There have been days, months, when I’ve eaten meals provided by charities, governments, good people. When I was 10, I lived in a refugee camp outside Rome, a temporary safe space for transients seeking asylum outside Italy. The Italian government had leased the building from a hotel owner; though our clothes and sheets were those of refugees, we lived on a hilltop, in the husk of a pretty hotel.
Each day, the residents of hotel Barba were served soup, pasta, coffee, meat, bread. In the mornings, we stampeded for jam. We were given three meals at precise times. When my mother found an English school an hour away by bus, we had to find a way to claim our lunches or they would be lost. She enlisted the help of an Afghan grandmother – she would save our lunches for us, we would eat them for dinner, then we would make sandwiches out of our dinners, hang them in a plastic bag over a balcony and take them to school the next day. The process was embarrassing and very visible. The bringing in of the lunches, now cold, to the canteen at dinner time, the packing away of the fresher dinners. The hotel served hard, round bread rolls and we filled them with peas and mashed potatoes, with pasta and chicken, slices of meat under carrot, letting the gravy soak and soften the bread overnight. To this day, leftover sandwiches evoke survival for me – they bring dread, the pleasure of having solved a puzzle, and also shame.
A few years later, after my family had been granted asylum and sent to Oklahoma and I fancied myself an American teenager, I began volunteering at a local food bank. My friend and I were assigned to the storeroom. Poor mothers or single men would arrive in the front, sign in at the desk, tell their stories to more experienced volunteers, and we, the teenagers in the back, would receive instruction about which category of grocery bundle to make. Everyone got the same things, with a few extras for babies and some substitutions for allergies. They never saw our faces, the silly adolescents who flirted and sang while we chose their food: tuna or chicken, white or wheat, pulp or no pulp. I got rid of all the chunky peanut butter first, thinking I was being kind. I was grateful that I didn’t see their faces, that I could avoid the downcast eyes as I loaded their bags into open trunks.
Accepting charity is an ugly business for the spirit. It rubs you raw, especially if you were once someone with pride and lofty goals, someone who shook hands and locked eyes. My mother and I used to talk about the irony of so many of the world’s refugees coming from the Middle East – we are such prideful people, and a refugee is the most abject creature of all: stateless, homeless, without control over her own food, education or health. Asylum seekers is so mild a phrase – we weren’t politely seeking, we were ravenous for it, this animal need for safety for our bodies. How do we survive the memory of it?
After Oklahoma, I spent two decades working on my pride. I accepted no charity from friends. When we went out, I ate little. When one of their parents paid, it felt like a big deal, as if I had lost control. I didn’t borrow change for vending machines. I did accept the charity of universities, as it was hidden from view and kinder. Later on, I allowed men to pay for meals, telling myself that my company was enough to compensate – that this is how the world’s least indebted women behave and so should I.
Barba wasn’t Moria in Lesbos, with its raw sewage, shared tents and five-hour food lines. But it wasn’t a hotel, either
In my 30s in New York, I volunteered to help a friend, a well-meaning finance type, serve Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter. I showed up in a stained T-shirt and old jeans, my hair in a ratty bun. There was no question of what to wear; I knew that tonight I would offer food to a stranger, and that stranger would, for a moment, be humiliated. She would look at my clothes, my posture, for a reason to say: “Who cares what she thinks?” And it was part of my job to give her that reason quickly. I remembered that at hotel Barba, a young man serving soup would call out: “Zuppa! Zuppa!” He’d make a clown of himself, so we could laugh; sometimes, he would sit for a chat, eat some soup, ask how we were. The zuppa man was beloved at hotel Barba and I imagined myself in his shoes. I stuck $10 in my pocket, leaving my wallet behind.
