Jordan and I are typically too busy watching the line and helping out during lunch to take photos, but another volunteer has taken the time to capture some lovely images over the past few days.
At 12:30ish, even before the white van from Hot Food Idomeni rolls up, men and boys gather in line to get their one hot meal of the day. Hot Food serves 1,000 meals a day. Although over a thousand people are squatting in these abandoned warehouses, only about six hundred get in line for the soup.
A few volunteers hand out the soup while the rest of us stand and guard the line.
Guarding the line doesn’t sound fun, but I really enjoy getting to see all my new friends as they pass by me, chit-chatting with new people, and cracking jokes with others.
“You smile a lot,” someone told me today. “Why do you smile so much?”
“What? You want me to frown?” I pretended to scowl. “Is this the Hungary border? I’m a border guard now?”
They all laughed. One told me he was heading to France after lunch.
“Oh, really?” I teased. “Take me with you! I want to go to France!”
“Problem, problem.” The man’s friend shook his head. “They’ll let you through, but not him.” He pointed to my purse. “Put him in there, and take him across!”
I laughed. “I might be able to fit a 10-year-old, but maybe not a grown man!”
As you can see, many of them love flirting with the camera.
After getting their food, they take the trays and slices of bread and try to find somewhere to sit. Many just crouch on the ground and eat, eager for something hot in their bellies.
They live in a couple of warehouses behind the bus station. One is walled off in separate rooms and even has a couple of old cots. The other, however, is just a wide-open space with shattered glass windows that let all the heat out.
Sometimes it gets so smoky you can’t see more than 10 feet ahead of you. The reason it’s so smoky is because 1) it’s open fires and 2) they’re burning trash and treated wood.
There’s an old pile of railroad ties they scavenge from to keep their fires going. It keeps them semi-warm, but the fumes are toxic.
They have plumbing that (usually) works, but I’m pretty sure this is the entrance to the toilets. I haven’t been there myself, but that’s what I was told.
A few days ago we had a blanket drive! Doctors Without Borders organized the event and provided a few of the blankets. Refugee Aid Serbia provided more blankets. Hot Food Idomeni helped distribute. As you can see, it got a little crazy there for a while. Communicating to over a thousand people where to start the line, stay in line, and be patient because we have enough for everyone is kinda difficult. I watched for cutters and pulled people out of line constantly for the hour it lasted.
As a person who enforces the rules, sometimes it can be frustrating to see the same people trying to sneak into line over and over again. But I’ve learned to remember that 1) Lines are a British/North American thing and line ettiquette just isn’t a big deal in the rest of the world, so this 600-person line thing is as foreign to them as Pashtu and Farsi are to me. Also, 2) when you’re freezing cold and see a finite number of clothing or blankets being passed out, urgency sets in and adrenaline kicks into the system. When you’re fighting against frostbite every single day and you see a pile of blankets, you feel desperate.
Most people are happy to follow the rules, of course, just like people in the rest of the world. And over all, the blanket distribution went really well. I’m pleased to have been a part of it. There’s just always that one guy who insists he was in line when you watched him walk right up and cut.
I mean, really, if you’re walking around like this, and you see winter clothing being distributed–aren’t you going to be willing to hop the line?
I’ve met a lot of really neat people here. Most of the people in the barracks are boys, ages 9 to 18, though there are a few adult men as well. I saw a couple of women and a family being moved out, hopefully to a camp, the other day.
This boy in the middle is my friend Milan. I gave him gloves and a hat today, but had to tell him no boots, to try again tomorrow.
“But you told me to wait,” he said, confused. “You said you’d find me boots.”
“I know, and I’m so sorry,” I told him, cringing. “Things just got crazy, and now there’s car trouble. Try later this afternoon. Come back and someone will be here with shoes.” I hope to see him tomorrow with new boots.
Kaship is on the right with the blue scarf (donated by one of my friends!) He has a hard time with my name as usually calls me “Angry.” Well, I’m not sure that’s what he’s saying, but that’s what it sounds like. While I watched the line today, he stood and talked with me. (And if you notice their eyes, yes, there are plenty of hazel eyes, gray eyes, and gorgeous baby blues.)
“I got into a camp!” he told me.
“Oh my goodness, that’s wonderful! When do you leave?” I asked.
“Tonight, or maybe tomorrow night.” He paused. “And now I am crying.”
“Because I am leaving.” He shrugged.
“It’s just the camp down the road,” I told him. “You’re still stuck in Serbia.”
“Yes, but I won’t see you or the others any more. I won’t live here, I’ll live in a camp.”
“But a camp will be warm,” I encouraged. “And I can see you at Miksaliste. Maybe tomorrow or the next day. We’ll see each other.”
Ahbed is 16, but he looks 26, he’s gone through so much. I gave an impromptu English lesson to him and a few friends of his four weeks ago, and he hasn’t forgotten. Whenever he’s in line he always greets me, “Hello, teacher,” very shyly. His friends always laugh at him, I guess because they think it’s funny the American woman knows his name. I gave him some gloves three weeks ago (donated by another friend!) and he refused. “I can’t take your gloves.”
“It’s okay, I have more at home. I promise. Take them.” I pressed them into his hands.
So two days ago he found me and handed me an apple.
“Oh, I can’t take your food,” I told him, smiling.
“You must,” he insisted, smiling, dipping his head in embarrassment. “It’s just a small gift.”
I finally accepted. It was a pretty good apple.
Ahmed is fluent in English and helps translate for the volunteers. His hat and gloves were donated by one of Jordan’s family members! He’s teaching me a few Pashtu phrases–two or three words a day! Today I learned, “it doesn’t depend on me.” Last week I learned, “no boots, no blankets, nothing.” So you can imagine what I say a lot. He’s always cheerful and eager to work with us. He arrived in Serbia about three weeks ago. During the crossing through the Bulgarian forest he got separated from his cousin. I asked him today if his cousin had arrived.
“Not yet.” He shook his head. “The weather is bad. I talk to him though, and he will wait a week, maybe two, and come when weather is better.”
“That’s good,” I agreed. “It’s too cold and dangerous right now. Did you hear about the two refugees who died in the forest yesterday?”
“I know,” he said. “More people than that have died. Sometimes people get lost for days. So he is waiting.”
“Oh, good.” I grinned. “I’m glad you get to be together again!”
He laughed and told me to practice more Pashtu.
I can’t believe we’re leaving this week. It’s going to be so hard to leave all the amazing people we’ve met. I’m grateful for this blog, for my readers, who read to all these rambling stories, because I want to get this down and never forget all my friends and coworkers. They’re inspiring, all of them, the volunteers and the refugees, and I’m going to have a hard time leaving them.