Letters from Athens: Logbook I, Days of 2016 (and moments before and after)

Tents aligned outside a port building at Piraeus. Photo by Adrianne Kalfopoulou.

Dear H,

13 June 2018 This is my third Ramadan in Athens. I’ll be glad when it is over tomorrow night. I’m not fasting, not being Muslim, but the days are long and hot, so hot, and I start to recognize a certain worn, patient suffering on some of the faces I pass through the day, and also the relief of those carrying bags of skimpy shopping toward nightfall to whatever Iftar dinner they can cobble together. A few years ago I would not have noticed—a skinny Pakistani immigrant who has perhaps made some change today by washing car windows at a shade-less street corner, hastening through the street with his bag of festive groceries—fizzy lemonade, potato chips, perhaps some dates, some Arabic pita bread—at sundown. I think travelers (and thus refugees) are, in theory, given a dispensation from the daylong fasting and abstaining from water, but it is also a way of clinging to normalcy, dignity, home; and God, of course, among some who might seem forsaken. Some of the older children at the squat where we volunteer are observing, and we see it is with pride that they explain that not even a drop of water may pass their lips.

When I think about it, of course, Ramadan has been celebrated in Greece for centuries. Byron and Hobhouse first arrived in Ioannina during Ramadan in 1809, surprised to find it a time not only of quiet days but raucous evenings as Turks fired guns at the moon, and neighbors feasted and visited one another. Naturally, the scene winds up in Childe Harold:

Just at this season Ramazani’s fast
Through the long day its penance did maintain:
But when the lingering twilight hour was past,
⁠Revel and feast assumed the rule again:
⁠Now all was bustle, and the menial train
⁠Prepared and spread the plenteous board within;
⁠The vacant Gallery now seemed made in vain,
⁠But from the chambers came the mingling din,
As page and slave anon were passing out and in.

I post “Eid Mubarak, Y’all” on Facebook, to a dozen likes from fellow volunteers, and a trickle of thank yous and hearts by names in Arabic and Persian script, some people I know from the squat, or Melissa Network where I teach a workshop, or refugees who have made it as far as Germany or Sweden. Sometimes I communicate with kids who have made it into “Europe” on FB Messenger. This is the only time I use emojis—we send each other hearts, or funny cats, or winking faces. How are you? How are you? Fine. Fine.
25 November 2015 It is my first visit to see what is happening at the port of Piraeus as the ferries come in, full of refugees from the islands (from Syria, but also Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran), who have reached Europe and plan to walk to Germany. I am going because it is happening in my town, I want to see it firsthand, not just from footage on a television broadcast. This perhaps is the upshot of being married to a journalist. As a writer I think, perhaps I will write about it. (This is, unfortunately, our nature.) But I am there with a group called Carry the Future that passes out baby carriers. I follow them on Facebook, I’ve given some money to the cause, I’ve “liked” things. One day, Maureen fires back on the post—“I don’t need ‘likes’ ladies, I need extra hands.” So one bright November morning we meet her down at the passenger terminal E-1 in Piraeus waiting for ships to come in, while sorting through bags of baby carriers. It turns out I am already friends with two people on this “team”; we take a photo of the five of us, feeling strangely giddy to be out under blue skies on a November morning waiting at a port for people we’ve never met. It will turn out that each of these women will spend the next several years engaged with refugees in Athens or at camps outside of Athens.

I’m worried about passing out the baby carrier. Do you just walk up to someone with a baby, and say, here’s a carrier? We are actually supposed to demonstrate the carriers and strap the babies in. The BabyBjörns I understand, having used them with my own babies, but some seem bizarrely complicated or perplexingly simple systems of slings or straps. In the end, it is such chaos, and of course the arriving parents are often more adept than I at figuring out a baby carrier. But at least I give a few away.

Wealthier refugees have taxis or cars waiting for them; they will drive away to decent hotels before continuing their journey. (A reminder that “refugee” is not a socioeconomic status.) Others scramble for the port bus that will take them to the train station. There is no government agency nor any NGO waiting for them; they simply walk off the boat (or are carried or are pushed in strollers or, sometimes, wheelchairs) and make their way past people in red hats trying to sign them up for cell-phone plans and travel packages and bus tickets to Eidomeni.
11 December 2015 We have a successful day passing out baby carriers at the port. It is overwhelming to see people pour off the ferries in scenes shockingly reminiscent of the Asia Minor refugee influx of 1922/1923. The exchange of populations meant 1.2 million ethnic Greeks, who had never set foot on Greek soil, arrived in Greece with nothing to their name, wearing headscarves and fezzes, many flooding the port of Piraeus, which became a tent city. But people are happy if tired, they have reached Europe. Welcome, we say. A photo posted to FB of me handing a baby carrier to an attractive smiling couple and their child, the wife looking chic in her purple headscarf, while my own hair is wild with the wind, is enormously popular—so many heartfelt likes and messages of gratitude and encouragement. This is at the beginning. The longer we work with the refugees, the longer we have been at it, the less approval we garner, from social media or elsewhere. Going down once or twice to the port to lend a hand is one thing, bravo. Allowing this chronic situation to take over a portion of your life is something else. What is wrong with you?
4 January 2016 Arrivals in Piraeus: Mykonos, from Chios and Samos, with 688 refugees; Ariadne, from Lesbos and Chios, 1,880 refugees.

