Friday, September 22, 2017

Moving out

What an amazing climactic to our weeks here! Today 17 families were relocated to apartments in Athens. The UN has just bought up a large block of apartments to settle transition families while they wait. Many of these may remain in Greece. Most left at the site have firm commitments from relatives in Europe to sponsor them and plan to go as soon as the paper work is done. Suddenly the census dropped 100 or so.

People are talking about months now, not years.

And all the CCS volunteers are going by bus, train, boat and plane, on to what comes next: home, Greek tour, Italy; rest, new sites, family, work, routine.

Looking the same but changed in ways it will take months to convey. And some things will never been unseen or forgotten.

The left behind stuff at the camp had a trickle down effect. All the bikes and balls and riding toys were not deemed necessary in Athens and were claimed by the still waiting residents.

The left behind efforts of the volunteers are harder to identify. For our team, the issue was a space. Preschoolers have an area with toys and teachers. Youth 13+ have a space (alternating days by sex) with games and activites. Our kids are supposed to be in school and some are taking a few lessons, but there are no organized sports or after school activities or any place to be. We took the only shade in the site and in 2 weeks upgraded it to a play area with balance beam, swing (20 swings each only!) and music wall, plus padded area for yoga poses.( it is called  "body magic" by the kids) It is not secure so must be assembled and unassembled each day but it was a start. Next week they can add.

For others the results of 2 weeks was progresses in someone's English, small children grasping "standing in line," 400 baskets of clean laundry. Next week they can add.

Time to meet Bob and tour Ancient Greece for a few days. After October 8 I will add pictures and reflections.

And I got at least 6 sermons!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Dance dance revolution

Actually I like Arabic music better than US right now probably because if there are words I can'T understand them. But any music in a small room at many decibels is...wearing.

So Wednesday was girl dance day. We use a private room because parents do not want either girls to boys to dance in public (where do they learn to do it?). No sooner had we announced that it was time to start Than 6 boys had scaled two stories of scaffolding to peek in the windows. It was my job to hold the window closed since th latch was broken. And balance cardboard against the Glass. And hold te blanket curtains to cover the rest. That was gymnastic but not dancing. 2 older girls danced and others watched. It was torture to get them to leave - one more song!

And Thursday was boy dance day. Same room - windows and curtains open. No one cared. 2 older boys started but soon everyone was involved and the rest clapped. It ended when the only kid with Bluetooth had to go. And that was that.

As far as I could tell they danced - or not - to the same songs. Loudly.

But - in the book of volunteer activities - more successful than crafts with straws.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


We are strictly forbidden for taking photos of any person anytime at the site. on FB i have put a few shots around the site early in the morning,  but the children making crafts or dancing, or playing will just have to be 1000+ words.

They are in general happy as children can be who have parents or parent with them and enough to eat. Shockingly it does not require video games for happiness! They don't mind lack of supervision or the heat or nothing but rocks to throw. They play, they sometimes punch, they run. If a bike shows up they ride and do not want to share. 11 year old girls form cliques, although there is no ostracism for unfashionable dressing since they have only one outfit each to wear every day. 

They also fetch and carry, watch siblings, sweep, wash clothes, and sleep in the same 8x12 room with their whole family. The bathroom is a porta pot. The kitchen and washing area are not conveniently located near anything. They have been taken from the language and life they know with only the promise of something better.

The volunteer placement has been harder than most to imagine the future of these children. Next week or next month or never they may get clearance to Europe. There they may be safe but never accepted. The contrast of old customs with new life will be more stark. Or they may be sent back to Afghanistan and find a that even after the struggles at the Greek site, "home" is far harder than being here.

For us who come with the fore knowledge of  departure, the snap shot of their lives can be framed with hope and prayer  but never certainty. 

40 minute bathroom breaks

This site has many locks and keys and because what is on the other side of the door is always suspect to be more interesting that's what is on the outside, it is necessary each time to unlock and relock - bolt and deadbolt both. So 2 clicks.

So leaving the youth room, stopping by the supply room and going to the bathroom requires: open youth room click click, lock youth room, click click, open bathroom, click click, lock bathroom, click click, reopen bathroom, click click, lock bathroom, click click, open supply room, click click, lock supply room, click, click,  get supplies, click, click, unlock supply room, click click relock supply room, click click, unlock youth room, click click, lock youth room behind you click click. By then you have to go to the bathroom again.....

