Saturday, April 22, 2017

Let's say you're a refugee at the Oinofyta camp

If you're a refugee here, you are probably one of the 88 percent who are Afghan (the remainder are Pakistani, Iranian or Iraqi). You may have been middle class when you left Afghanistan. You left not for a better life in Europe, but to save your life. Maybe you were a woman teaching girls. Maybe you worked for the U.S. Maybe your wife witnessed a killing and reported it. Maybe you questioned the tenets of Islam. You walked from your homeland. Maybe you came an overland route or maybe you got here via Turkey by a boat that didn't sink into the sea. Most likely you arrived on one of the Greek islands.

Last year you could get registered and your papers processed in a relatively short time, and you could move through Greece, staying at camps until you found a smuggler who might be able to get you to the border of a country like Macedonia, and onward to more desirable countries in Europe. Recently, though, the delay has increased. At camps like Moria on Lesvos, living conditions are poor. You may have decided to go to mainland Greece before you got your papers. That means you are now illegal in Greece.

If you are at Oinofyta, you and your family live in a small room inside what used to be a chemical factory. For months you had only a shower curtain to protect your privacy; now you have a door with a key. If you lose the key, you pay five euros to the camp manager. If you have five euros.

You share bathrooms and showers with 500 other people. The bathrooms are very dirty and, even though they were built only last year, they are in need of repair.  If you are a woman, you share a cooking space and a cleaning-up space with 80 other women. You and your husband have no personal space for privacy.

Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide help with social and psychological and educational and recreational needs. One of them, Do Your Part, provides distributions for clothing and food in addition to progressive camp management. None of the NGOs can help you with the most important thing: finding a way to move out of Greece to other Western countries. The NGOs will explain the current process for getting asylum in Greece, and will try to help you with it, but if you don't have legal papers or if you can't get through to Greek Asylum Services on Skype to arrange for an asylum interview, you can't move forward. Progress in Greece always happens slowly, and sometimes it does not happen, and often the rules change. This seems to be the nature of the Greek culture.

Last night you found out that, as of next month, Mercy Corps, which distributes money from the European Union via money cards, will not be available to you if you do not have current papers. Also next month, the Greek government will no longer provide catering of simple meals. The rules have changed again. You know you will have less money and be responsible for more of your own care.

You have trouble sleeping at night. You remember your life before you had to leave your country. Even now you could go back there, but it is not safe. You want to find a safe place to live and raise your children. This camp is not that place.

I am an American woman. I have been working at Oinofyta for a month on my third trip here. Tomorrow I am going home. If you're a refugee at this camp, you are not going anywhere any time soon.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Can we call the plumber? A lesson in Greece

The Oinofyta volunteer house, in Dilesi, Greece, is about six miles from the camp. It’s two stacked apartments, fairly basic. Each has two bedrooms and one bathroom and a small kitchen. Lisa, the camp manager, lives upstairs in one bedroom; the other upstairs bedroom has two Ikea beds, and the living room has a set of Ikea bunk beds. We live downstairs in one of the bedrooms; the second bedroom has two beds and a set of bunk beds. 

The keyword here is one bathroom.

When we arrived on March 22, there was a plumbing problem in the sink upstairs and in the bathroom downstairs. Upstairs, the sink was clogged and drained slowly. Downstairs, when the washing machine drained into the sink, water came up into the sink and also up through the drain in the floor. Six people sharing one bathroom made the situation worse. When someone took a shower, by the time they got out, they were standing in two inches of dirty water. And if you were using the toilet you sometimes had to lift your feet to keep them dry.

This is not an unusual situation; plumbing pipes are apparently not designed for use except by one or two people. “Greek plumbing,” a friend told me.

After a few days I asked if we could call a plumber. A plumber was called for the upstairs apartment. While he was there, we had an okay for him to fix the downstairs problem as well. But the plumber did not speak English, and the person opening the upstairs door for the plumber did not speak Greek, so the plumber left after fixing the upstairs problem.