14 January 2016 In late 2015 and early 2016, I am on a list to receive daily posts from Piraeus Solidarity and other volunteer groups on the number of arrivals daily from the islands, a Homeric Catalogue of Ships (the Blue Star 1, the Blue Star 2 , the Nissos Mykonos, the Nissos Rodos, the Ariadne, the Diagoras), from Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, gates of arrival (E-2, E-1, E-7), the times and the number of refugees onboard. Volunteer groups are meant to organize themselves to meet the ferries, offer what assistance they can (sometimes there might be a donation of oranges or apples to distribute, or toothbrushes and hygiene kits, or breakfast-in-a-bag).

The Diagoras, coming from Kos/Leros (one of several ships that will arrive today in Piraeus), is packed with refugee families, children, and babies, including a two-week-old infant. A Syrian man politely offers Maureen and me some of his food-aid juice, in thanks for Maureen’s managing to get the devilishly-packaged thing open. In a separate incident, I have never seen a man so thrilled at the sight of an apple: “An apple! An apple! I am so happy because I am hungry!” A middle-aged lady in a leopard-print hijab steps off the boat and meets my eye as if she knows me. I realize I am wearing a leopard print baseball cap. Salam, she says. Do I say, here, have an apple? Welcome.
22 January 2016 It is a Friday morning; I’ve just got my children off to school. The news all over my local FB feed is that two separate Aegean shipwrecks near Greek islands have left 42 refugees dead, including 17 children, enough to fill a classroom. These are the drownings we know about, of course. Other boats sink without witnesses or survivors. Small bodies wash onto desolate shores nibbled by fish; fishermen draw up the faceless drowned in their nets.

The rector of the University of the Aegean (based in Mytilene on Lesbos), Stephanos Gritzalis, distressed at the spate of drownings, quotes a line from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (659–660) “the Aegean blossoming with bodies.” It is an intertextual quotation, though, since George Seferis uses the ancient Greek verbatim in his famous “In the Manner of G.S.” (Keeley-Sherrard trans.):

and if we see “the Aegean flower with corpses”
it will be with those who tried to catch the big ship by swimming after it
those who got tired of waiting for the ships that cannot move
The ships hoot now that dusk falls on Piraeus,
hoot and hoot, but no capstan moves,
no chain gleams wet in the vanishing light,
the captain stands like a stone in white and gold.

Wherever I travel Greece wounds me,
curtains of mountains, archipelagos, naked granite.
They call the one ship that sails Ag Onia [Agony] 937.

7 February 2016 Urgent! 20 or more families are stuck at the port, as there are various bus strikes. They are being housed in the passenger terminal at E-1 in Piraeus, but the building isn’t heated. Emergency calls go out for food and for sleeping bags. It’s a Sunday, usually a date night for me and my husband, but I persuade him to go down to the port instead to check on how Maureen and other volunteers are doing, what the situation is. (Since my husband is a journalist, we sometimes go to the port together, for our disparate reasons.) I bring markers and paper for the kids; as Maureen points out, one of the problems is just boredom, there is nothing to do. I imagine my kids, weary and whining and are-we-there-yet-ing on a brief car trip; I can’t imagine what this journey is like. (Another friend, Eileen, has been organizing the making of and passing out of activity kits—with markers and paper—to children in transit since 2015.) The children (and some teenagers) seem delighted to have something to do; girls in bright new hats draw me pictures of flowers, a boy, 11 or 12, draws pictures of tanks and a helicopter and machine guns, all with eyewitness accuracy. He is shy and proud and gives me his pictures. Two Greek grandmothers who have come along to help and entertain the kids get involved, telling the children to tidy up, to put the caps back on the markers. It is a moment of insight: I can see that something in the kids relaxes when they are being told off by the familiar grandmothers—themselves probably descended from Asia Minor refugees—in frumpy black. There’s a reassuring normalcy to it. We are no longer in a war zone, this is a place where the caps go back on the markers, so they can be used again. (This becomes a sort of philosophy then for our activities with children: the caps-back-on-the-markers theory.)

