Anne Browse is the President of Methodist Women in Britain. She was part of CTBI’s delegation of women that visited refugee women and children in Greece last week.
After travelling to Greece to visit refugees currently in that country with women from churches across Britain and Ireland, I am trying to capture some of what I saw and heard. I am very aware that what we saw were snapshots, what we heard were soundbites. Now back in England I find myself constantly comparing my normal life here with the lives of some of the refugees I met, and reflecting on the inequality of our situations.
A good drying day
How many times have I grumbled about getting the washing dry? Moaned that the tumble drier was not working? How would I manage if I had to wash everything by hand and put it out to dry on bushes or on a makeshift washing line? It’s all part of the ‘fun’ when you’re on a camping holiday and you choose to do it that way for a week or two. But every day, because that is your only option…
When you don’t have much to do and don’t have many toys to play with, a burst balloon is a good thing to blow on. What if this little boy sucks it in, instead of blowing? Who is looking after him? Where is his mother, father, sibling, carer? Children often seem to roam the camp freely, some crowding around visitors like us to greet us, to high-five us, to talk in broken English, which is better than my meagre attempts at Arabic.
Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair…
In more than one camp we saw children playing with water. Children doing what children do. Making the most of what is on hand. Piercing a hole in the bottom of a water bottle and squirting each other.
A little boy came up to Sarah and me and gingerly squirted one of our hands. We offered the other hand. He smiled and gleefully squirted that one, too. There was something special, almost sacred, about having our hands washed in this way.
A bigger boy appeared and stood in front of us with a full bottle of water, the lid off! We pleaded and gestured “Please, no! Too much water!”
He grinned, and walked away…
I feel loathe to admit that we own a holiday cottage in Devon. But we do. There, I’ve said it.
Sometimes our holidaymakers complain that the water pressure in the showers is not as powerful as they would like. A reasonable complaint, I suppose.
In one refugee camp, the wild Eko-Gas Camp near Perykastro, a mother told me that showers cost €2 per person. There were five in the family. Consequently they shower once a week here in Greece. I commented that I guess in Syria they would have showered once a day?
“Two or three times a day!” she replied…
“I build this myself. I cut tree, branches, hack, hack, hack. Dig hole in ground, make strong. Stop rain come in tent.”
I think I understood the gist of this story, told to me proudly by this Syrian father who was very happy to pose for a photo in his self-built home. He played gently with the smiling eleven-month-old son while his wife stirred rice in a pot over a small stove.
He was also keen to show me photos on his own mobile phone. Photos of the two large snakes he had killed when they had slithered into the living area outside their tiny tent. “Snakes not good for baby,” he repeated again and again.
His wife indicated with hand gestures and facial expressions how she had been afraid, and had cried and cried. “One baby,” they explained, “only one baby. No good more baby here.”
The dignity of offering hospitality
“We learned a lesson. When at first we prepared a meal to give to the refugees, they did not want it. If we prepare a meal and sit and eat with them, that is okay.”
These were the words of a Greek woman who, together with her Syrian husband, devotes her time to serving refugees in Athens.
At Eko-Gas Camp, near Perykastro, we sat with a family of five in a tiny tentand were offered coffee, brewed over a small stove and served in plastic beakers. It was given with generosity and a smile. In another tent I was offered rice from the pot on the stove, coffee and a cigarette. I politely declined the rice and the cigarette, but accepted the coffee, which again was served with delight and the declaration that “my wife, she make good coffee!”
Photos: Anne Browse & Esme Allen