Today’s train confirms that less people are arriving to Berlin every day. Still, hundreds are coming each morning. Out of the 300 announced this morning, 190 people reach us. I don’t know if 110 pushed the emergency stop en route or missed the train in Freilassing. The notion of networking plays its full role now, as volunteers of all cities across Europe are getting in touch to help displaced people as best as we can.
The head of operations announces a majority of sick/injured people that are likely not to be hungry. As we prepare the sandwiches I wonder what prevents someone sick to be hungry but he has a point: what’s not eaten can only be kept for a short time in the fridge and I don’t like distributing those cold and hard sandwiches to people when they arrive. Thanks to the army, because it’s also worth highlighting when they do good, we will have about the perfect amount of sandwiches ready in no time today. As they finish preparing the food, I see two of them eating the said sandwiches. I had already complained about that during a meeting last week, as the food we share comes from donations and our pockets, and we haven’t planned on feeding the officials. This time I say nothing, because I don’t want to pick a fight with them, and because they’re a unit that often comes here, so we’d better stay in good terms with them. And they helped me transporting the six boxes of bread, after I asked them to.
As I gather the knives and spatulas to go wash them before the refugees’ arrival, one soldier tells me he finds that the cheese tastes especially good with the za’atar I brought (our new discovery). I retort I’ll pass on his remark to the donors who will be glad he’s making sure refugees have a nice meal to eat when they arrive. I think he got the message. I pack some sandwiches in the last bag and disturb a soldier texting on his phone by asking him to hand me the box where we place jam sandwiches. He seems annoyed, I have to explain to him at length why I need the box, the sandwiches in hand, and after all I should have taken it myself as it would have saved me five minutes of time.
New French volunteers help us today. First time for one, second for the other. They are very cheerful and their questions make me smile – I remember my first day out there. I make sure to tell them that you basically just have to go with the flow. One of them will stay with me at the sandwiches, the other at the children’s corner. We need new helpers, always, as long as this lasts, we need to go the distance.
People arrive, most of them are hungry after all, but the distribution goes smoothly. They look in a bad state, but we have seen worse. Misery is something we now manage to evaluate and divide into diverse states. There are bad state, really bad state, and absolute emergency. Since the number of people has decreased, it’s easier to take care of people. Today I play the dresser and find trousers, shoes and scarves to a number of families. As I make my way to the clothes room, I see an Afghan leaning on a wall with only flip-flops on. He doesn’t seem to care, he hasn’t asked any of us for help. I stop and look at his feet, he looks at me and gives me a smile which seems to say “ah, well, that’s life”. It might be but it’s also quite cold out, even if this December is the warmest I’ve experienced in a long time. I ask him his shoe size. 42, maybe 43, he writes on his smartphone. I go to the shoe room. Notice the pair of roller blades is gone. I often marvel about what we have in stock in our rooms, people donating sometimes seeming to think that refugees do live in a world where stilettos and roller blades are worn every day, or maybe they just think we’re a junk shop.
I bring him a pair of shoes, size 42, and two pairs of socks. He seems delighted, puts on a pair of socks, starts trying on the shoes. In the meantime, three men ask me for their shoe size. Men shoes is one of those things we’re always short of. I tell them I can’t promise anything. I find something suitable for one of them. As I rummage through the box for another two pairs, I realize someone has started to mix up men and women’s shoes. Another little chaos crisis. I come back out again, one more trophy at hand. The shoe-less Afghan hands me his shoes back, they’re too small. They make another man waiting here very happy, but I fear for the Afghan that I won’t find anything for him anymore. The two pairs I have in hand are gone already. The Afghan tells me he’ll be fine, showing me his feet: flip-flops with socks on. Great. I ask him to wait a little bit more. Race to the shoes room. Hoping no other volunteer found the other pair I had seen a moment ago, because maybe it will fit him. It’s like a survival mode switched on, I want to reach that pair of shoes before anyone else does. Sometimes you just feel you absolutely have to provide for that particular person, not knowing why exactly this one is more important than another. In this case, I know: the sorry sight of the flip-flops definitely constitutes an emergency. Small relief: the shoes are here. And they fit! I brought a pair of gloves, a scarf and a hat as well. He’s equipped.
I’m on my way to fetch another pair of something, can’t remember what, when the soldier with whom I usually prepare the sandwiches enters the clothes room. I’m surprised as I never see him. “Would you please come over in the hall? There is a man who wants to go to Magdeburg, can you tell him how?”. I can’t believe my ears. It’s the first time ever a soldier helps us with that. I follow him, amazed by the turn of events. Play the travel guide for a couple of families in need, with maps and pens and a lot of pantomime.
After some time, I go over to the children’s corner. I see some of them are left unattended and not playing, so I go get some teddy bears to distribute. Or, how to make yourself ten new best friends in less than two seconds. I go back and forth to bring some more, until all kids are happily hugging a little bit of softness against their cheeks. Their tired eyes who saw so much already lose – for a moment – their sadness and shine with joy. They need quietness, a safe haven, and above all, love. And hugs. More often than not they jump in our arms. Still trusting humans after what they have been through. A ten-year-old girl comes forward. She hands me her phone, gestures at it. I suppose she wants WiFi, I don’t have much data to share so I’m starting to worry about how to tell her I can’t, but she doesn’t want that. Instead, because I wrapped a cute stuffed snake around her arm, she wants to take a picture of us together. She tells me she comes from al-Suwayda, a city in the south of Syria. She speaks very good English, I’m sure she will learn German quite quickly since she already masters one foreign language. So here we are, hugging and taking a selfie with her phone, which she sends me per Bluetooth afterwards.
Witnessing the scene are other kids, as well as some adults, who soon come with their own phones. I’m on selfie duty now. I wonder what they will tell their relatives, showing the pictures later on. “So here is that woman who gave us teddy bears while speaking to us in this weird language when we arrived in that sad building in a city we didn’t know in a country we can’t place on a map”. Because most of the young ones aren’t really good at geography, hopefully just yet. Just as the Middle-East is one vast and often blurry map for us, Europe is that large patch of heaven in the ocean of dramas, wars, sadness and misery that they left.
Once all the little hands holding teddy bears have followed their parents and got on the buses, it’s time to pack again. Tomorrow, another train will come. But my day is not over: there is a couple of friends to visit in an emergency shelter in Moabit, at the other end of town. Here as well, everything is needed.