Butterflies danced. Not the beautiful ones fluttering around flowers—there were none of those to be found on this dusty, rock filled road—but the kind in my stomach to signal the nerves of a new beginning. We rounded the corner, a hand painted sign reading “Solidarity for Refugees” draped across a fence, and children darted from the car’s path. They skipped along side us waving frantically, and a sea of tents appeared ahead. I gulped, taking in the scene before me: a bustling community of displaced people living in a canvas city. This was the military run refugee camp of Katsikas, Greece.
The arrival felt surreal; the photos I’d seen online, the scenes shown in news clips, the stories I’d read in magazines suddenly all materialized before me in living, breathing sound and color. A year ago I’d read a series of stories on Syrian refugees on the blog Humans of New York, and the notion to volunteer struck me immediately. Why not? I was lucky enough to be traveling around the world indefinitely and I had the time and resources to dedicate myself to helping. This is the largest scale humanitarian crisis of our generation, and I couldn’t imagine not getting involved. But even a year of planning could not fully mentally prepare me for the overwhelming reality of being in a refugee camp.
My afternoon was to be spent shadowing another volunteer and getting a sense of how the camp worked. We went first to the women’s center tent, where a weekly dance party was being held for the women. I stood shyly in the back and couldn’t believe what I saw before me: while Syrian music blasted from a set of speakers, a group of about 20 women swung their arms and shook their hips seductively while they threw their heads back in joyous laughter.
The children ran amongst them, dancing and wiggling around. It was nothing like what I’d expected. Maybe, in my ignorance, I thought they would all be conservative Muslims who wore hijabs and didn’t let loose—to be honest I didn’t know a thing about their cultures and religions. But I was blown away by their moves, maybe even a little jealous of their ability to make those hips swing like that. Over the coming days I would learn that this was a rare occasion, but at the time I was infected with their happiness.
The children saw me first, and grabbed me by both hands to dance. I twirled them around and let them show me how to circle my wrists with my elbows up and arms in the air. The women looked over at me and smiled warmly, and one eventually came over to greet me. “Where are you from?” she asked in halting English. I replied and she nodded with a smile, and linked her arm in mine. She walked me into the dance circle and we clasped hands in a dance line, everyone doing the same move as we snaked to the right: kick, right-left-right, stomp, kick. Repeat. So there I went, first hour in the camp, dancing as the only westerner in a tent with a bunch of friendly refugee women, feeling welcomed and at home.
After dancing til sweat dripped down my face, I stepped out of the tent for some fresh air. I popped into the tent next door to find a refugee teaching Arabic to the volunteers. He spoke decent English and had a kind, patient smile. I sat and listened to his introduction of the Arabic alphabet, but my eyes glazed over and it was too much to take in at the moment.
I quietly left the class and made my way to the tea van, the epicenter of the community. Tea, or chai as they call it, is an important part of the day and a van had been set up to distribute cups of the warm, heavily sugared beverage. I asked for a cup and my eyes bulged with the first sip at its overwhelming sweetness; even though I could feel my teeth rotting, apparently they still complain that there isn’t enough sugar. They certainly know how to keep the dentists in business.
Once I’d forced down my chai, I played with some children by throwing around balls, swinging them in circles, and letting the little girls braid my hair. The community gathered around the tea van as the evening wore on, laughing, talking, and smacking each other on the back.
Looking on in the warm setting sun, I knew there was more to their lives than this; that underneath the smiles they’re suffering with a thousand worries and haunted memories. But the fact that they smiled at all warmed my heart and reminded me of the strength of the human spirit. It also kindled within me a fierce passion for bettering their lives, and helping them to smile a little more.
The following days were not as warm and fuzzy. Each day still presents new challenges, draining me physically and emotionally and casting doubts on what I’m doing here. But whenever I seek inspiration, I think back on the first day I arrived and the joy I saw in those dancing women’s faces—and how I knew that they’re worth it, and that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.