A dusty and dilapidated military compound, exposed and dry with very little shade. The incredible heat and humidity, a little boy tells me it’s hotter than Syria. Thunderstorms that don’t turn into rain.
Praying that the thunderstorms don’t turn into rain, because half an hour of rain floods the whole camp. Poor drains and floorless tents. Badly cleaned porta loos, the man sent to clean them pissing against the outside. The strangeness of the army presence, the kindness of the army soldiers.
Asking people where they want to go and hearing France, Germany, Austria. Never Britain. Most just want to go back to Syria. Home. But that’s not an option if they want their children to be safe.
For the first time in my life being nervous about telling people where I’m from. For the first time in my life getting negative responses when I tell people where I’m from.
The children. Little girls I’ve never met greeting me with a hug and holding my hand. Being careful not to give too much affection, even though they reach out for it, because I’ll be leaving soon.
Children swimming in an irrigation channel to escape the heat, demanding that I watch them jump in. Their ability to find joy and industry, wearing out their footballs and asking for new ones, acting as translators and helping with ticket distribution, wanting to get involved with everything.
Having to say ‘No’ when all you want to say is ‘Yes’. Tempers and fractious exchanges. Complaints about progress, frustration and tears, and how can the authorities be leaving them to live like this? Miscommunication and language barriers, trying to explain that we are just volunteers and these are just donations. The young man acting as camp translator with endless patience. The gratitude and hugs. Lots of hugs.
Tantrums in the boutique, mothers trying to find the best clothes for their children among the donations, some crying with the shame because they don’t want charity. Distracting the little ones with picture books that don’t need translating. Children so happy with their new shoes, and teenagers unhappy with the slim pickings. One teenage boy comes in with big feet and goes away with nothing, I can’t blame him, the shoes donated in his size are old and tired, and I wish I had the language to explain to him that it’s all we have.
Teenage girls trying to blag extra hijabs from the shop. Helping a girl about 12 find trousers with a soft waistband that won’t irritate her shrapnel wounds. Trying to hide my startled response to a boy who can only be 4 or 5 with terrible burn injuries.
All the lost relatives and incomplete families. Daughters without their mothers and sons without their fathers, parents who’ve lost their children. The Skype tone ringing out all over camp while people try to get through to their families. News of a brother killed by a bomb and the task of hunting down extra pans so that the bereaved family can cook a meal for the whole camp in remembrance. Giving my condolences for his loss and receiving his gracious thanks for my sentiment, all the while knowing that the bomb that took his brother’s life might have been sanctioned by my own government.
Gifts of food from people who have nothing. A toddler offering me his dates, people offering coffee. All the while feeling like we’re intruding in their privacy, their makeshift homes.
The incredible weight of guilt. Going back to our large, clean, dry, air-conditioned room, with comfortable beds, and a hot shower, enjoying a delicious meal. All the while knowing 800 people are living in cramped tents, up to 60 degrees inside, frequently flooded, living on rations, just 5 minutes down the road.
The legendary hospitality of the Greeks, giving what they can when they have so little themselves. Being greeted as an old friend by a Greek hotel owner who offered post it notes with useful Greek phrases, chocolates on her daughter’s birthday and genuine hugs.
Falafals from the nearby cafe made by a man who was once a refugee. Holding back tears over the lunchtime sandwich because how can we cry in front of them?
Humour and playfulness. A joker in an amused crowd parading me on his arm as his ‘new wife’ and his actual wife laughing at his antics. This from people who are not allowing themselves to be driven to despair. People who had meaningful lives and careers, spending the day with nothing to do and little power over their situation, still managing to smile.
The incredible dedication and work ethic of Refugee Support and the volunteers giving their time and skills. Literal blood, sweat and tears. The constant effort to distribute donations with fairness and dignity. A shop full of donations; toiletries and nappies, food to supplement the basic army diet. A boutique carefully stocked with donated clothes, a school three days a week.
One volunteer building several picnic tables from scratch over a weekend. The doctors volunteering their time to help the children covered with the mosquito bites, scabies and nits that come with camp life. A handful of different NGOs and the military, all trying to make progress alongside each other.
The donations; tomatoes from Spanish firefighters, baby carriers and supplies from America, wood pallets for flooring, fresh pineapples and watermelons. The completely unsuitable clothing donations. Hardly any shoes and clothes for men and teenagers because everyone donates for the babies.
The sudden removal of a regular donation of fresh fruit with no idea about how it will be replaced, because there are other camps where it’s worse, where children don’t even have shoes on their feet. Some weeks there are lots of volunteers, others only a few. Trying to stretch and ration every donation. Dignity is essential.
The wonderful creative ways in which the volunteers help, preparing new baby packs for every pregnant mother, arranging pastries and dancing and music for Eid Mubarak, running volleyball and football games for the children to keep them entertained, putting together a kitchen and a day centre (I’m happy to note that these are now up and running). Because dignity is essential.
Not feeling like anything we can do is enough to make up for this situation.
The shame of being born in a country where the ruling government thinks that it’s acceptable for us to leave people in genuine need languishing in such conditions. The pride of being born in a country where there are still people with such incredible empathy and respect, doing everything they can to help with the resources they have.
Hope for a future with more empathy. And gratitude. Immense gratitude at being allowed to enter these people’s lives for just a moment and help a little bit.