Deciding to Come.

This is the post excerpt.

It was a cold day in early January, shortly after New Year’s Day.  It’s one of those times of year I often feel let down.  What will this year be?  How can I change it up?  I was on my daily Facebook forays, and came across a post about volunteers from everywhere just showing up in Greece, to help refugees out of boats, get their wet clothes changed, help to feed them.  At the time, about 2000 refugees a day were arriving on flimsy boats to the island of Lesbos, Greece.  Many were needed.  No need to sign up.  Just COME.  OK….I will.

It took a few months before I was able to get away.  While the EU borders were open, in the last two years, over 1 million refugees have made their way across Turkey, over to the islands, ferrying across to Athens and on up through the Balkans — in the hopes of getting to the promised land for them: Germany, mostly.  By foot, or bus or train — whatever they could afford.  Since late February, those borders have shut.  With the way to the EU blocked, the border of Greece with Macedonia has backed up with refugees from mostly Syria, and then Iraq and Afghanistan. In the small village of Idomeni.  So, a makeshift camp has arisen.  Over 29,000 refugees are stuck in just northern Greece alone, with 54,000 in Greece altogether. No large scale government support.  Not much in the way of UNHCR or other large NGO’s (non-profits).  They are much on their own, but for the smaller good groups and independent volunteers who have rushed to help.

So, I changed my ticket to come north.  And, here I am for the next two weeks.  One of the best decisions I’ve made.  For a picture of what these good people are leaving, and what it looks like when they decide to cross the continent….

(Dragging your mouse over the pic, or clicking on it, may reveal comments and stories.)





Mind is blown.

Mind is officially blown. Arrived in northern Greece yesterday. 3 flights, and one rental car drive to an almost impossible-to-comprehend land of contrasts: beautiful rolling hill countryside, small villages with cobblestoned streets and geranium pots outside little homes, pastry shops and cafes and Greeks hanging out, smoking and talking with friends. Then, down the road, a pack of Syrians walking to seemingly nowhere, women in headscarf and abaya (long dress), children in tattered clothes, some men in wheelchairs with a limb missing. Makeshift camps of flimsy tents and dirt floors, children playing on muddy ground, women cooking over wood fires, looking tired. But smiles and warm hugs, when they see we are open to them.  Some NGO’s to be seen and dozens of volunteers in a decentralized but brilliant effort to feed and clothe, wash babies, give medical care. Must have hugged and kissed 30 women today and squeezed many a cheek of beautiful, giggly children.

Click on each pic, or move your mouse over, to learn more. Every picture posted, by the way, is with permission – to share and tell their stories.



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Spending time with the people who have become refugees in Northern Greece

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The Idomeni Cultural Center was started by a group of volunteers and refugees, to offer classes for kids and adults. There’s a daily schedule of classes in German and English — and then a class in Arabic for the volunteers.  There are kids programs, and even yoga.
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These guys run their own bread shop at the gas station camp, EKO.  They make a mean Syrian bread.  The falafel guy, also a refugee, uses their breads.
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A Spanish NGO evidently funded the equipment and start-up costs for the bread-makers and this falafel guy.  He comes from Syria, and uses a little corner of the food store inside the gas station.  We ate one almost every day!

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This is Lina.  She will come up in another entry.  She is Kurdish from Aleppo.  Lost everything.  But, she is here with her 29-member extended family.
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This is “Refugees TV”.  The story goes that these two awoke one am, in Idomeni camp, to the shock that there were no reports around, or all those people who come in with their cameras and ask everyone with same questions.  So, with good humor, they fashioned up a video camera with a log, and a microphone with a stick and cup — and they go around interviewing camp residents on whatever they want to talk about.  A real camera, of course, often follows them around and captures the stories.  They have some notoriety for their work.  Check out #refugeestv.

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A firepit, for cooking.
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These two sweet boys came up to my car, peering inside to see what they might gain.  We just chatted instead, mostly them telling me how much they wanted a ball.  I did go out and buy many, but never found them again.  But, a few got released into the general area.

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This gentleman is resting, it seems.  Every time we saw him, he was well dressed — sometimes in a suit jacket.  I never did go up to meet him.  Wonder what he did back at home.  Many engineers, surgeons, lawyers and doctors are here in these camps.

