So much has happened today that I will try to keep this as focused as I can — it was an incredible 12-hour day that at times simply flew by.
We left our hotel at 7 a.m. to collect a Kurdish family that was needing to pick up legal paperwork, to seek asylum in Germany.
The family is a husband and wife with a daughter, Fatima, 13, and sons Ali, 12, and Hasan, 9. (Names changed to protect identities.)
Fatima’s English was quite good, and she was all the things you would expect of a bright teenager with the world before her: vivacious and with a sense of fun that made me want to hug her, even though she was one seat back from me. I sat with her family in the van while her dad and my teammates waited in line in the bitter cold to pick up the paperwork.
What a family. Fatima’s mother had gone to Germany first and received asylum and a German passport. She returned to her family, now relocated in Thessaloniki, and had been reunited with them the week before. Hasan seemed bonded at the hip, and kissed her hand between video games on his tablet, as she caressed his short, black hair. Ali listened to music in the back seat, while Fatima, sitting next to him, asked about America and wondered aloud how old I was, in between a running dialogue with her mother.
I asked Fatima how she and her family had managed to make it from Syria to Greece. Buses, she said, for the longer parts of the trip. And they walked. A lot. She likes Greece. Although the food is definitely not like that of Syria. She wants to go to America. She wants to learn English. She likes writing. She is worried about Germany.
Through Fatima, I was able to talk to her mother, and by the time our van finally left — her dad was still waiting for the paperwork after more than 2 hours and would rejoin the family with a taxi — I was overwhelmed by this family. They were simply so kind.
When we arrived at the camp in Thessaloniki, Fatima held my arm and leaned into me. We walked together into a huge, dim building with a cement floor and columns of tents, bisected by a broad open space — a cement boulevard — stretching back into the dusky light. Children ran by, or careened through on bicycles.
The camp was dark (a temporary loss of power). But people were talking to each other. It was noisy with the sound of kids being kids, even in this most unusual of times and environments.
The camp has the air of being down, but not out. People know their neighbors. They work together. They know each other’s stories. They are proud of their cooking — and they offer it to their guests with a warmth that brightens the gray-walled warehouse that they call home.
Fatima insisted I must visit the tent of a friend. So we opened the flap of a large wall tent, and I was summoned Into a carpeted space lit by the orange glow of a heater. I was in the home of a woman who I later found out was 78 years old. She is one helluva tough woman — more limber than me, and constantly working.
Soon after, her daughter in law, Josia, came in and joined us. With Fatima interpreting, we inquired each about the other. There were multiple hugs, kisses, patting of the knees. They found out I had a daughter, so I was encouraged to dig through my iPhone for a shot of my offspring, who is the most camera-shy person I’ve ever met. I finally found one picture of her and my mother, and the phone was passed around, to admiring nods and comments.
And then I was fed. A plate of pastries was handed to me and I was encouraged to eat not just one, but all of it, which I did, thanking God my hiking pants had an expandable waist line. Sweetened tea was poured for me, and it was delicious. We mutually admired each other’s hair, skin, eyes. Fatima’s mother, who also joined us, asked, by way of Google translate, what my feelings about refugees in Europe were. “They should welcome you” I typed onto the program of her cell phone, meaning it.
This intel was shared among the group, to nods and smiles.
Shortly afterward, I was given my first assignment of the day: working in the kids’ area. It was a section of the warehouse walled off with plywood and lit with one light bulb. It had a foosball table, children-sized chairs and a bank of wooden shelves with containers full of donated toys. Larry and I were in charge of this area from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. It was pandemonium.
Children were running around burning off pent-up energy, shooting hoops at the improvised basketball court outside the kids area, playing foosball, throwing Velcro darts and playing pool (a mini-sized plastic table that had just arrived that morning, which proved to be a mega hit.) At first it was all boys, but later three or four girls showed up. They more than held their own.
Everyone played hard but the only person who actually cried was the little boy, probably no more than 2, when I attempted to pick him up so he wouldn’t get run over by the older boys. My bad. I put him back down next to the tussling kids at the foosball table, and he commenced chewing on a rubber shuttlecock from a mini badminton set, content. Later I traded him a jump-rope handle for the shuttlecock, so I could play badminton with the girls. It had tooth marks on it, but was serviceable.