I approached a tall metal gate with my sister. She showed her ID to a guard. Dust swirled around us.
“Can my sister come in with me?” she asked him. “Just for 10 minutes?”
I tried to make it easier for him to say yes. “Just for 2 minutes?”
“No. No ID, no entry.”
It was the day before Christmas, and I was at the entrance to Camp Moria on the Greek island Lesvos. Refugees milled around us, wrapped in coats, talking on cell phones.
My sister, working in the camp with her husband, had done the required paper work and could go in and out of the camp when she showed her ID on the lanyard she wore. I waited at the gate while she went in to talk with Butterfly, the Iranian friend she wanted to invite to cook a meal for us.
I stood outside the gate, my eyes taking in everything they could. I squinted as wind swirled the dust around us. A tall chain link fence with razor wire towered above us. I couldn’t be angry at the guard for refusing to let me enter because this place held hundreds of vulnerable people who needed protection, and even though the razor wire looked dehumanizing, it gave a semblance of safety for the ones inside.
I waited and watched. Bright sun. Clouds of dust. Cold air. Umpteen nationalities and ages. Then an African man stepped up to me and asked what I was doing and where I was from.
“I’m from America. I’m waiting on my sister. She works here.”
“Oh! You have come a long way! Why are you here?”
“I came for ten days to be with my sister for Christmas.”
In that moment, I felt the immense weight of injustice fall onto my shoulders. This man had probably risked his life to come here, and I got to jet in and out like any other pleasure-seeking, happy-go-lucky tourist. There was no justice between our stories. The man had every right to scowl at me and resent my privilege.
“Oh! You did a good thing. You must love your sister very much!”
“Yes, I do love her very much.”
I blinked in the sunlight as the man kept smiling, nodding his head and repeating his words. “You did a very good thing.”
His grace and joy crushes me. I don’t know why he was so happy for me. I don’t know why I got to travel in ease and go back to a steady job that automatically deposits money into my bank account.
There is no justice in this scene.
Several days later, I stood at the same chain-link gate again with my sister, and she asked the guard if I could come in for ten minutes.
“Only for ten minutes.”
So we walked fast.
She took me to the info tent, the hub of activity that EuroRelief organizes. In the portable cabin behind that, sealed off with chain link, I saw stacks of hats, coats, and gloves. I noticed white boards and diagrams and numbers that kept track of spaces and families. It looked like organized mayhem that does its best to give the barest basics to the neediest. I’m so proud of the men and women who pour their souls into this overwhelming, gritty, endless work.
We walked up the hill. Tinny Turkish music blared from a radio. Pieces of clothing stuck into the chain link to dry in the cold sunshine. A few sullen faces glared at each other and us. Are they angry? Let’s get out of here. Past the latrine. Past the fenced-in family compound where a friend stood to guard the door so no unauthorized person would come in. He must have been freezing and bored, but he grinned and waved at us.
Tents lined the gravel path, four or five deep. They were a mass of billowing, flimsy canvas, roped to any available stable surface.
Then the scene that seared itself onto my brain and replays itself endlessly: two hands reach out of a little tent, fumbling to pull in the thin layer of blankets that poke out onto the gravel. Fumble. Pull. Shake. Yank. Get the blankets in and the zipper closed. A pair of sandals lies outside the zipper because someone doesn’t want dirt in their tent. Someone sleeps on a very thin layer of blankets. The padding can’t possibly be warm enough or protect from the gravel underneath.
Ten minutes is up. We walk out of the dusty gate that has razor wire over it.
All good stories have a conclusion but this one doesn’t. Greece broke me in a way that I’ve not recovered from. These scenes are still with me, over 2 years later. They part of the texture of my life of ethnic food, colorful people, and stimulating conversations. Are they also inciting incidents that will usher me to another chapter of service and care?
I don’t know.
I only know that it’s right for me to be thankful. Every night when I lie on my thick mattress and under my feather duvet, I don’t have enough words to say how grateful I am. And when sit in front of a fresh, colorful meal. And when I buzz down the interstate in my car or walk onto a plane.
I know that, after seeing all those flimsy tents and thin blankets, I should never again complain about living in a swampy area that has 6 months of winter. I also know it’s right to use my resources to nurture His kingdom that stretches all over the globe.
But I don’t know what that will look like.
photo credit, a refugee artist in Moria Camp: https://www.facebook.com/riadh04
This post was first written for Daughters of Promise, and was first posted on their beautiful blog.
Camp Moria, about the size of a large Walmart and its parking lot, was built as an army barracks to hold 1,500 people. Right now, about 7,000 people are crammed in it, with more arriving.