Yesterday was my second day at the same refugee camp in Greece. Like the previous day, our first assignment was to sort clothing in the aid warehouse and get it ready for the boutique that has been created here for the refugees to shop in. It’s a really unique system here in this camp of attempted fairness, in the most unfair of situations.
The woman that has created all of this beautiful organization of shops and distribution around camp, (Bridge2) and commands the love and respect of everybody, both aid worker and refugee, was nervous and upset because an NGO has dumped a ton of supplies to build floors for the refugee tents, but left no one to manage the distribution, and the task falls on us. She shows only strength and confidence, even as it’s realized that there are not enough pallets to give everybody a whole floor. We are now referring to this day as “pallet-gate”.
Tensions rose around camp among the refugees, as they realized they were getting half a floor, and my team member Heather and our friend Sam managed the fair distribution of massive amounts of lumber and building of the partial floors. People were so upset to not have a whole floor, which protect them and their possessions in the common case of rain and flooding, and it was amazing to see the reality of pallet-gate managed so well by the aid teams there (especially Heather and Sam).
While that was going on, my job starting at noon, was to receive families with another aid worker as they left the clothing boutique, and fit their children for shoes and check their feet for infection or injury. The families were by and large so grateful and respectful and amazing, and I played and made faces at the kids while we tried in shoes and had a giggle. We were only distributing shoes for children and there were 2 small sources of conflict that came up often which were emotional to deal with.
1. Many of the refugees come from a comfortable or middle class life back in their home country and it was very hard for a few of them to accept used clothing and shoes as their “new” possessions. Many parents and children were frustrated that this is their living situation and they were finding it hard to accept that used shoes was what we had to offer. It was heartbreaking, but the rules of aid distribution are solid; fairness above all else, favor no one, do what you can when you can – safely, and show compassion and empathy.
2. Many women begged me for shoes. Mostly pregnant women. Many may be thinking “why didn’t I give them shoes?” I will explain it as best I can. What we have seen in these camps is that when one person is given something that others have not been given, this person is in instant danger of being attacked, or the person or location on camp where the aid was given (In this example, the shoe room) will be mobbed by frustrated people endangering the aid distribution process. Thus, for these women’s own safety, I had to not give them shoes. I’ve cried many times over it, and I’m sure I’m not finished yet. The faces of these pregnant women pleading for me to bend the rules are burned in my heart and I can’t even explain to you what it feels like. I feel successful – for getting the children their shoes, and horrible all at the same time.
After shoe distribution ended around 4 pm. I spent 2.5 hours sorting clothes in the warehouse before I was sent to help move pallets and other flooring pieces from their central drop off location to individual tents. We worked I till almost 9 pm to make sure we had done the best and fairest distribution that we could. But we named it pallet-gate for a reason. I’ll never forget.
The other adventure of the day was had as I went to the warehouse mid pallet-gate to get a drink of water and saw 3 children ages 3-5 running toward the street. The street outside the camp is very busy, and they rarely close the gate because people are allowed to come and go, and deliveries and such are happening all the time at Camp. I took off running toward them, and at the last minute at the edge of the gate to the road, the stopped and turned right abruptly and started harassing the police officers stationed there in their air conditioned cubicle. I fished one child out of the street, who had not turned his attention to the police station, and then I bolted for the police box. I fished the 2 boys out of the police box as the police officers looked at me like I had lost control of my own children, and plopped them back outside. I secretly wished I could kick the police officers out of the box for 10 minutes just to let the boys cool off. It was so hot yesterday. But those thoughts quickly disappeared as two of the boys each grabbed an orange traffic cone set outside the police box, and ran in different directions. I chased down one, but had Sam, another aid worker, not popped out of nowhere and caught the other little one, the police would have lost a traffic cone for sure.
These children are in such need of activities! They are just normal kids looking to play, but the place they are trying to play in is an army and ngo and nonprofit run refugee camp, which is not an easy place to be.