But Manhattan do-gooders don’t know the quiet bargains that the poor make in the space of a glance. When I arrived at the shelter, my friend looked me up and down. “Are you depressed?” he joked, eyeing my stains. Behind him, bankers and lawyers in Chanel shoes and white silk shirts, leather handbags still on their arms, dished out mashed potatoes and uneasy smiles to tired men and women wearing the grime of the city. Later on, when the residents invited the volunteers to join their table (a plea for dignity), the volunteers declined out of concern (“Will there be enough?”). They dashed off to a fancy restaurant instead, ordered pork belly and congratulated themselves for not staying (“It would’ve been overstepping”), then complained about the tourists crowding the door. I confess that I ate a few bites of that turkey dinner, and I ate the pork belly, too, and I let my friend pay, humiliating as it was given my stained T-shirt, my sweaty hair. I hated him that night, but I was also grateful to be in his company. I went home and threw it all up.Barba in 2011, converted into a proper hotel.Photograph: courtesy of Dina Nayeri
Now, a few more years have passed. I’m a writer in London, a mother, a confused immigrant. A lifelong chameleon, I’m reimagining my identity again. Am I still a refugee after so many years of assimilating?
I spend a lot of time thinking about hotel Barba. In 2011, I went back. It had become a proper hotel, with pretty curtains and nice sheets. I know now that Barba was a “low hardship” camp. I hate that term. It’s condescending and a lie. The accurate description is that it was something other than hell. It wasn’t Moria in Lesbos, with its raw sewage and midnight wars, its five-hour food lines and shared tents on open soil. Officially, hotel Barba was a refugee camp. But I call it a hostel, because it wasn’t a camp. It wasn’t a hotel, either. The difference between each pair of words is subtle, a private calculation of shame and place and dignity.
Late last autumn in a London cafe, I spoke with Paul Hutchings about life in the camps and the possibility of my returning to one. He co-founded Refugee Support, a charity that goes from camp to camp revamping the way they distribute aid. Right away, he started up about dignity and shame. Like me, he had stayed up nights thinking about humiliation. Hutchings met John Sloan in October 2015 while volunteering in the Calais camp. The two men noticed that the act of offering food and clothing, these undeniably first-order needs, had become so urgent and frantic that the “how” was forgotten. The only people who seemed aware were the refugees; Hutchings saw it in their eyes, in their gait. Though they had already lost so much, they were losing more with every jacket tossed from a truck-bed and every ill-fitting pair of trousers they would have to barter away. In Calais, provisions were handed out from the backs of vans. One day, a van would arrive with, say, large jackets and park in one part of the camp. Another day, a different van with men’s jeans, or T-shirts, would park in another corner. Refugees lined up as a volunteer tried to keep order, and another asked their size. They received one item and were asked to go. Some tried to negotiate, claiming to have a sick friend, a parent too weak to stand in line. Others fought and yelled and grabbed. Items were trampled on the ground. Some went away empty-handed. No one felt good about what had just happened.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” said Hutchings in the cafe, “if we could give people food and clothing without taking away their dignity?”
“Why is that so hard?” I asked.
“Because people want every hour and dollar they give to be stretched thin.” Hutchings told me that his biggest problem was the volunteers, donors, and their lofty expectations. Many donors want to assign criteria to how their food is given out. They want their money feeding as many as possible, to make sure you spend it only on eggs and bread. They want to police. They don’t care about the “how”. Even the most good-hearted volunteers want to feel thanked. Refugee Support began its work in April 2016 at Alexandreia camp near Thessaloniki, Greece. They set out to open a food store, then a clothing store, a well-designed, peaceful marketplace stocked with donations, where a person of note wouldn’t be ashamed to shop. When Hutchings showed me photographs, I thought: my mother, an Iranian doctor, would shop there. My grandfather, a landowner, would be proud to run into a neighbour there. It was a far cry from the item-specific trucks.
At first, residents made appointments and collected prepared baskets of food, thoughtfully arranged with necessities for each family. Everyone received the same thing, regardless of allergies, habits or taste. But people didn’t have the same needs, and soon there were grumblings, barter, waste.
Hutchings and Sloan decided to display the goods and give people the respect of choosing for themselves. The store’s currency would be points distributed weekly like income – 100 points per adult, 50 per child, 150 for pregnant women. Store prices would be pegged to market prices (20 points per euro). Sanitary items would be free. If residents wanted to spend all their points on chocolate spread, they had that right.Nayeri (third from left) with women at the Katsikas refugee camp in Greece.Photograph: Eirini Vourloumis for the Guardian
On his phone, Hutchings showed me designs for Katsikas, the newest camp, near Ioannina, closer to the Albanian border than to Athens. He spends time thinking of the aesthetics, whether people will like it – he cares that they like it. He has sales data, too, and a list of what he needs to stock each week. Yes, the customers (his word) buy some butter biscuits, but they don’t sacrifice milk for it.
