My Laidlaw LiA project led me to a blue-painted warehouse-style building on the island of Lesvos in Greece. This would be where I would spend my weekdays, working for an organisation called WWBT (When We Band Together). Each morning the international volunteers would pile into a van and we would drive outside of the capital city of Mitlini to reach the WWBT Women and Children's Centre for Refugees. The fifteen-minute drive took us past the refugee camp, Moria, with its mammoth plastic housing tents and its constant trickle of people entering and exiting. The camp resides on the eastern side of the island, pushed closely to the shore as if trying to persuade its residents to turn back and return from where they came. From the island, across a little puddle of Aegean Sea, you can see the mountains of Turkey hazy in the reflection of the bright sun. I make note of this because many of the refugees lived in Turkey for months or years before seeking asylum in Europe. The women and children who frequent the centre hail from Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Eritrea.
In my mind, the centre is split into three parts: the fitness and language class area, the living space with sofas and six laundry machines (although washing machine Five has been broken during my entire time there), and the outside children's play area. My job is mainly laundry registrations, which consists of recording the names and nationalities of the women who wish to use this part of the centre's services. Each washing cycle is cut in half to 22 minutes to accommodate the overcrowded requests. There are frequent times when I try to explain this to women who definitely wish I could make their lives easier by speaking Farsi (Persian) or Arabic.
At noon the English beginners class starts and I write the ABCs in my best handwriting and we go through words like 'sun', 'good', and 'walk'. I have them say each letter in the word and the corresponding sound it makes. This exercise makes me fond of the word 'jump' where it's also easy for me to pantomime, and judgmental of words like 'listen', where I'm not sure how to convey that the t is silent. One of the days I wrote the words: milk, water, and juice. I had my waterbottle and there was a child's leftover juice box on the table so these were easy to convey, but I was stumped for milk. My mooing did not seem to work as well as I thought it would. Then I pointed to my breasts and mimicked cradling a baby. The eight mothers around my table immediately understood and excitedly echoed, 'شیر (shar)!'. There are also times when I rely on Google Translate to communicate a phrase I'm trying to teach. One day, however, I was typing, 'Nice to meet you' and the two women I was working with looked at my phone and then told me, 'No Farsi'. I was confused because I knew they were from Afghanistan and had been speaking to the other women. I called over our resident translator, Mariam, who is sixteen and wants to study medicine to become a surgeon. She loves martial arts movies and has a crush on Donnie Yen who I like to tease is 44 years older than her. Mariam listened to the two women and then relayed to me that they were never able to go to school so they couldn't read the Farsi that was written on my phone. I felt a bit taken aback, they were more literate in English than in their own native tongue.
The centre is a transient place, with families given days' notice and transferred seemingly on a whim to other camps on Greece's mainland. I feel like this perpetual instability actually heightens the closeness of the women working at the centre. They're called community volunteers (as opposed to us international volunteers) and they are refugees from the camp. We all address each other as 'sister' and work together to accommodate the 50-200 women who show up to our little blue warehouse each day. One of my favorite parts of the day is when the van drops the community volunteers off at the centre and there is a rush of hugs, kisses on cheeks, and Kaliméra's exchanged (good morning in Greek). The community volunteers bring their children most days, save when they have school at the camp. It's their children who have become most dear to me. A set of brothers, Faradone (age 11) and Fardin (age 8) always nag me to play volleyball with them. The younger brother, Fardin loves the other little babies at the centre and whenever I find myself holding one he joyfully comes over to pinch and kiss their chubby cheeks.
At the laundry registration table, I always try to occupy the kids who come over to play. They call me teacher, 'Teacha! Teacha!', and bring dominos or jenga blocks. I taught a boy named Milad how to play Slap Jack since he knew his numbers in English. He wants to be junior Ronaldo so during my breaks I'd go kick the football around with him and his younger brother, Mishan. At the laundry table, little Fardin asked me for a portrait on scrap paper, after which I asked for forgiveness while we laughed at what I had created. He didn't mind my terrible drawing of him, as long as I drew his earring (which how could I forget, he repeatedly reminded me to do so).
Of the community' volunteers' children there are somehow mainly boys. They play sports outside in the parking lot or sit bored on the sofas or bug their mothers. As an NGO that only allows women and children it makes me think at what age does a boy become alienated from his mothers and sisters. They are such sweet children I get dejected thinking that if they were older they would be considered a threat to the safety and sanctuary of this space.
It is ironic to me as well that the community volunteers are some of most welcoming women I have met, yet when they tell me of the European countries they dream to one day reach I get worried about the hostility and racism they may face. In Mitlini there is a main beach nicknamed 'the one euro beach'. To walk from the camp to this beach would take around forty minutes to an hour. One of the volunteers told me that they knew a small group of refugees who wanted to go to the beach and were charged two euros, rather than the standard one euro fare. It may not seem like a lot of money, but in addition to being unjust, these are people who are already enduring poor living conditions in camp without the right to earn money due to their refugee status. I have spoken to them in broken English and all they want is for their families to be safe and to be able to provide for their children, but first, they have to make it past Moria, registration and identification papers, government policies, and you. I say you because how you view the refugee crisis impacts them too. If you only take one thing away from this remember that these 'refugees' are people; people who are deserving of all the privileges you and I have been afforded simply by being born in the right country.