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Bangladesh and drinking straws

From Bangladesh we have seen a repeated clip on the news of the refugees grabbing food off the truck without allowing anyone to establish an orderly and equitable distribution. Whatever your reaction, it has the implied Western comprehension of order and fairness.

We have never known true desperation.

I saw this same reaction on the ground yesterday as we tried to distribute drinking straws for a craft project. 2 or 3 children grabbed all the straws and ran off, denying any others the chance to participate. We quickly tore strips of paper to replace them so no one left empty handed, but watching the children and the clip I think how quick we are to view others through the lens of abundance. It is impossible to get my mind around this behavior,  but I have now seems it in microform and can no longer judge it.

Perhaps this is how compassion begins.

Monday, September 18, 2017


The wonderful new yesterday is that some of the kids announced they are leaving - heading next week to an apartment in Athens and Then to a relative in Switzerland. At the other site, two bus loads left for Athens and beyond, papers in order and cleared to go. Most of the people have waited for 2 years for the gears to grinds slowly through the paperwork. And if the family has a new baby, that person is classified as a new resident and the family goes to the bottom of the list to start over.

These camps - and there are 50+ in Greece, many more in Italy - are as organized and humane as helping groups can make them. The life is limbo and frustration with delay is the primary source of discontent and suffering. The EU-Turkey agreement has essentially closed the border from Turkey to Greece and giving a great deal of money to Turkey to set up camps some so that will be the point of entry to Europe. Slowly that will impact the boat traffic to Greece and close these camps. The hope is that with the new emphasis on these Turkish camps those persons waiting in Greece will not be forgotten. Both the transient residents and Greeks from wha our tour guide said will be glad when this phase is over.

The pictures of Bangladesh camps are a far cry from what the sites here have become but it has taken several years to reach this point. My heart aches for those countries and people just starting through the process.

Layers of helpful people following good rules

I discovered yesterday that our site is specifically divided by the Greek minister of education so that "teaching" can only be done on the right side and recreation on the left.

So the morning preschool classes are on the right in a tiny room hardly big enough for 8 kids while the afternoon Child Friendly Space we just opened on the left with room and outdoor play area cannot use the same facilities because they are on opposite sides.

I am sure the original rule was not for this situation but here is the result. Trying to Keep track of and abide by all the levels of well intended regulations makes me want to snap my crepe paper!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Greek immersion and transitory thoughts

This weekend we concentrated on Greece. We took the late train to Athens and stayed in an apartment.  Our tour guide and van found us Saturday morning and we went to Corinth, which we had been amazed was on no arranged tours or even covered in Rick Steves! Imagine a place so remote!

It did not take all day to figure out why. In Corinth was a wonderful canal with some amazing bridges and the ruins of Ancient Corinth. The Greek city was totally destroyed by the Romans
except for the a temple which does date from the 6th century BC. The rest of the ruins are of the Roman city where Paul preached and to who he wrote several letters. Our wonderful guide showed us all the hedonism and the reasons for the wealth of Corinth which back then was the larges and richest of the Greek city states.

It was all amazing but that plus some wine and cheese by the canal was all there was to Corinth. However it was exactly what we wanted to see (3 of us anyway and the 4th was a good sport) so we came back to Athens, had a gyro dinner and fried cheese.

Took the train home Sunday and ate dinner by the water. A nice break from the work site.

And a reminder that we are not part of the transitory life or chaotic displacement of the residents we work with. Even if we lived in the camp - curtained doors, community cooking and washing, outhouses and endless waiting, we volunteers will be leaving, with documents and freedom. It is impossible to understand lives without those things or the behavior that results from it. It is constantly a temptation to judge or suggest or evaluate, but, as in all lives that are not our own, we can only offer what we have and hope it is something.

Friday fluttered by

There are three of us (and we are all the same age!) to entertain, engage, provide crafts and activities for however many ages 6-12 year olds are in the camp. So every project we do has to be in 3 distinct steps. Today we 1) decorate with chalk random undefined shapes that might have been meant to be octopi, 2) have glue placed across the bottom edge and apply 5 ( no more or less ) colored streamers, and 3) i.e. A cord through the hole so it will flutter after you when you run. The prep for this took about 4 hours. The craft about 15 minutes for all 25 kids. Sort of like Thanksgiving prep vs consumption.

