While I am no stranger to refugee camps, the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece was nothing that I could have ever imagined. During my childhood in northern Lebanon, my family and I would visit distant relatives in the Beddawi camp. During that time the camp looked like an ungoverned small town, all the houses had underground basements and, on a few occasions, we got to run and hide in the basement when we would hear the fighter jets flying above us. All of the elderly spoke of their lands and their homes, the younger ones were busy trying to secure scholarships to different universities around the world.
Ritsona was different, Isobox containers or as the residents call them caravans, are homes to nine-hundred individuals on this forestry area on the island of Evia. Graffiti everywhere welcoming you to the Kingdom of Ritsona.
I left Morocco to Greece on the first day of Eid Al Adha, a well-thought plan to avoid the insanely amount of animals being slaughtered that day, not sacrificed as it should be, slaughtered to fulfill a backward cultural tradition.
I arrived in Athens, made my way to Chalkida, and from there, I was picked up to where I will be spending my next five weeks. I will be staying at the volunteers’ house; when I was shown to my room and my bunk-bed, my heart started to ache. I can’t climb the bunk bed! I had lied on my medical report, I didn’t say anything about my anxiety, my mood swings, and my chronic pain. They will never let me near any of these vulnerable people if I had submitted my real medical report. Focus on why you are here Sahar, bunk-bed, house sharing, getting along with strangers, I can do this. I am not here on vacation. This is something I kept reminding myself all throughout my stay. I have to admit that sharing the house and the room with strangers who later became best friends, was one of the few things in life that I should’ve done at a younger age. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but it made me see things differently and realize how fortunate I am to not to have to live like that every day.
Going through the induction, hearing about how we should look after our health because most the residents at the camp might not be current on their vaccinations. I looked around me, and I thought I was saying this in my head, but it turns out I was saying it out loud. This will not affect me as I am one of them, I come from where they came from. Sure enough, I am one of them. I just happened to be lucky and blessed to have moved to the US.
The first day at camp, all eyes are on us as we walk the graveled road from where we parked our car in a ready to drive off position, in case any issues might arise, and we must evacuate. I’m not sure if I should greet the people in Arabic or wait until I see if they speak Arabic. I was told the majorities were Kurds, I honestly didn’t know much about this community, so I didn’t want to offend anyone.
The first day was registration day and come meet your teacher day. I was assigned to teach two females only classes and one mixed-gender class. The women-only levels were to take place in an isolated area of the camp labeled as “Female Friendly Space.” No men were allowed near that area, or so I was told. The word got out quickly that there is an Arabic speaking teacher in the I AM YOU boxes. They all were thrilled and a bit shocked at my funny Arabic accent, mixed with my time in Morocco and my accent that I acquired growing up in Lebanon.
Their first question was: where are you from? And for those of you reading this and know me personally, you know how much I struggle with this. My answer would be the extended version, I am a Palestinian, born and raised in Lebanon and moved to the US at a young age, but I am married to a Moroccan, and I live in Morocco now. I couldn’t just give the short answer, I’m Lebanese, no, I am not Lebanese. I never was, it was a convincing lie. Most Lebanese see us as refugees taking over their country. I know this too well; I lived all my life reminded me that I’m just a refugee. It was also difficult for me to say I’m Palestinian. I am not Palestinian, I was never a Palestinian other than on papers, a Palestinian refugee I may add. I grew up learning that the words Palestinian and refugees are filthy words that I should remove them from my vocabulary. No one expressly forbade me from using these words, it was known from the struggle we faced growing up in Lebanon as Palestinian refugees. The residents of Ritson, my students, liked listening to my extended version of where I’m from. They enjoyed hearing about Morocco and that I could speak French. They had so many questions about Morocco, and I was happy to share the positive ones.
Day one was spent introducing myself to the residents of Ritsona camp. Day two, classes started. I walked to the female-friendly space to see a group of ladies and their kids waiting at the door for me.
The syllabus I was giving is about teaching them useful English words and phrases for survival and for doctor visits. Focusing mainly on how to ask for things or describe their situation. I had one person ask me, one person here in Fes, a privileged foreign person; why do refugees need to learn English? They need food and shelter!!!
My first class is for beginners, but these ladies who are all over 30s or they looked like it at least. They were moms, and most could not read or write. Teaching beginner English to illiterate students is challenging. Some knew how to write in Arabic, a few didn’t speak Arabic at all, and one was from Congo who spoke French of course!
