Abu Rudy shaved today. For the past two weeks that we have come to know him through his work as a translator here at the camp, he has always been scruffy. Not a full or even well-tailored beard, but a graying, whiskery beard. The beard of a man grown weary.
But this morning, like the new shoes he has had set aside for this long-awaited occasion, he shines. He is standing among several dozen Syrian Kurdish families all having gathered at the gate to await the bus that will take them to Athens for their second interview.
But where Abu Rudy is uncharacteristically nervous, very aware of the weight of this trip, the other families are laughing. The women in their bright dresses and head scarves huddle together for group photos, the children being children, chase each other about laughing, pulling at each other’s clothes, hiding behind the legs of their mothers. It has been a very long, traumatic journey, through routes ranging from Turkey to Libya, the Greek islands all the way here to the border of Macedonia in northern Greece where they have hit a wall and go no further. But today, they are hopeful. Maybe, “god willing,” they will be allowed to begin again.
For me this trip began in Humboldt, from my home in Manila, listening to KHSU and hearing an interview with a local woman who had just returned from Athens speaking about her work with the refugees. I had finally created space in my life to take a trip, but kept putting it off because I was wanting more than just a vacation, something where I could combine travel with some sort of service.
“Just go,” she said. If you have even the smallest interest, go. It will absolutely be worth it. The tone of her voice carried the conviction.
Six weeks later I arrived at this camp having hopped from SFO to Stockholm to Budapest and finally, Thessanoliki, Greece, seamlessly moving from one country to the next, greeted with smiles as they stamped my passport, my golden ticket, and welcomed me to their country.
But the residents do not have the same privileges. Their country has undergone a horrendous civil war with their neighborhoods, homes, schools, markets and hospitals bombed by both Syrian and Russian forces, cut off from food, medical care, basic goods like toilet paper, kerosene and diapers they were forced to flee. By the hundreds of thousands. Half a country in just a few years.
Walking across mountains and taking to the sea, many of them on the road for years, with the young children misunderstanding the word “house” to simply mean tent.
And so they have become dependent on the help of strangers. Former truck drivers, medical workers, lawyers, scientists, bakers. Everyone.
With a raw mixture of humility and appreciation, they line up at our plywood shed where we distribute the days rations, peering in to glimpse what they may receive on this day.
Today each person will receive one carrot, one potato, one lemon, half a bunch of parsley, a small bag of rice, another of bulgar, and some cooking oil. All of it donated and nothing dependable. Sometimes sugar or tea, sometimes spinach, and for many camps, very little at all.
This camp, Nea Kavala, is considered one of the best. And only three months ago they were living out of tents in a muddy field, frozen solid, 4,000 people huddled close to kerosene stoves, if they had them, or simply wrapped in coats and blankets.
There is no easy answer to this situation and I have yet to see anything to suggest otherwise. So we simply do what we can do. Like the name of this aid group, we are just A Drop in the Ocean.
We strive to understand, perhaps give some food or a pair of socks, or like today, take in a measure of inspiration, joy, humility and appreciation in the daily life of the camp - young men, boys and girls kicking a soccer ball against the warehouse doors while dancing to their own impromptu karaoke; mothers and daughters walking hand in hand laughing and smiling, heads wrapped in bright scarves, as they carry their bag of rations back home; three boys in a tussle over a single bike; a young woman giving one of the Norwegian volunteers a haircut; and Abu Rudy, Mohammed, father of Ruby, freshly shaved, shiny shoes, head lowered as he waits for a bus that will determine his life to come.
Dave Reagan is a Manila resident who is working with refugees in Greece.