Day 7 and 8. Thursday was Orthodox Christmas so everything was closed and the camp was quiet, as for the most part, the buses in Greece were not transporting refugees. Because of that, and because we were out of shoes again, and wanted to buy pants, undergarments, ladies hygiene items and more scarfs and mittens, we headed to Skopje. Think of backpacking thru Europe with little money and, at least in Macedonia, no access to stores, and you have the life of a refugee–young, old, newborn, disabled–everyone must take this same path. There are no exceptions, no airlifting, except in one or two extreme circumstances I’ve heard of in Greece. For sure, no airlifting from Macedonia. People ask us for everything: in addition to shoes and clothing, the requests I’ve gotten are shaving cream, skin cream, shoe laces, underwear, bras, and feminine pads. (Ladies, imagine the horror of a long trek by boat, foot, bus, old train, having no, or perhaps one, change of clothing, being packed into tents with hundreds of strangers, and having no access to feminine products. This would be the topic of nightmares for me. As it is, I dream about lost shoes.) In Macedonia, the refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. I’ve asked why and I’ve been told it is to prevent Balkan people from joining the exodus. Macedonia is a very poor country; many have no work. Hence, there is sometimes resentment against the refugees because they, at least, have hope of something better elsewhere.
When we arrived in Skopje, we did an interview with a local Muslim news channel, and went to meet with others at NuN Civil Association to discuss strategy for the coming days. On this trip, I’m a minority, and I’ve felt more than once the discomfort of being singled out. Sehr was infuriated when a reporter in the USA asked her if she was Muslim, but did not ask me the same. The tables were turned here when I was asked if I was a Muslim and she was not. Also I’ve felt strangely hurt when she and Wiam are introduced as “my sister”, and I am introduced just by my name. I’ve felt an inkling of what Muslims and other minorities feel in America. The feeling of separation, of somehow not belonging, no matter that I’m a good person and a hard worker, no matter that people like me. Somehow I am held apart from the others. Interestingly, the American Muslims I’m traveling with consider themselves “brown” people, and that too has been a separating factor in many conversations. The Macedonian, Albanian and Bosnian Muslims, however, consider themselves “white” — which I always happily point out whenever the topic of brown vs. white people comes up, and I am again singled out as being “different.” This makes me wonder if the color gradation that my American colleagues refer to is more about racism in America than something universal. If previously, someone asked me what color Wiam or Sehr were I’d say white. Truthfully, I wasn’t aware of all the gradations in color that others feel. I can honestly say that being a minority here makes me feel a tiny bit alienated and alone.
After scouring the NuN warehouse for supplies we could use at the camp (frankly, some donations are just not that helpful), we left for dinner at a restaurant where I could get some fish. Not wanting to look my dinner in the eye (literally) I declined the local trout and opted instead for salmon. Big mistake. God knows where that salmon traveled from, and indeed I got a mild case of food poisoning that night. (Don’t worry, nothing that a day without eating or drinking didn’t conquer!). The next day we spent shopping for food, underwear, feminine products, and Wiam went on the hunt for chapstick because she had noticed that people’s lips were badly peeling from the journey. Buying in Macedonia is a long process. As Americans we want to go in, pick out our items, pay and leave. Not the Macedonian way. Two or three hours of tea drinking (in a smoke filled room) and conversation occur between us picking shoes and the final deal. Being able to plea nausea, I escaped and went walking around Skopje with Kemal. While we walked, he told me about the history of the city and the region, and we also visited Mother Teresa’s house. I had no idea she was from Macedonia. We told the docent about the camp, and of course I had to mention the good work Kemal is doing. The docent was very happy to hear about “Mother Teresa’s legacy” continuing in Macedonia. Leaving that museum, we walked thru the glitzy new city center with its crazy proliferation of new bronze statues. Like many Macedonians, Kemal is rightly outraged at the expense of all these statues, when people in Macedonia are starving. The new city center is on the edge of the Turkish area of the city and the contrast is like plunking down Disney World in Detroit.
On the way “home” to Gevgeljia, I keep thinking about the question of what we’ve accomplished so far. Sehr left for the USA early this morning, and talked about how satisfied she was with all we’ve accomplished here so far in Gevgeljia. We’ve bought between 1500-2000 pairs of warm shoes, clothing, coats, food. I was quieter about our “success” because to me, our contribution is only a drop of rain in a vast ocean. We’ve touched a few individuals, and I hope have made them feel, in a small way, like the world cares. But the problem is so big, and with no immediate end in sight, that I feel that our contribution has been minuscule. The long term volunteers, on the other hand, are the surgeons in the triage clinic. New patients come in daily, but in the larger scope of things, they are making a difference, and need our support. For me, our mission here has really been more about helping the long term volunteers to continue their work for the refugees. Many (probably most) work without pay, or a very little stipend. That’s why we are so angry with the big NGOs, like Red Cross, UNICEF and UNHCR. Their employees get paid a regular (and often good) salary, while the volunteers work harder, care more, and get little or nothing, except perhaps, a small stipends from these big Orgs.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how those of us removed from the crisis make the biggest impact. The real work for all of us is to stop the conditions that are causing the crisis. To look at our own attitudes, and biases. To think more globally instead of only about our individual problems. To demand that the war and the arms trade is stopped. To realize that it is only by luck that this crisis is not about us. And to internalize that in some ineffable way, what happens to “them”, affects each of us, too. We do, indeed, live in a small world.