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Just another sweet girl, running up to hug.  This goes on all day.

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This is the teacher of the EKO camp school for kids.  She was a teacher in Syria — so put her skills to work here. She’s holding a children’s book in Arabic.  Dana had the brilliance to bring some donated from her local bookseller at hone in North Carolina.   Next to her is a lovely mom of a child in the school.  She was a nurse at home, and has not yet found a way to use her skills.  The local NGO’s said they could not use her.
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Northern Greece, where much of this crisis is taking place.
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A few of us volunteers were walking along the road of Idomeni camp, to leave.  And, along came this nice group of guys.  They are from Iraq.  This is exactly how every conversation with every Iraqi went for me….Salaam Alaikum. Salaam Alaikum. Where are you from?  We are from Iraq.  Where are you from? America.  Ahhh, Amerrrrikkka!  You know your Mr Bush ruined our country?  Bombed us and started our war.  Yes, I do know.  So sorry.  We don’t like him.  (They have a huge smile on their faces.) But, we love Obama. Obama Number One.  Yes, we agree.  We love Obama, too.

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There’s a guy in camp who does these protests.  Someone takes pics of him, and they are displayed on a board.  “Our children are drowning in the mud.  Take off your humanity mask.”

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The UNHCR tents. Probably about 150 people sleeping in them. Those are double-decker beds.
This nice man flagged me down from inside his tent, to come talk with him.  He is from Syria.  This is his son.  They have arrived to Greece alone, just the two of them.  The mother and their two other children: gone.  They are all they have left.



Hot food.

Please meet Hot Food Idomeni. They are a group of independent volunteers, and a few leaders, who came together just two months ago, to feed the 10-12,000 people in Idomeni Camp, along the border. Otherwise, there’s little other food provided by any other org. Hot Food Idomeni cooks and serves 5000 meals a day. 5000. The goal: to provide optimally nutritional and high-calorie, vegan warm meals, which are also culturally appropriate. Locally resourced ingredients. Expenditures support the Greek economy. Even a local pig farmer picks up the scraps every day. Backyard makeshift kitchen outside a hotel. Ready to hear how much this costs, every day? $1700. Sounds like a lot to raise.  But, that’s about 30 cents a meal. Rice, curry, hard boiled egg, flat bread. Those who contributed to the crowdfunding….YOUR dollars helped pay for the whole day today!

Here’s a direct link to their YouCaring fundraising site (doesn’t matter that it’s in British Pounds!):

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This is Rick.  From the UK?  Who knows hot long he has been on the volunteer trail, with the refugee crisis.  But, he scoops out a mean 5000 portions of curry every day.  Rockin to some good jazz or acid rock, and everyone’s got their groove on.
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The inside of the truck, before it’s unloaded into the big metal container at Idomeni camp, which serves as our restaurant for the moment.  There are 5 pick pots of this yellow vegetable curry today, rice, pickled peppers for garnish and bread (in the boxes here).  The bread is sourced from nearby Bulgaria.  5000 pieces a day.

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Van backing up into storage box which will be our serving hub.
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This is Ryan and his mom, Rondelle.  From the US.  Ryan has been in the road, traveling, for quite some time.  His mom came here to meet him and help out.  They are unloading 5000 pickled peppers!
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She’s a river-rafting instructor in the US.  Came with some friends when she knew she was needed.

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The front end of getting those meals out.  Someone’s got to peel those onions.  Us!  From the backyard open kitchen of the Park Hotel.
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Dana holding the biggest potato we had ever seen.
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This is Barry, from Wales, in the middle.  Barry is 30.  He was in the restaurant/hospitality business.  Hated working for restaurants, where he earned an hourly wage and never felt it was enough.  Then, he took off to help cook for the thousands at Calais camp in France — for the refugees who have been there as well.  He never went home.  When Calais quieted down a bit, he came to northern Greece, where nothing was quiet.  Barry runs Hot Food Idomeni, along with these wonderful men.  And, many many volunteers who show up and do what’s needed.  He is just so sweet, too.
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The meal of the day: yellow vegetable curry with rice, a pepper and some bread.
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You can see the outdoor kitchen in the background.


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The servers out on the line.  You can’t see the line of thousands, to the left.