After another few days I asked if we could call the plumber for the downstairs. I was told that the problem was hair in the shower drain and could be fixed by running hot water down that drain for ten minutes or so. I tried that one day and burned my arm when the flexible shower line escaped from my grasp and sprayed hot water all over me.

Two days later, on a Saturday, I asked again. I was told only one person had the plumber’s number and I should ask them to call, which I did. No plumber came on Saturday. On Sunday I asked when the plumber would be coming. The person said, “I didn’t call because I knew they wouldn’t come on Sunday.” I asked for the plumber to be called anyway. The person made the call and said, “The plumber will come out later today.”

The plumber did not come out on Sunday.

Monday the plumber came. In 15 minutes he unclogged the floor drain which had caused the problem. I paid him 70 euros for the work he’d done on both apartments. 



It’s been nearly a week now, and the six of us sharing the bathroom have had no further problem with the drains in the bathroom.

The residents at the Oinofyta camp have a different problem. There are about 500 people sharing the multiple bathrooms and showers. These were put in last summer. They now have multiple problems. Partly it’s the drain issue. Another is that the heavy use results in broken fixtures and pipes. For some reason the repairs have not been made. There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution for some camp problems, no matter how well intentioned volunteer agencies are.

A week from tomorrow our month-long volunteer commitment ends. My husband Art and I are planning on spending ten days traveling in Greece. We will stay at airbnbs with clean bathrooms. Then we will fly home where we have another clean bathroom and where we can call a plumber if we need one.

The four other volunteers who share our apartment will also fly home to their clean bathrooms, where plumbers can be called.

The 500 Afghans, Pakistanis, Iranians and Iraqis who live at the Oinofyta camp will not go anywhere. The borders are closed to them, unless they pay several thousand euros to smugglers for a risky trip - and few of them have the euros to do that. And they cannot return to their homelands, where their lives are in danger.

If I ruled the world I would invite one or two of these families to live in my house in the US. But my government will not allow me to do that.


For today, on Easter Sunday, I am grateful for a dry bathroom floor and a plane ticket home on May 5. And for my healthy mind and body which allows me to serve the people of Oinofyta.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The CPAP saga

I decided to leave my CPAP at home when we left last month for six weeks in Greece. I’d spent $2,000 last summer to acquire a custom-made “oral appliance” which would prevent my sleep apnea and, possibly, the snoring that accompanies it. The appliance took up much less space than the carry-on CPAP case. We had two plane changes and I didn’t want to mess with the CPAP, as I had lost a previous one two summers ago on the Metro train in Atlanta.

Two days after our arrival in Greece, my snoring drove my 37-year-old son out of the dormitory-like room he shared with my husband Art and me. He was invited to the upstairs apartment to an empty bunk bed in the living room there. We were expecting an influx of volunteers, so I decided to ship my CPAP from Tucson. My friend Ellen, keeping company with Larisa, our Designer Cat, researched the possibilities. FedEx offered the quickest option. I could select 6-9 business days for $120 or 4-5 business days for $212. I chose the quicker service.

I watched the tracking emails. The package left Tucson on Monday, March 27. By Thursday it was in Athens at Customs, where it was delayed because I’d foolishly listed its value as $600. I should have lied. A nice lady named Ifigenia Stavroulaki sent me an email that said I needed to (1) send her a copy of my passport and (2) deposit 265.40 euros (135 for duty, 25 for handling and 105.40 for a brokerage fee) in the bank account of the customs office. I drove around the town of Oinofyta for a good 40 minutes before I found the bank to give them my money. I took a picture of my receipt and my passport. Ifigenia said she would release the package for delivery, but unfortunately, it was too late for a Friday or Monday delivery. I could expect the CPAP on Tuesday.

Nope. On Tuesday I got a phone call from a Greek speaker. I heard “Fedex” and “Linda Myers”. I said, “I am Linda Myers” and the caller hung up.