“You know what I love?” Hutchings asked. “When they complain about the selection. Because that means they’ve forgotten they’re in a camp. They’re just people in a store, with money in hand, complaining about yoghurt.”
“I want to go,” I said.
“We have rules,” he said, “We need to keep absolute equality between people, so there’s no hint of special treatment. We don’t allow socialising or friendships. Volunteers can’t even accept a cup of tea or enter the private rooms.”
“Are there Iranians there?” I asked. “Or Afghans who speak Farsi?”
“There will be at Katsikas when it opens,” he said.
“I want to go without your rule,” I said, thinking of that long-ago turkey dinner that everyone turned down. If this is about pride, I have to be able to accept a cup of tea.
“The complicated thing is that dignity changes as different needs are met,” Hutchings told me a few weeks later, as we drove on a pitch-black highway, slick with rain, away from Athens. “When you arrive from Lesbos, dirty, tired, starving, dignity is that package of shampoo, deodorant, eggs, coffee, bread. So we offer that on arrival. Then, when you’ve showered and slept and cleaned up, that package becomes humiliating. You want your tea, not coffee. You remember you hate eggs. That’s when you want choice. After you’ve lived in a camp for a few months, the store with fake money and strict friendship rules becomes humiliating, too. Why can’t you befriend the clerk? There’s a shelf-life to this. We don’t stay at any camp because we don’t want to contribute to the camp becoming permanent.” We were visiting two camps on this trip, but our ultimate destination was Katsikas. I had put on a brave, eager face, but I was afraid of what I would see and remember.
Just before Christmas 2017, 450 refugees from 10 countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, arrived at the empty camp at Katsikas. Awaiting them were Isoboxes, residential containers in a gated field, each kitted out with kitchenette and bathroom, beds on metal frames. Almost everyone was arriving from Moria, the hell in Lesbos, and from similar inhospitable camps on the islands. The store staff prepared for opening day. No one expected chaos; they knew that when you grant people dignity, they become dignified. The refugees walk through the store, looking; they choose olive or sunflower oil, the one they prefer. They are treated as the doctors and teachers and craftsmen they once were.Refugees choose their own food at the Katsikas grocery store.Photograph: Eirini Vourloumis for the Guardian
On my first day, the store opened as usual, 10.30am until 1pm. It was clean and whimsically decorated, with cheese graters as light fixtures, little plants here and there, vegetables neatly piled in rows. It looked like a food cooperative in south London. An iPad served as the sole point of sale, though later a second “register” was added with pad and paper. Behind the produce was the storeroom, left open so volunteers could fetch nappies and extra bags. No one worried about theft. Outside, a long hallway featured art by camp residents, including a haunting sketch of a laden boat at night, refugees on open water. Tables and chairs were set up where families waited their turn. Here was the first difference between this store and any other: only one family could shop at a time.
Another point of difference: no one, no matter how compelling their story, ever gets an exception. On my second afternoon in the store, a young couple, newly pregnant, came back after their shop. The husband said he counted the items and it came up 50 short. Nothing could be done. “It’s not about the individual,” Hutchings said. There could be no whiff of case-by-case judgments, or the possibility of favouritism, on the camp.
