‘Epomeno stathmo: Piraeus. Next station: Piraeus.’ It was my ﬁrst time in Piraeus since I had taken a day trip to Aegina nearly two years ago but I remembered it all the same. Exit train. Follow the mass of people toward the main street. Pass by the Everest and smell the strange mixture of spanakopita and coﬀee. Cross the busy street without getting hit by a cyclist or taxi. Enter the port. It was all familiar to me yet I knew it was diﬀerent. I entered the port and took a deep breath as I boarded the bus from Gate E8 to E1, anxious for what awaited me.
Everything seemed normal until I approached E1 and E2. That’s when the Coast Guard boarded our bus and started selectively asking for papers. I clutched my small bag, hoping that a US driver’s license would be suﬃcient; I had no boat ticket. In my mind, I practiced the Greek over and over again in my head. ‘I’m here to help the refugees. Eimai edo yia na voithiso tous prosfuges.’ But no one asked me for anything, my skin still pale coming out of a Vermont winter and not yet acclimated to Greece. At the time I thought it was just luck that no one had demanded to see my papers, as I saw a young Greek man, about my age and sitting across from me, questioned. Later, when I spoke to one of the volunteer organizers, voicing my concerns about returning to the port without papers, she said plainly to me ‘You will never be asked. You are white.’
Passing through E2, my heart felt heavy as I looked on and saw tent after tent after tent, hundreds smashed together with clothes hanging outside and children running between them. I hopped oﬀ at E1, following an Australian couple who was boarding a ship headed to one of the Dodecanese islands. I wandered around, searching for any signs of the volunteer organizations that I had contacted. ‘Just show up to E1! We’re stationed there and always looking for help!’ I saw no one but refugees, hiding from the strong Greek sun in their small tents. Some children were kicking a ball around while mothers were walking around with young children. I didn’t understand - there were no apparent volunteer organizations. I walked through the gate waiting area only to ﬁnd more tents and no sign of help. I even asked a man who worked for one of the ferry companies if he knew where I could ﬁnd these people but as soon as he realized I wasn’t looking for information about his ferry line, he sneered at me and dismissed me. That’s when I saw two men, one blonde and clutching a DSLR, taking photos of the camp, the other older and Greek who almost appeared to be giving a tour.
I approached them and they explained to me that most of the volunteer organizations had moved north the week before, toward the border and some of the larger camps. I could hardly believe it. They didn’t think Piraeus needed more aid as most of the families had been moved. This could not have been accurate. I saw children and families milling about, countless tents that must have numbered in the hundreds if not the thousands. Resources were too thin and they decided to allocate more to the north. They asked if I was a nurse and I responded that no, I was not and I had no medical training. The only volunteers left were the doctors; there was only one, at a mobile clinic, with Arabic and Farsi translators. I thanked the men for the information and headed to the clinic. Here again, I was asked about the medical training that I lacked. The woman there, Kelly, apologized. There wasn’t much they could do and even less I could do. Soon thereafter, I was assigned my task: Pass out numbers to people as they come so we know who to see ﬁrst.
Initially, it didn’t seem that many people needed the doctor. The ﬁrst hour was slow and allowed me time to just take in my surroundings. I sat with a piece of paper and a red pen, children running around coming up to me, seemingly intrigued by this new person that had arrived in their makeshift home. Eventually my role morphed into both passing out paper and sitting with the children. Some of them were trying to learn English words from me, asking about numbers as they wrote them on my paper. One little boy gave my a tiny ﬁstful of plastic beads from his collection and wordlessly insisted that they were for me to keep, motioning no when I tried to give them back. They were the same beads I had used as a little girl to make friendship bracelets and key chains. Another girl, about 8 or 9, helped me tear the slips of paper into near perfect squares and wanted to write out the numbers for me. She sat with me for nearly an hour, motioning and speaking Arabic with the few English words she knew sprinkled in. When she had to leave, she grabbed my hand to say good-bye before gathering up her younger brother and pushing his stroller alongside her mother. Watching the children was the hardest thing for me. In every child, I saw the faces of my nephews, waiting in this purgatory that had been thrust upon them. If I felt useless, how did they feel? I can only imagine the helplessness that swarmed over them, some of them too young to fully grasp where they were or why.
One of the biggest issues was the lack of translators. We had to try to explain to people in the ﬁrst two hours I was there to come back later, when our translators would be back. I overheard Anna, one of the organizers, trying to schedule shifts with translators. She explained to me that the biggest issue was during the day, when most of the volunteers are working. Luckily, one of the men was able to cover many day shifts but he didn’t speak both Farsi and Arabic, leaving a gap. It was in that moment that I regretted not taking more language classes in college. As the hours passed, I felt useless, passing out paper after paper to waiting families, who were asking the translator to ask me how long it would take. I couldn’t know. It seemed that even the most minor injuries took nearly an hour inside the mobile clinic. We were in the heat, baking under a small canopy, just waiting. I mostly stood, allowing everyone else to enjoy the limited seating. Some of the men, around my age give or take a few years, came up with the brilliant solution to bring benches from inside the port waiting area out to where we were but it still wasn’t enough for the 15 or 20 people that were waiting.
As it got later and later, I decided to venture back. Most of the volunteers had driven right up to the clinic but I was reliant on public transport and the buses were coming less and less frequently with each passing hour as the number of ferries coming into E1 became sparse. I walked from E1 to E2, hoping to catch signs of a bus. When I ﬁnally boarded and headed back to the metro, I ﬁnally breathed again, clutching my new plastic beads and letting the tears roll silently as I counted the tents once more.
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