This weekend, my husband and I went with Act!on Food to a stopping point for refugees, to provide free food, tea, donations of warm clothes, and basic first aid. You can read Act!on Food’s tumblr post for more info on logistics. The five of us volunteered for two nights shifts in a row, from 10pm to 6am. Here are some things that happened.
We heard plenty of stories about police violence, and saw ample evidence of same. Most of the refugees were boys aged 16 to 20, from Afghanistan. A nice fellow with nerdy glasses and a big smile showed me his fat lip where he’d taken a stick to the face several days before. Another guy had scabbed-over dog bites on his wrist and ankles. There were lots of crushed purple fingernails, apparently from one particular police force’s special technique for forcibly taking fingerprints.
Afghans do not like oatmeal, and they claim to not like cinnamon in their tea, although if I snuck some in while they weren’t looking they seemed to like it just fine.
I learned that Bulgarian and Pashto share a surprising number of cognates. Conveniently for us, two of them were “soup” and “socks.” The popular hangover cure here in Bulgaria is a thin, tangy, beef tripe soup called shkembe chorba. As I served up vegan lentils on Friday night, a group of guys getting soup were talking in Pashto and I heard them say “shkembe chorba” repeatedly. “Shkembe chorba?” I asked them. They looked at me and laughed. “You mean beef tripe? This?” I motioned to my stomach and mooed like a cow. The guys went absolutely nuts, clapping and laughing.
A young man was helped to our tent by some friends with worries that his leg was broken. He and a large group had jumped two stories to avoid being captured by police. The red cross tent was closed since it was very late, so I called an ambulance. The dispatcher listened to my request, and then without warning, transferred me to someone who began interrogating me. He asked if I was a journalist, why was I calling, was I with an NGO, what nationality I was. I asked if they were really sending an ambulance and when he confirmed that they were I hung up. The ambulance came surprisingly fast, in about ten minutes. An hour later some police rolled by, asking us questions. I wonder if the person who questioned me was a police officer.
Saturday night, even at a refugee checkpoint, can still be festive. Once they got soup and tea, plenty of young men just stood around by our tent, smoking, sharing stories. A few who spoke English ended up hanging out with us all night, which helped to pass the time and was extremely helpful to us. Lots of them asked us which country they should go to. We didn’t know how to respond but gave them a card with websites and resources on it.
Both nights, we saw one young man who smiled a great deal. He didn’t speak English and had a bandage on his face. Someone told us that he’d gotten his document already, which gave him the right to travel to the next checkpoint. This document can be had quickly, if you have money. Those who can’t pay might wait two or three days, sleeping outside and eating nothing but the lentil soup, bananas, and tea that us grubby leftists are handing out. There were rumors of people in the checkpoint, who were helping other people navigate the system to get their documents faster, in exchange for money. The guy with the bandage, someone told us, was doing it for free. He was free to go but decided to stay a couple extra days to help out other refugees.
The guy with the bandage sat next to our tent for a few hours on Saturday night, playing Afghan pop music from his phone. Some guys bobbed absentmindedly while they talked, a few sang along. A teenager who spoke English jokingly scolded, “This isn’t the time for dancing! It’s the time for crying!” But he smiled as he said it.
One guy we met had been an interpreter for the US Army. He spoke perfect English and told my husband and I that he was “glad to see Americans again!” He was very nice, and stayed for awhile to translate for us. He asked us if we knew which country in Europe would help him. We didn’t know. He told us that he left Afghanistan after someone from the Taliban threatened him. He didn’t go into detail, but the threat was serious enough that he left then and there, without going home to say goodbye to his family. He felt it would be safer if he didn’t.
During one busy period, a man came up to the side of the tent and got my husband’s attention. He handed him a bag of Afghani flatbread. The only bread we had was European-style white bread. We put out the bag of flatbread and it was gone in minutes.
Another refugee pressed a ten euro bill into Lorenzo’s hand, insisting he take it. We donated it to the volunteer group we were collaborating with, who will use it towards rent for their cooking space.
Plenty of people had harsh criticism for the Taliban. Lorenzo met two Kurdish men from Iraq. He overheard one of them say the name of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as the two men were talking to each other. Upon mention of his name, both men scowled and stomped their feet on the ground, cursing him.
I learned some basic first aid skills from another volunteer. I watched her rinse someone’s eye, after he was scratched by a tree branch. She washed her hands, put on gloves, and stepped out of the tent with a plastic cup of warm water. She asked the guy to lie in the street, where the streetlight was brightest so she could see what she was doing. The most common ailments were sore legs from running in the mountains, diarrhea from eating too much soup after a few days without a meal, and hands and feet that were cracked and swollen from dry skin and overuse. One person’s foot was particularly bad, after walking a long ways in old tennis shoes with no socks. Another young man translated for him, and washed his foot with warm water and a clean, disposable diaper that we gave him. The diaper gave everyone a laugh. Then the volunteer covered his foot with diaper rash cream, bandaged his toes, and gave him clean new socks.
I saw plenty of people without warm socks, coats, or hats. Many had blankets wrapped around their shoulders. A 16 year-old boy named Bilal spent lots of time with us at our tent. He was very sweet and spoke good English. He was skinny, and all he had was a thin turtleneck sweater and a peacoat that was much too big for him. He turned down the food we offered, but stayed to talk with us. Finally, one volunteer convinced Bilal to take a coat from our donation box, a sporty ski jacket with a hood. He thanked us, but offered the jacket to a man who was shivering, to drape over his knees. The next morning, though, we saw Bilal in his new jacket, smiling and looking much warmer. A volunteer sat him down in a chair, and despite his objections, forced a cup of soup and a few bread slices into his hands. We all snuck glances and noted that he was eating happily.
If you want to help, I’m knitting warm hats to bring to the checkpoint next time we go. With every purchase of something from my new shop, Balkanite, I’ll knit one item to donate. If you just want to donate a hat, you can do that too.