For most of my time at the store, I bagged groceries, just as I did in Oklahoma. This time, I had no say in what went into the bags. But after the second family passed through, I noticed other peculiarities of this store: in a way, we did tell them what they could have, because we controlled the points. The envelope full of paper money is largely symbolic, since almost everyone spends all that they have on the first market day after the points are issued. They hand over the entire envelope and the volunteer keeps track of their shopping. At some point the volunteer says, “Only 10 left” or, “You’re 10 over”, and the family begins to make trade-offs. Private discussions are had. Children jump in, biting their nails. Juice boxes are sacrificed.Nayeri (hidden) and her mother (holding cup) having tea with a family of Russian refugees at hotel Barba in 1989.Photograph: courtesy of Dina Nayeri
The first time this happened, I realised I had bagged too soon. I had been over-zealous. I had to stop, wait to see what would be put back. I had bagged the children’s bananas, and now I remembered how rare bananas were in Iran, how desperate I had been for them and how that desperation lasted all through my teenage years, after bananas became ordinary. I wanted to ask Hutchings if we could just let them have it, but stood by, feeling useless and ham-fisted as the parents explained that the bananas would have to go back.
Later on, as a young Syrian mother and I were trying to arrange her six sacks in a chubbily occupied buggy – the baby leaning forward, accustomed to sharing his space – I heard the familiar, easy sounds of Farsi. An older Iranian couple entered, handing over their envelope (200 points, no children). I listened as they spoke in the language of everyday shopping. “How much” is this or that? “Is the olive oil worth the price?” It was beautiful to enter this brief fantasy. For 10 minutes, they were a couple in some European city, doing their weekend shopping.
Then they went 10 points over. The wife bit her lip. “We have to put the biscuits back,” she said.
The husband scanned the items.“But we’d be five under.” I imagined them back in their Isobox with their cups of tea, the cardamom they had smuggled from Iran. Butter cookies are just the thing with tea.
They took a tomato paste and stood at the register.
The world says: ‘They made it! We did it!’ Then they toss us food, provide tents. But charity and welcome are different
Then I did something stupid: I said hello in Farsi, wished them a good day. They stared at me, stunned, said polite hellos. I realised I had punctured that brief fantasy of a normal life that Hutchings had envisioned; perhaps this was the reason for the no chit-chat rule. The fact that I had understood their private negotiations made plain that they were part of a charade, that this was a charity shop. I begged the universe to rewind by five seconds, to make it so I wasn’t the same as those Thanksgiving volunteers in New York, the ones whose help had come at such high costs.I started bagging their things and, for a second time in my life, was glad for having dressed shabbily.
When the store was closed, I walked through the rows of Isoboxes, knocking on doors. It was intimidating and thrilling. Again, I asked myself, what the hell am I doing? Who would answer? Would they speak Farsi? Would they invite me in? I memorised the door numbers for the Farsi households.
A kind couple in their 30s opened the first door. I had found them through their daughters, who were playing soccer outside. I’d heard delighted shrieks in the language of my own childhood, and made a beeline for the sound. “Are you police?” the older girl asked. “No, I’m an Iranian lady looking for other Iranians.” She gave me their Isobox number. The parents invited me in. Hutchings sat with us, happy to listen without understanding as they told us the story of their escape. After several hours, the talk turned to the store and they said something I would hear from every other Iranian at Katsikas: get basmati rice. They pulled out the rice from the store, then the rice they had bought with their own money. The husband compared the grains. “See how much longer?” Hutchings nodded. It was simply that a volunteer had found a good deal on this rice. “Can I come back tomorrow?” I asked the couple. “Yes,” the husband said. “Actually, you will come back thrice. Things always happen to us in threes. Three boats before Moria. Three tries before getting here. Always three.”
Before we left, they showed us videos of Moria, toilets overrun by sewage where people also bathed, tents on raw earth, children begging to leave. The husband asked for help with the immigration process. I didn’t know what to say – the photos were scenes from a nightmare, and I felt so obtuse for having revealed my own asylum story. Hutchings kept his face neutral. “I’m sorry, we can’t help. We don’t know asylum law. Yes, we’ll look into the basmati.” Later, he told me that it’s a mistake even to provide reassurance, because the residents grasp at every hope. The videos and pleas for help happened in every Isobox I visited.