16 February 2016 Many times people do not even come into the passenger terminal, which is set up with some supplies, and bathrooms, and electrical sockets for recharging, and a little warehouse of clothing and shoes. Since the boat is delayed, I am helping to sort donations in the warehouse: these range from beautiful new hand-knit baby sweaters to the bizarrely inappropriate—stilettos, bikinis, evening dresses, used thongs. We are trying to pack up boxes of gloves and hats and socks and boots to send to Eidomeni, where people are freezing in the rain and mud at the border, hoping to cross over into the Republic of (Northern) Macedonia. An older man and a teenaged boy come up to the counter—the boy needs a jacket or outer layer, he’s only in a T-shirt. (People’s clothes are soaked on the journey over in dinghies, and then they often have to make do out of boxes of donations.) It’s easy to fetch out an old tweed jacket or an ugly sweater; the father is tired and grateful, but the kid is clearly mortified to have to wear these items. And then I realize he’s about my son’s age; my son wouldn’t be caught dead wearing this. It crosses my mind—what’s it like to be a teenager and a refugee? One mortification after another. While an efficient volunteer shouts from back among the boxes, “We aren’t a shop, you know!,” I manage to scramble back into the bags I’ve been sorting and locate the one arguably “cool” item of warm clothing I’ve come across, a thick black hoodie. It’s too big, but that’s OK. The kid’s face is still something of a blank, but he takes the garment with a glimmer of satisfaction.
18 February, 2016 Closure of the Balkan route; refugees can no longer walk out of the country, and populations start to build up at ports and borders.

6:55 Blue Star 1 E-2
9:40 Diagoras E-1
23:35 Nissos Mykonos E-7
Many refugee arrivals are expected.
20 February 2016 The Ariadne arrives tonight at 10:00 at E-1 with 1,900 refugees on board.
22 February 2016 Blue Star Patmos arrives in E-1 at 19:00 today with 1,277 refugees onboard.
25 February 2016 URGENT UPDATE:

The Blue Star 1 arrives from Lesvos & Chios at 06:30 with 1,355 refugees onboard.

The Diagoras arrives from Dodecanese at 11:55 with 691 refugees on- board.
26 February 2016 Marie and I decide to join Maureen at E-1, which is now crowded with families and children. We will, in theory, distract children while she works on sorting the warehouse. We realize there will not be enough markers or paper (though we’ve brought activity kits), so try sidewalk chalk, and balloons, and singing songs. The songs are hugely popular—most of the kids seem to know the ABC song or even “Frère Jacques,” and quickly learn others. One of our participants is a cute smiling kid with crooked teeth and wild hair. He hangs around us for an hour or so. As we are about to leave, a woman comes up, distraught. I can’t figure out what is the matter. Finally she shows us a photo of the kid on her phone. She’s lost him. She, Marie and I run wildly through the terminal looking for him among families camped on little squares of floor, demarcated by lines of duct tape on the floor, which also delineates imaginary passageways. We realize in the chaos how easy it is for a child to wander off, or to be taken by someone, the panic compounded by being in a strange land in a language you don’t understand, to have escaped war only to lose a child in a crowd. In the end, she finds him, he was with other family members on the other side of the terminal. The look of sheer terror drops from her face, but everyone’s hearts are still pounding.
28 February 2016
23:50 Nissos Mykonos E-7 Lesvos, Chios, Samos
1 March 2016 Needs list posted for port:

Bottle brushes
Diaper cream
Pampers for one-month-olds
Baby formula
Nuts (almonds, walnuts, etc.) for pregnant/lactating women
Latex gloves
Paper cups/plates
Plastic knives and forks
Salt and oil

3 March 2016 Four of us—three writers and an artist—the novelist Cindy Camatsos; the poet Adrianne Kalfopoulou; and artist and graphic designer Marie Howarth, and I head to Piraeus to do some art activities with the kids staying near the E-2 passenger terminal (or the Stone Building), as E-1 gets more attention from volunteer groups. (The port is filling up, with strikes affecting bus services, and temporary border closures.) Today, the group is mostly Kurds from Iraq. We have drawing paper and markers, homemade bubble solution. Some of the drawings are of weeping figures, with names printed above them. Two older boys with excellent English help us to translate and organize the little kids. Upon being asked where he hopes to get to, Wasam says, brightly, “England.” (Usually, the answer is Germany.) We wish him well. On the way back into town on the train, Adrianne and I are sitting near an extended Iranian family. At the Omonia metro station, where they need to change trains, half of the family accidentally gets off on one side of the track, and half on the other, the impassible gulf and tracks yawn between. There are looks of bewilderment and panic at the separation in this strange new city, with its incomprehensible signs. Adrianne and I try to tell one group to stay in place while we go get the other group to reunite them. We end up as turned-around and frazzled as they, in the confusing layout of the station, though in the end everyone is together. When I get home, I go to bed for three hours.
4 March 2016 I’m meeting up with some volunteers from Melissa Network at Victoria Square briefly to do some drawing out on the square with families camping there. It’s on my way to another appointment, at the swanky café, Zonar’s, just two stops away. I’ve brought along sidewalk chalk, which is an efficient and portable means of entertainment. Hop-scotch, it turns out, is a universal children’s game, and children try to teach me numbers in Farsi. I am surprised to run into Wasam, whom we had met at the port the day before. How are you? All the optimism has drained from his face. He bursts into tears. Arriving in mainland Greece is not the end of a difficult journey and struggle, but the start of another. An hour later I am in one of the most elegant and storied of Greek cafés (it was founded 75 years ago, though has moved location), sitting on a chair upholstered in green-velvet, meeting with a writer from Crete. When I stand up, I realize there is gum on the plush chair—I must have sat in something on the pavement at Victoria. There is no way to remove it. The squalor sticks; I carry it with me.

