A New York native who has lived in Geneva for a decade, working as a novelist, I decided to volunteer at the Eleonas Refugee Camp in Athens starting in 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Eleonas had been hastily assembled by the Greek Ministry of Immigration in August of that year, after tens of thousands of refugees began arriving on the Greek islands after a treacherous passage from Turkey. A defunct airport on the outskirts of Athens had been transformed into a makeshift refugee camp for those transferred to the mainland by the authorities, as well as for many arriving illegally. After 20 refugees swelled to 200 and then to a population of almost 20,000 seemingly overnight, Eleonas was established inside the city itself to accommodate the overflow. It housed families in particular.
City child that I was, I’m embarrassed to say that I chose to volunteer at Eleonas specifically because it would not require me to drive. One of the few centrally located camps in the region, Eleonas has the slightly absurd, unexpected advantage of being accessible from downtown Athens by Metro.
What was also unexpected was that, as soon as I arrived at the camp to volunteer, I would see my Grandma Liz, dead almost 20 years.
What was also unexpected was that, as a secular Jew, I would celebrate a Rosh HaShanah tradition surrounded by Muslims, in a nation of Orthodox Christians.
My grandmother was there in the camp my very first day in Eleonas, an Afghan Muslim version of her, limping through the dust with the same weighed gait that my own grandmother had had. Our eyes locked. She grabbed my hand and we began to hug and kiss, weeping as if we were being reunited. We couldn’t speak five words in each other’s language, Farsi or English. But we could not let go. I did not even learn her name, nor she mine. But we both felt that we knew each other.
I was volunteering precisely because of my family. When the Syrian refugee crisis first hit in 2015, the European news was filled with images of families crammed into barbed-wire encampments, begging for water. Local governments and aid organizations were overwhelmed. It reminded of my own family’s story. It was my legacy; I was descended from immigrants and refugees. My aunt had been born to Holocaust survivors in a Displaced Persons camp in post-war Europe. Watching the crisis unfolding on my doorstep, I felt compelled to help.
Arriving at the camp, though, I was nervous. Eleonas is one of the largest ones on mainland Greece. People fleeing the ruins of Syria, Afghanistan, and some 26 other nations were warehoused in Athens’ industrial zone, in hundreds of metal shipping containers. Above them, visible in the distance, looms the most famous ruin of all, the Parthenon.
I expected to see a hugely traumatized population: Wailing women in abayas and bloodied, half-drowned men clutching waterlogged babies, an air of despair and profound displacement hanging thickly over the barren camp. Yet what I did not expect were the mischievous kids who also greeted me while racing around on second-hand bicycles. The young men in flip-flops obsessively watching football on their smartphones and teasing their little sisters. Or the old woman who was the reincarnation of my own grandmother.
Like so many of the world’s refugees, before they had to flee their homes, the residents of Eleonas were teachers, shopkeepers, students, artists, tailors, and, well, little kids who were just plain little kids. And I knew them.
There, swanning about in Jackie O sunglasses and red lipstick, was the star of my acting class in high school, now wearing a leopard-print hijab. The retired physics professor who used to hang around Zabar’s reading a socialist newspaper? He was at the camp, too. But this one’s name was Saleh, not Shmuel. “You write books?” he said when he learned I was a writer. “Can we make a date to talk? I’ve been working on an art history manuscript I’d like your advice on publishing.”
Every day, I met Syrian and Afghan doppelgängers of my fellow New Yorkers. And they were as astonished as I was that they had become something other than themselves — erased, lumped together as great, displaced masses, known only for their losses, their desperation, the worst moments of their lives.
“There are so many things I wanted to grow up to be,” a teenage boy from Syria joked grimly. “An engineer, an astronaut, a guitar-player. Who imagined I’d become a refugee instead!”
Using the small allowances they receive from the Greek government and the EU, the residents buy meat, vegetables and second-hand cookware in outdoor flea markets outside the camp. They constantly invited volunteers into their “homes” for meals. At first, like the hundreds of volunteers who felt compelled to help there, I was reluctant to eat their rations. But I quickly learned how crucial it was to allow people to show us hospitality. Not only was it a huge part of Syrian and Afghan culture, but it restored their dignity and sense of normalcy. As we sat in a circle on their floor, using pita bread to scoop up insanely perfumed chicken curry, lamb simmered with onions and Persian-spiced okra, we were suddenly no longer volunteers and refugees anymore, but equals sharing a meal together.
One afternoon, as I was distributing baby formula, a bubbly, red-headed (it’s hard to tell people’s ages, because trauma has made the refugees look much older than they are — plus it’s rude to ask — but I’d estimate she was 35, though in life terms we were of similar age) mother urged me inside to meet her family. She was wearing a hot-pink, low-cut T-shirt — and somehow, despite the fact that she only spoke Arabic, we used the translation apps on our phones to crack jokes and talk intimately about being women. As I was leaving, she insisted that I share a piece of fruit with her.
I accepted her offer; we ate together side-by-side on her mattress, before she sent me on my way with a hug.
The next time I saw her, I didn’t recognize her. Because she was going to market in public, she was clad head-to-toe in her black abaya. She’d been turned into one of those shapeless black forms we Westerners so often fear and suspect of being terrorists. But she recognized me — and waved gleefully.
Back home, people kept posting on my social media that I was “an angel” for volunteering. But nothing could be further from the truth. Just as there are myths about refugees being subhuman jihadists or criminals, so there are also myths about volunteers being super humanitarians or saints. We’re not saviors. Anyone with extra time and money can sort through donated clothes, hand out supplies or simply bear witness.
We volunteers often get kvetchy and catatonic with fatigue. After a 10-hour work day at the camp, we look at the 15-minute walk ahead of us to the Metro and mumble, “Would it really be so horrible to take an Uber?”
Once, at our daily staff meeting, one of the little boys in the camp sat among us. He had a musical toy car someone donated that played the song “Bingo.” He had it play B-I-N-G-O 27 times in a row. This little boy had survived a trip across the Mediterranean in an inflatable raft. He nearly died of hypothermia. But by the 28th time his toy car played “Bingo,” that’s not who we saw anymore. Who on earth removes the batteries from the toy of a poor refugee child? It turned out: we do.
Like the residents of the camp itself, we’re merely human. All of us, from everywhere, are merely trying our best.
Our shared humanity is one of the themes of Rosh HaShanah. The day that the red-haired Syrian woman offered me some fruit happened to be Rosh HaShanah. The fruit she’d insisted I eat with her was apples. Somehow, she had procured some precious apples.
She did not know that I was Jewish.
Her generous offer was a reminder of the day’s sweetness — even without the honey in which to dip the apples. And of our shared humanity.
Particularly in these times, in this New Year, as we, in more traditional settings, slice up our apples and dip them in honey, it behooves us all to remember this.
Susan Jane Gilman, a former staff writer for The Jewish Week, is a best-selling author of five books. Her new novel, “Donna Has Left The Building,” was inspired by what she witnessed at the refugee camps in Greece.