“A 7-year old boy just broke his leg. He lives in one of the tents, and he is too big for his parents to carry,” said Gabby. “What do you think about buying him a stroller?”
Gabrielle Tan and I had just finished a long meeting to discuss where I should direct the very generous donations I’ve received from nearly 50 caring people who want to help refugees. Gabby is the founder of the Women’s Center on Chios, and she has made it her mission to identify and help the most vulnerable people on the island.
In reality, all camp residents are vulnerable. They are running from extreme violence, have lost family to war and terrorists, and have waited for months to learn whether the European Union will grant them asylum or send them back to Turkey—which sentences them to homelessness, hunger, and little hope for a safe and comfortable future.
That said, even among displaced people, there is a hierarchy of misery. You are classified as “vulnerable” if you are a survivor of ship wreck or sexual violence, a single parent, pregnant, disabled, over age 65, or a child traveling alone. The youngest on Chios is 11 years old.
“Yes, that’s a great idea,” I tell Gabby about the stroller. “I can go buy one right now.”
I start putting on my shoes.
“Before you go, do you see that girl over there?” She points to a 13-year old who is painting her nails. “She has two teenaged sisters and her mother is a widow. They are leaving for Athens tomorrow. Would you like to buy them a suitcase?”
I know about the dearth of suitcases available to camp residents. There’s been an uptick in families leaving to interview for asylum in Athens. The UN gives them a ferry ticket but nothing else—they can’t carry anything they’ve gathered, nor do they have information about where to go or stay. It’s likely they’ll live on the street.
The girl sees us, then smiles and waves. Despite all that she’s been through, I can still see a bright light shining in her eyes.
“Yes, of course. I’ll find a suitcase too,” I tell Gabby.
* * * * *
It turns out that suitcases are easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
Strollers are another story. The closest store is a 15-minute drive out of town, and I don’t have a car. So I call Sofia and Carlos, Portuguese volunteers who have been schlepping my butt around Chios for a week and a half. They agree to take me to the store, because they are awesome.
We find one that would fit a 7-year old boy, along with two others I plan to leave with Gabby for others who need them. I take a picture and send it to Gabby and Toula, who is the founder of Chios Eastern Shore Response Team – CESRT, which among many things runs a giant warehouse of donated items to give to camp residents.
Toula writes back just after Carlos, Sofia, and I buckle up and start the car.
“Can you buy more?” writes Toula.
“Uhhh, guys?” I say to my ever-patient friends. “Toula is asking me to get more strollers.”
Carlos turns off the car and opens the window. He has learned that taking me anywhere means he will have time for a cigarette.
“Sure, how many?” I write back to Toula.
* * * * *
The shop has only a few strollers in stock, and the clerk calls Athens to source 20 more. Sofia and I negotiate a price 12 Euros under retail. She promises to call back to tell me if she can find enough to fill my order, then we head back to the Women’s Center to deliver the stroller for the boy with the broken leg.
* * * * *
Sofia wants to pop into camp to check on a family before we go to the Women’s Center, so Carlos and I wait in the car.
Five minutes later she comes back with a mother who arrived three days earlier and lives at Vial, the government-run camp that doesn’t usually let volunteers help residents on camp property. It is a miserable place lacking adequate food, clothing, and medical care. I look at her two beautiful kids and my heart aches for them.
“I found someone who needs a stroller!” Sofia yells from 20 feet away.
My heart jumps, because I had wanted them to go to people who really need them—like single mothers with many children, kids with broken legs, and parents leaving for Athens. I try to tell her this, but the mom is already looking at me and once our eyes meet I am a puddle. Of course she can have a stroller. She lives at Vial and this will make her life easier.
I take one out of the back seat, set it up on the sidewalk, and watch her face light up. Her 4-year-old daughter immediately climbs in and gets Sofia to buckle her up. Mom is holding her 2-year old son, whom we notice is barefoot.
“Do you have shoes for him?” asked Sofia.
“No,” says Mom. “Don’t need.”
“It’s no problem, we can get shoes for him,” said Sofia.
“No, don’t need. Because….” Mom struggles with English but bends down to stand her son on the ground. His knees buckle and he falls on his butt.
She gestures toward his knees and says “Bad. Also, no speak.”
The boy can’t walk or talk.
Sofia and I look at each other but try not to seem bowled over. Sometimes the universe / God / The Fates conspire to make miracles happen. Neither of the warehouses on the island have strollers—to our knowledge these are the only ones on offer. All of us feel the same deep gratitude for good timing.
Mom takes her daughter out of the stroller and straps in her little boy. He is totally giddy. His sister takes off with him as her captive, and runs up the parking lot, straight into a game of soccer.
Mom looks exasperated but happy. She kisses every one of our cheeks before running after her kids.
“Bye, Mama,” I say. Then, silently, I wish her better luck than she is likely to find.
* * * * *
The lady from the stroller shop calls to tell me she’s found 29 strollers in Athens and they can be here on Wednesday.
I tell her I’ll take them all.
* * * * *
DONORS: It is because of your donations that this was possible. With the help of many volunteers, I’ve arranged for the strollers to arrive at Toula’s warehouse. She and her team of tireless volunteers will work with Gabby to ensure the most vulnerable families receive them, as well as those who are departing to Athens with several children. A stroller is a rare luxury at camp these days, and you should take heart that you have lighted the load for 32 families. Thank you!!!
I am home now but will continue to post stories from my time volunteering for refugees in Greece. I am also extending my fundraiser to fill five important needs: strollers, suitcases, food for new arrivals at boat landings, organized activities for unaccompanied minors, and the Refugee Garden Kids in Istanbul. Learn more here: https://www.youcaring.com/refugee-garden-kids-istanbul-and-…