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Sometimes Hot Food Idomeni serves two meals a day.  This one is from the back of the truck.
The line to wait for a meal.
My line control duty, during food distribution.  Is this woman photo-bombing me?!


Scarcity. Supply. Demand. Distribution.

Scarcity. Supply. Demand. Distribution. Communication. Collaboration. Trauma.
This is a constant theme of conversation and debate here amongst volunteers, NGO’s, refugees, locals, really kind-hearted and well-meaning people and groups who just show up with stuff.
There’s UNHCR, which provides the big tents, some small too. Seemingly not much else. There’s the Greek govt, who appears to be the provider of those kind and efficient staff who constantly empty the big trash cans and spray down the smelly port-a-potties and showers. There’s MSF, that’s Doctors Without Borders to us. They have the medicine tents and lots of their own essentials distributions. There’s a couple dozen smaller NGO’s, mostly from Europe, who have their own systems, use us volunteers as needed (constant calls for help on What’s App), and distribute hot food, underwear, clothes, hygiene supplies, bread, hummus, bananas to kids. Many of them have their “own” warehouses, or fill their rented apts to the brim with supplies. There’s the HUGE warehouse (I have shown some of it already), run by the “Czech Team”, and their volunteers come from all over. Looks like a good half (like the size of a 727-plane-half) is filled with boxes of winter clothing that they don’t know what to do with. The debate: send it all to Hungary or Germany, where homeless advocacy groups have said they’d love it. But, the trucks it would take to get it there costs about 3000 Euro. Or burn it? That’s another thought some have. That winter stuff is taking up so much space that the Czech Team has had to turn away truckloads of essential supplies that independent people drive down from Germany, The Netherlands, UK, Ireland, Croatia, etc etc. So some of those turned-away trucks go directly to the camps and either do a great job with direct distribution (depending on knowledge and experience) or really screw it up. There’s an attempt at a central volunteer/aid coordination system. And it seems to happen, sometimes. But anyone can literally drive from Croatia, or Germany, or Austria and hand out anything to anyone. There’s the story of a group of unknown independent volunteers who came to Idomeni a couple weeks ago, and handed out hand warmers – those chemical packets that you bang and then become very warm. No explanation as to what they were. People were opening up the packets and pouring them in their tea. Oy. But then there’s that German team we met personally, from a town of 10,000. They filled 4 huge moving trucks with true essentials, pulled in to a camp and must have really known what orderly distribution is (as much as there can be order). And people got a lot of stuff.
Camp residents cut into lines, scruffy children squeeze their way through to the front. We volunteers have to do line control, and it’s heartbreaking to send a hungry-looking child or middle-aged and tired looking woman to the back. But we have to. We do it with humor. I sing while I’m walking them back there, and hug the whole time. People approach us all day long with the requisite “my friend, my friend”, poking a finger into our shoulders. Please, shoes. Pants. Wipes. Diapers. Food. We have to say no, even if we’re walking with a bag in our hands destined for another group or person. Because if we hand it out in public, there will be a mob. And people may fight amongst themselves. And the person who did “win” may be endangered later in the night, after we go.
Scarcity. These people left with money in their pockets. That’s how they were able to leave, get to Turkey. Took a couple weeks to cross the country. Paid human traffickers, smugglers, up to $1500 per person to cross an 8-mile sea passage to Greece. Take ferries, trains, buses, walked north to cross the border to get north. Those with $5000 or so could actually make it to Germany or Sweden or Austria. Those who got stuck here when the borders closed in late February, and have been camping in these makeshift camps for over 2 months, have run out of all the money they have left. To buy food in the camp, you have to purchase from the refugee sellers who have jacked up the normal prices of goods they have bought by 200%. To take a taxi into town, about 20 kilometers away, it costs $40 round trip. Volunteers can’t take refugees, according to the Greek govt, because they would consider that human trafficking and they could go to jail. Some have.
So if you are a family and even if you have $1000 left to your name, you are going to hoard anything that comes your way. You don’t know if that used, donated pair of underwear will come your way again. So you take it. You might even trample someone if you thought it was your last chance.
Yet, you walk by almost anyone in camp and they kiss you and thank you (sometimes) for being here. And they laugh at the little boy who runs by with a kite made out of a garbage bag, or the hula hoop made out of tent poles. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Dana’s wise words on distribution….

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.”