No delivery on Wednesday. At the end of the day I called Ifigenia. She said the driver couldn’t find me at the address I’d given. I gave her the same address again.

No delivery on Thursday. I sent Ifigenia an email asking for her help. She gave me a number to call and my tracking number. I found someone at the camp who spoke Greek and asked them to make the call for me. Another nice lady said, “I found you on the map.The package will be delivered tomorrow.”

This morning - Friday, 11 days after shipping, my CPAP machine arrived at the camp gate at 8:55 a.m. Tonight I will use it. And Trish, our second dormitory mate, who went sleepless for six nights because of my snoring and the unavailability of an extra bed until last night, will be able to move back into the same room where she unpacked her stuff last weekend.

I suspect I’ll sleep better as well.


There have been enough hiccups on this trip so far. I could have done without this one. Still, I’m grateful for the CPAP’s arrival. I plan to write a letter to Fedex in an attempt to get at least a partial refund on the expensive, “fast” shipping. And I hear that when I go home I may be able to get a refund from customs, since I’m taking home what I had shipped over.

For that, as for many other things, I am grateful.

Monday, April 3, 2017

All quiet on the Sunday front

Five volunteers took the train to Athens this morning, my son James among them. So it’s a quiet day here at the volunteer house in Dilesi, a small seaside town on the Aegean Sea. Jess is doing laundry, Trish is giving the bathroom a thorough cleaning, Art is fixing dinner. I am thinking about the twelve days we’ve been here so far in Greece.

During my time here last October, I thought about how we could make life easier for the international bunch of volunteers who spend their days at the refugee camp. I realized a couple of ways we could make a difference would be to have a definite departure time from the camp each evening, and to have planned meals. At that time, volunteers often waited for an hour or more at camp for a ride back to the house, and meals were often catch as catch can. On this trip, Art’s car leaves camp at 6:30 for whoever is ready to go home, and he sets out breakfast each morning in addition to planning for lunch and dinner. The volunteers can do their work during the day, knowing their meals and transportation will be taken care of.

The volunteers are here for varying lengths of time, from six days to three months. They’re housed in top and bottom apartments on a residential street. Carmen left yesterday for her home in Spain; two hours later Trish arrived from Oregon. By next Thursday three of the four men will be gone - Hannes returns to Germany, Jamie to the UK, and James to Seattle. By then we’ll have a few new arrivals. Each group gathers around the dinner table in the evening, sharing a meal. Once the dishes have been cleaned up at about 9:30, Art and I go to our room and the rest of the group remains at the table, drinking beer or wine and listening to music and laughing and talking. Or they go into Dilesi or Oinofyta. I know my son James is having a great time with this international group. He works hard during the day on the garden planters and benches, and enjoys the active social life in the evening, and sleeps like a rock all night. This is his first exposure to an international population.

The refugee camp itself runs in a state of controlled chaos. Camp manager Lisa and shift supervisors Jess and Ale are on their feet ten hours a day or more seeing to the needs of the residents, planning for enhancements, meeting governmental requirements. This week the volunteers have been building a community garden with a shelter for residents to congregate in comfort outdoors. From the warehouse, residents have received weekly distributions of dry food - lentils, chickpeas, rice, tomato paste, sugar, salt and other basics. And clothing from a thrift shop environment of donations. This week there was a special distribution; every resident received a pair of Crocs. 

Back in February, when 85 children in the camp were to begin attending Greek schools, backpacks were prepared for each with winter garments for a change of clothes. But February came and went; the kids start school next Thursday instead, so the winter clothes in the backpacks have to be changed out for lighter weight spring clothing. And tomorrow, a truck will be coming to our camp to collect items we no longer need here to transport to other camps where they can be put to use. So a team is bagging up the donations from our camp and indicating the contents of the bags. There are about 47 refugee camps in Greece, all of them networked informally.