20 March 2016 Today everything changes, something cracks. The borders with Europe slam shut, perhaps forever. Murmurations of rumor swirl among refugees and volunteers. From this day, the tent city at Piraeus will grow from scores to five thousand within weeks. Seeds of despair are sown in the muddy fields to the north at the border town of Eidomeni.

The day after, the Greek President, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, sends out a press release for the joint observation of International Poetry Day and Fight Against Racism Day (and also first day of the new Turkey-EU “agreement”), quoting Thucydides, and ending with ten lines of Seferis’ “Last Stop” (here in the Keeley/Sherrard translation):

We come from Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria;
the little state
of Kommagene, which flickered out like a small lamp,
often comes to mind,
and great cities that lived for thousands of years
and then became pasture land for cattle,
fields for sugar-cane and corn.
We came from the sand of the desert, from the seas of Proteus,
souls shriveled by public sins,
each holding office like a bird in its cage.

(The President bolds the last two of those lines for emphasis.) I would add the the whole poem of course bears rereading, eerily topical, with such lines as:

“The same thing over and over again,” you’ll tell me, friend.
But the thinking of a refugee, the thinking of a prisoner, the thinking
of a person when he too has become a commodity—
try to change it; you can’t.
“Last Stop,” Cava dei Tirreni, 5 October 1944

In the EU-Turkey deal, refugees are certainly commodities and not persons.
23 March 2016 The port has become increasingly chaotic, as more and more people are stuck there, living in tents if they can get one. 5,000 people from different war-torn regions side by side, nervous about their future, suspicious of each other. Our last visit to the port, organized by our artist friend Eileen, included a near child-riot over balloons, and I somehow ended up holding a baby for an hour, not knowing to whom he belonged, and getting a little worried when it came time to leave. (Finally, an older sister fetched him out of my arms.) But today a squat is opening up much closer to me and many of the other volunteers, in central Athens in an old school. It’s almost walkable, although I usually take a taxi as I am carrying games and activities. We imagine it will be good to see families and children more than once, develop relationships perhaps, offer a little stability. The rooms are bare (people are still in tents, making room partitions out of the ubiquitous grey UNHCR blankets), but clean. It is indoors. There is plumbing. A desperate message over one of the FB groups has brought us there—they need a hand with the kids, who are using medical gloves as balloons and are generally bored and underfoot as they (anarchists, solidarity groups, students, volunteers, refugees) try to set up the building. That’s what we do! We come with markers and balloons and watercolor paints and reams of Ikea paper. After a couple of hours, the families want to be left alone to celebrate and settle in—they decorate the rooms with our balloons. On the balloons one father writes, in English and Arabic, Thank you, Yunan!, and also draws what is clearly meant to be a Greek flag in blue and white. (The proportions are wrong; he emphasizes the cross.) Yunan or variations on Yunan (Yunanistan), are what countries to the east of Greece call Greece. It’s evidently a corruption of “Ionian.” A Syrian man, a painter who goes by Kastro, and who seems to be in charge, comes up to us and is unhappy we haven’t taken better care of the children’s drawings, some of which are now ripped or wrinkled.

