One of the first questions most people ask me about the work I’ve been doing in northern Greece is, ‘Who are the refugees?’
The ethnic mix differs from one camp to another. People of similar backgrounds seem to get on better when living together especially if they share mother tongues. The refugees I worked with were mainly Syrian by nationality although a good proportion are ethnically Kurds, some of whom don't speak Arabic. Sometimes it felt like inter-group tensions reflected a proxy war in the camps. Perhaps each group feel that the others are responsible for their dispossession and grief. In addition to Syrians and Kurds, there are other nationalities. Quite a number are Afghans. Some are Iraqis. A few teenage Pakistani boys are here. An Eritrean couple arrived recently. We have a delightful Palestinian family who first fled into the Lebanon, then two years later left to settle in Syria, which also became a warzone and again they had to leave even this adopted homeland.
Everyone in the camps has lost so much but mostly their biggest concern is that they feel stuck and have no idea what happens next. They wait and wait. During September and October, several told me that their interview with the United Nations to talk about where they will go isn’t going to happen until April. And that’s just to talk about plans.
They are asked what country they would like to go to and grade four or five choices. Many have links with certain countries. Some have relatives scattered across several nations. Germany and Scandinavia are popular choices. Few want to stay in Greece. No-one wants to go to Spain as the economic crisis means there will be little chance for work. Few mention the UK, surprisingly.
It feels like Greece – in the midst of its own crisis – is trying hard to do what it can for the refugees, despite the fact that many Greeks don’t see it as a priority. It is a political hot potato. So many Greeks are out of work and those who are in work may be on one-third pay. One hospital surgeon, for example, is earning 700€ a month. Another colleague is never sure when he will be paid, and even does voluntary shifts in one of Thessaloniki’s main hospitals for no remuneration whatsoever.
Greeks wait philosophically for some sign of the end of austerity. Refugees wait despairingly for some kind of plan for them. In many cases, when they do learn they will move from the camp, they may understand it is into a hotel or house, they have absolutely no idea where they will be sent. One woman didn’t even know which country, but she was excited finally to be moving on. Some refugees have become so frustrated by the waiting and disempowerment that they want to return to the warzone.
There is so much anger. It spills over easily. There can be lots of shouting, but I never felt threatened. There was one incident where things felt a bit personal. A refugee – one of many whose moods are unpredictable and who often seem on the edge of mental illness – did threaten me once, his face contorted with hate. He resented me saying ‘no’ to his demand for addictive medicines. I kept my face neutral.
Syria does have the reputation of being much more open than other Middle Eastern countries but even Syrian men are unused to women saying ‘no’ to them. Actually no-one really likes it, and – distracted by trying to run several consultations simultaneously – I had said ‘no’ too soon, not first explaining that I could offer other effective pain-relieving drugs.
The next time I saw him, he greeted me with a smile. His back pain was more manageable. He was sleeping better. He said, via the interpreter that he wanted to kiss me.
There was another potentially awkward stand-off where I acted as if his suggestion was outrageous. (I was trying hard not to smile). I told him that only my husband was allowed to kiss me.
He was then mortified he’d given offence. He apologised. I apologised. Having established our positions, the consultations that followed were easier. I think even through his distress, he recognised that I genuinely wanted to do my best to help him. That I cared about his situation. I tried to show him kindness. I gave him time, even when I suspected some of
his visits were merely to break up the boredom of his months stuck here in Greece.
Some days it is easier to see the positives. A few days ago, during another busy day, my Syrian interpreter and the patient unexpectedly started smiling. When I asked why, they both pointed to a butterfly that had fluttered into the clinic. Winter is coming but, when the sun shines, red admirals waken, even in November. My interpreter explained that when a butterfly comes inside like this it means that something good will happen. I’m sure it will. The children in the camp – who are the most resilient members of the community – know it will. Mumkin bukrah, Insha’Allah.
(Maybe tomorrow, God willing).
During September and October, I posted a series of blogs about my experience of working as a volunteer in refugee camps in Greece and the link to the first is here: In Diavata Camp