My Experience in the Yazidi Refugee Camp in Greece
People in the Yazidi refugee camp look straight into your eyes. They can do it for minutes. As if they weren’t ashamed of anything. As if they had nothing to hide. Their eyes are like big, quiet mirrors… sheets of mild water… windows to an unknown land. For a month, I was trying to touch their world. Every day was a step into a mystery.
Banished from Home
“All the books of those who are without are altered by them; and they have declined from them, although they were written by the prophets and the apostles. That there are interpolations is seen in the fact that each sect endeavors to prove that the others are wrong and to destroy their books. To me truth and falsehood are known.” –Yazidi Book of Revelation
My first day in the refugee camp in Serres. I sit with the children under a tree and read a picture book that I found in the donation box. Suddenly, all the children get up and run to the gate.
“What happened?” I ask them.
“Nadia Murad came! Sister Yazidi!”
I follow the children. A beautiful and very sad girl, dressed in black, stands in the main square and talks to the people. She escaped from the hands of the ISIS soldiers who raped her for several months. Now she lives in Germany and tries to help the refugees. She gives interviews, talks to politicians, and asks the world for mercy, for help in liberating the more than 3,000 women and children who are still in the hands of ISIS and experience unimaginable horrors every day.
I cannot sleep at night. Something trembles in me. At the beginning, it is difficult to find my place. The Yazidis have just moved to Serres from another camp and there is no structure yet. My friend Molly, a Hridaya teacher who inspired me to come here, runs the team of volunteers and tries to respond to the most urgent needs. I help her count clothes, soap, and shampoo, and to distribute things. We go to the warehouse and choose clothes for the refugees, we build furniture to store things, we attend to mothers who constantly ask for diapers, milk, bottles, and shoes.
After some time, I try to organize an advanced level English lesson for teenage girls. We gather in a tent and they share their dreams:
“I want to go to Barcelona and meet Lionel Messi.”
“My dream is to join my family in Germany.”
“I would like to visit India and learn to dance.”
“I want to go to Canada and play with snow.”
A young woman gives me a note. There is only one sentence: “My dream is to go back to Iraq and see my mom.” I swallow my tears. She reads it aloud. Suddenly all the girls start talking. They want to return to Iraq, to go to school, they miss their friends, their families, holidays spent together, excursions to nature. They are yearning for home. And their eyes, their lips overflow with emotions. Raised in the desert, attacked by ISIS, the Yazidis are an exiled nation. The city of Sinjar, emptied through hate and violence, is their lost paradise.
Sinjar, Shingal, I hear this word every day. The girls share:
“My favorite job is a policewoman. I want to help the Sinjar people.”
“I would like to be a doctor, to heal the people in Sinjar.”
“I want to be a teacher and share everything I learned with others.”
On the tent’s floor, I see a note: “Sinjar in my blood.”
“And, now,” I say, “Choose your most important dream, and write it down.”
A beautiful girl with deer eyes gives me a note: “My dream and the dream of all Yazidis is freedom for the women and children abducted by ISIS. Because they are raped and tortured every day.” I read it and stay silent. I have no words. A 13-year-old girl takes the card from my hand and reads it aloud. Nobody is surprised. Everyone in the camp, including the children, feels the horror of the ISIS sexual slaves. These women are their sisters. It is their collective pain. One big wound poured into hundreds of thousands of hearts.
My Friend, Give Me the Heart!
“I was, am now, and shall have no end. I exercise dominion over all creatures and over the affairs of all who are under the protection of my image. I am ever present to help all who trust in me and call upon me in time of need. There is no place in the universe that knows not my presence.” –Yazidi Book of Revelation
There is so much joy in the camp! Four hundred refugees live here and more than half are children who play all day. The mornings begin with singing and dancing. The volunteers organize sports activities, games, and English and Greek classes. The children learn two new alphabets: Latin and Greek, they learn to read and write from left to right, to turn the pages of books in the opposite direction. They assimilate new rules on a new planet.
The first words that you hear in the camp are: “Hello, my friend.” The children come to you and shout: “Hello, my friend!” Some of them run into your arms. After a few days in the camp, the sentence “Hello, my friend” enters your blood. You use it to greet both the refugees and the volunteers. After a while, you start your emails and posts on Facebook with these words. They acquire a peculiar sweetness. When you return home, you miss them. Your ears instinctively seek them, but nobody in your country greets you this way.
Another English sentence that every child in the camp knows is: “My friend, give me one!” The “one” can be a card, a pen, a pencil, a balloon, a hair elastic, or a paper heart. Molly asked me to decorate a hall in the abandoned school with hundreds of colored hearts. For over an hour, we hung them high on the wall, out of the reach of the children—they were watching with hungry eyes. “My friend, give me one!” they screamed. I left the hall for several minutes. When I returned, there were no hearts on the walls. The kids had climbed on the tables and taken them all.
