Maha Campbell is an elder in the Church of Scotland and was one of two Arabic speakers on the delegation of twelve women from Britain and Ireland who visited refugees, camps and projects in Greece at the end of May on a trip organised by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.
I was privileged to be asked to join a group of women from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland to visit the refugee camps in Greece as an interpreter. I had never done anything like this before.
Our outward flight from Glasgow to Athens was delayed due to weather which left us with no sleep that night as we travelled on to the island of Samos early the next morning. Our discomfort and travel difficulties bore no comparison to the journeys undertaken by the people we met.
We drove towards the camp in Samos and my heart sank with the sight of the high fence, barbed wire and people behind the closed gate. When I approached and greeted them in Arabic, they rushed to the gate to speak to me to tell me all about what had befallen them. They could not understand how they had been detained behind this barbed wire for two months and were unable to move on.
They wanted me to write down their name and were surprised that I wasn’t and were seemingly only interested in hearing their stories. They all spoke at once, trying to get my attention in case I missed any of them.
One man noticed that I was wearing a cross and he said “There are only five Christian people here in the camp and the conditions are not good and that is all I’m telling you.” I responded that we would love to be able to help everybody in the same way but deep down in my heart I felt sad about my powerlessness to help anyone to move out from these areas.
Refugees showed me their medical notes and I could see what was wrong with them but I still felt helpless to act upon the slow processes that they complained about and their inability to convince a doctor or a nurse to speed up their treatment.
As a nurse for 41 years, my training was always to make people feel better and improve their health and their living conditions. Here I felt my knowledge was of no value as I could not influence events.
The soldiers and the guards in these camps had one purpose: to make sure that everyone was back behind the shut gate. I come from the Middle East and for me barbed wire and high fences signify barriers between countries where normal relationships do not exist. It gave me the feeling of déjà vu where the attitude of a government becomes so authoritarian that the keeping of law and order takes precedence over the human suffering and tragedy.
I was very impressed by how the church organisations in Greece have continued to embrace people and their suffering. I was particularly struck by Maria and her husband, who run the Greek Salvation Army offices. Their help and care for refugees oozes from a fountain of faith in Christ and a love for humanity.
At night Maria drives around the streets and parks of Athens to try to protect the unaccompanied refugee children and young adults from traffickers who would otherwise entice them into the sex trade. Although she is not always successful, Maria tries her best to protect their dignity by teaching them their legal rights in a day centre that also provides them with hygiene kits, clothing and baby facilities. She talks freely and openly about her faith and the miracles that she encounters in her work. Helping others with warmth, enthusiasm and steadfastness.
I met a young couple with their one year old baby at Maria’s office. They had almost given up hope of finding each other again when the Greek rescue boat took the woman and her baby off a traffickers’ dinghy, leaving her husband, their belongings and the other men in the boat. She was taken to the town of Polykastro but did not know anyone there. With no money and no telephone she was unable to contact her husband.
A boat picked up her husband and the other men and took them back to Turkey against their wishes. The next morning, he went back to the shore and had to pay again for another trip across the sea to Greece to reach his wife and son. They were reunited two days later.
It was the Salvation Army who gave them hope by finding them a small apartment where they lived with another family.
As a Palestinian, I know that Muslims and Christians in Syria have traditionally lived in harmony. This was reflected in the way I was received when they recognised my familiar accent. Although what I witnessed was distressing, it gives me some small satisfaction that I am able to help them tell their stories to a wider world.
You can also listen to Maha reflecting on the second day of the trip with CTBI Trustee Kathy Galloway.
Photos: Esme Allen