World

The family circle: Refugee hospitality toward the Westerners who help

Syrian shopkeepers and archaeologists share their meal, their coffee and their stories with an American volunteer at Lesbos

Things are fluid in the volunteer world. As it turns out, after our last dinner service we were told we would be doing food for another week. But after one extra day, it was over. Our zone four dinner crew was to be a thing of the past, until we got adopted.

The last few days of food distribution had seen some new arrivals to zone four: a group of young families who seemed to know each other. When we came by with the last (for now?) dinner service, they were cooking for themselves at a fire near their RHU, a rather big pot, for sure, and invited us for dinner. We had been invited for coffee before by a family one lane further back, and had been saying, “maybe another time,” because things can get so busy. But this was the last night of dinner from us, so we (Brian Germain, who is the food distribution workhorse stud and already misses it terribly, took the lead here,) decided to accept the dinner invitation and then make good on the coffee invite as well. Two other volunteers were with us: Lena from Spain and Sophie from Denmark.

After carrying the things back to the chai place at Kara Tepe square, we returned to zone four. They were elated. I think they thought we wouldn’t come. The women were seated on the floor (on some UNHCR issued mats) around the pot, and the men were in another circle, with a generous portion of the dinner (rice, chicken, potatoes and then a sprinkling of tomato and cucumber) on a plastic sheet in the middles of the men’s circle. It was use a fork if you want, fingers more than welcome, and it was amazing.

lesbos family supper by faris

Brian and I sat with the men, Lena and Sophie with the women. We asked where they were from. They were all one big family (brothers, sisters, cousins and their spouses); no one was over 35. About four of the women are pregnant. They are from Homs, Syria.  They arrived the very same night the shipwreck had occurred. They knew of it, and knew they were lucky. They left Syria a month ago. They were in Turkey for a week or so. They crossed on their fourth attempt. Twice Turkish police boats had turned them back. Once there was engine trouble on the rubber boat.

Of course, they have names from a comedy sketch about Arabs like Mohammed and Ahmed, but they are not stereotypes, they are great guys who have been through the ringer. The family leader seemed to be Faris, or at least his English was the best so he did most of the talking. He said his parents were already in Germany, which is where they wanted to go. One of the men wanted to go to Malta since his brother was there.

The rice? The rice was beyond delicious. My best meal in Greece thus far. Basmati rice, somehow seasoned perfectly (I know a trip to a market was involved; I don’t know how they conjured up this magic) with chicken on the bone. We were asked again and again to eat generously. I was given a drink they had made by diluting the garlicky Greek yogurt dinner always includes. OK, the garlic yogurt shake wasn’t that good, but the dinner was stellar. And the conversation was intense.

Author and his dinner hosts/Faris
Author and his dinner hosts/Faris

The men were eager to share their story. Faris has cell-phone video of his house being bombed. Pre-and post-destruction pictures of the cell-phone shop and mini-market which was his business.  They seemed to get along so well, the men occasionally throwing a comment over to the women’s circle, and lots of laughter. One man showed pictures of his work in Syria as a heavy equipment operator, even a pic he wanted to show with a rarity: snow on the ground in Syria. In the picture he is wearing a Chicago Bears’ sweatshirt, which got a high-five from Brian.

This is a group of friends and family who all grew up together and, once they were adults, decided to live on the same street. And all hell broke loose. Isis blew their dream to high heaven.

But, through it all, they exude that same togetherness and that same family spirit, even as new arrivals in Kara Tepe. I will surely be visiting them often in my last two weeks. (Brian has already been back.)

Speaking of new arrivals, special clothing was set aside in the white container today because a baby was born to one of the residents. A European baby from an Arab family.

After thank-yous, Brian and Lena and I (Sophie had to check on chai) made good on our promise to come for coffee. Here, another Mohammed (yes, it’s a common name) and his wife were happy to see us. He made an almost comical show of “my wife, bring the burner for me to make coffee for our guests.” Also Syrian, Mohammed and his wife are both archaeologists. He doesn’t seem much interested in that now. When I asked if he had been to see the ruins of the theatre in Mytilini, he shrugged. His present worry is, when the permission comes through for them to go to Athens for their asylum interview, where will they sleep? They have three young daughters and a son.

He told me that, once in Athens, you get to the interview place early, waiting maybe from 5 a.m. until 8 a.m., and a certain number of tickets for interviews are issued. It may take days to get one. And there is no camp, no organized food or clothing. People sleep on the street. That was why we were giving some small tents to some families with small children heading to Athens. Mohammed prefers the routine of Kara Tepe to precarious street life in Athens. He doesn’t even know where he wants to go if his claim is accepted.

It touched a nerve when I asked about Palmyra, an archaeological site that Isis has bulldozed. “See, that is the one question I would like to ask Obama,” he said. “USA or the Russians, they have planes, they knew they were going to do this, why didn’t they stop it? I want to ask your president why he did nothing.”

He was visibly indignant. It offended him not just as a Syrian, or even as an archaeologist but as a member of the human race. It is not only his home and livelihood that has been taken from him, but even his history.

After a strong cup of Turkish-style coffee we thanked Mohammed and his wife Maisun, who had sat silently and spoke only sparingly, and left camp, since our shift had been over for hours.  It was my best evening at Kara Tepe so far. And not from anything I or any volunteer had done. It was the initiative of these residents themselves, these men and women who kept a family and a neighborhood alive when all the buildings walls had been blown away. Even in the open air, they gather around a hearth and it becomes a home.

We have an open invitation for another meal with them, an invitation I have every intention of accepting. After all, as Faris said shaking my hand in reluctant farewell, “You are part of our circle now.”

More to read: Previous posts in this series

Welcome to Chai-Town: The importance of communi-tea

Why I bought 100 pairs of underwear in Turkey, just before the attempted coup

“Hard Times” and the children I never met

Daily bread? “Feed them yourselves…”

Coming apart at the seams, in Lesbos

Dispatch from Lesbos: Volunteering at a place where life is not here or there

John Nunemaker

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is Assistant Professor of Classical and Modern Languages at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.