This morning Trish and I drove to the bakery and to the coffee shop. While I napped this afternoon she and Saraya walked into town. Dilesi has a population of about 2,000. It is not a tourist area, so we’re about the only Americans the locals see. I’d say about 25 percent of the people in town speak some English. We learn good morning and thank you and use a lot of body language and smiles to communicate. We eat fresh-made bread every morning. In spite of the differences here, I note the same birdsong as we have in Arizona - especially the doves. Random dogs lie in the streets, and a few are lifelong car chasers. I remind myself to keep driving straight and ignore them. They’re experts at avoiding the wheels.

The roles Art and I play here at camp are mostly supporting the younger volunteers. It’s a satisfying assignment, though we have relatively little quiet time. I’d like to see people in their 50s and beyond volunteer for Do Your Part at this camp. We don’t have the stamina of the younger people, but we have wisdom and we can be their second-level support. During the day Art does the food shopping for both the volunteers and for the camp. He lays out breakfast at the volunteer house, lunch in the volunteer space at the camp, and dinner at the house again - except for Fridays, when we have pizza at the camp before the camp-wide evening meeting, and Mondays, when we gather as a group at a local restaurant. Mostly during the day I’m in the Do Your Part trailer, watching and listening as I do the bookkeeping - an absorbing job since many of the receipts are in Greek. I have a Greek friend who will come by on Wednesday or Friday of this week to translate the more challenging receipts. Do Your Part is a 501(c)(3) corporation that has grown tenfold in the last year with its presence in the Oinofyta camp.


Camp manager Lisa is in the US for a couple of weeks and she asked me to hold the fort in her absence. But shift managers Jess and Ale do nearly all the work. They know how the camp runs and they know the residents. I think of myself as the camp grandmother and the house mom. I’m comfortable with those roles. Really, it’s about how we can be most useful here, giving our on-the-ground help.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

First day on the job at Oinofyta refugee camp

I get to hold the fort at Oinofyta refugee camp for the two weeks while Lisa, the camp manager, is on a speaking tour in the States. This is my third visit to Oinofyta - I was here for six days last August and two weeks in October.  Now, a month.

I'm pretty familiar with the camp and its operations, but the issues I've been presented with today have all needed to wait for the expertise of Jess and Alee, the shift supervisors. At present Jess is asleep, having driven Lisa to the airport for her 6 a.m. flight and then remained there to help a family that formerly lived here and are now being reunified with family members in Scandinavia. 

Here are the current issues for today awaiting resolution:
  • The volunteers' bathroom has no toilet paper. I asked for some from the warehouse. It took a couple of hours before someone was available to check. Apparently the warehouse is short of toilet paper until sometime next week. One of the other agencies here is responsible for acquiring paper products, and the order isn't expected until the middle of next week. We need to buy enough to last until then - about 200 rolls for volunteer and resident bathrooms - but I don't want to set a precedent if this has not happened before. Still, toilet paper is toilet paper.
  • A couple of doctors donated money to be used for baby wipes. The warehouse needs more. Warehouse manager Alee needs to know how much money is left to use from the donation.
  • Three people successfully reached the asylum office via Skype and they have appointments in Athens tomorrow morning at 7. The agency responsible for transporting them - until the middle of this week, when they will no longer provide the service - will pick them up in the morning, but we don't yet know what time that will be. When we find out, we need to notify those three people. If they miss their asylum interview they won't have another opportunity.
  • The volunteer teaching computer use to the camp's "digital leaders" (five men and five women) is leaving next week. Two people arrived unexpectedly today, with excellent experience and three weeks to give. I'm pretty sure it will be okay but need to wait until Jess wakes up to confirm it.
  • Tools in the wood shop are going missing. We need to find a way to secure them. Volunteer Jamie, who leaves next week, will inventory what we have in a couple of days. 
  • A woman who volunteered at the camp in November would like to spend a few days next month visiting here for a project she's working on in the UK. Again, I'm pretty sure it will be okay but need to confirm it.
  • Tomorrow morning we'll need three cars and three drivers: two to buy a week's worth of food for the camp and for the volunteer house, and one to run a necessary errand in Athens. That will leave fewer volunteers at the camp to handle the ordinary and the extraordinary.
  • The organization in charge of education of the camp's children found out that they may be starting to attend Greek schools on Friday or maybe next week. Whenever it does happen - Greek time is not precise - another organization in residence will be responsible for transporting them. The coordinator of the school is leaving for ten days to attend to business at home in the UK, but she has two competent teachers remaining.
  • Two members of a Greek political party want to be notified when the school date is definite so they can coordinate a welcome for the children. This one I need to check out with Lisa via Facebook chat when her plane lands in Chicago.
  • Several Greek acupuncturists arrived for three hours of service to camp residents and volunteers. I introduced my husband Art and he has an appointment in 20 minutes.
It's now late in the evening. Almost all of the above issues were resolved once Jess woke up in the late afternoon. I am ready for sleep after this day.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Suitcase adventure

