The Kindness of Strangers

kiss me, for where else

do we carry home now, habibi,

if not on our lips?

Zeina Hashem Beck, “Naming Things, for refugees, September 2015

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I dislike the idea of essentialism. I want to believe we always have that choice of an alternative. Not to be bound by the essential. Yet I live in Athens and have been involved with the lives of refugees. The smallest gestures become magnified, and essential. It started with short trips to the port with other volunteers when the borders closed, now there are weekly or twice weekly visits to a squat. Even the larger questions of justice and inequality are subsumed by board games, requests for flip-flops, socks, and hair dye. Fatima asking for shoes, Narghes saying she wants a pair also. Abude insists I come with him to see “the mountain” in a schoolyard where there is no mountain in sight. But he is determined to show me, and takes me by the hand to point through the green awnings a group of Spanish volunteers put across the playground to shelter it from the sun. “You see it?” he wants me to see. And yes, there’s a hill behind the schoolyard that is now occupied by Afghan and Syrian refugees. He was taken there with two of the Spanish volunteers and says, nearly ecstatic, “From up there I could see all of the city!”

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Perspective is newly important. Maybe that’s what’s become essential. A part of me, the privileged and educated part of me wants to use that privilege and education to say we can be more than our essential selves. Tell that to someone who barely makes it to a shoreline, I say to myself, someone who makes it with an essential body still intact. The request for a comb by a girl whose teeth are dark with rot, who so carefully makes sure the colors stay within the lines of the drawing she’s made teaches me something else about perspective. That so much has to do with anyone’s priorities. Roberto Bolaño chose to finish his 2666 opus rather than interrupt his work for a kidney transplant he fatally put off. So for Bolaño the more essential impulse was his work, his own teeth weren’t in the greatest shape either.

It seems like almost every time I take the car to the squat (and I take it when there’s a bunch of stuff I’m lugging), I get a parking ticket. Kastro, a Syrian Robin Hood, who has lived in Greece for some 25 years and who finds abandoned buildings for the refugees to squat, says it’s a certain police person who writes tickets at the drop of a hat. He suggests I leave a note on the windshield saying I’m helping out the refugees. I also park right in front of the school building and still get a ticket. The police person is cunning he (I just assume it’s a he), has carefully folded the ticket and left it on the opposite side of the windshield where I have the note. I’m of a mind to wait it out next time, and introduce myself. It’s not as if I’m parked on a sidewalk or anywhere that’s a hindrance, it’s just that that time of day, apparently, cars are ticketed.

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I am thinking of tickets and also of the kindness of strangers, and how our traveling is dependent on both. There was a rather sour ticket collector on the train from Basel to Zurich this summer who very haughtily informed me that he didn’t know what kind of ticket I’d handed him; it was a Swiss Air ticket, which was essentially an airline ticket but instead I was taking a train (rather than a plane, Superman). He looked at me coolly and said “Swiss Air doesn’t exist anymore” and that he’s never seen “such a thing,” “thing?” I said equally coolly, adding that whether or not Swiss Air existed I’d paid for the ticket and that maybe he should call his supervisor to take a look at it; the supervisor is much nicer and asks me to explain the ticket so I tell him it was purchased in Athens and that it’s a Swiss Air ticket, “whether that exists now or not” I add, to which he quickly interjects with “yes, it exists”, and after which his frigid colleague asks for my passport and tells me it will be an extra 12 francs for the train, which was fine. I found myself saying to the much nicer supervisor that I was grateful for his politeness, he nodded and wished me a good day.

At the squat I meet new people whose presence gives yet another perspective to my life. Mar has come from Barcelona on her own dime, and she is there to do art with the refugee children. It’s her second visit, she’d spent almost 2 months at the squat, and working at Hotel Oneiro, another shelter, in the summer, and is back this fall, staying nearby where she has to work 3 nights a week for her room and board. Some of the children have become very close to her, and Rama’s family regularly invites her to their corner of space where they make tea and offer her some of their food made on a small burner. She tells me their story, a mother with 7 children, and the mother alone. One day Mar took Rama and his sister Ella to the sea where they swam for the first time since the crossing. The sea was terrifying to Ella, but she got over her fear, and Mar says, was thrilled to be swimming. The children keep in touch with her, someone usually has at least one cell in the family, and “WhatsApp” is the favored cell phone ap. Abude just missed Mar by a couple of days because his sister who is 25 thought they needed to go to Thessaloniki to process their papers. Abude’s mother is in Holland. He is 11, and became very close to Mar in the summer. They talk on the phone and he says he is sad, that the camp where they are staying isn’t good, that the children are wild and he misses the squat.

It’s so strange how these visits have somehow taken over our lives. Alicia sometimes says she doesn’t know what we’re doing, and Mar has come back on barely enough money for her ticket. I leave work once a week and generally feel like it’s a matter of time before someone asks me why I’m not at my desk. After the children draw we ask them to write their names; they’ve taught us certain words in Arabic and Farsi. Ramaz drew a picture on Friday and wanted me to take it because the children tear up her drawings and she wants me to keep it from being torn. I am learning more of their names: Amal, Niaveeh, Hania, Asiel, Ismar, Ibrahim, Hamsa…I am learning that their presence has become as essential to me as our sporadic visits may be for them. Simone Weil writing in 1949 says in “Uprootedness and Nationhood”: “One may say that, in our age, money and the State have come to replace all other bonds of attachment.” Her example was to fight that, and ours too. This is what Mar wrote in her Facebook status update today:

RESTORING FAMILY LINKS

Many of the kids in the shelter had lost a part of their family or they are separated by stupid borders. One of the activities that I make with them is to talk about their family links with the help of paper dolls chains in order to know their situation and to reinforce the idea that sooner or later they will be reunited again. When Tabarak arrived to the 5th school squat in early July, she told me that her father and brother were in Holland and her mother, little sister and herself had been stuck in Greece since March. Yesterday, after many months of bureaucracy, she took a plane to Holland to restore her family links. The night before she told me she was scared about flying… she didn’t realize how brave she is. She survived a war, crossing a death sea, living in extreme conditions in refugee camps… and she never lost her smile or her tenderness. She is one of the most loving, smartest and sweetest persons that I’d ever met and she is only eleven. Good luck, habibi. See you soon. ❤

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About akalfopoulou

Author of two poetry collections, and most recently, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living.
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