The orange juice
It was a rainy September day and I woke up early in the morning in a wonderful hotel in Salonica city centre. The minute I opened my eyes, I decided that I should have some breakfast. Delicious croissants, ham and cheese, freshly baked bread, jam… everything seemed to be in place… except… well, where was the orange juice? There was no juice – and I desperately needed one! Humidity made me feel quite exhausted, and I needed a grand glass of juice - even of concentrated juice.
Despite my disappointment, the day began as planned. We went to visit Vasilika, a camp which hosts 1,250 people, mainly Syrian families and also some Afghan ones, and is run by the Air Force. Upon entrance, we bumped into Caritas Hellas staff who were distributing fruit and vegetables - what they regularly do three times a week. More specifically, vegetables, fruit, olive oil, sugar, salt, legumes and cereals are distributed -depending on the refugees’ and migrants’ needs- as supplementary (as we call it) food, which however is necessary for these people and their 350 children.
Walking further inside the camp, we saw the big (10,000 liters) water tank, donated by Caritas Hellas. The 50 chemical WC were also there, proportionally divided between men and women, as well as the two WC for people with special needs. Unfortunately, it was heavily raining, so we did not see children playing happily at the playing ground constructed by Caritas Hellas. From time to time, during our four-hours visit, some children would defy the rain and go to the playing ground, only to hear a parent anxiously calling them to go back quickly in the warehouse. Oh, yes! There are eight large warehouses with tents inside. Every tent hosts a family.
Caritas Hellas distributing vegetables
While Maria, the social worker of Caritas Hellas, was training the psychosocial support team, constituted by two social workers, a psychologist and, of course, interpreters, and was also briefed by them, I had the chance to wander around the tents and talk to people. Nona, our interpreter, told us that a beautiful family who had just arrived in the camp, would be happy to talk with us.
Indeed, we received a warm welcome from them. The father, Mustafa, is 45 years old, and the mother, Fatih, 40 years old. Five of their six children were absent at the time we visited. Half an hour later, their little one came inside, all wet. She was one of the children who went to the playing ground. She told us she had fun, despite the rain!
The camp of Vasilika
We took our shoes off and sat on the rugs around the table. We start talking. It was not a typical interview or collection of testimonies. It was just a chat about our lives. They told us the story of their big family, which is now split between Greece and Germany. Their older son, 14 years old, now lives with Fatih’s sister and her husband in Germany. They are all waiting for them in Germany. They also told us how detrimental the civil war has been for their city Hasaka, in Syria, and about the exchange of fire between the Kurds and the Army.
“Whoever remains neutral -that is, whoever does not want to kill- is targeted by both sides”, said Mustafa. “I was a Professor of Psychology at the University and my wife was a school teacher. We did not have any involvement with the armed groups which spread fear and leave the streets covered with blood and dead bodies”. His wife continued on: “I could not let my children be haunted by nightmares and start considering normal the sight of dead bodies in bins or heavily wounded children. I could not let them feel terrorized by a knock on the door, with the terror stemming from the fact that you never know who it is and why he/she has come to your house. We are an open, hospitable people. Hospitality is sacred for us”.
In an effort to change to a less painful for them topic of conversation, we asked more about their professions; and about their children’s everyday life here. Their mother told us she tries to make them study their lessons. They learn Arabic, English, arithmetic, geometry: this is Fatih’s school schedule. “I want my children and my compatriots’ children to be educated. They are our future”. Fatih and her husband are eager to go to Germany. However, they have already been in Greece for six months and they know they will have to stay longer here. So, meanwhile, they run classes for all the children in the camp.
We were already talking for two hours. We learned a lot about them and they learned a lot about us. What was unbelievable, however, was that, whatever the topic of the conversation, they were constantly smiling. “We have hope. We should not give up hope. Conditions here are better. We definitely miss our home, but we escaped death”. Fatih repeated this last phrase four times, looking at the sky and holding her little daughter in her arms.
Had our phone not rung to remind us that we should return to Salonica, we may had spent another two hours with this wonderful family in their hospitable tent. I was undoubtedly fascinated and gripped by Fatih’s smile, the sparkle in her eyes, her pleasant voice, the brightness of her skin, her hospitality. And, most importantly, I will never forget the freshly made orange juice she offered us as a proper hostess!
Fatih with her husband and her little daughter
Communication Officer of Caritas Hellas