In the summer of 2016, I went on a two-week family vacation to Greece to explore the villages where my parents were born and to see the sacred sites we had always wanted to visit. But afterward, I decided to volunteer in the refugee crisis that has left nearly 60,000 people stranded in camps across the country, fleeing a war that is known throughout the world. In the end, I stayed for nearly six months.
Having witnessed the devastation in the media, and the way the Greek people offered nothing but generosity to the incoming migrants despite their own troubles, I knew I couldn't travel all the way there without doing my part. After all, I'm Greek, and I was separated from this environment only by the long boat journey my parents had taken in the '60s.
I volunteered in Ritsona, a camp created in the middle of nowhere. It's an hour from Athens, edged by trees and dirt fields. The 600 people displaced there were living in leaking, cramped tents and were often given rancid army rations for food. Rats, snakes, and wild boars were routine, and the elements were relentless.
I couldn't help but immediately recognize my place among them: I was the woman whose parents migrated to Australia and had never witnessed anything like this. My home in Melbourne, 10,000 miles away, felt like it was in a different world. And the weight of knowing that I could leave whenever I wanted was a guilt I never escaped.
As I got to know the people living in Ritsona, I realized that the privileges I was suddenly so aware of were the same ones many of these people had known before the war. They eased my nervousness and welcomed me with conversation that felt universal. I flipped through photos of their lost homes and smiling children. I listened to stories of falling in love, attending university, and working in professions from accounting to carpentry. I laughed at anecdotes about wild friends and nosy family members.
But the tales inevitably led to the sadness of having it all taken away. They spoke about those homes being evacuated and loved ones dispersing in the fray. They recounted years of floating from Turkey to Greece, always between camps, inching for freedom. The only difference between us was a war beyond our control.
Days of volunteering turned into weeks. I slowly befriended families and other volunteers, easing into habits that made the situation no less harrowing, but more manageable. There was nothing normal about this environment, nothing that made it feel like a permanent place. But with each passing day, the people living there tried their best to bring some resemblance of predictability to it all.
On one particular day during lunchtime, I smelled chicken cooking over open brick fires. The food was part of a weekly distribution that was facilitated by independent volunteers, a reprieve from the army food that often caused camp-wide bouts of food poisoning. I had become close to a woman named Beriwan, and I took my usual route to her tent. To get there, I walked past a familiar sign on a scrap of wood hanging from a tree branch that overlooked a sea of tents. It said, "Home is where your mum is."
A huge pot filled with chicken and broth was steaming over a fire sandwiched between bricks when I arrived. Beriwan's youngest daughter, Filya, emerged from the tent and screeched, "Kat!" rushing over to take my hand and using the other to present the chicken as if it were the main event in a magic show.
Beriwan's head poked out from around the side of the tent. "Kat!" she yelled, "Sit!"
I sat on the wood bench beside the fire, directly opposite the opening of their tent. Filya crawled onto my lap and immediately took to fixing my hair, untying my ponytail with her small four-year-old fingers and reworking the entire concept into something more creative. Beriwan barreled by, thrusting a large knife, a wooden cutting board, and a bowl of onions and garlic onto the ground in front of me.
She asked, "Tea?"
"No thank you, Beriwan," I replied through a mouthful of hair that was now being brushed down over my face.
The next thing I knew, a tray with plastic cups, sugar, and a kettle was beside me. Beriwan's husband, Amud, and their oldest child, 10-year-old Nina, rounded the corner.
Beriwan poured the tea, turning up her nose as she said, "No sugar for Kat!" having committed the way I take my tea to memory.
Amud rolled cigarettes out of tobacco from a pouch using a small, plastic rolling machine. He'd do this often, industriously creating a stock of pre-rolled cigarettes with meticulous precision. Beriwan sat crossed-legged next to him and began chopping the onions.
"Can I help?" I asked, as the small hairdresser on my knees finished her design and took to pinching my cheeks.
Beriwan handed me the onions and pointed at the side of the tent, where there was a makeshift outdoor kitchenette. Removing Filya from my lap, I took the onions and found rice cooking on a gas hotplate. I poured the onions in as Beriwan appeared at my side. She pressed chicken stock cubes into my hand and splashed water from a bottle into the rice. I added the chicken stock and stirred.
By the time the food was ready, my supervisor, Hannah, and Beriwan and Amud's two young sons had joined us. Beriwan laid out a floral blanket and we all crowded around it, knees touching, as she ripped open a bag of pita bread and tossed pieces to all of us. Beriwan then threw us each a spoon and declared, "Eat!"
We never picked up our spoons, and instead used bread and our fingers to scoop up food into our mouths. When we were done, Beriwan pulled Filya into her lap, and the tiny girl sat facing her as her mother cupped her face with her palms.
"Habibti," Beriwan sang, "I love you, I miss you, I need you." Filya giggled, and repeated the song to her mother.
When it was time for us to go back to our shift, Beriwan urged us to stay and eat more, but resigned herself to giving us tea in plastic cups to take with us. Then she stood with me, held me around the waist and kissed me one, two, three times, on alternating cheeks.
"See you tomorrow," she winked at me.
When the day was over, Hannah and I collapsed into her car and headed back to our apartments in the nearby town. From a distance, I could see Beriwan at the window of the warehouse where food rations were distributed to residents, picking up bottled water and apples. Filya was by her side. And as the car passed by, she turned around, and waved.
Kat George is a freelance writer who is currently pursuing a master's degree in human rights law.
The names of the refugees have been changed.
Kat George has a J.D. and a Bachelor Degree in Media & Communication from Melbourne University, and a Graduate Certificate in Business Administration from RMIT. She will begin her Master of Human Rights Law in 2017. Kat worked in Child Protection in refugee camps in Greece for the better part of 2016, and is currently a freelance journalist writing for various digital publications about culture, politics and the world.