Every morning in Chios my alarm goes off at 7:00 AM. It’s always too early because I’ve either stayed up too late working or worrying about my new friends, all residents of three refugee camps on this Greek island.
At the sound of the alarm my eyes open and a wave of adrenaline pushes me out of bed. I remember how much I have to do and am nervous that I won’t get it all done.
Each day starts with taking inventory of what I’ve already purchased for camp and what else I need to buy (thanks to my very generous donors).
While my coffee brews, I stuff my backpack with everything that will fit, then put the rest into little shopping bags that I’ll carry by hand: a purse for the mom nervous that her documents will be stolen, new shoes for the family who have sandals ready to fall apart, a phone charger for the 18 year old kid who misses his mother.
I chug my coffee like a frat boy pounds beer, then meet Sofia and Carlos, my favorite Portuguese volunteers, in the parking lot. Most mornings we head into town to check on our new friends, then meet others to see how we can help.
Today Carlos takes one look at my over-filled backpack and says, “You look like Santa.”
“Good morning,” I say, giving him a kiss-kiss on his cheeks before stuffing myself and everything else into the back seat of their car.
We don’t have that much to talk about on the 25-minute drive because we’ve just said good night nine hours before. But we discuss whether we need to go shopping. Today we do.
So Carlos drives around the town square to find a parking spot. It’s amazing how much you can buy within a 10-minute walk of the camps—from groceries to beach balls to discount clothing and electronics. And for all the abundance, none of it is accessible to our friends who have no money left for things that would make their lives easier.
We find a spot close to the discount store, where I need to buy one last pair of shoes for the 15-month old girl who could charm the diaper off the Gerber baby.
Carlos walks to the store beside me singing, “Jingle bells, jingle bells….”
“You’re hilarious,” I say.
He smirks. Then I give him a list of six other things I forgot we need, and he scampers off like a good little elf to find them.
Then Sofia badgers the check out lady until we get a deep enough discount off our purchases.
After that, we head to camp. We split up to deliver everything, and to enjoy tea and conversation with our new friends.
When we part ways, Carlos says “Merry Christmas!” And I go off to look for folks who asked me for things the day before.
And I feel busy, but it’s a very empty feeling.
My friend Leslie, a seasoned volunteer, warned me before I left that everything I was going to do would not feel like helping anything at all. It might sound harsh, but she wanted me to be prepared.
Leslie has gone to extremes in her efforts to help refugees in Greece. She’s found wet children shivering in winter temperatures and given them clothes, she’s sought out entire families living rough to deliver groceries, she’s visited squats to bring cleaning supplies. She is the queen of this type of helping and she knows best of all that clothes and tahini are nice but don’t come close to giving anyone here what they actually need.
Which is access to a peaceful, productive life.
While every camp resident I’ve met is grateful and gracious about the help volunteers can give, many have told me that they are not here to rely on private donations and humanitarian organizations’ services.
They are here to find a safe life for their children, and to give a community everything they’ve got to offer.
Many people I met have advanced degrees—before they fled war and violence, they were successful business people, professors, and doctors. My new friends are whip-smart, having left behind successful careers to navigate themselves this far along the refugee trail—all with stories that smack of themes from Hollywood films.
Sayid, for example, told me how his 2-year old son was held hostage for 4 hours by a smuggler in Turkey because he wanted a higher price of passage.
“That must have been the longest four hours of your life,” I said to my friend.
“Yes, but then the ride in his boat felt longer,” he said, knowing that hundreds before him had died in their attempt to cross the Aegean Sea in an overcrowded rubber dinghy.
Fleeing war is not for the faint of heart, but they did it to save their lives.
Lives that, since arriving in Greece, have ground to a halt.
For months they have waited to present their case to asylum specialists who will decide if they can stay in Europe or be deported to Turkey. My friends will one day explain the reasons they fled their homes—they will tell stories about watching public beheadings and display scars marking where they were tortured. They will describe what it feels like to lose a child in rubble brought down by bombs.
And the specialist will decide if they may continue deeper into Europe, where they may find a home and contribute meaningfully to society, or if they will be returned to Turkey, where they would lack adequate food, medical care, education, and the option to work for money.
Even worse, they may be detained. Detainment, according to Amnesty International, is arbitrary and likely to involve being cut off from the outside world, refused access to legal aid, and denied visitation with friends and family. They may be beaten or chained and placed in solitary confinement.
Even families with small children may be detained.
Living in constant uncertainty is a nightmare. Many have said that it would have been better to die quickly at home than slowly in Greece.
And so when I see a friend wearing sunglasses I gave him the day before, it’s impossible to feel like I’ve helped anything at all. He still has to wear them in Europe in 2016—the year the world assumes he is guilty of looking for handouts or an opportunity to hurt our children the way militants have hurt his. The year he must endure not knowing if he will be granted a peaceful life in Europe or doomed to the hell of living in Turkey. The year he must be granted asylum by a stranger whose directive is to prevent too many people just like him from crossing European borders.
Carlos meant to be cheeky with all the references to Santa, but he’s spot on. How many kids have begged for impossible gifts, like for their parents to get back together or their dogs to come back to life?
Santa can’t do a single thing to make any worthwhile dream come true, and neither can I.
But if you need a new pair of pants while you wait to learn the direction your life will take next, I’m your girl.