One of the fathers, tall and melancholy, turns out to be a sculptor from Syria. He explains he works on a very small scale. All his work had been lost in the war. It is as if he has walked out of a Cavafy poem. Or rather, as if we are all wandering inside a Cavafy poem. Sometimes people I meet inadvertently quote him. One young man tells me, “I will go to another land.”
4 April 2016 Visit the squat with volunteers busy with art activities, math and writing sheets. Pleased it goes so well, how it is even educational. On the other hand, plumbing situation at the squat dire. The drains keep blocking (word on the street is that it was outdated plumbing that condemned the old school in the first place), and no one can use the showers; it is also a hot April. Toward the end, I am smiling and communicating with two of the mothers (who are sisters). One of them has enough English to ask if she can come to my place and take a shower. I know they are miserable, being unable to shower. Why not? OK, I say. But then she wants to bring a child with her. OK, I say, but only two people, I can only take two. A translator comes over, and we go over this again. She goes off to get ready and comes back with laundry as well. I start to become uneasy. When I hail the cab, it is the woman and four children who try to get into the cab. I can’t take four, I try to explain. A taxi will not take five people in Athens. The cab driver indeed refuses, and in the meantime, we are blocking traffic. Horns are honking. I panic and tell them they must get out. In a moment that haunts me, I stay in the cab, and it drives off. It is horrible. I have humiliated her. I have mortified myself. She is angry and hurt. I have behaved terribly. Over the next few days, I practice “Ana asfa,” to an Arabic voice-recognition app on a website till I think I can be understood: I am sorry. I think of never returning to the squat. When I do return, I offer her a small gift and utter my sentence. She quietly refuses the gift and walks away.
5 April 2016 Invited by Nadina Christopoulou, I have started doing poetry workshops at the Melissa Network for Migrant Women near Victoria Square. At first, the participants are economic migrants—an Albanian cleaning lady who is, in Albania, a famous poet; Filipino women who have left their own children and homes in the Philippines to clean houses and care for children in Greece. (The Filipino community organization is among the most effective and long-standing in Greece.) One woman writes a letter afterwards to Melissa with her impressions—“What is a cleaning lady doing in a poetry workshop? But when we were doing the ‘make a list’ activity, I was like ‘ok that was easy’ and when everyone started sharing thoughts and everyone just kind of listen to what one wants to say I felt this confidence of opening, and just say what is in my mind. For the years of working inside a house, I got used to obeying orders, never being asked of my opinion on matters, so I developed this feeling of insecurity.” Soon, the sessions expand to include refugee women.

14 April 2016 The photos from this day at the squat are sunny and color-saturated. The memories are dark as well as bright. Yazan, a 10- or 11-year-old Syrian boy, about my son’s age (it dawns on me that I tend to bond with boys my son’s age and girls my daughter’s age) with good English, has been a favorite with volunteers. He is polite and helpful, turned out in good clean clothes. It is unclear whom is he with at the squat—a father, an uncle? Once I bring a small basketball of my daughter’s along. Could I get him one just like that? He would pay for it, he insists proudly, he has money to pay for it.

This day he works for a long time (with the artist Marie) on a picture of a house. It is a vivid green, there is an apple tree in the grassy yard, curtains swag across the windows, and high blue clouds. His name is written carefully in Arabic and in English on either corner of the sky. I don’t know much about children’s art, but we have noticed certain patterns. At first, the children draw national flags. This is where we are from. (Sometimes these are aspirational flags, such as the flag for Kurdistan.) Later come the houses. Sometimes there are mountains and rivers in the background. Sometimes there is a car in the driveway. Sometimes there are birds. But there are never any people. These are, I think, dream houses. Houses of the past, houses of the future. But no one lives in them now, or yet. Mohammed, a boy in dirty clothes who barely speaks (it is unclear whether this is a speech impediment, a developmental issue, or perhaps some trauma, or all of the above), and who often loses his temper, is the same age. This day he is in dirty mustard-colored sweatpants. He has been doing better lately—he absolutely quieted down and fell into rapt concentration with some knitting lessons (interestingly, quite popular with this set of boys). Everything seems to be going well, but then Mohammed accidentally steps on Yazan’s carefully colored picture. Yazan screams and leaps up and clutches Mohammed by the throat, with a tirade of Arabic. Volunteers wrench the children apart, and Marie manages to reassure Yazan about the fate of his picture, dusting off the faint footprint on his dream house. But Mohammed is on the steps, sobbing with more desolation than I have ever seen from him, inconsolable. His mother and his little brother surround him and walk with him into the squat. I will never see Mohammed or his family again. My last image is of him downcast, head in his hands, inarticulate with grief.
3 May 2016 Today’s arrivals:
06:55 Blue Star 1 E-2 Lesvos/Chios 560 refugees
09:40 Diagoras E-1 Rodos/Kos/etc. unknown number
23 June 2016 I have made the mistake of bringing some donations to give out at the squat; I ought just to drop them at the office, but the Afghans keep complaining that the Syrians get everything (in future I will take all inter-squat gossip with a grain of salt—how am I to know or judge?)—girls quarrel over who gets the black pants. The sisters Aqdash and Moskan keep asking for the sunscreen I have brought, or anything else I might have to pass out. Aq. is usually aloof (indeed, I have never really seen her smile). Both sisters are striking, with jet-black hair and expressive eyes. M. is the same age as my daughter and greatly resembles her, only darker. The sisters are gesticulating wildly and uttering a torrent of urgent Persian (or rather probably Dari, which if I understand aright is a dialect preserving the vocabulary and pronunciation of medieval Persian). I am flustered and lose my sangfroid, eventually walking off with everything and plunking it down outside the office, from which it may be distributed or may disappear. I leave feeling badly about losing my cool. I will be better with them next time, I promise myself.

