Dr Who Actress Catrin Stewart blogs on her time volunteering with Help Refugees supported organisations in Greece, including Skipchen and Iokasti’s Kitchen in Athens and explains why we cannot turn our backs on humans, just like us, who happen to be refugees.
I want you to see the refugee crisis with your own eyes, hear the individual stories with your own ears; not just what you read in the paper or see on the news. I want you to see their sad eyes, their worried, hardened faces.
Catrin and children in Athens
I want you to speak to a Syrian boy, an Afghani man, an Iraqi lady, a Syrian girl, and ask them where they are from and let them tell you why they are here. Let them speak so passionately about their country, the beauty of it, it’s riches and it’s culture. I want you to see their eyes when they talk about having to leave and why they left. Let them tell you that they couldn’t stay in their country any longer. They had no choice but to leave.
They want a safe, better life. They want to survive.
I want you to see that they are individuals. They are not ‘a bunch of migrants’, but individual human beings, with their own stories. They have come with hardly any belongings, with their children, families or alone. They want a safe, better life. They want to survive.
Let one man tell you that he was a writer in Afghanistan but had to flee because his life was in danger. How he fled to Iran but had to flee from there too; they also punish you for free speech. How he has now set up his own shoe making shop and works long hours for little money. He speaks Greek and English well. He will enjoy his beer in the square with his friends and you will think to yourself how he must long to write again.
Ask a Syrian lady where she is from and she will tell you Homs, the city that you’ve seen on the news that has now been destroyed. She, like many others, will tell you what a beautiful country Syria was. She will tell you she is a teacher and is alone in Athens. How she spent fifty days at the Macedonian border waiting to be let through, to continue her journey to Germany to meet her family, but had to come back as they closed the borders. She will describe it as a desert, with snakes, and so many children. Waiting, un-welcomed and scared. She will tell you she is so tired and needs to rest now and time to think of what she will do next. She hopes the borders will open again.
She will look at you with her big beautiful crystal blue eyes and tell you she doesn’t belong in a place like this. She will look as though she has had enough of this life, is ready to give up, and will ask you ‘What do we do?’ You will have no answers. You will feel helpless and ashamed and so sorry. You will try not to cry.
You will hold her tightly and wish her luck. No words from you will feel enough.
You will assure her that people from around the world do care, and do think of the pain and suffering. You will tell her that you pray for peace. You will hug her goodbye and kiss her cheek. Her skin will be so soft. You will hold her tightly and wish her luck. No words from you will feel enough. You will watch her leave, alone, back to her tent that stands in a huge dark, hot, smelly stagnant warehouse, amid so many others. You will wonder whether she will get much sleep in there tonight, and hope that she will be safe. She will wake up the next day and it will be the same again. She, like everyone else will wait for something to happen, for the situation to change.
A 16 year old Afghani girl will ask you to come and sit with her. She will want to practise her English with you. She will tell you that she is so tired of staying here, and that she has bad tooth ache. She will tell you that her parents are still in Afghanistan and she travelled with her brother and Uncle. She hopes to reach Germany and recites some German words to you. She will ask you if you are married or have a boyfriend. She will ask to see a picture. She will giggle when she asks if he loves you. You will ask her if she has a boyfriend and she looks sadly and says no and tell you that the men here are horrible and not nice. You will wonder if she is afraid of them.
She will tell you that she wants to come back to London with you.
You will watch men, children and families carrying all their belongings and tents to a new area of the port, out of sight. They are not to be seen by the tourists who will be arriving soon for their Easter holidays. You will watch as they try to make a comfortable home with tents and blankets and you will wonder how long they will stay in the new spot. They all help each other, how practical they seem; they joke around and they are still smiling.
You will notice the children helping their mothers wash their clothes in the sun and think to yourself that they must have to keep themselves busy here.
Children will run up to you with beautiful faces and beaming smiles and want to play and hug you. They will count to ten with you in English and give you colourful drawings. You will look at their innocence and wonder what horrors they have seen and been through. Some of them may only know this way of life. You will remind yourself that most of them must have made treacherous journeys on boats to get here.
It will reinstate again that we are all human.