The luggage carousel at the airport in Athens, Greece was empty on Wednesday afternoon, and my large black Travelpro suitcase had not arrived. The airlines have lost my luggage three times before in the last 20 years. We spent our first night in Paris using the toothbrushes and T-shirts provided by KLM because the one checked bag got left behind in Amsterdam. The wayward bag arrived too late that evening for us to retrieve our alarm clock, resulting in our missing our first group tour the next morning. We spent our first night on the Big Island of Hawaii in the underwear we traveled in because our checked bag was still on Oahu. And once, from some point on the east coast, we went to Seattle and our luggage went to Baltimore.

So this empty luggage carriage carousel in Athens was not new. I took my concern to the Missing Suitcases Desk (hereafter referred to as the MSD). The man at the desk said, "Are you sure it's not on the carousel?" I said yes but he sent a Suitcase Desk person to make sure. "No, it's not there." The Desk Man took my claim ticket and filled out a report. "We don't know where your bag is right now because this computer is not hooked up to a network. But in two hours we will know where it is. You should have your suitcase by tomorrow evening." Then he said, "I see you are at the Oinofyta refugee camp. We cannot deliver your bag there. We will deliver it to the Schimatari bus station and you can retrieve it there." Now we need your phone number so we can call you. I gave him the Greek number of Lisa, the manager of the camp.

The next day, Thursday, there was no call on Lisa's phone from the MSD. Lisa was anxious about that, because within the suitcase were the eight bags of MacCafe coffee she'd asked me to buy, and she only had three tablespoons left in the bottom of her last bag. The suitcase also contained three double bags of beef jerky, a box of Payday bars, 12 plastic clipboards, a box of black sharpies. a box of dry erase markers in assorted colors, four packs of lined three-by-five index cards, a dozen crochet hooks in various sizes, three felt hand puppets, three European electrical adapters, my bathrobe, and ten plastic hangers.

Friday morning Lisa said, "The Missing Suitcase Desk called. You can pick up your suitcase at the Schimatari bus station. It will be there at 9:30."

Friday turned out to be a busy day. Lisa and I didn't set off for the bus station until nearly 3. We turned left into the intersection, making our cautious way past the two cars in a just-happened fender bender. We found the bus station - a tiny building with a waiting area. I went to the window. It was closed. A sign in Greek provided indecipherable information. Lisa paced on the sidewalk, berating the airlines and the bus system.

I put on my helpless grandma face and approached an older man in a red plaid shirt. "English?" He shook his head. I pointed at the window, pantomimed lifting a suitcase and pointed at the building. The man shook his head again. I saw another local man. "English?" "A little." I raised my arms in exultation. The man smiled. I said, "What does the sign say." "It says the office closes at 3." It was 3:10. The man added, "Tomorrow is a holiday, so the office will be open on Monday morning."

