Into the Mild: Journal From a Refugee Camp, Week Zero

Athens, Greece – December 2015

Last week, I left the US for six months of exploring Europe and Africa. My first stop is on Lesbos Island in Greece, working and living at a refugee camp. This is the first part of a weekly journal that I'll write while staying at the camp.

Dec. 4- Sometimes, despite all observable trends, humanity exhibits glimmers of hope. Since telling friends two weeks ago that I would be be volunteering at a refugee camp, I’ve had supplies shipped from all over the United States. I returned from a family vacation last week to find six large boxes waiting for me.

The rundown:

37 pairs of wool socks
85 pairs of normal socks
16 winter hats
12 pairs of gloves
7 scarves
10 t-shirts
3 sweatshirts
1 pair of moccasins
100+ toothbrushes
52 combs
60 pens
2 large backpacks
30 pounds of dehydrated, vitamin-fortified food
$225 in cash

Everything somehow squeezed inside the two backpacks and weighed in at over 75 pounds. I spent that night packing and saying goodbye to my family and friends as I would head across the Atlantic the next day and not return until June.

Dec. 5– I left for Greece today. I caught the shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport at 3:30 a.m., was in Houston at 11 a.m. local time, and waited there for 10 hours. Buying the cheapest flights isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After lots of waiting and no real trouble from authorities, I was in Athens at 10 p.m. the night of the 6th. The city was beautiful and the weather was pleasant that night, but my internal clock was so warped that I went straight to bed.

Dec. 7– I met up for breakfast today with Joanna, an energetic New Yorker who just returned from Lesbos Island. We took the metro to an old olympic field hockey stadium that was being used as a refugee camp. The idea was that we would serve breakfast there as it had previously been undermanned.

The stadium’s press office was turned into a clothing depot, the food concourse into a kitchen and command & control center, and all other rooms were used as a dorms for refugees. The bleachers were mostly empty and the field never had more than two or three people playing at the same time. This was probably good, as an Iran-Iraq soccer match between hungry and impatient refugees is a remarkably poor idea.

Today, the camp had double the staff needed. I helped for about 10 minutes stirring a vat of tea, then helped pouring tee for a bit while others passed out croissants. I then mentioned that I studied Farsi. I immediately became an interpreter for the Iranian and Afghanis there, relaying valuable messages such as Stay out of the sun so you don’t get dehydrated and Pick up the trash, we can’t pass out clothes if the area is dirty.

Other conversations involved telling Iranians who had just traveled across the entire Middle East that they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the rest of Europe and were not eligible for Greek work visas. This was a depressing trend. The European Union was only allowing in refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, while refugees were showing up in Greece’s open borders expecting to move on to Germany or Sweden. The result was buses full of Syrians going through to Macedonia while thousands of Algerians, Iranians, and Pakistanis got stuck in limbo in Greece.

With nothing else that needed immediate translating, I searched for Iranians and Afghanis to practice Farsi and Dari with.

I quickly struck up a conversation with Jawwad, who was sitting on a chair directly underneath a sign that said not to sit there. I liked him immediately. He was Afghani, but since he left Afghanistan and lived legally in Iran for several years, the European Union considered him Iranian and wouldn’t grant him refugee status.

I next spoke with another Afghani who was stuck in Greece despite his family being in Macedonia. He had lost his paperwork proving that he was a refugee, leaving him in limbo until the UN could finish sorting the other 1,000,000 refugees and try to find his information. Taliban-era Afghanistan apparently wasn’t great at keeping public records.

The final significant conversation was with an Iranian who wanted to settle in the United States. When I mentioned that there were large Persian communities in Los Angeles and San Jose, he took that as a cue that I worked for the government and could get him a visa. I backed out of the conversation as gently as possible, found Joanna, and set off for a lunch meeting she had set up later.

After a series of cabs, metros, and trains, we found ourselves at the IASIS headquarters. IASIS is a non-profit in Athens that deals with the homeless, mentally ill, and abused populations. IASIS has adapted to become a landing point for refugee women and children who were viewed as vulnerable. Its name is also sure to get Joanna’s assets frozen when she donates to it. Joanna worked for a very well-known bank in London and there to discuss where funding would be most needed. I was there because I had nothing better to do and wanted to learn more about the situation. We left the meeting with an understanding that Joanna would buy them industrial kitchen equipment and that I would work with them after Christmas. Smooth talkers they were.

Dec. 8– I’m spending today exploring Athens, finding waterproof boots for the shore rescues, and trying to finally defeat jetlag. Mostly, I’m relaxing. Tomorrow takes me to the island and a new adventure.