Just another “wake up at 5 am and go to the airport” kind of Sunday. The thing that gets me going is that I know I won’t be alone, and that a lot of the volunteers I became friends with will be here this morning. I take the train there with a friend, we talk about our experiences yesterday and about what to expect today. There is a new head of operations today, he’s not as friendly as the usual one. We hope there won’t be any difficulty with him, but all goes smoothly.
Little by little, the hall fills up with people: the army, policemen, firemen, paramedics. Today we “only” welcome 350 people. As we’re about to make the sandwiches, five soldiers come and immediately start the job. I put some music on, we all talk together and it’s probably the most relaxed preparation time I’ve experienced so far. At some point, I want to get some more arabic bread, but a soldier says he’ll bring some to me. This is new: they look happy to help, and they really are touchy about their place in the sandwich assembly line. I go back to my spot empty handed and wait till the soldier brings me the bread. I look at the two volunteers next to me, they’re also pleasantly surprised and we keep up the work, feeling somehow relieved, that we finally understand each other.
The train comes. Incidentally, I’m in a back room when it enters the station. I see people’s faces at the windows. From afar, I can’t really distinguish their expressions but the feeling of being lost comes to mind. They don’t know what awaits them, the next hour, the next day, the rest of their lives. Five minutes later, they enter the hall. People arriving look in a pretty poor shape. A lot of men are just wearing slippers. We prepared too many sandwiches because the Senate had initially announced 450 people. It doesn’t matter, the leftovers will be brought to a shelter later on.
There are many Afghans, less Syrians today. As I pass by an old man, he touches me on the arm. He looks exhausted, as in, about to collapse. I don’t understand what he asks me. But I see his eyes are not focusing anymore. I think he’s going to faint and he’s way to heavy for me to carry him. Luckily the paramedics are just a shout away so I quickly get hold of three of them who surround the man. Only it doesn’t change anything, they ask him what he has, and he explains once again. We just miss the interpreter to understand. I go fetch one at the entrance hall, and soon the man can explain what is happening to him. I will never know because other hands grab my arm. They all need clothes. I take orders. One pair of pants size 8, man shoes, a jacket. Hats and scarves never go amiss. Two soldiers guard the door, the same ones as yesterday. It’s just a better feeling to be surrounded by familiar faces instead of constantly having to deal with newcomers.
Two Syrian couples had asked me for clothes. I ask them to wait at the door since no one, apart from the volunteers, is allowed to the rooms. We would love to allow people in, but this would considerably slow the official’s work down, and if we did so, we’re not sure how much longer we would be tolerated here. So we bring stuff to people, and people don’t come to us. It’s silly, but that’s the only way it can, just about, work.
As I look for men scarves, I spot the two Syrian women who managed to pass by the soldiers, unnoticed. They’re in our way, getting changed. I ask around who let them in, none of the volunteers. They really are in the way, it slows down our work grabbing stuff to give to other people in need. We ask them to leave, several times, they don’t want to. Finally, after we’ve explained to them why we simply don’t have the time to organize fitting rooms, they comply. But I hear them complaining to their husbands: “They have so much stuff here and they give us nothing!” or something along the lines. I feel very hurt by this because this is so wrong: true, people gave us a bunch of stuff. Summer clothes. We’re in winter now. Basically, we direly need every kind of winter clothes.
As I get out with plenty of scarves and hats, people come towards me and collect what pleases them. I let them chose, of course, but I try to be fair and give equally to each of them. Incidentally, I found a hat I had knitted a month ago among the ones I’m giving away now, it makes me smile as I fit it on a little girl’s head. She’s delighted. I’m especially flattered as she doesn’t know I made it. Of course, it would be odd to take a picture, since she doesn’t know the context, so I just picture it in my head as she tells me “Merci”. I even manage to give another girl a woolen hat matching her jacket, she’s delighted. That’s for the fun part. The less fun, is that a lot of the Afghan kids seem to have contracted chickenpox: their faces are covered in characteristic red spots. I’m immune so I don’t fear for myself but am anxious that they might contaminate the whole camp once arrived. This is bound to happen at some point in any case, given the conditions in which people are welcomed.
|Those who made it: kids’ boots given after they crossed the sea.© E Chaze|
I go back to the storage rooms for some more clothes, but am stopped on the way by a station agent. I’m a bit apprehensive as the only times I ever interacted with them they were complaining about this or that. The man is about my age. He asks: “Excuse me, is there anything I could do to help?”. I’m so surprised by this that I think I misunderstood, so I ask him to repeat. Heard right the first time. Actually, no man helps with the clothes distribution, and most of the people arriving haven’t gotten a chance to change clothes since they left. Including underwears, which I mentioned yesterday. Only this is very awkward and humiliating, especially for men arriving, to ask young women to fetch them underwear. And it’s likewise unthinkable for them to accept them if we simply handed it to them. So I ask the man if he wouldn’t mind taking a bag, filling it up with men’s undies and socks, and walk around with it. “Sure, no problem, happy to help! shall I hand them in then?”. I explain: “It’s a bit awkward, just walk around, show them what you’re carrying, but let them take it if they want”. “Gotya”, he says, and off he goes. I’m really happy about this outcome. Only I see him coming back from the storage rooms, two minutes later and empty handied. I ask what happened. “I was told by one of your colleagues there was no men underwear and that anyway we should only ever give them away in case of emergency”. I look around. I wonder what could possibly look more urgent than right now around us? Dysentery? I go back to the rooms with him, have two words with the volunteer who mislead him, she didn’t know, she says. Well, when in doubt…but I don’t say anything. We’ve all made mistakes at some point and we don’t have time for that. I show the station agent the boxes and prepare a bag for him. Out he goes, and within seconds, all is gone. It looked urgent enough to me. He’s back for a second round. Now it’s true, there are almost no undies left. We’ll have to launch a call for help again.
The hall empties itself, once again. It feels we’re on an island of misery in a land of plenty. An island where a pair of socks and a plastic bag to carry one’s life belongings look like the most precious things for people who have lost all their possessions as well as their loved ones, and whom we also deprive of their fundamental right to dignity.