Day 5. Yesterday was my break apart day; I felt inside like a shattered vase. The feeling came on me suddenly when I was working with Edi Edii in the food line at the entrance to the camp. The entire camp is surrounded by fencing and bobbed wire: the refugees can’t get out and no one can come in, including us, without passing police checkpoints with the appropriate camp ID. As the refugees enter, one by one, they are greeted with a food package. When it is NuN Kultura (NuN Civil Association) or one of the other volunteer organizations, it is chicken sandwiches. When it is the Red Cross, it is a bag of packaged foods. The volunteers try to greet people with a smile and encouragement–at this table, we are the first face the refugees see after the sometimes gruff checking of papers by police. I was greeting everyone with a smile, a Marhaba! Or Salaam Alaikum, when an old woman, dressed completely in black, threw her arms around me and declared that she loved me, kissing my cheeks and then holding me close to her. Her son said, “You are a miracle! We are so thankful for all the help you’ve given us along our journey.” And in that moment of very personal encounter, I felt myself splintering into many pieces. I became all the good people everywhere, and a refugee, no one, everyone– I felt myself vacuumed out. I know better than to cry, so I continued to smile, hand out sandwiches and greet people. But I was not the same for the rest of the day.
Our team hands out needed items in two ways: either distribution from the NuN Kultura container, or we rove the crowds, like Merema and Tara Kalaputi, finding those in need. I prefer the latter, walking thru the tent where people wait for their papers, or simply walking thru the crowds outside. Last night, everywhere I looked I saw broken shoes. It was like being on an archeology dig again, spotting broken shard from 100 feet away. When I saw or suspected bad shoes, i’d greeted a person, bend down to look at their shoes, and if they were bad, i’d ask them for their shoe, then encourage them to sit and wait, while I ran and got a new pair. At first I am able to quietly go thru the crowds like this, tending to those who won’t ask for help. But inevitably those who don’t hesitate to ask for help spot me, and then the task becomes chaos. The boots we are passing out require some effort to get on (think summer flip flops to putting on your winter boots — yes, ouch.) So often i’m at a person’s feet, unlacing shoes and helping to get the boots onto feet, particularly children. And then I stand and stamp my foot so they know this is the last step in the process of getting these strange boots all the way on. Sometimes I sit on the ground and pull off my own boot to show my many pairs of socks so they understand that they need to layer to keep their feet warm. Sometimes the shoes they hand me are too big or too small, so when I bring back a pair it is wrong size. I feel like a shoe salesman for the most part, trying to find the right shoes that fit each foot in a way that the person can comfortably walk. Once the chaos starts though, all the time i’m working with one person to get shoes on their feet, there are 10 hands tapping me, or grabbing my arm, pulling at my hair or my hat, trying to get my attention, ma’am, ma’am, ma’am, or worse, trying to grab new shoes out of my hands that belong to others. In that moment I start a litany of no, no, no, don’t touch, don’t touch, even while i’m staying focused on the person i’m helping. It is a song that danced thru my head all night, while my dance card was full of broken shoes, my own broken heart and sad, scared people.
Those of you who know me personally, known that I am a calm person until pushed, and then I have a temper. I was in the UNICEF tent giving shoes to children and moms who needed them. I worked in this tent for a few hours peacefully coordinating with the staff there, giving them baby shoes, getting from them baby hats and mittens. But then came the changing of the guard, and a new worker came to me and said rudely and aggressively, you are not to give mothers shoes here. Outside, outside! I pointed out that the mother to whom I was giving shoes (its a process to find the right size, so not a quick, here is your shoe) had a new born child next to her. What is she supposed to do, leave the baby there while she goes outside in the freezing rain to try on shoes? I basically ignored the worker and continued to give shoes to the moms I was working with. So she came over and yelled at me again. Frustrated, tired, and feeling broken myself, I told her, “Go soak your head in a toilet!” knowing she probably wouldn’t understand the slang. Thankfully I know a lot of crazy untranslatable American slang.
Sometime during the day, one of the angels of the camp, Tara, came to me and said she had a family of 5– a mother and 4 little children who had no money for the train. The father had been killed in the war. I said, no worries, I will pay for the tickets. The refugees have to wait, sometimes all day until the train comes, and when it does, everyone in the camp knows it because the refugees become like a murmuration of birds, all suddenly rising and moving together toward the line for the train. We generally get news about when the trains will arrive, so a little before the train was due last night Tara came to me to tell me that family had a very sick child. She had taken mother and child to the camp clinic, and the doctor there said the child was in critical condition and needed hospitalization immediately. But the mother refused — nothing was going to stop her from getting to Germany as fast as possible. Concerned, I asked Dr. Haroon to come look at the child, and she confirmed that the child looked very bad. She was in the middle of her exam when the train arrived, and then there was chaos. The mother pushed Dr Haroon away and grabbed the child to follow her relatives to the train. We spent a long time looking for this mother and child in the crowds, because after much discussion we decided to alert the police to the issue. But we never found her. It is likely that the baby, if not already dead, would be dead by the time the train reached its destination. The mother, a widow, could not conceive of being separated from her extended family, and knew the family would not wait for the sick child. As I stood outside the train last night, I felt a deep dark scream rise inside me, an anger beyond anger at all the other governments (Germany, US and so on) for forcing these people to take this crazy journey to find safety, a journey that is not only hard and scary, but one that makes them lose bits of themselves. As I stood there I screamed inside, “Just fucking airlift them!”