I got my stimulus money early on - $1,200 - and I am one of the lucky people who didn't need it. I spent some time thinking about how I could best use it. First I checked with our eight grown children. I told them to let me know if they needed help, but none of them did.
I got several recommendations to contribute to a food bank, and I considered it, but I knew many other people would be doing that. Instead, I wanted to help an individual or a family. So I left the money in my bank account and waited.
In 2016 and 2017, I volunteered four times at Oinofyta, a refugee camp in Greece. During my days there, I came to know, or at least recognize, many of the 400 refugees who lived at the camp. The Oinofyta experience changed how I look at the world.
Here is some of what I learned in Greece: http://bagladyinwaiting.blogspot.com/2016/09/what-did-i-learn-in-greece.html
And here is one of the refugees' stories: http://bagladyinwaiting.blogspot.com/2016/11/abdul-tells-me-his-story.html
And then there was Mukhtar.
When I first saw him, he was playing chess on the dock of the warehouse. I'd been told he was 17 - an unaccompanied minor - and that both of his parents were dead and he was traveling to France to be with his older brother. He was one of many refugees who had intended to pass through Greece on their way to other European destinations, but had remained in camps in Greece when the borders to the other European countries had been closed.
I didn't have a conversation with Mukhtar until my fourth trip to Oinofyta, in August of 2017. I was filling in as camp manager while Lisa Campbell, the feisty and gifted creator of the Oinofyta community, returned to the US for a two-week speaking tour. At Oinofyta, the families lived in rooms downstairs, and the single men lived upstairs in four dormitories. The families needed to sleep and to feel safe, and separating them from the 82 single men was a good way to do that. As a single man - though still a minor - Mukhtar lived upstairs.
One day he came into the camp office. He was angry. I knew a conversation was needed, but I don't speak Farsi, and my two regular translators were not around. Who was available was Karolina, an aid worker who spoke English and Greek, and Abed, who spoke Greek and Farsi. And Mukhtar spoke Farsi. So we had our conversation via two translators. I spoke to Karolina in English, she spoke to Abed in Greek, and he spoke to Mukhtar in Farsi.
Mukhtar said he wanted to be moved downstairs because it was too noisy in the upstairs dormitories. But Lisa had requested that no room changes be made until she returned. When I told him that, his eyes flashed with anger. Seventeen years old, remember? Then he added that he was in pain because he had a hernia, and he'd seen three doctors, and none of them would help him because there were other people with hernias that needed attention sooner. I suspected that could have been true, or it might have been doctors frustrated and overwhelmed by the flood of refugees needing medical attention.
One of the camp doctors had walked in during the conversation. When he heard Mukhtar's story, he said, "I have a doctor friend who can help you. I will set you up for an appointment on Tuesday." Mukhtar said, "No one will help me so I won't go." Seventeen!
I said, "Mukhtar, if you will go to the doctor and tell me about it when you get back, I will give you chocolate." I kept candy in one of my desk drawers just for the volunteers, but I would make an exception in this case for a 17-year-old. Mukhtar's eyes flashed again, this time with humor, and his face lit up with a smile.
He went to the doctor on Tuesday, got scheduled for surgery, told me about it, and got his candy.
After that, when I'd see Mukhtar, I'd say "chocolate" and he would grin. And when I left the camp I gave him a hug.
Three months later, before I could return to Oinofyta again, the camp was closed down by the Greek government. The residents were dispersed to other camps or apartments in Athens.
After my time in Greece, I kept in touch via Facebook with a few of the residents: Samim, Baloo, Mahdi, and Nasar. But I lost touch with Mukhtar, and I didn't know his last name. So I asked one of the men if he knew where Mukhtar was, and I got his full name so I could find him on Facebook and friend him.
Here is how the first conversation went:
Me: Hello! How are you?
Mukhtar: Hello I'm good and you?
Me: Good! Where are you now?
Mukhtar: I'm now at the camp isishsto
Me: I think you are the person I am looking for. Did you live at Oinofyta?
Mukhtar: Yes I was at oinofyta camp.
Me: Did you ever talk to me in Lisa's office?
Mukhtar: Mom shokolat
Me: Ah! You write very good English! Do you also understand it?
Mukhtar: Yes now is good my English
Me: I think you understood it when you got chocolate!
Several months later, I decided to sent Mukhtar some chocolate, though I knew he could buy it in Greece. It would be a gesture of connection, I thought. Mukhtar gave me the Athens address of an aid worker I knew, Jess, who would deliver the candy to him. I asked him what his favorite kind was and he said Snickers. So I went to Costco and bought two bags of miniature Snickers bars. I put them in a sturdy mailing envelope and sent them off. The postage cost $23 and the package took three weeks to arrive in Athens, and the candy was undoubtedly smashed and melted. Jess could have bought it in Athens for far less. But when it arrived Mukhtar said, "You are the first person to get me this gift."
I do not know the story of why Mukhtar left Afghanistan, or about his journey. A person will tell that story when they feel comfortable, but it's not something to ask about. Lisa (the Oinofyta camp manager) and Jess (the aid worker) know his story. If I'm supposed to hear it, Mukhtar will tell me. Otherwise, it is his business, and I will maintain a connection with him simply because he is a 20-year-old refugee on his own - about the age of four of my grandchildren.
Since that time, Mukhtar left Greece and moved to France to live with his older brother. He went to high school where, he told me, he was treated the same as all the other students. He enjoyed all his classes: French, English, computers, math, and drawing.
I checked in with Mukhtar in mid-March this year. He needed to find a place to live - his older brother had returned to Afghanistan - and he couldn't work because of the virus. He was a mechanic by now. He asked if I could help him. He had found a room he could rent for a month for 250 euros (about $280). He said if I could help him for two months, he would be able to get a job after that, when the country opened back up.
I said yes. And now, in June, I have sent him rent money for three months. He is now sending out resumes all over the city, actively looking for work.
That is how I am spending my stimulus money.
I know there is a small chance I am being taken advantage of by a clever young refugee. But I doubt it. And even if that were the case, the money I am sending to him is worth it to me. It is something I can do for a person who needs it more than I do. I believe we are all in this together, and we are all the same.
I asked Mukhtar today if I could include his picture in this post, or if he would prefer I didn't. He said no. So I'll simply describe him as a young Afghan man, rather tall, with dark hair and eyes, and eyes that flash with anger or humor, and a beautiful smile.
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