My home and my blue braided bracelet
I am in Ioannina bus station with a book, a fresh orange juice and a lot of luggage. One hour until my ride to Thessaloniki. 5 hours until my flight to Milano. 16 hours until my flight from Milano to Timişoara. 18 hours until my drive from Timişoara to Oradea, Romania. The place I call home. My home. A place I can always come back to. At least for the time being.
I am in Ioannina bus station and I see a familiar figure: a man with many bags and a big family. Shortly after, I see another familiar figure: a woman who used to come to the shop every morning. And then I see the children. We spent 14 afternoons together, playing, dancing, laughing, bringing Katsikas Refugee Camp to life. The girls sit next to me and we start to chat in two languages: broken English and gestures. They are going to Athens, hopefully for the better. Before their bus’ departure, one of the girls hands me a blue braided bracelet as a gift. Blue as the seas they’ve crossed, blue as the sky we all look up to.
I am in Cluj-Napoca now. University has started for a couple of weeks already and I often miss home. Oradea and Katsikas – because a small part of my family is still, some by physical presence, some by spirit, in Katsikas.
I miss my team of brave and joyful volunteers: Luke, Margarida, Natalia, Benny, Oscar, Bella, Tony, Maddie, Daniel, John and Natty – the two last ones (but not least) being in charge of… almost everything!
I miss my forever Indian sisters, Priyal and Priyanka, who, as their name states, never stop spreading love. I miss their incredibly spicy food and infinite positive energy. I miss our morning avocado toast, the terrible greek salad eaten in a Spanish restaurant, I miss tzatsiki, zucchini and other such oddly named dishes. I miss my greek friends: Eugenia, a former RSE volunteer, Marialena who helped me on my way to Ioannina, and their peers – Iannnis, Pinelopa, Fathma, …. I miss our late night strolls in the city and the hospitality they showed us.
But above all… I miss the fresh early mornings on the camp with everyone waiting for us and saying hello, good morning, how are you. I miss restocking, re-restocking and re-re-restocking the shelves to make the shop look dignified, normal and real. I miss feeling thankful, peaceful, content for being able to serve, and seeing my team mates experiencing something very similar. I miss our Syrian, Iraki, Iranian, Afghani, Kurdish, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Congolese clients coming to get their food and toiletries – their smiles, their dilemmas (should we take biscuits or juice?), their helpful and noisy children. I miss being so alert, so good at math (meaningly counting tokens) and so smooth with informatics (meaningly using the friendliest app ever to register our clients’ shopping choices).
I am a student now. That means I usually eat not so sophisticated food. Sometimes, during my quick meals, I remember eating at Yasmin’s, a lady who, together with her family and helped by the Empowerment Fund, managed to open a small restaurant in the middle of the camp. You thought our Italian pizza and French omlette du fromage are delicious? Wait until you taste some home-made Syrian dishes and the STRONG Syrian coffee! That’s the real deal.
I miss working in the warehouse, counting shampoos and roll-ons. I miss caring and pushing huge boxes of milk, flour, luncheon meat, together with my fellow volunteers, while feeling like a strong and independent woman (okaaay, maybe the boys did a little bit more work, but don’t tell anyone).
I miss strolling in the camp from cabin to cabin to take the residents’ data for the census. I miss the dust, the sun, the stunning whiteness of this micro-village, the people who would always say hello and hi. I miss being offered a chair outside to feel more comfortable while writing (because we were not allowed to enter their cabins). I miss the exciting yet troubling thought of the 500 new-comers we were getting ready to welcome in no time. (By the time I’m writing this, they are already there – safe and sound, at least for a while.)
Yes, I saved the best for last! I miss so much the kids. I miss dancing to Arabic, Indian, Kurdish, and heeey mr. policemaaaan music, I miss playing football like true professionals, I miss making tassels, coloring mandalas, trying to maintain peace while distributing play-dough (a very challenging task). I miss keeping an eye on the juniors, the 3,4,5 years old, when they were having fun with the building blocks. I miss their bursting energy and enthusiasm, I miss their rare moments of serene silence when they were working on something important – like tassels. And I miss from the bottom of my heart hearing them scream “Meee, meee, my frieeend, meee!” or “You craaaaazy, my friend, you craaaaazy!”.
Maybe you won’t believe me, but most of the time, I didn’t even realize I was working in a refugee camp. Very rarely I would notice some burns on a child’s hand, a man with a prosthetic leg, or one without his Adam’s apple. Sometimes I would witness fragmented conversations about crossing seas, uncertain futures and deceased relatives. But each morning I could see people getting on the bus to the closest city, Ioannina, either to work (in the case of the few, lucky ones), or to spend their time somewhere else. Every day I could see 10-20 children and quite a few women going to Amal’s English school – a small business the lady created with the help of the Empowerment Fund.
However, what struck me the most were the gardens… Around many cabins I could see flowers, vegetables, healthy grass, but also chicken, pigeons and dogs. Some people built small terraces and thus tried to extend their living space. How lively and cheerful it seemed… Yes, but it also means that all these people have been stuck in here for a while, and will continue to be so for God knows how many months or years without the opportunity to work properly, to get an education, to live fully, to build a home…
I am a Refugee Support Europe volunteer and I am proud of that. During my short two weeks I had the chance to put humanity first and to help some beautiful people live more dignified lives. During my short two weeks I learnt to be more independent and to make new friends in a foreign country. During my short two weeks, I became more brave, more aware, more curious, more inquisitive about the issues we face today. During my short two weeks I was reminded that a human being can endure unimaginable pain and still, somehow, blossom.
I will give my best to never forget what I learnt in Katsikas Refugee Camp.