My job at Petra was to drive anyone who needed more care than could be provided by the volunteer doctors from SAMS, the Syrian American Medical Society, to hospital in the valley or Thessaloniki. I got the job because I saw a tweet from someone who worked for one of the NGOs in Petra, saying they needed a driver and would pay for the car. I introduced myself: international driving licence, speak French, German, English, bit of Spanish and Polish, used to driving up and down mountain roads and available in October when they needed someone. The person who'd tweeted the original "help wanted" ad gave me the name of someone in New Jersey, and after a couple of weeks, she'd procured permission for me to sleep at the camp and all seemed good. Except for the fact that I'd have to pay for the car because the NGO had no money to pay for it, she said. If they paid for the car, it would be less food for the refugees. OK, I said, but then I can't stay as long as you need me to. It would end up costing me too much money.
My first full day fell on a Sunday, and SAMS worked fewer hours than during the week. If anyone was going to need driving to hospital, we'd know by early afternoon. I didn't have a Greek SIM card, remember, so if anyone needed me, I told them I'd be in the warehouse helping Gema make room for an incoming shipment of donated clothing.
Clothing hangs on a line outside the showers at Camp Petra in Greece.
The warehouse is next to the showers, a stone's throw from the building I was staying in. What we would do, said Gema, is sort clothing by type -- men's, women's, kids'; jumper, cardy, trousers, different types of shirts, underwear -- and put them in boxes, which we would them stack up along the edges of the warehouse. Some of the clothing -- skimpy dresses, low-cut women's tops -- went into a pile destined for needy Greeks because the refugees would never wear that sort of thing. Soiled clothing, torn clothing, shirts with vulgar slogans went into a pile of rubbish. I tossed a lime-green woman's shirt with the words "My bitch" on it into that heap and then had second thoughts: I could cut it up and use it to clean the floors in my room, the hallway, the toilets, once I got some bleach. The shirt was size XL. It would easily clean the entire building.
Sometimes, Gema and I sorted in silence. Other times, we'd chat as we filled soggy cardboard boxes with carefully sorted clothes or tossed another shirt in poor taste onto the rubbish pile. Gema wielded pallets and boxes filled with articles of clothing with ease, stopping only for a cigarette or to make a point, or to chat. She'd been in Greece for six months, arriving in Athens in April and then moving with the tsunami of refugees to Idomeni, on the border with Macedonia. Many of the refugees at Petra -- they were all members of the Yezidi religious minority, either from northern Iraq or Syria -- had come to the isolated camp with a view of Mount Olympus via Idomeni and then various camps in Thessaloniki, and Gema had gone with them. By mid-October, she'd understood that she needed to go back to Spain for some R&R, maybe work a bit, and then, maybe, return to Greece. "It's enough," she told me as she drew on another cigarette. "I need to make money. I need to see my family."
Gema moves a pallet in the warehouse at Camp Petra. The bus in the background is a relic of times past, when the camp was a psychiatric hospital.
In between cigarettes for Gema and a cold cup of guayusa tea for me, Gema told me how life had led her to Petra from a modest, working-class upbringing in Madrid. The bathroom in the family apartment in Madrid was heated with those little candles that people who've had a comfortable upbringing might associate with a fondue set or an all-you-can-eat buffet, Gema said. As I held up jumpers and cardigans to try to determine if they should go into the teens' or kids' box, Gema recounted how she'd been a star student but had to leave school -- high school, not university -- when both her dad and her sister became ill. Her dad is still alive but her sister died while waiting for a new heart. Hers was working at only 20 percent at the end of her life. Her mum worked as a home help; Gema worked two jobs as a gardener before coming to Greece. One time, later in my stay at Petra, when I pointed at a bush growing at the side of the road to the village, Gema rattled off the Latin name for it and told me about its healing properties. She made something like 5 euros an hour working as a gardener. As an aside, when she finally went back to Spain -- she and I left Petra on the same day -- she thought things would have improved a bit. They had, a bit. Unemployment was down to just below 19 percent, but getting a job was difficult for someone without even a high school diploma. Gema was offered a position that paid the equivalent of 1 euro an hour in December. Her mum told her to go back to Greece. At least she was happy there, working for nothing.
Gema uses her bed as a desk as she does paperwork for the NGO she works for in Greece.
At times, I would stop sorting clothing and just listen to Gema. My jaw must have fallen open, the cardigan in my hand must have hung there limply as she spoke. She briefed me about the politics of volunteering, the unfortunate competing interests of the different NGOs at Petra. She remarked on the similarities between herself and the 1,000+ refugees at Petra, adding quickly that the big difference between them was that she chose to be here, they didn't. Then she'd look around the warehouse and say, "We need to move all these boxes over there. For make room for the camion" -- the truck that was supposed to be delivering yet more clothes the next day.