But like thanksgiving, the enjoyment - in this case delight - when the kids watched the streamers flutter behind them, was worth it all.

So we end Week 1 on a happy note. And hope our supervisor will be back next week so we can have 4 stations!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

they are on to me

I thought I had a plan.

I bought three identical tops and pans in different colors and planned to get three "unique" outfits for 9 days for teaching. Then donate the tops and pants to the site.

Yesterday (day 4) someone noticed I looked the same but different...


Decorating a box

Back home one can purchase locker decorations - mirrors and stickers and even chandeliers to make your locker personalized. Because.....we can!

So looking at this line of oversized cubicles that are now home to 500+ People, how does one decorate? Luckily there are no windows, cooking and washing and bathroom needs are met in other community spaces. So no window treatments or large machinery. Then consider that this culture sleeps on the floor in the living space all the time. No separate bedroom. And all arrived with only what they could personally carry in bags and packs. No need for closets or drawers or toy boxes or book shelves.

I got a glimpse of the answer through a curtained doorway (few cubicles have doors) and it is Rugs!  Large woven colorful rugs. On the floor and the walls, Stacked in the corners. No idea how they got here or if they are handed on as families leave the area. But Box becomes Home with a rug.

I wonder if they mourn the loss of chandeliers.

Pop up happy

We are getting the hang of crafts with 25-30 various aged children in an open outdoor space with no structure. Weasels.

Yesterday I started the group with just POP - they will repeated anything so they all Popped too and we went faster and faster until it sounded like the last minutes of popcorn preparation. Then I introduced the quality time honored line "pop goes the weasel" (which if I remember correctly has to do with the weaving or shoemakers trade?). They liked the sound of it and no one knew what a weasel is so it was an immediate hit!

Then we made three stage puppet: color 2 circles, glue them back to back over a pencil, stick the pencil through a hole in the cup. Three steps because there are only three of us. Now push the pencil up and down to make the "weasel" pop up. We tried then on a nearby random baby and he laughed! Success.

Armed with that triumph today we make flying octopi - Octopus' Garden in the Shade?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Observing but unknowing

We are part of several culture here. We live in the world of a Greeks (shockingly I have not heard a single "om-pa!") with vast amounts of history and current struggles and fascinating people.

But we only reside here. We purchase, we dine, we sleep. No one learns very much of the language.

Our work sites have populations that are Kurdish, Syrian, and Afghani. We provide services to and for them from handing out milk and water to doing laundry to working with children, but we do not ask stories of their past or make any attempt to invade already prove and complicated lives. We armrespectful and polite, but only have a few words.

And there is a third culture we interact with: the vast number and complicated interactions of the international volunteers. There is an alphabet of services with different specialities and goals and regulations. There are divisions and borders and guidelines. The volunteers are Polish or French or German or Swiss or American. They all speak English, but they are all focused on the special service they came to provide.

And a fourth level is the other volunteers. Most now are from the US - various stages and locations and life situations. Each week the faces change. We eat, sleep, meet, but barely touch.

So there is a lot of observation, a lot of questions that might have started a conversation.  And very little time.

Maybe this will all sort out in Week 2!

Numbers and stories

There are as many statistics as there are groups counting, depending on who is providing what service or has which interest or wants more funding. There are numbers of people who are counted and others who are never counted. And some who do not make it here to be counted. Just as each roofless cubicle home here has a number on it.

Then there are the stories of the faces that appear at the doors. And the incomprehensible experiences that a 7 year old has already had. And the family stress of being in transition through desperation and action and hope and and frustration and anger and discouragement and endless waiting.

And now we want the children to share crayons.

Th challenge for the volunteer in the face of this vast need is to parce out our limited resources somewhat fairly and provide a couple of hours of distraction or redirection of energy. Yesterday that felt like a back pack full of rocks.

Since the situation will not change, it is up to me to adjust my expectations - which I did not think I had! - to reality, and today I plan to do just that.

Because amid the numbers is one story that need a brief but happy chapter.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Yellow Submarine

The camp has been gifted with a box! One of those containers seen on trains and boats for storage and transport. Metal - heats quickly. One very secure door.

