I speak no Farsi, the primary first language of residents at the Oinofyta refugee camp. And most of them speak no English. Fortunately, there are some people there - mostly men or children - who speak both. Some of the men worked for the U.S. in Afghanistan as translators. And the children at the camp have picked up English quickly, as it is the common language of the volunteers.
So there is usually someone around who can help the rest of us understand each other.
One Friday evening I was speaking to the residents, through my translator Kakar, at the weekly community meeting. If residents have been accepted as registered in the camp by the Greek Ministry of Migration, they get cash cards via the EU through MercyCorps, which provide them enough for basic sustenance. If they haven't been accepted as registered - which is the case for residents who have arrived at Oinofyta in the last four months - they don't have cash cards.
No one knows why registration is not happening. At the present time there are 63 residents without cash cards. Do Your Part is the American nonprofit I volunteer for, and we feed the 63 residents.
At the community meeting, residents asked about the cash cards, as they had at every community meeting for the last few months. And I told them there was nothing we could do, but that as soon as we knew something, they would know something. I hated saying the same thing the residents had heard multiple times before. I felt like I was a part of the problem, even though I knew I wasn't.
After the meeting I asked Kakar to help me continue the conversation with a group of eight women sitting together at a table nearby. The women were older residents. Their faces were familiar to me, but I had not spoken to them before.
"How many of you receive cash cards?" Four women raised their hands.
"And how many of you do not?" The other four.
Kakar translated as the women told me their concerns. They talked over each other, not shouting, but with urgency. The women with cash cards did not have enough money for their families. The women without cash cards, being fed by Do Your Part, did not have enough food for their families.
After a few minutes of listening, I said, "Kakar, please translate for me, sentence by sentence."
Then I said, "If I were the queen of the world, all of you who have cash cards would have as much money as you need. And all of you who do not have cash cards would have all the food you need."
I added, "But I am not the queen of the world."
The women nodded and laughed. Through the words of the translator, they heard me, as I had heard them.
The next afternoon, the women were sitting at a picnic table outside in the late afternoon sun. As I approached their table, they smiled and gestured me to join them. Sumaya, an 11-year-old girl, was standing near her mother. This time, she was my translator.
The women asked me their first question. "How old are you?"
"Sixty-eight." Then I looked at the woman across from me. "How old are you?" Sumaya translated. "Forty-eight." Then the others. "Fifty-one." "Fifty-six." "Forty-seven." "Fifty-nine." "Fifty-three."
I was the only woman with gray hair, but every other face at the table was lined and worn.
The second question: "How many children do you have?"
"Eight," I said. "How many do you have?" Around the table we went again. I had the largest number of children. "But," I said, "I have had two husbands." Everyone nodded. For some reason, that made sense!
The next day, one of the women brought me a flat loaf of warm bread. Delicious, fresh from the oven. And the next day, a different woman, the same wonderful bread.
From that day until the day I left the camp, when I would meet one of these women, we would exchange the greeting of left cheek kiss, right cheek kiss, left cheek kiss. And from the lined, worn face, a pair of bright eyes would smile at me.
I wish I were the queen of the world!
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