Washington, D.C. 6 August 2018 – An hour north of Athens, in the town of Oinofyta, refugees many from Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have been given shelter in an abandoned industrial warehouse. Jesuit Refugee Service Greece visits the camp weekly to provide an activity for children and identify those most in need of support. Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Oinofyta with JRS Greece.
We brought colored pencils and paper for an activity. As we entered, the neglect of the cement building was obvious. Some walls were crumbling, and windows were missing. Families had made homes out of small rooms and closets in the warehouse. Those without doors had sheets to cover the entry.
We found a place on the ground for our activity. Immediately, children joined us. Eventually there were twenty kids coloring with us. Parents left to take advantage of the opportunity to wash clothes, feed a baby, or just sit quietly for a few minutes.
A Syrian man named Salah* approached me eagerly, carrying his baby son, Hassan, who had pale skin and bright red hair. He smiled and enthusiastically placed Hassan in my arms. He didn’t speak much English, but he told me that Hassan had health problems, and it was clear he was worried. I smiled at the happy and playful boy in my arms. Salah asked if I would come to his home for tea. I followed him outside to another cement block a few hundred feet away.
I met Salah’s wife, Maya, and their two daughters who must have been 6 and 8. They greeted us with shy smiles. Maya invited us to sit for tea. She took Hassan and helped him breathe through a nebulizer. We sat on mats in the living space with the family as Maya prepared tea and tidied the room. Hassan was hungry and crying for Maya. She looked at him, anxiously, but continued her work. I know this anxiety. I too have hosted friends or family and have had one or both of my children fuss because they were hungry. I felt guilty for keeping Hassan from his mother.
Over tea, Maya fed Hassan and they told us about their family. They fled Syria in hopes of finding a safe place to live with their children until peace prevails in Syria.
The journey has been difficult. Their biggest worry is Hassan. His condition is serious. He needed to go to the hospital, so they were taken to Athens, but there was nowhere to stay. The family had to sleep on the streets until he was released. They were afraid; smugglers are everywhere and kidnap refugees or steal their papers and demand payment for their return.
When Hassan was released, they were returned to Oinofyta, but they’ll need to go back. There’s no medicine. They have a plastic bag from the hospital, but they worry about what to do when that runs out. They want to stay in Athens near the hospital, but shelters are beyond capacity. They must remain in Oinofyta.
Salah pointed to his daughters. “They’re out of school,” he said, shaking his hand. “How long can this be?” he asked as Maya nodded. It shouldn’t be.
Maya spoke less, but I couldn’t help but be drawn to her as a mother. I know how it feels to worry about a child, but I can’t imagine being in her shoes. We exchanged smiles as she rocked Hassan to sleep.
Maya repeatedly thanked us for coming. Her husband says they don’t see many people; there are no visitors to the camp. She says it’s nice to have people in their home, with their family. They were surrounded by family and friends before, but now they’re isolated. I felt powerless to help this family in front of me, offering me their home and their tea, simply grateful for the offer of my presence, of this human connection. I’m also grateful.
As we left, Maya gave me a warm hug, and the two girls wrapped themselves around my legs. My colleague from JRS Greece promised to visit them in a week.
I celebrate Maya and refugee mothers like her for their strength and perseverance as they are on challenging journeys. I hope that they are able to provide for their children the necessities that I am able to provide mine.