By now, we are accustomed to horrifying footage from refugee camps. We forget the psychological damage of purgatory. This waiting space, in which you can never go back to your old life and identity, but haven’t been told yet what your new one will be. Will your children have to learn German, Italian or English? Will you work in your old profession again? Will 2030 find you lecturing in a university again, or driving an Uber, washing dishes, cleaning homes with a fraction of the books you once owned? These questions torture the mind, yet the world says: “They made it out! They’re safe. We did it!” Then they toss food out of truck beds, provide shelter in tents. But charity and welcome are different things.A party at Katsikas.Photograph: Eirini Vourloumis for the Guardian
The next day, I knocked on a door and found a group of women having tea and rolling dough. They were Afghans and Iranians, and immediately they called me inside. They had heard about me. They gave me tea. I made myself comfortable on a pillow between two motherly ones. They had an old pasta maker acquired in Ioannina and were turning all their flour into pasta. They pointed to a small room where thin ropes of dough were drying on a bedframe, the mattress stashed away somewhere. “This is for Iranian noodle soup,” said one of them. “We’re making enough for everyone.” The women told me that every night they got together in someone’s Isobox for prayer and dinner. I promised to join them. Later that night, I found the same group, with their daughters and granddaughters, including one who had been born in the camp, having a birthday party, dancing and cheering.
Before we arrived at Katsikas, Hutchings and I had stopped at LM village, near Kilini, a camp that Refugee Support had just left. Perhaps it was better for me to see the ghost of the store before I saw the living one. I wanted to go there because it was built in the carcass of an old holiday village, much like Barba. I hoped that it would rub away my calluses and I’d regain something of those days. Hutchings’ store was a shambles, clothes trampled on the floor, children rummaging through, a Greek worker on her phone, oblivious. Hutchings walked through the wreck of the store he had built, shaking his head, his shoulders dropping.
The commander of the camp followed us around, nervous. He thought that Sloan and Hutchings had left because of his behaviour and he was trying to appease. They hadn’t, of course. But he was a fiery sort, and when Refugee Support left, the refugees barred the gates in protest, thinking the commander had shut the store down. He turned to me as we walked: “Dina, when you’re in the car, tell him every 20 minutes to come back to LM.” He was silent for a while, then said: “Tell him every 10 minutes to come back.”
Hutchings didn’t respond. He seemed to be working through larger questions. Was his hard work gone? Did the refugees carry it away with them, their spirits stronger now?
At LM, we ate with a Syrian family. The commander joined us. We couldn’t bear to touch the meagre food, knowing it had been bought with precious euros. But the family had refused to let us go; the elderly mother of 10 grabbed my backpack and held it to her breast. We would have insulted them. This wasn’t like that New York Thanksgiving: they needed this food. Nevertheless, pride wins over hunger and we stayed.The men’s clothing store at Katsikas.Photograph: Eirini Vourloumis for the Guardian
On my last day in Greece, as the store was closing and I was saying my goodbyes, a bewildered man in his mid-40s wandered into the waiting area. I could tell by his face he was Iranian. I greeted him in Farsi and he looked relieved. He said he had just arrived. He had no clothes, no food. He wasn’t registered at the store yet. The volunteers looked at his papers and agreed to keep the store open so he could shop. They told him to return at 3pm and they would open the men’s clothing store so he could have his 10 items. He was larger than average. I hoped he would find something.
Since he knew nothing of the point system, I helped him choose his food. He got eggs, rice, a kilo of bananas, oil. Then he put back the oil. He got cookies and pistachios, milk. He put back the milk. He didn’t get much else. As his last 20 points wouldn’t buy oil, he bought four juice boxes instead. He left happy, nodding his thanks to everyone.
As I started for the car, I thought of how nervous I had been to revisit this strange waiting place, this limbo that had shaped me, that was now shaping thousands of others from my home. We would be for ever linked and defined by it. And how much I had forgotten that was now clear and urgent. I remembered something else. I ran back into the camp, found a door and knocked. I had knocked on this door twice already. Yesterday, the husband had said, “No need for goodbye. Remember? Everything happens in threes.” Now I stood at that family’s doorstep a third time, waiting to be invited in. No one answered. A neighbour poked a head out and said: “They’re out. Maybe playing football.”
“OK,” I said, “I guess I have to come back then.”
“Next time in England,” she said, as she receded behind a makeshift curtain, and I recalled that we used to say that, too.
• Dina Nayeri’s book The Ungrateful Refugee will be published next year by Canongate.
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