Eftalou beach at sunrise. On the horizon you’ll see the mountains of the Turkish coast.
Bear with me as I use a tired metaphor that doesn’t reflect my politics on policing: sometimes, here, we get to be the good cops, and sometimes, in trying to do good, we have to be the bad cops. The ‘good cops’ are the ones who have the chance to greet people after they’ve gotten off their boat. They are able to wait for the bus with the refugee families, talk with them, take pictures with them, play with their children. ‘Good cops’ get to say things like, “Would you like a cheese or nutella sandwich?” or “Would the children like a coloring book?” or “Why don’t you take an extra pair of socks?” When boats of around 40 people are coming in one at a time, when there’s enough of everything to go around, we can all be good cops. We can all remember why we’re here, and we can truly connect with and support the refugees coming in.
Other times, most of the time, sadly, we’re in positions of miserable triage. As the transit camp is the first bottleneck point in the refugees’ journey, hundreds if not thousands are waiting for buses, with any number more refugees on their way. Intel is forever fuzzy on how many people are coming: we and other volunteer groups patrol the beaches day and night with binoculars, and among the first questions we ask migrants who have just landed is “How many more boats are there coming?”, frantic for any news so we can prepare as best we can. The camps are therefore the point where we have to make and implement unpopular decisions for those present in favor of allocating what we have for those who may come. This all sounds reasonable until we’re talking about food. For children. Who haven’t eaten since yesterday. Mothers wail and plead, send their husbands to try again. Sometimes they’ve already eaten and we know they’re trying to get more. Sometimes they haven’t eaten. Sometimes they just want an element of control in their lives, which at that exact moment, isn’t present.
It doesn’t matter, really: stated needs are needs. Something we discussed in my degree program in Conflict Transformation is that outsiders aren’t able to determine another’s basic human needs. Basic human needs are self-determined. If people say they are hungry, they need food. And, beyond the physical needs of these people, their number one need is passage. There is an immense urgency to move on, likely motivated by the oncoming winter and the rapidly closing borders within the EU, and that urgency, once stymied, can be transformed quickly into frustration, dismay, even violence. And the ‘bad cops,’ the lighting rod messengers who have to say, “There is no more food,” “The bus will return,” “We cannot give you shoes now,” are our scrappy and whole-hearted volunteers.
I think that it’s the over-repetition of denying people their needs that frays our, the volunteers’, hearts the most out here. Generosity, responsiveness and empathy are common traits among volunteers here. To be constantly in a position where we have to deny the stated needs of several in favor of the certain needs of an uncertain many wears us to the bone. But, as far as we can tell, we have to be firm and insist on order, otherwise scenarios could emerge where no one could get anything. At least, we tell ourselves this so we can keep going. My first few days at the transit camp, whole bushels of blankets were going unused in our storage tent because there weren’t enough for everyone and we held no capacity for an additional safe distribution point, which amounted to there being no blankets at all for the refugees. The first quiet day at the camp, I spent my time doggedly moving every single blanket, comforter, sleeping blanket and more out of the storage tent and into the corners of the sleeping tents where they could be used. At least our resources were made available, and a few dozen more folks slept warmly that night. Small victories.
We also try to take breaks from the bad cop roles, which include loading buses or working tickets, instead pleading the schedulers to give us a day to make sandwiches or clean the camps. And, if we are in a role where we must insist on order and fairest allocation (bad cop), we try and find the moments where doing good also feels like being kind, if that cannot be all of the time.
Yesterday contained just such a moment. Myself and a Norwegian volunteer were playing ‘bad cops’ in loading buses and allocating loading orders at the beach, where a small food, clothes, and bus station is set up. A boat had arrived with fourteen young Syrian boys, ages 3-14, with a single chaperon, who they all called “uncle,” who didn’t speak English. I cry when I think about those boys, sent alone by their parents who couldn’t afford to join them, and I hope they meet an abundance of kindness and sympathy along their path. I hope fervently they all make it. But I don’t mention them because of pity, but rather, joy: their reaction to arriving on our beach and being told they had to wait for a bus was to, well, this being a beach and all, go for a swim. They all stripped down to their skivvies, jumped off of the rocks, and began playing, laughing, throwing rocks at each other, just, being kids. Most refugees who arrive are desperate to dry off- some claim they wished they never had to look at an ocean again- but these boys were seemingly unphased by the dangerous journey they were on, at least for the moment. I looked at my bus-loading partner, both of our hardened shells melting.
“Should I call the next bus?” I ask reluctantly.
“Oh, just give them a couple more minutes,” she says, standing up to start chasing a boy who was playing in the water nearby. I agreed. So, for a brief moment, we gave up our mandate and the grit we needed to get us through it, and enjoyed the beautiful day right along with them. I cannot compare my pain to that of the refugees, or claim to understand their experience when the differences between our situations mark us everyday. Just, whenever there comes a chance for both us and the migrants to experience some joy, mutual laughter, a child’s brilliant smile, we take it, whole-heartedly.