But I will never see them again. What they were trying to explain is they were leaving, if I had anything to give them it was now or never. They have made their way into the squalid, overcrowded camp at Elliniko (the site of the old abandoned airport, now a terminal for exile and the stranded), and from there to somewhere in northern Europe. I still think of Aq. with her stern intelligence and unsmiling beauty, her fashion sense so that, even among the secondhand clothing donations they had to dress out of, she only wore edgy combinations of black and purple, her purple-and-black hijab always matching her long-sleeved checked shirt and her slim black pants.
7 July 2016 We’re celebrating three birthdays at the squat—Narges and Maedeh each turn eleven within days of each other (and mine just passed). N. and M. have the typically prickly relationship of other middle-school-aged girls, a mixture of affection and envy, fondness and competition. N. is the beauty (sometimes decked out like an Afghan princess), M. the brain, having picked up English and being evidently a math whiz. (I set her double-decker multiplication problems in three digits, she does them at lightning speed, and then I find I cannot check her answers without a calculator.) Both are from Afghanistan, though they appear to be from different ethnic groups, M. is Hazara, a perse­cuted group from Bamiyan. (The preferred fake passports for Hazaras trying to smuggle themselves farther into Europe are evidently Chinese and Korean.) I make cupcakes so there are enough for everyone, Judi brings a cake, Mar has some presents and decorations. This first time I bring cupcakes to the squat, it seems a bit surreal—though I am tickled to be baking cupcakes for refugees, instead of some silly PTO bake sale. My husband is bemused. At the squat we discover it is also Hamza’s birthday, a Syrian boy, and we try to find something in our bags of activities for a present, but he seems pleased when we make him a construction-paper crown. Some of the children speak Persian (or Dari), and some speak Arabic, some Kurdish. Among themselves they develop a sort of lingua franca out of Greek and English phrases. “What does ‘malaka’ mean?” the kids ask me early on. It’s the most common Greek curse word.
13 July 2016 Piraeus Solidarity: Current needs at the port of Piraeus:

Shorts (all sizes) for men & children
Sandals & flip-flops (all sizes)
Plastic basins for washing clothes
Washing powder
Rope for drying clothes
Brooms & dustpans
Razor blades
Baby formula nos. 1, 2 & 3
Spray, etc., for mosquitos
Sunscreen for children & adults
Toilet paper

14 July 2016 I supervise some reading with a 13-year-old boy, Wasim, at the squat. His English is excellent. We talk for a while about his life. He misses his cat, which they left in Damascus, and his guitar. He has spent three months in the squalor of the tents in Eidomeni. He still seems hopeful, somehow. I am going to the States, and he wants me to bring him back a guitar, preferably an electric guitar. He wants me to walk with him past the music shops that are around the corner from the squat, to look at the guitars. To this day I regret I did not get him a guitar or at least sign him up for some lessons. It will be his birthday while I am out of the country. But when I return, he has moved on from the squat to some camp. I do see him again—many months later, after he and his family have been at the camp, still waiting to get to Germany. He seems a different kid, less outgoing. How is he? How has he been? He turns away, dashing tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. I never see him again.
8 October 2016 Melissa poetry workshop—one of the first with the group of refugee women. Most are from Syria or Afghanistan, the class contains Arabic and Persian/Dari speakers. When I introduce the idea of poetry (Sha’ar, in both languages), I talk first about lullabies and children’s songs, such as the ABC song for remembering the alphabet. One Afghan woman points out that, under the Taliban, song was forbidden, and I realize that even my most basic introduction to poetry is fraught. As with earlier sessions at Melissa, I start with list poems, as anybody can make a list; lists don’t require syntax or grammar, yet tend to tell a narrative. As people stay longer at the port, the lists of needs coming over the social media transom keeps changing: sleeping bags, coats, then sunscreen and flip-flops; soap, lice shampoo, scabies medicine; pregnancy tests, diapers, baby formula.

We start with group activities. What are the items that make a home? At first the women suggest basics: shower, bathroom, rest. But they quickly get the gist of the activity and expand on this. Kisses, school. Books, television, music, perfume, flowers, a goldfish. Birdseed (for the bird, a girl explains).

Make-up was also forbidden under the Taliban, and I realize that for many of these women, lipstick or nail polish is not a luxury or an oppressive necessity, it is subversive, a kind of liberation. When Valentine’s Day swings around in 2017, I am able to give out a batch of new lipsticks donated by the New York City lipstick entrepreneur Poppy King. Women apply it, delighted (the room I teach in has a large mirror), and one leaves kiss marks on her notebook.



All three photos above courtesy of Melissa Network.

One Afghan girl, Sakina (about 16), loves rock-and-roll and Jackie Chan movies (movies were also forbidden under the Taliban), and her poems often reflect this, with a mischievous sense of humor. Composing an acrostic poem based on her name, she ends:

In the
Am I a good girl?