Many had left behind their legal ID, or were taking away from them at the borders, so they didn’t know how to spell their names using Latin alphabets. One was extremely angry when I explained that on her current ID issued by Greece, the name is entirely different from what it should sound in Arabic. She said: once we get to the border, there is this Greek officer who’s not familiar with our names or our language, will put in any letters to form our names. We at that time are so exhausted, and we just want to get to a safe place, so we don’t say anything. One day I will be changing it back she said because this isn’t me, I am…… not ………
My second class was for intermediate female students. The girls all had some prior English classes and were so eager to learn more. This was my fun class; the students were mostly Syrian Kurds with one Moroccan student. Yes, you've heard me right, Moroccan person living in a refugee camp!
This group of women was my favorite, survivors, explorers, courageous, hungry for knowledge, curious about everything. I have found my tribe, these are my people, these are my female warriors. They are shaped but not affected by their situations or limitations.
I had a mom attend my classes with her nursing son, she is so focused on what I’m saying, she lets her large breasts fall out so the baby can run around the room and nurse when he wanted without disturbing her. She would voice record my lessons so she can listen to them later.
At one time, I had so many students that I was advised to turn them away for safety reasons. The classroom (the box) can handle a limited number of individuals. The women would come before class and would say after, they are bored and have no one to talk to. I wasn’t only their teacher, I am now their friend, sister, daughter…. I felt like I was amongst my family. I tried so hard to retain those tears, but on a few occasions, hugs and tears were the only languages spoken.
They were my teachers, and I was the student. They taught me the true meaning of the word refugee; they opened my eyes to the ugly truth of having no home. They taught me the difference between having no home or a country out of survival mode, and having no home by choice and becoming a citizen of the world because one can decide where to live. We all have a choice - is a false statement. It is a correct statement and affirmation only if one possesses a particular privilege, like skin color or a race.
My third class was the mix-gender class, mostly men with one or two female students. A melting pot of nationalities, Syrian, Iraqi, Kurds, Yemeni, Somali, Sudanese, Palestinian, and Congolese. They were a handful and not easy to control at a time. They were as eager as the women to learn certain phrases in English so they can describe their situation or find their way around when they go to the doctor in Athens. They too shared many stories with me, stories that no human should ever go through.
From all the suffering and misery, they’ve been through and still going through as refugees, as prisoners in an open camp. They still managed to go on about life to as much normal as they could get away with. I got invited to a few meals at some of the residents' homes (box), I was humbled at the resources and the creativity in the food and in their limited space.
The Kingdom of Ritsona has its own coffee shop, a few grocery stores, a colorful playground, and a barbershop. It also has its own soccer team, I was privileged enough to watch them play against local teams. The camp itself is far away from any civilization, a few farms nearby, and an air-force military base occasionally having maneuvers with sonic booms. The first time I heard it, I immediately had a flashback of the war and a reaction that I should run inside and hide. Once a week there is a bus that will take the residents to the nearest city, Chalkida. They have to pre-book their seats in advance, and there is another one that will take them to Athens on a different day. They dreaded going to Athens, going to Athens meant going for an appointment with the asylum office.
Many of the residents have been in that camp for as long as three years, some just arrived, some arrived while I was there from another camp due to fighting between two ethnicities. Some do arrive with their families, others still waiting for the rest of their family to arrive. Some lost family members along the way. None of them chose this life, it was chosen for them. All of them share one thing in common, a safe home for me and my family! They all wanted a better life for their offspring. They are not just numbers in a refugee camp, they are teachers, nurses, government workers, skillful artisans, manual laborers, business owners, artists, and more. They are you and me.
One of my proudest accomplishment is opening the library and encouraging the women to hang out in the library, I had a student that will pick one book each night and will read it and give it to me the next day. I also introduced my coloring book therapy that was a hit amongst moms.
During my stay in Greece, I learned a bit of Greek, I looked Greek enough one lady told me when I walked into her shop greeting her with “ Kalimera,” and she went on saying things in Greek. One of my favorite word I've learned in Greek is the word, Apatris/ Άπατριζ. Patris in an ancient Greek word meaning “the land of ancestors.” Apatris or in French Apatride means Stateless, a person without a land, without a home, and without a country. Some of us chose to be stateless, but many of us are choiceless and are stateless by circumstances. I am forever grateful for the opportunity I had, sharing laughs and tears and leaving a positive imprint on the residents of Ritsona.
Ritsona nation, you taught me a lesson I will never forget, a lesson about thriving, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, patient, and most importantly to have faith. I love you all.