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On the Move: Two weeks in a Refugee Camp

Photo: Mstyslav Chernov

By Dawn Showalter
Originally published in the Shiloh Mennonite Church Newsletter

I sat on the floor beside the young mother as she relaxed against colorful pillows in the Mother-Baby Space of Skaramagas Camp. Her chubby little daughter, not yet born when she and her husband fled their Afghan homeland months before, slept in her lap. “The journey through the mountains was hard,” she remembered. “I waded through a river up to my waist. But coming across on the boat during the dark of night was the worst... I was three months pregnant.”

Like most of the residents of the Skaramagas Camp, Shafiga had entered Greece by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on a small vessel loaded with people and arranged by smugglers. Shafiga and her husband escaped Afghanistan after bombs exploded behind their business scaring customers away and disrupting their lives. The treacherous trip to Europe seemed worth the risk for the possibility of making a fresh start as a family.

“I wanted to be a tiny part of responding to this wave of human migration showing by my presence that there were people around the world who cared.”I met Shafiga in October during the two weeks I spent volunteering at Skaramagas camp near Athens, Greece. After a year of watching video clips of boats of refugees arriving on the Greek shore and reading article after article about the unfolding crisis, I couldn’t stay away! I wanted to be a tiny part of responding to this wave of human migration showing by my presence that there were people around the world who cared. I registered with a humanitarian organization named A Drop in the Ocean and began making travel arrangements. After I shared my plans with family members, my brother, LaVern, decided to go as well.

The camp where LaVern and I worked is located on a former shipyard outside of Athens. It currently houses 3400 residents who have fled violent situations in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They have applied for asylum and are requesting permission to relocate to other European Union countries. In the meantime they are in a holding pattern in Greece, a country with its own economic concerns. Currently Greece is hosting more than 57,000 migrants and processing their requests for asylum. The Greeks deserve a lot of credit for their generosity and for the load that they have assumed in this crisis.

To help improve the quality of life of camp residents while they wait for interviews and travel documents, A Drop in the Ocean organizes activities that give structure to the day for women, small children, and teens. They are also overseeing the construction of a Community Center which will provide a useful hub for activities when it is completed. LaVern spent his days at the camp working on that construction project.

The Mother-Baby Space where I worked was open six days a week providing a place for Mothers to come and bathe their little ones. In exchange for the dirty clothes the mothers removed from the babies and toddlers, we provided a clean set. During our work shifts my co-workers and I sorted through children’s clothing, hung out laundry, prepared buckets of warm water, and calmed fussy toddlers. After bath time, mothers often relaxed in our sitting area allowing their children to play before returning to their small rooms in re-purposed shipping containers. As I observed these women day after day, I admired their strength and dignity in the midst of displacement and dire circumstances.

In the late afternoon, our Drop in the Ocean container transitioned into a gathering place for teen girls to study English or do a craft project with some of our volunteers. Teenaged boys met for dancing or games in a different location. Another NGO provided activities and a play area for younger children close by. In a camp setting where fifty percent of the population are minors, it’s essential that children have something to do! Of particular concern were adolescents who arrived at the camp unaccompanied. Without families to give support or protection, they are at risk for trafficking and gang activity.

Life finds a rhythm in camp. Some residents have opened small businesses to keep themselves occupied. During a lunchtime stroll through the camp, my co-worker from Spain and I walked by the laundry business of the man who washed our baby clothes, chatted with the owner of a tiny grocery, and ordered falafel from the industrious teen-ager at the food stand. Tucked in between two of the containers, we saw a barber shop open for business.

A Syrian resident of the camp and I struck up a conversation while walking from the bus stop to the gate of the camp one morning. LaVern and I accepted an invitation to his home for coffee that afternoon, and for lunch several days later. Over our second and third servings of a delicious pasta dish, our hosts began talking about their desperate moves from city to city as they searched for safety from the Assad regime and Russian and U.S. airstrikes. They worry about family members who remain in Syria.

Their new neighbor from the other end of the container, a former English teacher in Syria, described the pain of war as well. The previous day, as she rode the Metro into Athens, the terrible memories came flooding back. The loud, high-pitched sound of the subway winding through the tunnel brought a sudden reminder of the dreaded war planes overhead. She burst into tears on the Metro.

Our time with our hosts was too brief. As a parting gesture, the son of our host pulled a handful of marbles out of his pocket and handed one to my brother for his young grandson.

With hugs and kisses, we said our emotional goodbyes.

May God guide the steps of our friends in the camp
and in the move to their new country.
May they find kind people waiting for them when they go.
And may they find a place to call home.