Scoundrel Time

Sweet Talk: Refugees and the Language of Community

“Hi sweetheart. I’m on my way. Can’t wait to see you.” The WhatsApp message appeared on my phone, just after my plane touched down in Athens, Greece. A moment later, I heard another ping and looked down to see I’m here out of the door number four followed by a smiley face and a big red heart emoji.

These affectionate texts didn’t precede a romantic reunion. Rather, my car service driver, Abdulla, sent them to let me know that he’d arrived to pick me up. In the close-knit world that the two of us inhabit, “sweetheart” is a normal greeting.

Abdulla and I live in the world of grassroots refugee relief. He’s a 21-year-old Syrian. I’m a 55-year-old American. We first met back in July 2016 when we were both new to Athens. I came to Greece by airplane as a volunteer. Abdulla arrived by rubber boat. The previous spring, a diplomatic agreement between the European Union and Turkey had closed the borders between Greece and countries farther north, trapping Abdulla along with some 60,000 other migrants and refugees, most of whom had reached there, as he did, by making dangerous trips across the Aegean. Greece, already reeling from economic turmoil, was struggling to care for these people. With only limited aid coming from mainstream humanitarian organizations, international and local volunteers had stepped in to help.

Abdulla, a shy, skinny teenager, had taken shelter along with several hundred other displaced people in an abandoned school in Athens’s gritty Acharnon neighborhood. I arrived that summer with several friends from home after raising funds for small-scale relief projects. Local activists had helped the refugees take shelter in the school, where they slept in tents in empty classrooms and cooked meals in a shed that served as a makeshift kitchen. By setting up housekeeping in a shuttered public building, they had broken the law, but Greek authorities, who couldn’t provide for these people themselves, looked the other way.

The residents of the “squat,” as we called it, relied on local activists and small international teams like ours who used donations to purchase food staples, underwear, and cleaning supplies, as well as coloring books for the kids. That July, our group bought a new fridge so that parents could have cold milk for their children, and a deep freezer so that if someone funded the purchase of meat, the residents could buy it in bulk. We supplied crates of apples and bananas, plastic plates and bowls, and a laptop that could be used to set up a community Facebook page and show movies for the children.

In the evenings, when a cool breeze finally cut the summer heat, residents and volunteers filled the school courtyard, hundreds of strangers now forming a surprisingly intimate community. Under the stars, one of the residents would often sing and play a drum. Syrians and Spaniards, Afghans and Americans, English and Kurds formed a circle and danced the dabke. In Arab culture, you’ll often see the dabke danced during wedding receptions, much as Jews will dance the hora. From a distance, our gathering in the courtyard could have passed for a celebration of marriage.

Abdulla managed the storeroom at the school. As a boy in Damascus, he had helped his dad run a small neighborhood warehouse. War had forced the warehouse to close. Later, Abdulla said goodbye to his parents and fled the country to avoid the mandatory military service that many Syrians consider a death sentence. Now, in Greece, his experience organizing inventory came in handy. Other residents gave him the keys to the storeroom, and the 19-year-old became Boss of Storage.

We worked together, refugees and volunteers, though we rarely shared more than a dozen common words. In that environment, a peculiar language flourished. Arabic speakers, I learned, often gravitate toward terms of endearment. They toss out “Habibi!”—“My darling!”—with such abandon that it seems to sugar every conversation. Now, in these desperate circumstances, words of love helped to build bonds and create an atmosphere of warmth and affection. During that hot summer, we relied on mime, nods of the head, translation apps in a pinch, the occasional frantic phone call to bilingual friends, and emojis. After a distribution of cooking oil and rice, nothing could say “Joy!” like a pair of bright pink spinning hearts. And when cross-cultural misunderstandings spoiled an entire crate of Happy Barn fresh milk—Syrians had only seen “shelf stable” milk boxes, so they’d left the crate out all night—nothing could express sadness like an un-smiley face crying a little blue tear.

I lost touch with Abdulla after that summer. When we met again, 18 months later, three major developments had occurred in his life. First, he became fluent in English. Second, he applied, and was accepted, for asylum in Greece. And, third, he learned to drive, earned his license, and bought a car, allowing him to start his own business transporting volunteers back and forth to the airport. Each of these accomplishments demanded talent and determination. For a refugee to flourish in Europe, however, talent and determination alone won’t cut it. People need help, but young single Muslim men like Abdulla routinely end up at the back of the line for official humanitarian aid. Fortunately, he received another kind of assistance.

Abdulla is succeeding because—“Thanks God,” he tells me repeatedly—the community of refugees and volunteers supported him along the way. Two British guys offered him informal driving lessons (bravely, or foolishly, using their rental cars for practice). Another Brit gave him the money for his driving test and license. A Syrian mechanic friend scoured used car ads and found an old but decent Mercedes that Abdulla could purchase for 1500 euros in Athens. An American volunteer set up a crowd funding page to raise the money. Small donations soon added up to 500 euros, then 800, then more. Two Syrian refugee families said, “We want to help you,” and handed Abdulla 40 euros each from their own meager savings. Euro by euro, his car fund grew. And then, when he still failed to reach his goal, the Greek owner of the car gave him a break in the price. “You’re like my son,” the man said, discounting 200 euros.

Another Syrian friend once told me that war robs people of their sense of shared humanity. Under the constant threat of bombs, relationships fall apart. “You only care about keeping your children alive,” this man confided. “You don’t think of anyone else, even your brothers and sisters.” When people escape conflict, cross the Aegean, and begin again in peace, they have the opportunity, finally, to re-open their hearts to others. “When I left Syria,” my friend said, “I began to learn how to be a human again.”

On our trips to and from the airport, Abdulla and I have had a lot of time to talk. “You are like my mum,” he once told me. Because I have a son his age, I offer him unsolicited advice, which he receives with patience. Thinking of his actual mom, who lives close enough to Eastern Ghouta to hear the bombs exploding, I feel especially protective of Abdulla. He tells me that he considers himself a link in a chain of people helping people. “I needed a hand,” he says, “and now I can help the next person.”

But Abdulla remains young and alone in a foreign land, penniless except for his precious car, operating a business constantly teetering on the edge of collapse. Like the night he couldn’t find the Afghan family scheduled to fly to Germany for resettlement at dawn (he lost the job, and they called a taxi). Like the time he had to postpone engine repairs because he didn’t have 150 euros to pay the mechanic. Like the time his cell phone broke, leaving him unable to contact the customers he’d promised to pick up. Or the time he returned to his car and found it wedged so tightly in a parking space that he couldn’t get it out. “I stood in the middle of the road,” he told me, “crying.” And sometimes, too, he just screws up. Like the time he missed a 5 a.m. pickup. Abdulla is 21 years old, and 21-year-olds can screw up.

I could tell you dozens of stories of evil, or you could spend ten minutes watching the news from Syria and see evil for yourself. But this is a story of love and, more specifically, the rebirth of community. The most recent time I left Greece to return to the States, Abdulla dropped me at the Athens airport. We hugged goodbye, and his face turned serious. “Call me if you need me to do anything here,” he said. “Anything at all. I want to help.”

If an emoji exists for that, it’s a big red heart, and it’s rising out of ashes.


Image “Abdulla and his car”