I woke this morning wondering what is real in life? And what is simply cultural fabrication? How do we see truth without our cultural bias? Love is a good example of cultural bias. As an American, I learned to love in a way that is similar to what we see in the movies. I grew up believing that the type of social intimacy that occurs in my culture between the sexes (I’m not talking about sex!) is natural. That when people love each other they are socially intimate, and if they are not socially intimate they don’t really love each other. I am blind in that way. Similarly, the social intimacy that is common between men in some cultures, would make many people in America wonder if they are are “gay.” In other words, we see what we are culturally trained to interpret, not what is real. At night particularly, it is bitter cold in the camp. The women sit together in the half warmed tents, the men stand outside smoking. We volunteers try to get the women with babies to go to the warm UNICEF room, where it is more comfortable, but where the men can not come. The women for the most part, resist. I wonder, how can they leave their children to suffer in the cold? I judge them for their inability to leave their family group. I do this because I am blind. Because I see life through my own cultural bias, and I judge from that standpoint. And by judging, I help create the circumstances that cause wars and created this crisis.
Yesterday, there were far fewer refugees. 305 on the train last night. But the group was far more vulnerable than any group I’ve seen so far. They were mostly Syrians, and most had lost everything to the sea. Few had big bags they were hauling, most had only what they wore on their backs. And so many disabled people, it seemed to me that a hospital of people had been sent to travel together. I helped one woman who had 4 disabled adult aged children (late teens or older.) All had feet or legs that did not work properly. In America, we would have said the mother was pushy. I gave her 4 pairs of underwear for herself and her daughters and can you imagine she begged me for more? What, she’s not happy with one pair of underwear each for her girls of menstrual age? We communicated by her looking at my clothing and pointing to what she needed, including pulling out my leggings to indicate underpants, to show me a shirt like the one under my sweater. My down vest, my coat, my windbreaker on top of that. These are all the things she wanted for her children. I can not fathom how she has traveled alone with her children from Syria to Macedonia. How they have walked the kilometers that refugees must walk on this refugee path. She came to me again and again, all night seeking the things that would keep her children safe, warm, help them suffer less. As a volunteer, it can get irritating when the same person asks you for more, always more, when there is not enough for everyone as it is. One pair of underpants. Be happy with that! Would I be happy? Of course not. I have the luxury of changing mine every day. So how can I judge her for asking again and again? How can I think to myself, she is nagging me now. How can I say, No? But I do, because we only have so many pairs.
The first arrivals I saw yesterday were a pair of sisters. One heavily pregnant, the other with a hunched back and legs so deformed they barely worked. At first I stood watching the pair walk, wondering, how can this be happening. And then my cultural bias kicked in and I rushed over assuming the disabled woman would be unhappy and need my help. When she turned to me, I was stunned by her radiant smile. She pointed to her sister’s belly and said proudly, “baby”. This woman had more to give me than I had to give her. I gave her shoes and a coat, but she gave me a glimpse of true happiness. Of personal peace. She did not need me to feel sorry for her. She did not need me to think, oh no, how can this happen to her? She only needed to greet me as a sister. As someone to talk to. As someone to share her light with. Indeed, she blessed me.
Later in the night refugees came with more baggage. I was helping find shoes for people in the resting tents. Shoe sizes are not reliable between models so I always take one of the refugees shoes and go to match. This helps me find them again (I waive the old shoe in the air if they’ve moved), plus keeps them from walking to the container and crowding around so that we can’t get in and out. (Yes, I’m a devil!) So I had 4 old shoes in my hands when I saw a small child of around 5-6 struggling with a very large trash bag. I ran over to him thinking I would take his bag from him, but when I took it I dropped it, it was so heavy. I could not carry that bag without his help. How did that child lift it on his back and walk the kilometers from Greece to Macedonia, and then across the camp?
Maybe it is purely my imagination, but perhaps it is possible that the Red Cross has gotten better since we’ve been here. Suddenly they are bringing boxes of coats out of storage. (We were wondering where the 80,000 coats they have on their inventory were.) Unfortunately, they only have two sizes, L and XL, which really are M and L in how they fit. Plus, all are pink. We can give “girls” hats and coats to the younger boys and they will wear them, but so far, I haven’t been able to convince any man to wear a hot pink parka. But I am glad their pride is intact. I tell them, ask for Megan Tucker at the next camp. She will help you find shoes and a coat. Megan is another American working at Tabanovce, the camp that is at the Macedonian-Serbian boarder. Like me she is obsessed with shoes. We haven’t met in person, though honestly I feel close to so many good people working on this crisis, who I’ve never met in person (yet.) Today, though I get to meet Megan as she is coming for a visit to Gevgelija! Gevgelija is a fortress, while Tabanovce is open. So many more volunteers in Tabanovce because it is easier to get into the camp. From Tabanovce they step into Serbia, so not many police because Macedonia doesn’t care about refugees leaving. Only about people coming in. Countries everywhere are the same. I am not by any means politically radical, but this crisis makes me wonder about our bias about boarders. In today’s world, do boarders really protect us?