DISPATCH FROM CHIOS: Lousy Trades

By on January 10, 2017

For the people living at the Souda refugee camp, life has become a game of concessions.

Increasingly cold, inclement weather is taking its toll on refugees at Souda refugee camp. Whipping winds and rain sucked this tent at the camp into the sea.  (Photo: Natosha Hoduski)

Increasingly cold, inclement weather is taking its toll on refugees at Souda refugee camp. Whipping winds and rain sucked this tent at the camp into the sea.  (Photo: Natosha Hoduski)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I didn’t know that color grey before I came here: snow melt mixed with raw ash, as the walkways between tents become causeways. All of the rain/sleet/snow pooling in rainbow oil streaks underneath the rotting pallet floors of the shelters in Souda refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios. And I can’t stop seeing that color, washing in from the sea, soiling the lips of their tents as the water pushes up, ever higher, toward their feet. The world is colder this week than it’s been all year. The world, I think to myself, the world is a colder place. And we make trades. We bargain for the warmest future. Every moment is a coin toss for what will preserve the blood in our toes, or the feeling in our fingers.

Yesterday I accidentally walked into the wrong Ikea container—the small shelters that refugees call home at the camp. There were three men leaning over a cement block they had placed red-hot pokers on top of, warming their hands from the perspiring heat of the metal.

A woman in one of our volunteer meetings asked that morning, “Do the heaters pose a risk for fire?” in her earnest, absurd way.

Of course they do, but it is a hazard so far from the refugees’ current reality it’s nearly absurd to contemplate. It’s a trade.

Just like those men who wore their only pairs of shoes yesterday to stand in line for food. Sometimes it takes an hour, shifting three inches at a time forward in line against the freezing temperatures and sludgy puddles of a wild, winter storm. You make a trade. Today, they stand in flip-flops, because their other shoes are caked in ice. That grey ice is everywhere. It’s on the road. It’s on the frozen corners of the tarps. It’s on the slick tables and slippery toilets and the floors of the cold-water showers. It’s in my hardened soul as I’m forced to tell people “no,” when they ask for more and more, because nothing we ever do is enough.

Every living space in Souda refugee camp is on a timer. A different section of the camp illuminated in its turn, to keep the circuits from overloading. It’s not enough time for the ancient space heaters installed in each tent to wake up, dust off the cold, and begin to warm the tent before they switch off again. A settled, long enduring creak, before moving on to another tent to almost-heat that one, too, before almost heating again.

It’s a trade. Even the tea kettles. If more than one or two people plug in their kettle at the same time, more times than not, it will overload the circuits for the entire camp, shutting down electricity for everyone. That simple, tiny luxury, and now people are left to panic in the cold, begging for their day allotment of heat. Sometimes, when I’m greeting a family in my nearly useless Arabic, I can see my breath inside their homes. The white, steam spokes of my halting words, an incarnation of how much I will never understand what they are going through.

We tried our best to get some of the most vulnerable families out of the cold as the temperatures continue to plummet by bringing them into our English Center at night. The old, Greek-styled marble floor of the building is hard, as only marble can be, and ice cold. We tried to layer mats and old donated Disney sleeping bags across the rooms to make it as comfortable as possible for the families taking refuge there, but it was still a cold, stone floor no matter how we dressed it. A temporary Band-Aid on an open wound.

We never found out if the families had eaten dinner before they arrived, but they were too thankful to tell us if they needed anything else other than the heat, so we gave the children biscuits and tea and let them watch Frozen, in a way I hoped didn’t smack too much of irony. One of the moms showered her children, because there is no warm water in the camps. Many children haven’t showered in weeks. Stepping from cold weather to cold shower to cold tent is a good way to get hypothermia, but it’s a trade.

The flu swept through the camp, knocking on every door. No one was healthy enough to ward against it. The tent flaps sealed shut against the cold become a petri dish of stale air. It’s a trade. And I know, in the end, I’m no different than them. If it came down to it, I’d burn my last belongings to keep warm. I’ve see other people do it. PJH

After volunteering this fall at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, reporter Natosha Hoduski couldn’t stop thinking about the people she had met there. So she packed up all her things in Jackson Hole and returned to the island to continue her work with refugees.

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