Whilst volunteering at the four ladies showers, you will hand out numbers for women to wait. They will wait patiently. Women and children will get excited when it’s their turn. They may not have had one the day before, or the day before that. They may not have one tomorrow. The water will be cold but they will take their time and enjoy the only bit of privacy they have. They will come out smiling and looking fresher. They will ask you for a hairbrush, or moisturiser and sometimes underwear. The supplies have ran out so you say no again, and apologise again. You tell them there will be more tomorrow. You don’t know, but you hope there will be more tomorrow. You think to yourself how much we take for granted and what a basic human right being able to wash is.
They will thank you and you will somehow communicate with each other, even though you don’t speak Arabic or Farsi. You will still be able to laugh together.
It will reinstate again that we are all human.
Shower facilities at the port
You will watch a Syrian teacher set up a small marquee at the port and lay blankets on the ground so that she can teach a big class of Syrian children. Her 12 year old daughter will help her. The children will sit with their legs crossed; engaged and wanting to learn, to be stimulated again. You will think to yourself that they have not been to school in a long time.
You will speak to the Syrian teacher and she will tell you that her 10 year old son is in Germany. That she speaks to him on the phone through Viber or Whatsapp. She will tell you that she hasn’t seen him in eight months and that she misses him so much; that talking on the phone isn’t the same as seeing him. How she longs to hug him, to smell him, to touch him. She will try not to cry. Later she will come and ask you if you have a cigarette; she doesn’t usually smoke but she wants one today.
If you don’t want to fight you will be arrested or killed.
A young unaccompanied Syrian boy of seventeen will tell you he worked in Turkey for 5 months in a factory, for very little money and lost his job. He will tell you how tiring it was and how there are so many Syrians that can replace you straight away. He hopes to be re-united with his Mother and brother in Germany. His father is in prison in Syria. He will tell you that he doesn’t know whether he’s dead or alive. His voice will break and you will try not to cry, again. He will tell you that everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists but that’s not true. You will assure him you know this.
He will tell you that he did not want to fight for Assad and so he fled. If you don’t want to fight you will be arrested or killed.
He would like to go to an English speaking country. You tell him his English is excellent and he will tell you he learnt it by watching American films. He wants to be an architect. He will repeat again that he is so bored and that there is nothing to do but lie in bed and play on his phone. He will be happy to see you again the next day.
An Afghan man will come to the food distribution in Victoria Square. He will tell another volunteer that he has come from the camp with his family that evening. You will hear that he has been on a hunger strike for 40 days. A volunteer will say softly to him that he has a family to look after. That he must live for them. This time you will cry, but you will not let him see you.
You will feed so many people from the food van. Two lines will be formed to wait for their cup of rice and vegetables and a piece of bread. Children will wait patiently and come back for seconds, or thirds. They will say thank-you and smile, and eat their food in peace.
The police will be nearby expecting trouble, but there is none. Wanting to clear them from a public area.
You will think to yourself; if it wasn’t for this food, what would they eat?
They will socialise in the square until it gets dark and go their own ways. Some back to the camps on the outskirts of Athens, others to squats or to the port, or wherever else they can lay their heads that night. You will think to yourself; if it wasn’t for this food, what would they eat?
You will be welcomed into a new squat. The building is owned by a Kurdish man who has let 120 Syrian Kurds and 70 Iraqi’s stay. They will be smiling and welcoming and seem proud of their home. You will see a ten month old baby wrapped up tightly in a blanket in the corner of the room and you will think that she has some safety and comfort, at last. Her mother will look relieved.
And when you get home, back to your comfortable safe home, you will think of these people. You will shower, wash your clothes, cook your food and see your friends and family. You will go to bed at night feeling safe, stable and secure that when you wake up tomorrow, your life will be the same, good, peaceful and calm. You will not worry about the next day, or the next. You will know your family and friends are alive and well and are in the same place they were, before you left. You will know that you will see them soon. You will be reminded of how lucky you.
You will not be able to stop thinking about all the people you saw and met, all the children you encountered. How their lives have been turned completely upside down and now they are stranded.
You wonder where they may be in two or three weeks, in months and years. How the rest of their lives will be. You wonder whether they will be able to continue their journey from Greece and be welcomed to start a new life in a new country that can support them. You will hope they will be ok.
You tell yourself again that they are human beings, just like you, like us. You will want to tell the world that we cannot turn our backs on them.
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