The hike on the mountain was one of my favourite things. Late afternoon, we would gather children and teenagers to go watch the sunset over Thessaloniki, from the hills surrounding the camp. I particularly remember the small details, the fragments of time: a young woman, laughing, running down the hill hand in hand with her little daughter. She is usually quiet and shy, though behind a fragile facade hides an extraordinary strong woman. So strong that she walked her way from Aleppo to Greece, with four children, the oldest one barely 10 years old. When I first arrived at Elpida she used to keep to herself but lately, she started attending English classes and interacting more with residents and volunteers. From the beginning I had a soft spot for her children: for H. who taught me a kids song in Arabic, for M. who would ask me “Jabbal elyom?” (Mountain today?) every time he saw me. For S. who used to follow me wherever I went, and for little A., the boy with the longest eyelashes I have ever seen.
A woman sits outside listening to a song from her phone and silent tears start rolling down her face. Like everyone else I met, she doesn’t want to be here, she misses Syria and the relatives she left behind. The whole family is highly educated, two of the brothers are working in the camp medical clinic, they all speak English, and the mother is fluent in French too. G., her youngest daughter, is the happiest child in the camp. Her laugh is hilarious, she likes attention and she can pull the funniest faces. At the kids cinema nights, she would cuddle on my lap and watch the cartoon with her deep dark eyes wide open. Her sister R. is a warm, cheeky girl who makes me laugh a lot. She waits for me to have some free time in the evening, so we can sit outside and play cards. On my last day she gave me a handmade bracelet to remind me of her. Her brother O. is in his teenage years, which is an awful time in normal situations but becomes even more problematic when you are a refugee stuck in Greece. He tells me stories from the war, how planes bombed his school and everything around him. He says: “Now you see me laughing but in my heart I’m crying”. He spends the days together with his best friend M., helping out in the garden, chatting, playing games. They are my favourite boys but also the hardest to deal with. Because they understand it all, unlike the younger children, they know what’s going on here. I feel helpless around them because I have no answers, nothing to offer. But I can’t wait for the day we will meet again, when they are both adults, maybe in Germany or the Netherlands. How will we remember the time in Northern Greece, all the sadness and the small joys that filled our days.
My Arabic teacher was an Iraqi woman in her early thirties. She taught me to read and write Arabic in her own special way: fatah, damma and kasra became birds flying on the words, while alef, wow and ya were tigers roaring long and deeply. She used to say that Arabic is a language “with high emotions” and she decorated her lessons with anecdotes of life in Baghdad, pilgrimages to Mecca, Islam and the Middle East. Iraqi culture and history – with all its wounds – came alive in the classroom. “Harb”, the Arabic word for “war”, was omnipresent in her stories. Until then, Iraq was for me almost an abstract concept, a place I knew very little about and what I did know, was wrapped in misconceptions and mediatic lies. There was a magic in listening to this firm young woman, introducing us to a world so far apart from ours. Every afternoon the beauty of the Arabic calligraphy unfolded on the whiteboard, each character got a name and a sound and each word was explained in his complex connotation. My teacher liked metaphors and practical illustrations: on our first lesson she made us stand up and join hands, to explain why the Arabic letters have to be connected to form a word. I admire her uprightness and determination, her pureness and good heart. She gave me perspectives I had never thought about and insights in the origins of the deepest conflicts. I feel very sorry for all the fearful people out there, who are missing out on this richness and beauty.
Many others would deserve a portrait: the Kurdish girl with a talent for drawing, the Iraqi boy who wanted to be called by an English name, all the women who shared their delicious food with me, all the older kids looking after the smallest ones with so much affection. I think about them every day since I left. The separation was painful, the feeling not to have done enough is overwhelming. And in fact, we are all not doing enough. Nobody I met wants to be in Europe, let alone in these mud piles of camps in Greece. If we all mean so well, why do we allow this to happen? Why, instead of offering assistance in the camps, don’t we oppose a system that is creating these very camps? I have been criticized for volunteering in Greece, my commitment has been perceived as a way – though reluctant – to perpetrate European and global politics of inequality. Inequality is inherent to the system, there would be no wealthy upper class without an exploited lower class. Since class is almost always connected with race, it is a necessity to create a less deserving minority. Blacks, Jews, Arabs, they all serve the same purpose. The Greek camps may very well be seen as a containment strategy, where well-intentioned people are doing the dirty job for corrupt governments. However, this doesn’t change the fact that thousand of refugees are now here and upholding our moral values is unlikely to help them survive in the immediate term. Many times I wondered what I would wish for, if I was in their shoes. I certainly wouldn’t want to be ignored, cut off from an outside world, which is already scary enough as it is. I didn’t help anyone in Greece. What I did is, I made friends, I stood in solidarity, I tried to empathise to the max of my capacity and I hope I showed that Europe is not only borders, barbed wire and sorrow.