(Note: This is an unusual blog entry because I struggled with how to write about our time as volunteers for refugees. I wrote a letter to family and friends to describe some of our experiences, and Tedly suggested I share that letter here.)
Dear family and dear friends,
Tedly and I have been busy for the last three weeks working as volunteers at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens, Greece. It’s called Camp Eleonas. It’s run by the Greek military. We are volunteers for an organization called Project Elea that operates in the camp independently from the government.
The camp is made up of metal containers, similar to trailers, with basic plumbing that refugees temporarily call home. Social services operate in some containers; there are medical and dental containers; Project Elea offices are in a container; there is a clothing ‘store’ container (free handouts to residents with an appointment to “shop” once a month); a library container where English classes are held and homework help is given to students of all ages; a super-sized main hall container where preschool happens every weekday, and activities happen like sewing club, women’s hour, or men’s yoga.
There is a ‘field’ covered with turf where young people play soccer. The ‘roads’ are dirt and rocks, with a few paved areas throughout the camp, but generally, the only vehicles that drive through camp are garbage trucks. The camp gate is always open, and refugees are free to come and go as they please. We often see people from camp on public transportation. There are about 2,300 people who currently call Camp Eleonas home.
We are not allowed to take pictures inside the camp, but I’ll insert a few shots from Project Elea’s Facebook page, so you can see the basic setup. The camp is located in an industrial area of the city — a somewhat depressing part of town to call home, but it is far better than alternatives.
Camp Eleonas “is like a five-star hotel compared to Moria,” one man told me. Moria is another camp that’s been in the news recently. It’s where thousands of refugees stay when they arrive in the European Union by boat on the Aegean Sea. Moria is a tent city in a former prison area on Lesvos Island, and it was designed to temporarily give some shelter to about 2,000 refugees — not the 7,000+ refugees who are there right now.
When I picked Project Elea in Camp Eleonas, I liked that it was described as relatively safe and secure compared to other refugee camps in Greece. Project Elea helps refugees at Eleonas make the most of their living situation — whether by painting container homes, teaching English, fixing bicycles, playing sports and games or doing arts and crafts with kids, helping at day care, or distributing donated clothing. Volunteers break up the monotony of endless time people spend at camp.
Some of these people have post-traumatic stress disorder; some young children don’t talk much, while others ‘act out’ a bit. Almost all of them have awful stories of risky sea trips and cruel smugglers. The majority of the people at the camp are from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and some African countries. The majority have fled war and terrorism. I won’t get into the political mess American, Russian, and other ‘leadership’ helped create over many years.
Some of these people have spent more than two years at the camp. They are working through the asylum process. If asylum is denied, they can work through an appeals process. If appeals are denied, they are supposed to leave the camp to make room for new people to move in from tent camps.
We have been invited into people’s homes. It’s quite humbling to sit on a thin, foam mattress on the floor, in a small room in a metal container, in a refugee camp, in an industrial part of Athens, Greece, and have your host offer lunch or dinner in addition to the tea or coffee they insisted on serving.
Every person I have met smiles with wonder and gets a dreamy look when I tell them I am originally from New York. Conversations with language limitations usually cover simple answers to basic questions: what is your name?; where are you from?; how long have you been in Athens?; how long will you be here?. Despite language limitations and stark cultural differences, many people understand we don’t have children because we decided to continuously travel. Sometimes the children in the families can speak enough English to translate between me and a family, as happened one time with a 12-year-old Syrian girl, nine other Syrians in one home (some people friends of the family), and me.
Speaking of children, some of them will stay in my heart forever. In one of the English classes I teach, there is a 10-year-old girl from Afghanistan who is incredibly bright and well-behaved. She picks up definitions and pronunciations almost as easily as she breathes, yet she is timid and needs lots of encouragement. In preschool each weekday afternoon, and later found running all around the camp, is a young boy from Africa who manages to worm his way into everyone’s heart. I showed him a trick with my fingers that my dad showed me as a kid (the one where it looks like your finger is sliding off, dad). This boy was mystified and thrilled to try to learn how to do it. It was something different for him one day. When we needed a new stunt to keep him amused, Tedly showed him the old coin-appearing-behind-the-ear trick, and he lit up with fascination – like any child would.
You all know Tedly is an amazing man. I see him on camp fixing children’s bikes, helping women in the donated clothing ‘store’, having conversations in English with Middle Eastern and African men during ‘homework club’ — and my heart feels like it will burst. I feel so full of love when I see Tedly’s kindness to others in action. One of these days, I will do a better job of describing just how fantastic Tedly’s soul truly is.
When we get home from camp, we are drained. Yet, it’s also so rewarding. It’s not easy to tell a woman at the donated clothing ‘store’ no, she cannot take those pants for her child because she has to wait for her appointment. But I smile when a toddler whose parents have an appointment walks into the store barefoot, and leaves with shoes that (mostly) fit. It’s not easy to see some children trying to steal clothing. But I feel good when a little kid gets a heavy sweater for chilly nights because it was his turn to go “shopping.” It’s not easy to see a man who was an engineer in Syria struggling to learn the English alphabet. But when he finally says “money” with perfect diction, and can spell it with no help, I know all my lesson preparations are worth it.
It’s not easy to meet someone whose asylum appeals have been denied — someone who has absolutely no place left on Earth where he can go. I have nothing to offer someone like this – except some empathy. It’s not easy to teach English to a woman whose baby is screaming in her lap as she tries to write the word “apple.” I have nothing to offer this woman, except perhaps to take the baby while she tries to write a few words.
As a privileged white American woman, I always knew I had it good in this life. But now, because of this experience at Camp Eleonas, I better understand that while I’ve got it so good, so many people just don’t. It’s one thing to see them in media reports. It’s another to try to do something to help them. The problem is so immense, and it’s going to get worse as more people flee their war-torn countries looking for the good life. I don’t blame them one single bit. These refugees — and economic and climate migrants — are people just like us. They simply want what I have always had: safety and security, and hope for a better future.
So, my loved ones, that is a little bit of what’s been going on with me and Tedly. Next week we fly to Singapore to start a tour of Southeast Asia. We will stay in Singapore for a few days, and then we move to Malaysia. I’ll get back to writing regular blog posts soon. And even though we will be leaving Greece, part of my heart will always be with the people I’ve met at the Eleonas Camp.
If you would like more information about Project Elea, the website is projectelea.org. The organization also has a Facebook page and Instagram account. The volunteers we’ve met are beautiful people, and the coordinators of the program are fabulous. This group works so hard to make life a bit better for people living in limbo. I have mad respect for Project Elea.
Love to everyone,
Ellie and Tedly