Somebody asked me once what a typical day was like, working in a refugee camp. Well, I can only say, there is no such thing, every day is different and unpredictable. So I will just pick one day, Tuesday 17 April.
In the morning I make my Greek coffee, it is a real exercise in patience. The moment you are not watching it boils over. I have my daily fix of newspaper with the Irish Times and check the emails to see how the campaign to keep the Tallaght Intercultural Centre is going and the City of Sanctuary Politics course. So I know what I am missing back home.
I hitch a lift to the camp as the bus is always a bit too late. Greek people are so kind. They often go out of their way to take me right to the doorstep and thank me for volunteering.
The children are late as usual, I have time to clean the table and benches which are covered with dust from the Sahara. The internet is not working so I have to produce the opening song myself. We are doing a boring topic: Days of the week, dates. They all don‘t know when their birthday is. Teaching children is quite a challenge for me, especially as these range from 7- 12. I have to stop the youngest from crawling over the table and the eldest on from getting bored. Their attention span is about 5 min and they spend most of that time looking for erasers and sharpeners. What worries me most is the fighting going on between the Syrian and the Kurdish children. “ Ali Baba” = thief , seems to be the milder swear word. And he wasn’t even a thief at all. I believe children are not naturally racist. They must have picked it up from their parents.
My next student is a young adult from Congo who can speak fluent English but cannot read at all. So I have to go back to teaching basic phonics, rhyme words. The 14 year old Maryam cannot come because she has to babysit her little brother while the mother is in hospital. The next student comes without his pregnant wife as she is not feeling well. I suspect she finds it difficult to keep up with her husband. He tells me about his work as a barber in Mytilini and baking the bread for the family. He used to be a mechanic and a tiler. You also have to be flexible as a refugee.
From my table I can watch the construction team building seven new houses. I envy them for their work. It seems to be a lot more clear cut.
After lunch I pick up a new group of five women. The basic questions “are you alone or with your family” “ How many children do you have” are treacherous as they uncover so much misery, separation and death. It takes them a while to find the place where they come from. The Somali woman is thrilled to find her country on the world map.
After that there is a workshop for volunteers. It is great chance to switch off. I will describe the exercises at the end of this letter.
Going for a swim gives a short reprieve. But then I have to walk into town for a march for the Moria 35 who were arrested last July after a protest turned violent. A lot of the arrested had not been at the protest at all, it seemed the Greeks police mainly picked out African refugees. At the same time the Afghans, women and children are staging a protest on Sappho square against the conditions in Moria. One of them died, presumably because of lack of medical support which indeed is poor as is the legal support, lack of interpreters etc. So while you are trying to manage the work in the camp all these outside influences are going on as well. Continuous flow of refugees
( around 1000 in two weeks), desperate conditions in the reception camp Moria, news of boats capsizing, people waiting in vain for help in the water for hours, whole families wiped out. And then there is the larger picture. Greece changing it’s asylum regulations, Europe closing its borders, right wing parties winning ground, and the wars fuelled by the European and Russian arms industry with no end in sight.
I should end on a more cheerful note. Today I watched the Arab and Kurdish children playing marbles together. And on Monday 23 April, Earth Day, we will clean up the beach with the children instead of teaching!
Thank you for listening to my story
All the Best
P.S. Here is a list of the exercises we did in the workshop with Becky Hall of Olive Branch-Arts. Becky worked with Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. It might be useful for other volunteers and teachers. First we expressed in body language how we felt. The others had to copy it and say our name. At the end this was repeated and people changed a lot.
Pair work: You make a sculpture of your partner. One of you is blind and the other is leading him/ her.
Group work: one in the middle is blind, the others have to protect him/ her walking into obstacles. You touch one person with a thumb, then another with a hand, another with a foot. At the end you try to get all together and you are all entangled. You clap rhythm on your body, the others have to copy it.
Story telling: you write or draw a story in six stages/ pictures:
1. Who is the hero/ heroine
2.what she/ he wishes for
3. what is the obstacle
4. Who is helping
5. How is the obstacle overcome
6. What is achieved in the end
The pictures are put up, everybody explains. It was amazing how different the stories were.
We also did a re-enactment of a story “ The Stone Soup”
The basic story line:
Traveller comes to a village, starving, thirsty. The villagers have seen him from afar, have hidden all the food, shut the door on his face when he asks for help. In the village square he lights a fire, puts a pot on it. The children watch him curiously. He asks them to bring him stones and water. The villagers also watch and he asks them by and by to add something, herbs, vegetables, meat. In the end the soup is delicious. They all eat it together, bring tables and chairs and music and dance and enjoy themselves. The traveller leaves and looks down onto the village and sees it bathed in a glow of joy. Sum up the story with one word:
Trust, togetherness, joy, hope.