And into this box yesterday went all the riding toys, games, craft supplies, balls, random plastic bottles and bags of straws and feathers "we might use sometime." In boxes, plastic bag, plastic bins and tossed in loose. To be sorted, organized and located. It was an librarian's dream come true! Order out of chaos!

It is also a child's dream come true to get in and play.

Everyone one of the children at our site came by boat. Not ferry or steamer, but open boat, usually 700 or more packed into a boat built for 35-40. That seems hard to even envision. So they were lucky to come with even clothing. The kids here have nothing at all but rocks to occupy themselves. No TV or electronics except a few of the older kids. No books, toys, games, balls. Any toy put out is immediately taken for individual use and bragging rights. It is a desperate need we cannot fill.

So we have conflicting interests. Volunteers want to be in the box - preferably with the door open for air - to sort and count and organize. Children want to get in to remove everything that is there and use it. It took 2 sorting and 1 at the door negotiating but after several hours in the air proof yellow container, the arranging is done.

Now to assign them Dewey classes......

Monday, September 11, 2017

Planning and adapting

We often say the Christmas messages I do with the kids at St. Mark's are Carefully Controlled  Chaos. There are a lots of animals sounds and angels swoop in to the astonishment of shepherds. I think it pretty much reenacts the chaos in the original manger.

However meeting the needs of the children at the site removed Carefully Controled from the equation. The kids are ages 3-12 or so and they have had a Summer Camp for the last few weeks. Structured in planning, but spontaneous implimentation. Yesterday we were to clean up from that camp and  prepare for the Fall activities.

Of course the obvious question is why aren't childnre in school at this time? The Greek school would need to hire teachers who are bilingual and the reality is that everyone is in transition. They could arrive, move on or move out at any time. Parents hope it will be short say and there is no point in filling out the great amount of paperwork to get the children in school. The schools, already strapped to teach Greek children, hesitate to add staff for a shifting populations.

The result is a lot of energetic children waiting for Whatever Comes next so they can move on. The realty is that many of the families here have been in the waiting process for more than a year. The average is around 6 months before they are relocated. That is 1/2 year these kids are simply unoccupied. Lots of energy can build up!

So a day with no activities is simply incomprhensible. Every open door - event open a crack - is an invitation to get in, grab some crayons or a trike and do something! For the western organized mind set, it is short sighted, but for these children short sight is all they have.

Change is the new normal

So I was reassigned for work site and age group. I am at the smaller site - about 550 residents and all Afghan people. The site is an old factory ans warehouse converted by putting up what are essentially the all walled cubicles - 8x12 and about 7 foot walls, no windows but open on the top. Built in rows of 10 with no door so most people just put up a curtain. One family - any size - in each space. There is large central cooking area and group bathroom and washing areas so really only sleeping is done in the cubicle. And living.

One observation on washing: a gracious company donated 12 washers which sit quietly and unused in the entry way. Volunteers tried to instruct the women how to use them, but (incomprehensible to us) they nodded politely and then went back to washing things by hand with a hose for running water in the community washing area. Finally the volunteers realized that it had beomce the safe space for women to meet and chat away from men and children, some time alone while they "did the laundry.  The between perceived need and real need.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

In Greece

A day of orientations. And some small inkling of the size of the transitional population.

I will be at one of many camps in the area. The site has about 750 persons and is established on an old army post. That good side of that is that is there are not tents. The barracks are used as housing and supplimtned by "caravans" - a storing room container outfitted with water and plumbing. The other side is that any facilities or organizational changes must be cleared by the army who owns the land. That is one of the myriad of conflicting interest issues surrounding helping groups here.

I think that is probably true in the US and other places as well. Lots of people with good ideas and a few with different agendas....

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Just finished reading The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria by Janine di Giovanni, a reporter who has covered many difficult areas of the world. One comment she makes is that as embedded as she is in the fighting and dodging bullets and people's lives, she knows she will leave. She has a passport and a way out. Someone will come for her in jail. She cannot fully understand the situation but merely observe and report on what she sees, knowing a hot shower waits for her at home. 

I am always aware and humbled by the courage that is faced by those I can only observe and assist in a small way.

I was assigned to the distribution center, handing out necessities to new refugees, but the needs of the camp shifted, and I will be working with children ages 4-12. I'll just pack up the rhymes and songs, but I doubt there is any way to prepare for what is there.

Leaving September 8.