STRIKING SONGS AND STORIES
Day four in Katerini started as many of my days here have: with conversations with the church team at their offices. I began by speaking with Zoey and going over client profiles so that I could learn more about the people that they serve. They are all in very vulnerable situations and include a large number of unaccompanied mothers with many children, some of whom have serious medical issues and are in desperate need of care. She indulged me a bit and I had the opportunity to ask her personal questions about her work here, and she inquired about mine. We are helping similar people, but at very different stages of their journey.
The rest of the morning was spent at the food pantry again as the same families from Monday dropped by to pick up much needed food and supplies. I saw the same children from earlier in the week and they grinned with recognition when they saw me. As the adults stayed downstairs to discuss provisions, I took a few of the kids upstairs to hang out as I could tell they were getting antsy. We played a bit of beach ball volleyball, one young boy showed off his gymnastic skills, and we all laughed and squirmed over a giant bug toy that one of them had found lying around.
The most striking moment, for me, was at the end when there was just one child left, a young Syrian boy who appeared to be around 10 or so. He wanted to play Jenga and so I was teaching him the proper pattern to stack the blocks in. He concentrated hard in the beginning, making sure that they were placed just right before adding the next layer. As time went on, he grew more confident in his stacking skills, sure now that they wouldn’t just topple over on him, and as he built be began to sing.
He started off softly singing a song in Arabic, his voice quiet and the elongated syllables haunting. I glanced up at him and smiled appreciatively, nodding to show him that I loved the sound, and he became more confident. His voice rose and the music was strikingly beautiful, this song from his homeland that he chose to share with me – I had goose bumps despite the 95-degree heat. When it was time for him to go, I drew him in close for a hug and then we did our secret handshake (which I had just learned a few days before) and he was off. I’m not sure if I’ll get to see him again during my time here in Katerini or if that was my last time.
That’s the hard part about the work here in Greece: deep connections are made and yet the greatest hope of the staff here is to be able to say goodbye to the families and see them leave for permanent homes where they can be reunited with loved ones. It’s a tough situation, but one that the staff here does with grace and poise. I’m not sure that I could be so put together about it.
For lunch, I joined Alexandra, her son, and the church secretary at Alexandra’s house. Appetizers were homemade and we all ordered gyro’s for delivery to go along with them. Sitting around the table with these three beautiful people was so heartwarming – I had known them for less than a week and they were already treating me like family.
Discussions circled around smugglers in Turkey and how terribly they take advantage of refugees fleeing violence in their home nations. Many times people are robbed as they cross the boarder from Syria into Turkey, and then again as they pass through the mountains in Turkey. By the time they reach the sea to head to Greece they are again asked for more money – meaning that by the time they do reach Greece, they really have nothing.
Alexandra and the church secretary told me how when they get into the plastic inflatable boats, asylum seekers are forced to shut off their phones for the crossing so that they can not send out updates to friends and family, nor can they report on the conditions of the crossing or send out a distress call. The boats are meant to hold only 20 people, but the smugglers will cram 40-60 on a single boat and then send them on their way to navigate the waters of the Aegean on their own – while the smuggler stays safely ashore.
People making the crossing are also told to sink their boats before reaching the shore in order to be legally granted safety in Greece. The law says that those who are, “saved from the seas,” will be given help, and so if a whole boat load of people show up with no problem then they’re not actually being saved from the seas – they’re illegally entering Greece on a shabby boat and asking to stay. This loophole causes terror upon arrival, as many of these folks do not know how to swim and have been under constant stress for months. When the shoreline comes into focus, someone with a knife slits the boat and purposely sinks it as women and children flail and shriek, fearing for their lives though the shore is so close. Greeks and others rush from the shores to save them. They see people in need and they move quickly to aid in their rescue. In this way, even their initial arrival in Greece is not a relief, but one more terror-filled step to eventual safety in the EU.
I stayed at Alexandra’s home during the afternoon siesta time to mull all this over and jot down thoughts in my notebook.
A little before five we began gathering our things to head over to the church’s multipurpose building (which houses the food pantry in the basement, a multipurpose room on the ground floor, and two apartments on the upper level) to meet the refugee women of the community for a tea and cake hour.
Despite not knowing me very well, the women happily welcomed me into their group – serving me tea and cake promptly and looking pleased when I gushed over how delicious everything was. Alexandra served as a Greek/English translator and the woman that I rode with to the UNHCR headquarters the other day served as an Arabic/English translator. The three languages were spoken sometimes loudly and in a hurry, and sometimes quite softly and with hesitation as the group opened up to one another with very intense and personal stories. I won’t go into any details, as what happened there was sacred and just between us, but let me say that it was inspirational to hear the stories of these women (some not much older than me) who risked everything to seek safety for their families.
The people that I have met on this journey of mine are all so remarkable and their stories are seared onto my heart.