The bags are finished.
Each one is at least half-full, and I’ve taped room numbers to each one. On the advice of many volunteers who’ve distributed clothing before, I’ve hatched a plan to deliver them. Raja, a friend who lives at Hospital Hotel, will meet Sofia, Carlos, and I at our car parked just outside. She’ll bring the bags inside, delivering to a few rooms at a time. Otherwise there might be too much confusion about which bag belongs to who.
I’d say everyone got about 90% of what they asked for. I had to give up on perfection because I’ve learned that a giant project involving the preferences of people in 15 different families can make you crazy. It’s like trying to find the perfect birthday present for your husband’s boss’ wife’s cousin. It’s totally impossible.
Except for the glasses. I made sure we found the perfect pair for the old man in room 257. I can’t cure his heart condition, I can’t reunite him with his family elsewhere in Europe, but I can make sure he can read without worrying that his glasses will fall to pieces.
Otherwise, what felt like a straightforward project at first transformed into a deep abyss of unanswered questions. While I was sorting through the warehouse and standing in front of clothing racks at the discount shop I realized I had no idea what anyone actually *wanted.*
“Long-sleeve shirt,” for example, is a category with infinite possibilities. Does the mother in room 224 like purple flowers? Or would she prefer stripes? And the little girl with adorable pigtails—would she like these sandals with Mini Mouse or those with polka dots?
Plus, I ran into a major shortage of leggings. Most women love wearing ankle-length leggings under long-sleeved tunics. But the store only had leggings that stopped at the calf. Were those going to be okay? And will anyone be offended if I assume they are size XXL?
I am suddenly stricken with panic. What if, after all this effort and money, everyone hates what I give them?
I am a total novice. This is why real, live humanitarian organizations (unlike this clueless volunteer) distribute one category of item at a time: underwear on Mondays, t-shirts on Wednesdays. Everyone chooses what looks best and they get what they get and they don’t get upset. At least they have some choice in the matter.
I try shrugging it off and think about the shoes. Even if they aren’t the right color, they are all functional and every pair is new or close to it. They will all have at least one thing that will make them happy.
I take a deep breath, help Sofia and Carlos load the car, and text Raja that we are on our way.
We park across from the hotel and Raja meets us with her friend.
Together, they make about six trips to deliver the bags, and then I hand Raja her own. She was such a huge help with distribution and she also translated for many people while I was taking requests. I think briefly that I could blame it on her if no one likes what’s in their bag. But of course I won’t. Instead, Sofia and I put a few extra nice things into the bag for her—eyeliner, face cream, nail polish, a hairbrush. These are all things that you don’t need to survive physically, but looking good can help improve your mood. And if there’s one thing everyone here could use, it’s a giant mood booster.
Raja and her friend stand with us for a while. Raja’s friend hugs me and kisses my face, presses her palms together and says thank you.
I tell Raja that I am worried no one will like what I gave them. She says not to worry, that she is sure it will be okay. Then we talk about other things, because we’ve become friends.
Soon a woman walks up to us with a pair of leggings. She thanks me for everything, but she doesn’t wear capri pants and wonders if I have a pair of longer ones. I tell her I don’t, and apologize. Then another woman comes out with a pair of long slacks that are wrong for some reason, and she wonders if I have a pair of shorter leggings. One speaks Farsi and the other speaks Arabic, and neither speaks English, but I try to get them to trade with each other. Everyone seems confused.
Then a woman comes out holding a scarf that she doesn’t want, and she hands it back to me. Raja’s friend likes it, and when I give it to her she is totally psyched.
We hear someone calling from overhead. A woman is leaning over the third-floor balcony telling me that her pants are too small. Then someone one pops her head out of the room next door and asks if I have another pair of sneakers. I focus on the woman with the pants.
“Throw down your pants!” I yell. I want to give them to the lady with the slacks.
She yells back something in Arabic.
I start gesturing like I’m throwing a basketball into a hoop.
“I’m sorry they don’t fit! Please throw me your pants!!”
But by then the woman wondering if I have more sneakers starts asking again, and a woman with a baby comes out to ask me a question.
I’m relieved that folks are overall happy and that all they really need is to exchange one thing for a different size. But there are so many requests in different languages that, after a week of shopping and sorting clothes, my head feels about to explode.
So I did the one thing I never imagined I’d do while surrounded by people I want to help so badly that I left my kids and traveled around the world to meet.
I got into a car and sped away.
Sofia, whose foot was on the pedal, tried to make me feel better, “Really, it’s good that we’re leaving. They are all going to talk with each other to exchange their things. It will build community!”
I messaged Raja that I was sorry to leave so quickly but that everyone was looking for me to help, but the store doesn’t offer refunds and I’m sure there’s enough variety that all they need to do is to trade with each other.
She told me not to worry, that everyone is fine and they’ll figure it out.
Of course they will. They’ve figured out things I could not imagine, starting the minute they ran out their front door carrying almost nothing, dodging trigger-happy border police, scaling mountains with little food, and doing all of this while pregnant or carrying little kids.
None of that was their choice, and it is not their choice to live at the Hospital Hotel. They made only one choice—to find a better life for their children—and even that has been taken away from them.
They did not choose to lose hope, but it is happening anyway.
And my novice “humanitarian effort” took choice away from them yet again. It would have been nice to do it differently, but I didn’t know how. Could I have taken one family at a time shopping? Could I have brought one item each day that they could choose from? I actually feel pretty ridiculous, thinking about it in retrospect.
But the next day Raja messaged me: “Thank you again. We are so happy with what you gave us. Many others have told me to thank you, too. You left too quickly for them to find you.”
Yes I did, because I’m a total dork.
That anyone can find their way to gratitude in a situation so difficult is amazing to me.
My greatest wish is for the rest of the world to see the grace that shines so brightly inside people who have lost everything and expect nothing but the opportunity to live a safe and peaceful life.
Read more from this series about the Hospital Hotel:
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-…