Screenshots Worth a Few Words
Rather than write free form about volunteering in refugee camps, I’ll share a few screenshots from my Google Translate history. These are phrases that I needed translated in real time to communicate with others (locals, refugees, other volunteers). I hope this will allow me to share scenarios that I’ve yet to articulate through plain writing.
we are volunteers
Both local Greeks and refugees are wary of people who make money off of the refugee crisis. I’ve been in multiple situations where a Greek was hostile towards me until they learned that I was a volunteer and not a paid aid worker.
The moment when I most want to be known as a volunteer is when we respond to boat landings. Refugees arrive on Chios after a long journey from Syria. Sometimes they hide out on the Turkish coast for days as smugglers look for an opportunity to cross. I’ve heard stories of smugglers driving refugees back and forth between two locations in a bus with covered windows to make refugees believe that they are being transported long distances. Refugees push off from the Turkish coast in overcrowded boats with only a few lifejackets. After landing on Chios, they wait hours on the beach (sometimes overnight) for someone to find them. I can’t convey what they endure before arriving on Chios, because I honestly don’t know fully myself. All I know is that it must be emotionally and physically difficult. I just watched this and it gave me a better sense.
We (CERST volunteers) are often the first to arrive at boat landings. We bring dry clothes, food, and hot tea.
When the police arrive, refugees are corralled and counted. When a bus finally arrives to take them to some decrepit refugee camp, the bus driver doesn’t let them board until they pay for their ride.
Welcome to the West, where there’s always someone willing and able to exploit your needs for a quick buck!
Every decision a volunteer makes is driven by a desire to help refugees. It feels awful when you cannot help even when you want to.
The Children’s House was small and could only accommodate a finite number of families in a two-hour session. Our official policy was to have only 10 children in the building at any time. We frequently allowed more. But, after a certain point, too many families in the Children’s House at once caused the experience to be stressful and chaotic for everyone there. This type of environment was counter to the ethos of the Children’s House, which was to be a peaceful retreat away from a camp.
One time, a family from Vial (the military-run camp that was far away from the center of town) came to the Children’s House towards the end of our session. They had traveled a long distance and their children were dirty, but we already had way too many bodies in the building. I used this translation to turn them away and booked them an appointment for the next day.
This is a translation from a long conversation I had with a father in the Children’s House. He and his wife were kind to us. They always helped us clean after the Children’s House closed. One day, a large jar of beads spilled onto the floor; beads strewn to all four corners of the play room. They helped us pick up every last bead.
He lived in Vial with his wife and two children and made the trek to the Children’s House once a week because they needed it. There were not enough bathroom facilities in Vial to serve the 1000 residents, so some urinated in the open and shower time was scarce. He noted that he relied heavily on the €15/week stipend that refugees are given but spent much of it on bus fare.
It frustrated him to see some refugees take more than others and he didn’t want to be associated with them. We distributed clothes in the Children’s House but limited each child to two outfits. Some families did not like this and became upset when we told them that we could not offer their children more clothes because they had already received two sets. A few shouted. A few would take clothes from the closets when no one was watching. If we could have given everyone all the clothes they wanted, we would have. But new families arrived on the island every week and we had to make sure that we would have enough clothes for everyone. Limiting the amount of clothing that each child could receive was our way of doing this. Still the question lingered in my head, “Who am I to tell a parent how much clothing their child can have?”
Furthermore, this father explained that some families lived in apartments with their own private bathrooms and showers. They also had money to buy new clothes for their kids. They came to the Children’s House to take new clothes, even though they didn’t really need them.
These behaviors were rare, but this father had noticed and was embarrassed.