I spent my first stint at Ritsona, a camp about two hours north of Athens. Nearly 900 people live there–about two thirds are Syrian, others are from Iraq and Afghanistan, others are stateless: Palestinian, Kurdish, and Yazidi. The old military base has no running water or electricity, and residents live in tents with no flooring. Many have built stoves out of mud and dirt and tapped into a nearby power line to charge their phones. Volunteers from several non-profits distribute meals, clothing, and medical attention.
I went to help serve meals. The lead volunteer explained how meals work: Residents are given food and water according to their family size, which is noted on their meal card. Adults get a meal, bread, and plastic ware. Children get all that plus juice. If they ask for water, they get one bottle per family member. … It seemed simple enough. I went to work, taking cards and distributing meals.
Midway into my shift, a woman with gentle eyes and a warm smile handed me her card. It read: 2 adults, 3 children. I did the calculation: 5 meals, 5 breads, 3 juices. I placed all the items in a bag and handed it back to her. She took it from me, then pointed at the bottles of water behind me.
“You want water?” She nodded her head. “Okay, one sec.” I told the volunteer hunched over the distribution papers the woman’s tent number. She traced her finger down the paper and found the correct tent. “You’ve already gotten your water. I can’t give you anymore.” Another volunteer said something in Arabic to the woman, and then turned back to us. “She said she used the water to cook. She says she needs another bottle for her children to drink.” The lead volunteer glanced back at the dwindling piles of water bottles behind us. “I’m sorry. She’s had her water for the day.”
Yesterday, I arrived home to a spacious apartment in Venice Beach and watched Game of Thrones until I fell asleep. This morning, my young friends in Ritsona awoke on her palette in a dusty tent with no clear path to a safe and permanent home.
It was not until last night that I finally cried. I cried for the Syrian woman who watched her sister drown when their boat overturned on the way to Greece. I cried for the Palestinian man I met–just a few years younger than me–who had lived his entire life in refugee camps. I cried for the little girl who pressed her heart against mine, and the charismatic boy with the posh haircut. I cried because their situation is incomprehensible.