Passover in Piraeus (#4, 4/24/16) : Friend Requests at Skaramagas
We emerged from the tunnel leading across the road. To our right were two accordion busses and dozens of more families some carrying three four backpacks at a time, large belonging wrapped in blankets, children in strollers or laying on hips of bags, a young woman with stark eyes in a wheelchair.
This was Skaramagas (accent on ga), a new state-run camp to house up to 6,000 individuals. Through the NGO grapevine we heard of good living conditions and of bad food poisonings.
Petra recognized some of her friends from Piraeus E2, Hassan and Sammim , they hug. She stopped with a big smile on her face — she saw her big love — the 8-year old Afghan boy translator by the side of the bus. I recognized Muhammad, the young Afghan man whose portrait I drew the day before. We hugged and he introduced his family. Everyone was moving towards a tree halfway to the gate where the Greek police checked theirs documents and let family by family move towards the gate where they were checked again. Petra, Renee, Maartja and I helped Muhammad’s family move their belonging towards the entrance. There was a mild disorder and I notice the cool with which the Greek police officers show. I told the captain we were volunteers “Go in, go out.” And the captain let us through the first check towards the gate. An officer counts again, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and looks at the paper again. He sees one young man and thought he was ‘nine’ ordering him to step back. Another young man from that family pointed again at his family members. “One two three four five six seven eight.” My mind flashed on the three years I was in the wasraeli military police investigation department, and how the incidents of police violence I witnessed or investigated, started. I motioned to Petra and Renee to step back, stay together and not move much, to not confuse or antagonize the officers. This time the count was correct and the family moved towards the gate. This time the four of us were not allowed in but we got a good glimpse of the inside : rows of rows of new white metal containers, I didn’t see any power lines, I saw some covered searchlights, trucks. We moved back.
As the people advanced, some were sent out of line because even though their family’s documents were stamped, their documents weren’t. I noticed that those were all young men. I ask the police what these men should do and they say go back to Piraeus. I wonder how.
Maartja and the buses leave and Petra, Renee and I stay outside with the officers and the unstamped men. Not far from us a Greek fisherman, leisurely handles his pole. Another one, bare-chested and big-bellied, walked around fresh from a swim. My and Petra’s phone rang and we sat quietly to practice the Zen Peacemakers minute of silence for peace at noon.
Periodically we notice men walk in and out of the gate, seems like they were free to do so. The officer checks their papers and let them out. Then said officer calls them back and points to the ground. One dropped a fresh cigarette. I smile with relief and care. Others come out, pushing baby carts, to bring in the rest of the belongings left from the location of the busses. A wheel chair rolls by with a disabled boy who, I suspect from the shape of his body, has cerebral palsy.
Petra and I chat with the unstamped men. Masoud, whose English and spirit were best, showed us his papers and points where the red block stamp was missing. He was Afghan from a town 1,400KM west of Kabul who fled the Taliban. He had spent one month in Mitilin, another Greek refugee camp. He found himself on my phone’s Facebook and click ‘+friend.’
I took the phone and enter Facebook’s Immigrant and Refugee Support Group in Athens, a bustling online hub for resources and connections between volunteers and groups we use to get updated and typed — Does anyone know why some weren’t stamped? Where can one get stamped? I described the situation. “Post.”
A football arced over the fence from the inside and lands in a soggy green creek by the camp. Renee took a break from photography and helped a young boy rescue his ball.
Shouts of excitement — A few of the men swung on swings outside the camp. One of them was so stunningly beautiful with his slanted Mongolian eyes and sharp sculpted face I found myself staring into his face.
An answer on the Facebook page. “Anyone who got on the bus should be let in.” Another answer appears with a phone number of a refugee coordinator. I call. On his way.
Silence settled. Petra said “You know what I see when I look at the white containers?” I nodded, anticipating her answer because I had thought the same. “The barracks.”
Petra and I have visited Auschwitz/Birkenau together for three years now staffing the Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness retreat. I saw in my mind’s eye the brown wooden structures, housing five hundred individuals each. The beams across the ceilings, the stone stove lining the center, where we place red small candles when we had sat vigil there at the last night of each retreat. The scene we witnessed earlier reminds me of the testimonies and photos of the Nazi transports, I think of my Polish and Hungarian great grandparents unloading from a train at the platform in the center of Birkenau, the officers, the families, the selections, the confusion, the uncertainty. I think of self-internment in my own mind, when stimulated by anger I segregate a vulnerable feeling, a hurt, a pain, fear, not wanting to acknowledge it’s a living part of the large, diverse, vibrant, creative community that was ‘me’.
I think of intention. Auschwitz, Gaza, Srebrenica. All had fences, watchtowers, and guards. But they were all different, and created with different intentions. How the same objects, living containers, a fence, a guard, a document in itself have no value — it is my own intention in the mind and heart that determines how I will close a gate, that requests a document with a certain tone, that stamps it with acknowledgment of the quivering hand that holds it.
Inside the fence, we saw a group of men led by an officer and my heart races. I ask Petra “What would you do if you sat here and suddenly saw this officer line them up and shoot these men one by one?”
We both visited Bosnia and Wounded Knee. I think of those who stood on these sides of these fences around the world, what they have seen, and the questions in their hearts. I think of the Greek officer, the intention in his heart, letting not knowing permeate my body. It was I who now walks inside the fence, five Afghans follow my steps. I feel thirsty. Nervous. I want to do a good job, to contribute; I feel afraid and want to be seen as person, but I was only taught be tough. I think “That guy outside the fence who look at me and judge, how could he know the intent in my heart?”
Compassion is a fancy words that means many things to many people. It works for me to imagine myself in another shoes, and imagine what they feel and what they value, I just feel connected and spacious when I do that. And really let that in. It all rest on not-knowing, being curious, letting go of judgments or preconceptions and stay with the felt unspoken sense of the experience of another, the feeling, energies, values, needs. I breathe into the richness of the shard fabric of experience, myself, the guard, the men walking behind him, the stunning Afghani man on the swing, the little boy with the wrangled hands, my newborn newphew in Germany.
Two more buses arrive.
The scene repeated.
A hundred more people disembarked.
Supply trucks arrived.
Helped move bags from road.
Among the arrivals was the beautiful grey-haired woman who received the make-up kits on the first day. I saw Milad, the Afghan whose mother survived a heart attack en route from Turkey. Swagger gone. Vulnerable eyes. His mother besides him, long face under a blue shawl. He told me of a phone call. Her mother, his grandmother, had just died back in Afghanistan. We hug.
I watched him and his mother enter the line.
Masoud accepted my Facebook friend’s request. Messaged: Got in no stamp.
I reply : thumbs-up.