My life experience as an older woman and a mother helped to open doors at Frakapor refugee camp, where I volunteered in January 2017.
The camp, located in northern Greece near the Macedonian border, was home to several hundred people, a large percentage of them Syrian Kurds, and many of them families with children.
Because of our shared basic experience as women, I frequently sat and talked with these extraordinary wives, sisters, aunts and grandmothers. We admired pictures of each other’s children, acknowledged physical aches and pains; laughed at each other’s translated jokes; rolled our eyes over small injustices.
The huge, gaping injustices, such as why they were in a camp and I was not; why their children were playing in a dungeon-like rec room while mine was in school; why they had to flee their country while mine was safe; were never addressed in a negative kind of way. I was never made to feel … less … because I hadn’t lived through what they had.
Instead, my gracious new friends, with help from their English-speaking children, were intensely curious about my homeland. What did people from Seattle think of refugees? What was my job there? Did I have a husband? Did I live in a house or an apartment? And so on. Cell phones were exchanged and photos eagerly evaluated, with accompanying exclamations of pleasure and yet more questions.
I realized quite quickly that many had lives similar to mine, raising families in a country they had loved. They had jobs; they had modern appliances; they had extended networks of family members, with whom they had celebrated the blessings of life and commiserated with over the mishaps.
The term “refugee” was some other thing, a foreign value the world had placed upon them. And it described just a fraction of the rich lives they led, and would continue to lead, once they found asylum in a country that would welcome them.
One of the best experiences I had in Frakapor — and in my life, really — was makeover nights. With another woman volunteer, I had been assigned to run the women’s tent. The tent, which was decorated in soothing colors with pillows and lamps, was a designated place for the women of the camp to let the proverbial hijab down, away from husbands and children.
We hadn’t been at it for long, when I asked the group of ladies what kinds of things they would find useful in their tent.
The answer I received loud and clear: makeup.
With Larry, another volunteer in my group, we went shopping the next morning at Jumbo’s department store in nearby Thessaloniki. Jumbo’s is like a Greek version of Costco — every household item you can possibly imagine, including a whole wall devoted to cosmetics.
Larry and I quickly filled up a shopping cart with lipstick, eyebrow pencils, foundation, blush and press-on nail kits. Prices, thanks to the depressed Greek economy, were cheap. Fifty Euros got us out the door.
When we got to camp, I hauled our giant bag of goods into the store room. With help from my network of young women friends, we spread the word that tonight’s women’s tent was going to be a special one.
The tent opened that afternoon to a major crowd of women — everyone from teenage girls to grandmothers. Even some of the boys wanted in.
Within minutes, the tent filled up with women rummaging through products, opening packaging and trying everything.
The event turned into a social gathering as well, with women talking as they tweezed each other’s eyebrows, applied foundation, glued on nails.
Beautiful already, they simply glowed with perfectly applied facial cream, eyeliner and mascara.
Frakapor may have been a refugee camp with no running water, but just for an hour or so one evening, and several others following, it was the backdrop to a regular girl’s night. A little normalcy can go such a long way.
I’m sure their husbands appreciated it too.