21 October 2016 Art and activities with volunteers at the squat. The family of Narges, Afghans, all get involved in painting with watercolors. Narges’ grandmother especially likes the art activities. She looks like she could be 100 years old, but I think she might be closer to 60, as later we find that N.’s mother herself was only 14 when she married; N. is 11. Mostly the mothers paint abstract flowers. But N.’s mother paints another scene—of her, her three children, and her mother in the dinghy that brought them to Greece. The mother stands at the front, holding something and pointing ahead. There is a sail or flag that looks like the Greek flag. The other figures look down or stare ahead, expressionless and hunched into their orange life jackets.

The ancient grandmother paints a strange figure that could be a folk pattern on a traditional carpet.

Mar, the Spanish volunteer and art therapist who is at the squat daily, asks the children to paint scenes from their journey or their homeland, something I have to say I would be nervous about doing; she says it helps them process it. These are often terrifying. A kindergartner who can barely draw a stick figure draws a scene of a boat at night being fired upon with water cannons by the Turkish coast guard. There is a brown stick figure face down in the sea. Another, older child draws scenes from the bombing of his school over and over again, with the ambulance, and the teacher who loses a leg, and accurate renditions of machine guns. Another child draws a warplane with a pattern of lines on it. It is only a year later that I realize the lines are Arabic writing. A Syrian doctor translates it for me: Assad.
17 November 2016 I am in a public Greek hospital in a room with three other women. Tomorrow I will have surgery to remove my thyroid; later I will need radioactive ablation. 17th of November is also the anniversary of the Junta’s attack on the Polytechnic in 1973, and is marked by an annual protest march to the US Embassy. There is something strangely comforting in hearing the slogans as the marchers pass by a street over, and the inevitable distant booms of stun grenades. In the past, my husband has usually covered the march as a journalist, and we sometimes would walk the length of it together, a sort of date night, ending up near the Embassy at the Plateia Mavili, named after a famous sonneteer who died in the Balkan Wars, where we peel off to have a drink.
29 November 2016 Activities in the yard of the squat. One Syrian girl comes out holding a rather put-upon dirty kitten her family has adopted from the street. The children are wild with it, and we try to get them to be a little more gentle. But the kitten never attempts to run away, and seems to have accepted its new home and fate. It is white with blue eyes and probably deaf.

By August of 2017, the girl’s family will have moved to Germany.

From the squat’s page: “Our ‘refugee’ cat Ismael has been separated from his family due to relocation. Ismael’s presence in the squat has reduced social isolation among residents, has increased well being and has reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. We want him to stay. The children want him to stay. In order for him to become a permanent resident though, due to the great number of pregnant women and babies, he needs to be taken to the vet.”

This seems one of those projects that our group can easily take up and fundraise for; indeed the money is offered almost immediately. I deposit the money for the neutering and shots directly into the vet’s account, the squat manager acknowledges, and it is done. But money keeps coming in for the cat. Even when I announce that we have made our financial goal, people keep sending it in. I tell them I will just put the money toward other things, and they don’t mind, it is the idea—maybe the cat will need something else. I am struck by the fact that if I needed money toward vaccinating a child, it would be much slower coming in. Cats are uncomplicated somehow, but a child—that is someone’s responsibility, someone’s fault.
30 November 2016 It is raining, the autumnal rains that the olive trees in the countryside need. Here in central Athens, though, I have a poetry workshop to teach at the Melissa Network.

The sky is grey as a UNHCR blanket. It’s by the blankets you recognize them, revenants wandering through the city with a backpack and one of these blankets under their arms. I see the blankets everywhere, and that particular hue of grey, a grey meant to be neutral, to show no stains. It is the identical color of despair. One day Nadina and I are sitting having coffee at Melissa Network, a community center for migrant women housed in an elegant old neoclassical house near Victoria Square. She has had it beautifully furnished with comfortable chairs and a coffee table and books and a kitchen and classrooms, a little garden patio in the back with potted flowers. Here you can charge your phone; coffee and tea are always available, and snacks and cake. It is an oasis of civilization in the middle of a neighborhood once elegant, now squalid. The walls are all painted in warm, bright colors. “I hate those grey blankets,” Nadina says, and I agree. If there is one thing refugees need less of in their lives, it is one-size-fits-all bureaucratic grey.

The participants—and the class changes a bit from session to session, there are always new faces—hail from Syria and Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, sometimes Pakistan or Congo or Somalia. They are all women, some as young as 16 or 17, some 35 or so, though they some­times look older, aged by war and loss. Classes are unpredictable, veering from tears to laughter. Today I decide, why not just write about rain, rain that falls everywhere upon everyone. Hasti Hashemi, a slender, elegant Persian-speaker from Afghanistan, produces this from my prompt:


I am like the rain
because rain is the start of deep feeling
because rain is clean sadness
because rain is filtered weather
because I am the universe
because I dance on glass.

