I've been home for just a week. My body, anyway. My thoughts and my heart are still at the Oinofyta Refugee Camp in Greece. Here is what I learned.
1. We are all the same. Really. We all want the same things: food, clothing shelter, family and friends. A way to support our children.
2. Walking among 450 residents who are mostly Muslims feels perfectly safe. In fact, it feels friendly and welcoming.
3. Say you are distributing clothing to 140 families. Six of those families take more than they need and, maybe, go to a nearby city and sell the excess.
- It is easy to get annoyed with the takers, and to pay more attention to them than to all the others who are taking only what they need, and to forget that everyone is doing the best they can. It is a mistake to forget that.
- It is easy to say that "This person who is [fill in a nationality or a religious faith] is stealing, so all [fill in the same nationality or religious faith] are thieves." It is a mistake to think that.
4. If the men play volleyball at 7:30 p.m. and the women play volleyball at 2:00 a.m., you are glad everyone is getting some exercise. You do not suggest they play coed volleyball. The genders are separate in their culture. As they were, pretty much, in your own culture 100 years ago.
5. If a man asks you quietly for money, you say no because you can't give money to every man in the camp, but you know he is not like the panhandlers on the off ramps of your city. He truly has nothing. You offer instead to give him your time and your voice, and he thanks you for that.
6. If you find a camp resident who speaks English, that person is a precious commodity. They, after all, speak more than one language. And they can help you communicate with other camp residents, because you speak only one language. You think about maybe learning a little Farsi. Your native language is spoken around the world, so you don't have to learn another one.You are again embarrassed that you have not made the effort to become fluent in another language.
7. If you ask a group of people to form a line, and they form a swarm around you instead, it is not because they are stubborn or uncivilized. It is because they come from a different culture. They do it differently where they used to live.
8. If you see a group of residents in the camp sitting on a blanket on the ground playing cards during the day, it is not because they are lazy. It is because they have no work because they cannot be hired in this country. They want to leave for another country but they cannot. Apparently the UN does not recognize Afghanistan as a country at war, so these refugees do not have special status.
9. If you see a resident you do not assume that they were a peasant in their native country. You know they are very likely to have been an engineer or a teacher or a lawyer or an IT person. You know they probably worked for the U.S. when the U.S. had many troops in their country.
10. If you see a resident you know they did not arrive by plane and then by rented car. They arrived by foot or by train after many days of hiding or walking or being smuggled by people collecting large sums of money from them up front.
11. If you are the oldest volunteer at the camp by 15 or 20 years, and you do not have the stamina to do physical labor all day, you might be tempted to think you are not useful. But you would be wrong. Your wisdom and your listening ear and your calm presence are of extreme value.
12. If a resident calls you "Grandmother" or "Higher Sister" they are honoring you. You realize you are glad to be around people who respect elders.
13. If a 12-year-old boy stands silently beside you, and then puts his arm around your waist, and then puts his head on your shoulder, and then walks off silently, you do not know who received the greater gift, him or you.
14. If you walk until your feet are swollen inside their comfortable Keens shoes, and you're needed for another task, you tell yourself you can put your feet up when you get home late that night, and you do the next task.
15. You know the bathrooms for the residents were not installed on a floor that slopes to a drain, so the bathrooms are a smelly place even when they were cleaned by the residents the day before. You decide to take the key for the volunteers' bathroom. That bathroom is clean because it is being used by only ten people instead of by 450. And because most of the volunteers are not peeing during the day even though they are drinking lots of water. Drinking water until they are sick of it.
16. If you are working in the warehouse and there are loud noises outside, and it's a fight between two men being witnessed by 75 others, you watch. You know neither of these men would be fighting if they were still living in their own homes in their own country.
17. You are invited by a gracious Afghani couple to dinner. There are 13 of you in a 12 by 12 room. You share a wonderful meal, with smiles and laughter. You do not think about your own home, so vastly larger, with room for half a dozen refugees if they could only get visas to enter your country.
18. You look around at your fellow volunteers - from Canada and the U.S. and Germany and Spain and Italy - and you are grateful to know them and to work with them, even for just a few days.
19. If you try to write an orderly account of what you learned in Greece, you can't do it. You can only put it all down - tell your own story - and hope that your readers will figure it out.
20. You know you will go back in a couple of months, and maybe bring a friend.