The Man From Damascus

It is around 1 AM and we’ve been handing out donated goods to a slow trickle of refugees for about an hour at this point.

Tonight I am in the big white tent, passing out heavy winter jackets, knit scarves, and thin cotton gloves as fast as I can.

The refugees enter the tent about 10 m away, sometimes by themselves, sometimes in groups of three or four, depending on if they have family or friends or young children in tow.

Before the refugees reach the clothing station they pass by a table with cups of hot tea waiting for them. Tonight is colder than my first night, and a heavy mist blankets the entire camp. Through the wide entry to the tent, fine particles of mist billow between bright orange emergency lights. In an abstract way, the scene is ethereally beautiful.

My fingers are numb; I would be wearing gloves but they are too much of an impediment given how quickly we have to sort through the boxes of jackets, underwear, pants, socks, hats, scarves, and shoes.

A few police officers stand off to one side, presumably to keep order. These are the least belligerent people I’ve ever seen–even if they wanted to start a riot, they are too tired, too cold, too hungry to do so. One of the police officers, a heavyset man with his beret tilted jauntily off-center, seems to enjoy exercising his authority over these people. Every few minutes he points at the bus waiting outside the exit of the tent and tells the refugees to “go,” sometimes after the refugees have literally just entered the tent a minute ago and are asking us for pants or toothbrushes or whatever. This is challenging for a number of reasons.

Usually there’s a bit of a language barrier. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out what someone wants–“pants, pants, pants,” accompanied by a finger pointing at their pants–but sometimes we have absolutely no way of understanding them, so we spend a bit more time playing charades to figure out what they want.

Because it isn’t like all of the donated goods are organized according to size like they would be in a department store, even if I know that someone wants pants, I can’t just pull out their size on the first try. We have two or three big cardboard boxes that contain a motley collection of jeans, corduroys, dress pants, sweat pants, and one pair of overalls, a throwback to the halcyon post-Yugoslavian days of the late 90s.

So I dig through the box–muttering “fuck” over and over again like a maniac because these pants are never the right fit–tossing a pair of jeans at a skinny, short man who looks like he comes from the Central Asian steppe, speaking a strange language that I find out later is one of many languages from northern Afghanistan. He shakes his head no–size 28 jeans are more or less the perfect width but they’re too long. Meanwhile, the burly police officer is telling him to get in line for the next bus. I find a pair of slim-fit gray slacks and hold them up, but he shakes his head again and gets in line. Fuck.

Not long after, a bearded man about my age with a healthily protruding belly walks up to me. He wears glasses and a big puffy blue jacket and a pair of sweat pants. In good English he asks me for warmer trousers. I rummage through the box and find a sturdy pair of jeans that look about the right size, perhaps a little too wide.

“Do you have a belt?” I ask.
“No,” he says. Fuck. Next to him, some Croatian Red Cross volunteers are handing out gloves to two women and three children who seem to be traveling with him. There used to be belts resting on the table behind the Red Cross volunteers, but they’ve all been given out at this point. I unfasten my belt and hand it to him. His eyes widen behind his glasses. He looks like he’s on the verge of tears.

“Thank  you! Thanks so much!” he says, bouncing on his heels.
“Don’t worry about it. Where are you from? Your English is quite good!” I tell him.

He is from Damascus, he tells me. I ask who the women and children traveling with him are. One of them is his sister and her two kids, the other the sister’s friend and her son.

He tells me they crossed by boat from Turkey into Greece and have been making their way north for a few weeks. I’ve quickly realized that when a refugee mentions the harrowing crossing by boat, their manner changes, and mine does too. Maintaining eye contact becomes painful. Their words sort of taper off into silence.

I think this silence is the only appropriate response to what surely has been, apart from the airstrikes and suicide bombings and shooting rampages they fled from, the closest thing to death the refugees have experienced. How do you put into words–in a language that probably isn’t even your second, or even third–the terror of slipping beneath the waves of a dark sea when you can see land just a few miles away?

Meanwhile, the children, who look between the ages of four and seven, are smiling and laughing as one of the women tries on a pair of worn winter boots. They’re certainly an upgrade from the Converse shoes she was wearing before.

“Where are you going?” I ask.
“Sweden, we have family there,” he says. “Thank you, again,” he adds for the sixth time since we’ve been talking.
“Sweden is a good place to go, they treat people well over there. And please–you’re a human being, I’m a human being.”

I remember when I was in Sweden a year ago, I was picked up hitch-hiking from Malmö to Gothenburg by a family of former Palestinian refugees. I had been stranded at a highway gas station for three hours on a cold, sunny day in late September. They gave me fresh figs and drove 10 km out of their way to the nearest bus station so I could finally make it to Gothenburg.

I wonder, momentarily, if those Palestinian people experienced some small, almost forgettable act of kindness–a free loaf of warm bread from a baker, or maybe a pair of socks given to them by a government aid worker when they first arrived in Sweden years ago. And I think of this moment I have just shared with this man from Damascus, who has come such a long way with his family, enduring the possibility of death and endless hours of waiting and cold, and I wonder if maybe years from now if he is in Sweden or maybe back home in Syria he will commit acts of kindness because he remembered some small gesture, like a belt from the stranger he talked to for ten minutes at a refugee camp he passed through in Croatia. One can only hope. We’re all human beings.


11 thoughts on “The Man From Damascus

  1. Nathan, PJ and I are so proud of you and what you are doing. There are so many profound lessons that our politicians should learn from this but they won’t even pay attention. We do, and are thankful.

    1. Thank you Dennis–I know I’m doing something right when you two are proud of me. I wish, even for an hour, the politicians of the West would come here and see this for themselves.

      Btw, if there’s any time in your life to consider making a donation, now is the time. I have only just gotten to know the people at IHA but they are good people, and because their NGO is so small they are quite nimble and able to allocate resources without wasting so much time on chain of command BS, which we have seen firsthand with the Red Cross and UNHCR.

    1. Hmm, you can do a fundraiser and send proceeds to IHA, they are a small but very lean and productive NGO here. I include a link to their website so you can donate.

      If you want to actively help on the ground, Croatia is probably too full of volunteers. They are more needed on the border with Greece and Macedonia. I should be going there soon actually.

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