Now I started to pace. "What can I do?" The man said, "You can come back at 4:30. Someone will be here to open the door."

Lisa was still venting her frustration at the airlines. "They should be delivering that suitcase to our door, TO OUR DOOR! That is terrible customer service!" She had been talking to herself, but now she was addressing the man who was trying to help me.

"Linda, we have things to do at camp. Have Art come back with you at 4:15. Be here in plenty of time because you never know with this Greek system." I thanked my helper as I turned to follow Lisa to our car.

Art and I left camp at 4. The fender bender in the intersection looked just the same except now there was a police car in the intersection as well. We parked just up the street from the bus station and waited. Sure enough, at 4:30 a bus pulled up and a man got out. He came into the waiting area and pointed a remote at the roll-up door. Nothing happened. He pointed again. Nothing happened. He shrugged his shoulders and turned to leave. I said, "My suitcase is in there." He shrugged his shoulders again, walked back to the bus, and it drove off.

I stood on the sidewalk, disbelieving. The older man in the red plaid shirt I'd seen earlier came up and gestured his sympathy. Then he called across the street. "Taxi", and the driver of the second cab at the taxi stand got out of his vehicle and walked across to us. Red Plaid Shirt spoke to Taxi Driver in Greek. Taxi Driver said, "I speak English." I told him my story as Red Plaid Shirt walked away, up the sidewalk. Taxi Driver said, "He is going to the shop up the street for another remote device and also a mechanical device to open the door if the remote device does not work."

Five minutes later, Red Plaid Shirt was back. We went into the waiting room. Red Plaid Shirt pointed the remote. The door cracked open. Pointed the remote, the door closed. Pointed the remote. The door opened a little further. Taxi Driver took the device, jimmied the door a bit, then forced it open manually. I could see my suitcase through the swinging door inside. "Mine", I said. Indeed. my suitcase has a fluorescent green tag that proclaims "Mine!" I retrieved my bag. "Many thanks," I said to Red Plaid Shirt. He smiled and held out his hand. I gave him a hug and kissed him on both cheeks instead. I said to Taxi Driver, "You are a GREAT Taxi Driver!" I took both his hands and said, "Many thanks to you."

Art put the suitcase in the trunk of our car and we returned to the camp.

Lisa was very glad to get the coffee!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Frenzy

The end of our winter season is usually busy, but it's been especially so this year. I spent a lot of time as associate producer of the Voyager Theatre Company's "Evening of One-Act Plays", which played on March 9 and 10.

In the meantime, paperwork piled up: bank statements to balance, medical expenses to submit for reimbursement, homeowner renewal policy to take care of, and saying goodbye to friends.

There was also work "Getting Ready to Fly to Seattle for Three Days". We have a son graduating from nursing school on Monday night, and 14 family members gathering for a celebration dinner on Sunday night. One of our daughters will be staying with us for two days. The graduate initially want pot roast but changed his mind and decided on prime rib! That size cut of meat is a special order.

There was also "Giving a Talk about Volunteering at a Refugee Camp in Greece at an end-of-season potluck attended by about 60 people." That happened the day before yesterday.

Not to mention the "Getting Ready to Leave for Greece on Tuesday."

And the "Welcoming the Friend Keeping Company with our Designer Cat While We're Gone for Six Weeks." The friend is fun but the "Clearing Out Space and Putting All the Stuff Lying Around Into Bins" is not.

I am sitting at the Tucson airport waiting to board our plane home. It is 85 degrees. When we get back here on May 8, it will probably be 100. We'll stay for a couple of weeks, close up our park model for the summer, wrangle our cat into her travel bag and fly to Seattle, which will have long, long days and sun by then.

I don't like having "Write the Blog Post" on a to-do list, but it's the last item I'll cross off.

I plan to sleep on the three-hour plane ride. And take a long bath tonight.