One of the most vexing words here is “distribution.” It’s not the saddest or most depressing word. It’s not the most hopeful or uplifting word, either. But it represents an unsolvable puzzle. On one side of this word, I imagine, sits some humanitarian aid professional (or whole offices full of them), maybe in Washington or Geneva, constructing spreadsheets and computer models trying to figure out how to get stuff to people. On the other side, sits the 14-year-old Kurdish boy who showed me his beat-up sneakers yesterday. Because they are too small, he has folded down the heels to shove his feet inside. When we showed up at his tent with bags of clothes and shoes, we didn’t have the size 42 men’s shoes he had requested.
“My shoes? My shoes?” he said. He sat down on a bench, pulled off a tattered sneaker and held it up for me to see. This boy needed a better pair of shoes.
“No,” I said. He spoke more English than I spoke Kurdish, and he didn’t speak English. I tried to apologize and explain by pursing my lips and shrugging my shoulders.
“42.” He reminded me of his shoe size.
“No 42.” I pointed my finger in the general direction of the supply warehouse a few miles away in Polykastro, which he probably didn’t know existed. “No 42.”
He’s a tall boy with a ruddy, square face and goofy smile, but he wasn’t smiling now. He looked sad, vexed. Why hadn’t we managed to get him shoes?
Why hadn’t we managed to get him shoes? That’s the question I keep asking myself. The warehouse in Polykastro is nearly the size of a football field, packed with donations—pallets of baby food, medical supplies, toys, board games, and thousands of cardboard boxes that look just like the cardboard boxes that you fill with clothes and shoes, then stick in the back of your car to take to Goodwill. The people who run the warehouse, the Czech Team, keep the place open 24 hours a day. If it is 3 o’clock in the morning and a volunteer needs a jacket for a cold 4-year-old at Idomeni Camp, they can drop by the warehouse, rummage through the “Jackets 3-6 yrs” bin near the front, and leave with a bright orange ski parka that some Austrian kindergartener wore in the Tyrol last winter.
That’s the idea, at least. And, to a certain extent, it works. Clothes are forgiving. If the four-year-old ends up with a coat for a six-year-old, a parent can roll up the sleeves, no problem. But shoes need to fit. Pause one afternoon near the hundreds of people lined up for the cups of soup being handed out by EKO Kitchen. Take a look at their feet. You will see third graders wearing Crocs meant for adolescents and adolescents whose heels jut an inch over the back of a pair of folded-down Nikes. An Irish-born volunteer I met–she spent her life in Africa and then retired to Portugal—works in the EKO camp baby-washing tent, boiling hot water so that refugee mothers can give their babies and toddlers a bath. She’s been looking for shoes for the neighbor, a refugee who will carry the water jugs across the camp and fill them in the tap for her, just because he’s kind and wants to help. But when she goes to the warehouse, she can’t find shoes that fit him. “He wanted a size 42 and the only size 42 I could find was a pair of women’s wedges.”
Somewhere in those boxes sits a pair of size 42 shoes that would fit that nice man who hauls water. But the distance between that man and those shoes seems impossible. Not as impossible as the route from here to Germany, with the border to FYROM (Macedonia) firmly shut, but, in comparison to the effort it takes for me to buy a pair of Adidas at Shoe Shak, well, there’s no comparison. I know, too, that the dear water-hauling man, and the Kurdish boy with the goofy smile, can remember the days, not so long ago, when they could go to shoes stores, too, put down their own money, and walk out with a pair of sneakers that fit them. Their world doesn’t work that way any more.
This place needs more volunteers. Yesterday, while I worked in the warehouse, I sorted through boxes of clothes with, over the course of two hours, five other people. What if there were a dozen of us? Or two dozen? How many boxes could we go through? In how many of those boxes could we find size 42 shoes? And if we had dozens of volunteers, then some of those people could staff the clothing distribution projects that get those shoes to the people in the camps who need them. (Yes, such systems do exist, but they are stressed and always facing challenges.)
It’s strange, opening those boxes. I become several people at once. When I find a tiny baby blue jacket, part of me imagines a child in the camps who will wear it. Part of me thinks of the jackets that my own children wore when they were babies. Part of me thinks of the parent, in Italy or Germany, or maybe even the United States, who folded this particular jacket that their own baby outgrew, transferring it lovingly to a box so that other children, somewhere, could use it. And I think of how it’s my job, as I stand in that warehouse, to put it in the right place so that it will have a chance to reach the ones who need it.”