A day in the refugee camp

The strong wind has whipped sand into the air and darkened the sky. It is cold today and everybody is arriving stamping their feet and rubbing their hands together. Of course it is not cold like winter in Northern Europe, but the difference is we are equipped for it there. The thin metal buildings here offer little comfort against the cold and most of the refugees I see, squinting against the wind, are wearing half the warm clothing that I find necessary. The driver spilt his coffee on the way here, and when he threw his cigarette butt out of the window the wind whipped it straight back in. It’s not a good day he observed, turning up the music and smacking the dashboard in time with it to try to change his mood.

I notice the value of continuation as I go into the compound. They are a friendly people, the team here and I see a lot of camaraderie. More of them recognise me each morning and shout a friendly greeting. There is far more greeting in this culture than the classic British nod and grunt in the workplace. People who see each other every day still stop to say hello, with a handshake, a clap on the back, a kiss on each cheek. Though I remember from last time that a man won’t touch a woman unless she initiates first and remind myself to offer a hand. It makes me realise how despite all my years as a feminist I still have a slight, hidden to myself, tendency to wait and see. Which would mean no handshakes or kisses for me if I hadn’t remembered the local coda.

As usual there is a lot of uncertainty about my day ahead. Managing this is the greatest challenge for me of working away from my normal environment. I am used to being proactive and productive. It feels uncomfortable to be sitting around waiting for people to show up, but I am here as a visitor, I need to respect their priorities.

I sit for a while on the benches where members of the community come to request services. It is one of the more human places in the camp. Because I am using my laptop, and because I am an outsider, kids cluster around me. Typing a report is not much fun for them to watch so I flick over to PowerPoint and let them choose clip art which we pile madly onto one slide, heaping up the outlines. They nearly all know a few words of English – they all know how to say ‘I am…. What is your name?’ and this is used as a greeting. I repeat my name dozens of times. They are much better at this than I am as I struggle with the unfamiliar sounds and names I cannot picture written down. Some of them have even remembered my name from last time I was here. And they know the word Ipad I notice, they must see visitors with those. Years ago working in the slums in Addis Ababa the children would make the gesture of someone taking a photograph to indicate a white person. Looks like ipads have replaced that.

One of them shows me the baby sister she is carrying and hands her over to me, as though she is giving me a gift. I expect this is against the rules too but I respect her trust and hold and admire the baby for a few minutes until someone in a uniform appears and indicates I should hand her back.

So the plan today, maybe I should say the hope for today, is to run a blanket embellishment session with some of the women.


It didn’t work out quite like that. Several women did come at the right time. One was rather offended by the bright colours I had brought with me. “I am an adult!” she announced proudly and asked if I had any black sequins. Of course we in London had loved the jewel like colours I had brought but I understand why she might have different taste. Everybody is entitled to that. Several of the women who came had teenage daughters with them who soon got much more interested in the materials. Some got absorbed in sorting the sequins into colour piles (one of the women only wanted dark blue sequins) and then when I started sewing some onto my scarf they were interested in that too. I started to involve them a bit and gradually the group morphed from a few women to a large group of girls.

2016-01-15 10.32.43They jostled for materials until they all had their piece of fabric and threads and sequins. I then realised nobody knew what to do next. I started drawing a few designs as suggestions. Easy shapes like butterflies and flowers. Once there was a heart though most of them wanted that. The combination of lack of skills and lack of confidence makes for a lot of similarity between their pieces. They are affectionate and demanding. Calling my name or ‘miss’, ‘miss’ and tugging at my sleeve. I keep showing them then handing the work back. They want me to do it for them but that isn’t the idea. After the first hour we all start to see some progress. Some of them have learnt to thread a needle, or remembered that they already knew. I am encouraging them to close the scissors and pass them handles first rather than wildly thrusting them open and blade first. I have convinced some of them that having the longest possible piece of thread isn’t the best idea. I remember all of these things myself when I was learning to sew. The problems of knotting the thread, of what to do when the thread isn’t long enough to finish, of tangles and tension.2016-01-19 11.42.31

Somehow we all end up sitting around a much smaller table. That works better. T
hey are interacting more with each other, helping each out. Showing signs of pride in their own work and that of others in the group. We have fun together. They are much more chatty and smiling more often than at first. They are over their shyness. They are reluctant to leave when we have to wrap up the session. I hope I may have sparked some interest. That with the scraps of thread and needles I have left behind they may do some more work. And they are glad that they have done my headscarf properly, clapping their hands with delight at how much better I look.2016-01-19 13.27.45

The session wasn’t what we had originally intended. It wasn’t among the shelters in the camp and it wasn’t with the women. We had come up with the idea because we wanted the women who had not left their homes when we did our wellbeing research 6 months earlier, to have ways of making connections with each other.

But this compromise is not worthless. These teenage girls are at an important stage in their lives. Anything that can increase their sense of self worth, create connections between them or stimulate creativity may be helpful.

2016-01-19 11.42.31I am reminded of being taught what to do when a car goes into a skid. If you hold the wheel too tightly you will find it harder to control the car. It needs a light touch. Work with the skid, go with it instead of fighting it. That’s a bit how I feel trying to get things to happen here. Whatever ideas we dream up thousands of miles away are only a starting point. The rest is a collaboration with the local environment, the restrictions and of course, most importantly, the people here.

2016-01-17 17.19.40

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