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On day six of my time in Katerini, I had the opportunity to visit a refugee camp without feeling like a voluntourist who gawks at all the people like animals in a zoo. So many well-meaning folks that I have met during my time in Europe have talked about visiting camps casually, almost like its a right of passage and something to collect or check off of a list. I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with that, though, and so I have never pushed to go and see one. I do not desire to go to a camp merely to look around and say that I’ve been to one – if I’m going to go, I want to have a purpose and I want to be useful. So it was that at around 11am I had the opportunity to visit one as team members from the church and I arrived to pick up a vulnerable mother with four children.

Alexandra and the team’s lawyer had a meeting in Thessaloniki in the morning, so Dimitrios, the translator, and myself hopped in the van with them, dropped them off at the meeting, and then headed to the camp to pick up the family.

We had learned the day before that the woman’s husband, who has refugee status in Germany, was visiting his family and so we invited him along to see where his wife and children would be living in Katerini. Upon our arrival at the camp, he informed us that their youngest son, just one year old, was sick and in the hospital – his wife was with him. We discussed details to pick up her and the child in a few days and began packing up the family’s things in the van. The men stood at the back of the van getting everything ready while I took the kids (two girls and a boy) off to the side to chat and play.

The youngest there, a little girl, instantly took a liking to me and wanted me to pick her up. I held her close and twirled her in circles, just on the other side of the fenced-in camp where she used to live. The other two slowly came closer to me and began showing off crafts that they had made and the clothing that they were wearing. The oldest, a girl, looked up at me with sweet brown eyes and asked me, “Madam, what is your name?” I told her my name and asked for hers – she told me and then introduced her younger sister and brother and I repeated their names a few times to make sure that I had them right. I looked at these three curly haired angels from Syria and wondered how anyone could possibly think that granting them a place in their country could be dangerous.

Before I knew it, the van was packed and we had a plan, heading first to the food bank and then on to the apartment where the father would stay with the children for a few days until the wife and other son could be picked up and brought to them. The kids were a little nervous at first at the food bank, as other families with children were there picking up their things. The three of them stayed close to me as Dimitrios and the translator took the father downstairs to explain to him how things worked. The littlest held my hand tightly while her brother and sister hovered on my other side, cautiously glancing around at the large room filled with food on one side and clothing on the other, unknown people and families milling about. I walked the kids around the room, staying with them and talking to them about the shoes on the ground, the clothing on racks, and all the little kitchen supplies on one of the tables.

The kids quickly got comfortable in the space and began playing, taking turns hopping on one foot and showing off. I cheered and clapped as they hopped from one side of the room to another as the other families around us looked on and smiled. Before long, the father came over and told the kids to calm down – he didn’t want them jumping around anymore. He looked over at me and grinned sheepishly, apologizing for his kids’ behavior. He explained to me that they had been so well behaved and wonderful back in Syria, but after a life on the road and in camps they didn’t follow rules as well and were not accustomed to structure. I told him that it was no problem, them jumping around a bit while he gathered food and supplies was not an issue, but he was certain that he wanted them on their best behavior – something that I really admire.

I can only imagine the difference in his family when he came to visit them here in Greece, after their perilous trek from Syria without him. While he was starting a life in Germany, waiting for them, they were slowing making their way back to him, but in an environment that was not conducive to child-rearing at all. I wonder what it was like for him when he arrived at the camp here in Thessaloniki, seeing them all for the first time in around a year? Did they remember him? How had they changed? How had he changed?

Eventually the kids were calmed down and the bags of supplies from the church food and clothing bank were loaded into the van alongside the family’s bags from the camp. We drove with them to their new apartment on the other side of town – the father hopped out of the van quickly, eager to start unpacking and get his children all settled in. I stayed at the side of the van, picking up and swinging one child out at a time until they were all three lined up on the sidewalk, wide-eyed, taking it all in. The two older children went around the back of the van to begin carrying lighter things up, following in the path of Dimitrios, the translator, and their father. I stayed downstairs, keeping an eye on the van with the youngest one so that the others could carry things in without having to worry about keeping track of her. She and I walked around the van, looking down both ends of the street to see what was in sight. She tried on my sunglasses and gave me kisses on the cheek and, when I would give her a smooch on the cheek back, she would get so excited that she would shake and then throw her arms around my neck in a tight embrace.

When all the bags were carried in I plopped her down on the ground, shook her fathers hand one last time, and watched her totter after him into her new home – secure in the fact that she would be well taken care of for this leg of their journey to Germany.