The children serve as interpreters in the camp. They learn English very fast. Some of them studied it in Iraq, and in the camp they absorb everything. I like to read with them. I choose a donated book and when the children notice me, they gather around. We sit down together under a tree. The older kids read aloud, the younger ones describe the illustrations: “This is a dinosaur, this is an island, and this is a volcano. The boy is flying in a balloon over the ocean. He rescues the girl and the dinosaurs. After a long journey, he returns to his grandfather and together they drink hot chocolate.”
I find a book with pictures of animals. I notice a group of boys under a tree, they are calling me. Together we look at monsters from the depths of the ocean. “This octopus is bigger than a human, as tall as the distance between this and that tree.” I explain. Shouts of astonishment. Fascination. Suddenly, the kids raise their heads.
“Beata, look there, on the tree!”
“What is it? A bird?”
“Yes. Listen. It is singing…”
Come with Me… Beyond Words… To Wonderland
“I give and take away; I enrich and impoverish; I cause both happiness and misery. I do all this in keeping with the characteristics of each epoch. And none has a right to interfere with my management of affairs.” –Yazidi Book of Revelation
The women don’t speak English. When they need diapers, milk for their babies, a pacifier, a bottle, they bring children as interpreters. I visit them in their tents. They ask me to teach them English, too, so I do. Every day, I repeat “head, hair, eyes, nose, mouth, neck…” dozens of times. The women do laundry in their basins, and repeat after me, “head, hair, eyes, nose…” With time, the lessons become more formal. I prepare teaching aids, I write, I draw, I gather people to the school. The women stay for hours after class. They copy strange signs in a foreign alphabet from the board. They want to learn so much! They want to grow so much! “I would like to work, to do anything, not just sit in a tent all day,” one of them told me.
I like to spend time among the tents. I made friends with a 13-year-old girl who always dresses in white. I ask her parents about the meaning of her clothes. “Gardinia, no husband, no children. Mother of all,” they answer. Gardinia doesn’t participate in the games organized by the volunteers. She stands aside and observes everything. She accepts her destiny with serenity, but I feel the loneliness behind her smile, the burden of being different. She brushes my hair, and paints birds and flowers on my arms. We sing together, we exchange bracelets. Gardinia spends two days making a bracelet, using beads that have the first letter of my name. I read books with her, draw animals and write their English names. Twice, she makes the same drawing: a blue eye crying red hearts, which fall into a vessel and give birth to colorful stars and flowers. She gives me more presents: juice, a croissant, an apple.
Each family receives a daily ration of food from the Greek army. It is not much, but they share it with the volunteers. They care about us; they ask if we are hungry. At the beginning of my stay, a woman tells me (through her English-speaking son): “When you are hungry, come to me and I will give you food. When you are tired, you can rest in my tent.” I am speechless. Where did I arrive? At a wonderland? These people have been deprived of everything, but ISIS didn’t manage to take away their hearts.
Jokes, smiles, games: waves on the lake’s surface… and underneath, such deep pain and longing. How does it feel to lose everything? To be banished from your own home? To wander through different countries? Not be able to cook dinner for your children, to make tea? To ask strangers for soap, shampoo, underwear, bras, milk for your babies? How does it feel to miss the place where your ancestors lived for 6,700 years? And to suddenly be spread around the world? To have a mother in Iraq, a sister in Turkey, a brother in Germany, while previously your family lived together for generations? Where is your home now?
A Silent Embrace
“I lead to the straight path without a revealed book; I direct aright my beloved and my chosen ones by unseen means. All my teachings are easily applicable to all times and all conditions.” –Yazidi Book of Revelation
Hello, my friend. You have such serene eyes. And you look at me with such calmness … as if you have nothing to fear. Where do your courage, dignity, and hope come from? You were stripped of everything that smelled like home, banished into the unknown, and you don’t know how it will all end. I don’t understand you. I don’t understand your language, tradition, or faith. Your world seems a strange planet to me, the same as mine to you. The only thing I can do is teach you a few words, so you can ask for a shirt, shoes, and trousers. And, I will also teach you ‘love,’ ‘hug,’ and ‘heart.’ And, I will look into your eyes. You know, in my country, people live in such a hurry. So few can look into each other’s eyes and remain silent. Just like you. So simple.
It is not easy for me to look at you this way. There are things that I want to hide. There are things that I’m ashamed of. There are things that I’m afraid of. Because looking into the eyes of another human can be the hardest thing in the world. But not for you…
I know you so little and, yet, something shivers in me. I understand so little of you and I cannot sleep at night. And this homesickness, is it my longing or yours? And this sadness? And this hope? And this stinging in the heart… Is it pain? Or love?
“In love, nothing exists between heart and heart
Speech is born out of longing.” –Rabia al-Basri