Often, they compose in their native tongue and come up with a translation through some combination of phone apps and the resident translator, who also struggles with the subtleties of transferring poetry from one language to another; discussions sometimes end up being about translation itself. In this case, I am not sure we have understood the penultimate line. Does the writer mean rather “I am everywhere,” or “I am universal”? It is only much later that I realize, or learn, that her name means “Existence” or simply “Universe” in Farsi. She is employing the ancient Persian convention of punning on her own name in the poem. Because I am Hasti.
Words I Have Learned in Persian from the Names of
Refugee Women I Have Met in Athens

(for Dick Davis)

Sky Blue Faience
The Evening Star

1 December 2016 We are at the squat doing art activities with the volunteers, when a 13-year old girl from Bagdad introduces us to a new girl, 12, from Somalia. The Iraqi girl explains that her friend needs a winter coat—can we get one for her? Of course, of course, we say, moved at this friendship across race and culture, one that wouldn’t exist without war and exile and upheaval, yet is also about the fellow feeling of girls the same age.
4 December 2016 Stephanie Larson, an archaeologist who has taken on fundraising for food donations and delivering them to the squat, is also a fellow mother at the American school my children attend. (Her daughter is in my son’s class, and they take the same bus.) We both find the PTO exasperating, and the constant requests for baked goods for bake sales and bazaars. Today is the Christmas bazaar. We have reserved a table (at the school parents’ reduced fee) for two Iranian women who make jewelry. This seems like a project with no downside, helping refugees get on their feet, and helping the school for that matter. Stephanie drives us into town to pick up the women, and then to the school. There is a giddy camaraderie in it, a reminder that perhaps some of the motivation for persistence in these efforts is social. Foreign women ourselves, we understand a little about navigating a difficult new language and a new land, we have that much in common with the passengers.
13 December 2016 My FB post: “Feeling ill about Aleppo. As well as things in the US. Strange to be reminded of the American dream by a young man (26) from Syria today. He was pretty despondent about the situation here, and wanting to move on, however he could. He spoke to Adrianne Kalfopoulou and me, saying he wanted to go the US. Why? ‘Because if you go to Germany, you will never be German. If you go to France, you will never be French. But in America, even if you are from Asia or Africa or Europe, you can be American.’”

He is a great reader, being a student of literature (he has read a lot of Western classics in translation), and would especially like the novels of Salim Barakat, a Kurdish-Syrian novelist and poet who is compared to South American magical realists. Well here is something we can help with, I think, and set out to track down a bookstore that will sell us Salim Barakat books. Online, I find a marvelous bookstore in Germany ( that specializes in Arabic books and engage in a very civilized e-mail conversation—the bookstore not only finds me a book by the author, but it seems to be delivered almost overnight, and they are at my disposal regarding any other Arabic literature requests I might have. Yet, by the time we are back at the squat, the young man has left for Germany. I later give the book to an Iraqi teenaged girl desperate for reading material. At first, she is overwhelmed with delight and gratitude, but when I see her again, she returns the book, frowning. It is too difficult; she cannot read it.
20 December 2016 Christmas party at the squat. Or not Christmas party, of course, holiday party. (Squat management has told us it is not to be Christmassy.) In the end, though, the kids are very excited about their first Christmas in Europe and post photos of themselves on FB against the backdrop of big public Christmas trees. (Come to think of it, in Greece, St. Vasili, the Greek Santa Claus, is supposed to travel not from the North Pole, but from Turkey, as these children have.) The whole idea rather mad. We will have face-painting, and temporary glitter tattoos, and games, including an egg-spoon race. I am in charge of boiling 24 eggs. (I get the eggs very cheaply, at the farmers’ market around the corner from my house, but I have to boil them in batches. My husband is, as he is often these days, bemused and/or perplexed.) There will be popcorn, and meatballs (beef), and pretzels and other snacks. We work with Narges to make a poster announcing it in English and Persian. Usually, we do activities outside, in the schoolyard; I’m not wild about the downstairs room (once a gym perhaps?), which is below street level, though with high windows, and cold. We will have pass-the-parcel with little prizes. I don’t like the downstairs hallway either. Strangely, it is also one of the few times my husband is at the squat at the same time. He is outside, in the yard, filming a piece on a Syrian volunteer group (some of them refugees) who have been doing folkloric Syrian dancing with the Syrian kids. While my husband is upstairs in the wan December sunshine, I am in a narrow subterranean hallway when suddenly shouts break out (Arabic), and there is some pushing, between young men who live in the squat, and young men who are running the NGO doing the dancing lessons. They are between us and the kids and the exit. Judi, the South African, often sweet and grandmotherly, but also no-nonsense, barges in and shouts at everyone in English. Evidently abashed (perhaps she reminds them of their mothers or grandmothers?), they part; the tension appears to disperse. The children seem too busy with the games to notice, and the party is reckoned a success.

I walk out into the December afternoon, through the streets of Greek shoppers trying to buy Christmas presents with whatever money austerity has left them. Tomorrow is the solstice, the darkest day of the year. But maybe after that things will look brighter.

A. E. Stallings