folding clothes in their lives. Only one of them spoke any English, but after 10 minutes everyone had learned to say “small, medium, large, long sleeved, short sleeved”. One guy found a black tank top that he wanted to sneak into his pocket and I tried to convince him not to…it said “here’s my tits”. Why anyone would a) ever buy this and b) think it might be appropriate to give to a refugee is beyond me. Likewise the gift boxes from Lush. There were at least three volunteers ready to kill whoever donated these ten boxes full of little bits of styrofoam, stinky lotions, facial exfoliants and “bath bombs”. One volunteer, naive in the ways of a bath bomb, thought it was soap and cut it in half with an exacto knife, only to have all the scented powder explode all over herself, the floor, and a box of toothbrushes. I am quite sure that any one of the women in the port would have simply loved to go relax in a hot bubble bath, but when a shower is a luxury and a wet-wipe swipe the daily reality, a gift box from Lush seems somehow like a cruel joke.
During my time at the port I developed an aversion to touching food with my hands, even after washing them repeatedly and dousing them in hand sanitizer. Our nearest source of running water is the toilet in port E2, a good 5 minute walk. Apparently it is the only useable toilet because some one is cleaning it regularly with plenty of bleach, possibly the people from the café. Anyways, I don’t know who to thank for this toilet, but it makes everyone’s lives so much easier. For most of the refugees in the part of the port where I am volunteering, this is their only access to water. They come here to stock up on drinking water and wash their hair and feet in the sinks. For the rest they are often stuck “showering” with wet wipes. Shower facilities were in their nascent phases when I was there, and would certainly be a big improvement.
My apologies as well, I may end up using other people’s images here. First of all, I am so busy that I can barely have time or energy to eat, let alone to take pictures. Secondly, it feels very wrong to me to be snapping away with my iPhone at people’s misery. No, not all of them are miserable, and I hope to have some happy and heartwarming shots coming, but, for example, today I saw the heartbreaking scene of a wheelchair parked outside of one of the tents as its owner, an respectable looking older man, rested inside. It was a tragic and evocative image, but I simply could not deal with the shame I would feel if anyone saw me taking a picture of it. So I am afraid that it might be stock images for you, my friends.
Pros and cons to living in the port: On the plus side, you are in a large urban centre, there is plenty to see and do (albeit not so good for the budget) and you would be in a prime position to take the first bus out if and when those borders open. Most refugees remain hopeful that this will be soon and so this is an important factor for them. I am less sure that any borders will be opening in the near future, a sentiment echoed by many others. Camping out at the main port in Athens also means that the refugee crisis stays highly visible. The food is homemade by NGOs and is far, far better than any army catering you would find at the camps. The downsides include the relative lack of water, especially non-drinking water. Bathing, particularly for women, is a challenge, as is washing clothes. Because of the high visibility and relatively low security, human trafficking is much more prevalent than at the camps. There is also more danger from other criminal or fascist elements, such as the Greek fascist group The Golden Dawn, who organised a “protest march” at the port last week. Fortunately, the only clashes were between the Golden Dawn and the police, but this only serves to heighten tensions. Also, with the arrival of summer and the tourist season, the authorities want to clear all the refugees out of the port. Probably the only reason they have not yet done so is that no one wants to see refugees spread out all over Athens in parks, abandoned building and the like, and there is a clear benefit to having them all in one place with NGO’s on site take care of their needs. On the one hand, refugees have freedom of movement within Greece, and can not technically be forced into camps if they do not wish to be there. On the other hand, however, if they can’t afford to “live” anywhere else and are camped illegally, the police may well make their lives miserable.
For clarification, the refugees in the port of Piraeus (Athens) are all refugees who arrived before the 20th of March and will not be deported. On the 19th of March all of the Aegean islands were cleared of refugees so that it would be obvious who had arrived before the EU-Turkey deal went into effect. One would not be able to arrive from Turkey to Athens in a little rubber dinghy, the distance is simply too great. Any refugees arriving from Turkey do so via the islands of Lesvos, Chios and Leros which are 5-15 km from the Turkish coast. From there they took ferries to Athens, and, if they arrived before the 9th of March they took busses onward to their final destination in Europe via Macedonia. Since the closure of the Macedonian border they are effectively trapped in Greece. The borders to Bulgaria and Albania are both closed, and although there was some hope of talks between the EU and Albania to open the border for transit purposes only, it remains closed.
Tonight I will go to Chalkida and tomorrow I will be start volunteering at the camp in Ritsona. Apparently there is a big difference depending on whether or not NGOs and independent volunteers are allowed or whether it is strictly a military operation. Stay tuned…
Postscript: Looking for images I was doing a lot of searches online- mostly on Wikimedia- for “refugees Athens” and the like. I kept finding a lot of images from other refugee crises that I knew little or nothing about. Athens, being the crossroads between the east and the west has often been a historically important destination for refugees. Here are two photos from the Archives.
TO WATCH AND READ
I am you
This Swedish organisation seems to be everywhere, and a good thing they are, because they are fabulous!
Their goal is to reduce food waste and to increase food donations to charities and their beneficiaries using the easiest, fastest and most immediate way.
Athens Food Project Helping to feed homeless refugees in Athens.
Thanks to Yves Butterworth for the feature image for this post. Not only does the man run a tight ship in the warehouse but he has an eye for composition as well.