I am now in Athens, a 12 hour ferry away from the intensity of the life and death crisis playing out daily on Lesvos. Every day I question, “Did I make the right decision to leave and come here? Should I be here, in the bustle and normality of the big city, where people shop and chat in cafes and go to school and gossip and argue over silly slights and the refugees seem to not exist? Did I leave too soon?”
But then I see the endless yaw of the massive former sports stadium, the piles upon piles of boxes stretching back into the dark corners of infinity. Volunteers wheel lorries piled to dangerously teetering heights back,back, back….the depths and scale of these donated boxes of supplies are beyond my comprehension. I hear a volunteer who seems to be in charge mention they never have enough volunteers to really sort through the donations. They can barely keep up. The generosity of Europe pours in and a tiny army (truly tiny,maybe 20 people?) struggle to make any sense of the chaos.
I may not be charging into the icy waters to help a floundering rubber raft or changing a shivering child’s shoes, but I am needed here.
Yesterday I sorted shoes. Big tennis shoes, sleek women’s boots, flimsy flip flops (honestly, not useful, but people are well-meaning), tiny delicate baby booties. All varieties and colors and sizes. Usually no one sorts the shoes, they just trust the handwritten marker labels are correct and ship them off to the islands. I know from experience what that means – hours of volunteers on Lesvos sorting through shoe mismatches, wet moldy shoes that were wrapped in plastic, fishing adult shoes out from children’s shoes.
True, the single shoes that have lost their partner are turned into beautiful cascading chandeliers of art by my friend Thomas, a cheerful addition to the sterile world of white camp tents. So maybe I am depriving Thomas of his creative genius that brings light to a weary man, woman, or child in the dead of night.
In one box, I came across a pair of thick,warm boots for girls. Brand new. Pink with hearts. The image of a Syrian girl’s sad blue eyes pierced me, a memory of 3 weeks ago when I desperately tried to find her warm boots that fit and failed. We tucked scraps of crinkling emergency blanket around her feet and slipped them back into her soaked tennis shoes, dunked in a frigid Aegean Sea.
I wanted to cry and shout, “Here they are! Wait, I’m coming!” But where is she now? I don’t know. Safe in Germany, at a brick and mortar refugee center? Huddled against the winter in the mountains of Macedonia, waiting and waiting and waiting for the border to open and the arms of Europe to welcome her in, out of the cold of death and war and fear?
I don’t know.
So I sort shoes into boxes and hope the boots will find another young girl on Lesvos when she needs them most.