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



Children pose as they drink tea under a tent as they wait with other migrants and refugees AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCIC

Edward Mulholland - published on 07/20/16

What bubbles up from the large pot is not just tea, but a chance to be human beings together, in a difficult place
Kara Tepe Square

There is an improvised wooden sign close to the entrance of the camp that says “Kara Tepe Square.” When I first arrived, it almost looked like dark-humored mockery, pretending that this bunch of housing units was a town, that this collection of interrupted lives was anything but individuals bobbing in a sea of isolation like the rude boats that got them here. Then I remembered a scene from Schindler’s List.

After the Jews of Krakow have been corralled in the ghetto, and just before the ghetto gets cleaned out and they are sent to the concentration camp, there is a scene where several characters are warming themselves around a trash can fire, on a rare day off. “No one ordered me onto a truck today,” one says. An old man remarks, “No one took away my business today.” And they even joke about their plight, remind the old man that he no longer has a business to take away. A man who had been a university lecturer says “Today I had time to compose a thought, I cannot remember the last time I composed a thought,” to which another adds “When was the last time we did this?” He was referring to that simple human action of enjoying each other’s company, of living together, consciously sharing a common path. In a word: community.

The residents of Kara Tepe each have their unique individual story. For better or for worse, they are all stuck in suspended animation for an undetermined length of time in this camp. They come from different ethnic groups and different countries and speak different languages.  Without pretending that the camp is some blissful oasis of peace, I can honestly say that they have built a spirit of community.

And a lot of that is thanks to the tea.

HSA will no longer be handling the food distribution as of today as I write this. I hope it goes well for the other NGO who is taking it on. But I heard HSA founder Fred Morlet remark, “But we cannot stop the chai, the chai is key…”  “Chai” is the Arabic word for tea.

Right next to the sign for Kara Tepe Square and in front of the white container for clothing distribution stands a sink, and a canvas-shaded (installed last week) area, where every morning a large propane gas bottle gets wheeled out and propane heating element fires up a large pot, which holds maybe 15-20 gallons. Once the water has boiled, some is reserved for those who like chai with no sugar (a minority group for sure) and 2 kilos of sugar is added and allowed to boil some more, before a tied-up bundle of about 30 Lipton tea bags is tossed in. Very soon, it’s chai time.

Chai is served from about 9:30 am until after midnight, four or five batches a day. In order to get chai, one must come with an HSA issued cup. One must be over 12 to get chai (I’m not exactly clear on why; it’s a UNHCR regulation, and probably has to do with the fact that we don’t want little kids carrying hot liquids) and there’s a 2-cup limit (but if you wander off and fill a thermos and come right back with two empty cups, you’re still within the rules).

But what bubbles up in that pot is way more than a sweet cup of tea. It’s a chance to say hello, to interact. It’s also close to some benches where another NGO, “Samaritan’s Purse,” has an extension cord for people to charge their phones, so there are always people milling around.

I have been on night shift the past three nights, and night time is key for chai. Once the sun is down and things cool off, people walk and talk and laugh and last night there was some sort of dance thing going on by the security gate. It’s where sometimes we have dates available and the kids eat them eagerly. It’s where you find out how many residents have learned your name. It’s where the preteen girls come to shake your hand and then pull back and say “tomorrow!” and run off chortling. It’s where you pull the same joke on them the next day and send them into hysterics. It’s where the volunteers on the late shift can have deep conversations about what motivates them to do this, and where the recent coup in Turkey was dissected. It’s where kids try to teach you phrases in Arabic and then someone tells you the equivalent in Farsi so you don’t learn one language faster than the other. It’s where residents and volunteers alike joke about the food. (“Bamia [okra] no good!”)

And it’s where Amina watches over the making of the chai, and crochets, and has been smiling a lot more recently. I told her I found out her age from the BBC video, and since she’s three years younger she is my little sister. She now greets me “Hello, big brother.”

Yes, the chai is key. Because community is key, because even in the midst of suffering and insecurity we have a deep human need to share life together and cry and laugh together.

One can feed animals and protect plants with tethered fabric. Our food and clothing distribution is not humanitarian support until we help underpin the community of the camp.

In a very light mood yesterday before HSA’s last dinner service, I got up to offer my chair to Amina, who refused because “you are the big brother.” But I insisted, “but you are the Queen of Chai.” I motioned to Brian Germaine, the only other American volunteer, and we flanked Amina fanning her with our hats. Swiss volunteer Janos Winkler caught on and knelt before Amina to offer her a date to eat. Everyone around thought it was hilarious, and Amina was laughing too hard to be embarrassed.

I hope and pray that it’s not the worry and boredom and cramped conditions that these people will remember, but these moments of community, when Kara Tepe ceased for a moment to be a refugee camp and became Chai Town.

More to read: Previous posts in this series

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

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