Before going to Skaramagkas, I was worried about language barriers. How would I speak to the children? How could we give them directions for the dance moves or for games? Would I be able to form any relationships with them, therefore? However, the first person whom we met, Mohammed, was the answer to these questions. My first impression of him was made when he shook all our hands but kissed Ana’s cheek. I had never felt such chills in my body, and I immediately respected him and his dignity. Later, the children ran to him, hugging and kissing him-laughing at jokes that were in Arabic but I joined in the laughs anyway. He was their teacher, someone they looked up to and ran to when they needed comfort and for their questions to be answered. In him, I saw worries and perhaps stress, but his love for the people in the camp, for the children and even for us, despite being visitors, was irrefutable.
From the people at the restaurant to the mothers, Leah, the in-camp guide and pretty much anybody that we walked passed, Mohammed was well known and respected. It was obvious that he is an influential figure in the camp, and cares for everyone. He always walks slowly, smoking his cigarette while commenting on one or two things around the camp, or by simply asking about our experience. I grew very fond of him. Yet all I ever did for him was to ask for the toilet.
Meeting Mohammed and getting to him, his family, his house and his surrounding was pretty much the highlight of my experience in the camp. “You are very good,” he often said as I tried my best not to look uncomfortable while dancing. He blew kisses at us, and always helped with translations when necessary-always present. There was so much love coming from him and those around us. To think that refugees are generally portrayed as in worse conditions, some considered dangerous and others prejudiced against, yet all they offer is love and hospitality, I only remain disappointed. Disappointed that some people have failed to view others as human.
The children at Scaramagkas were energetic, full of life, curious and cooperative, despite my initial thoughts that they would be stubborn and difficult to work with. Of course, sometimes, there would be one or two who were not interested, or not too quick at learning the steps as the others, but none of those shook me as did one girl. Aged 6, this girl completely refused to say hello, shake my hand, or let me near her. Leah said “she is like this with everyone except for me,” so I decided to let her be and focused on getting the others to smile, dance with energy and helped them with their steps. Later, I go back to try and convince her that I do not bite, but frankly so, she thought I could. “You are black” her friend stated in English, translating what the six-year-old had just muttered between laughs in Arabic. I had no idea how to react. In fact, I was not even offended. So, I said, “Yes, you are right, I am black.” But the friend went on by saying that she wouldn’t hug me or shake my hand because I am black. And just to test her, I asked her to hug Anastasia, one of my group-mates from Russia, and she quickly ran to her arms. Shocked and speechless, I only managed a giggle and left the children to their conversations.
Firstly, I came to terms with the fact that she is only a child and probably does not understand the impact of her words and actions. But I also realized that in such circumstances, she would probably grow up with the same mindset, because, let us be honest, having been stopped and asked much about my visit to Greece, there is not much exposure that she might get there that will change her mindset. Plus, I was the only black person in the entire camp of over 3000 people. So, there it was again, the constant reminder that no matter my education, or the language I speak, or where I am, my skin color matters to some. Racism is everywhere. But I take no offense. It is something that I must learn to live with, and demand change for when I can.
The first time we walked into Skaramagas camp I noticed that my scooter attracted certain attention, especially with the kids, who started walking with me. Within our university, I often forget that I have a disability by being treated just like everyone else, however my looks were not overlooked in the camp. Was I bothered by it? Not really, but I was surprised.
We started our second day at the camp by teaching the youngest group. Right when I walked into the dance room, most of the kids started looking and talking about me with each other. I immediately thought “It’s fine, I am used to this, they’re just kids”, but I wasn’t used to what happened seconds after I walked in. A lovely girl named Aya ran towards me and hugged me, no questions asked. Some other girls followed her example, while others curiously kept looking at me and smiling. I put my coat on my scooter and suddenly I felt someone touching my hair and so I turned around. I was surrounded by kids, mostly taller than me.
I didn’t know what to say, so I started laughing and inviting kids to the dancefloor. I wondered how to direct the kids’ attention to dance instead of me. If I noticed a kid was looking at me, I would walk up to them and start dancing and teaching them the moves. I must admit, I did feel uncomfortable, but I tried not to think about it and instead focus on the group experience. The kids were not being rude, they were just interested. I remember one of them saying: “You are my first”, yet no one was being disrespectful, which was surprising to me considering how young the kids were.
I played a clapping game with a 5-year-old girl who didn’t want to dance. After that, we decided to watch the others dance and we walked towards the dance “epicenter”. The girl, whose name I sadly can’t remember, brought a chair for me and for her as well. I was so moved by what she did that it almost brought tears to my eyes. The girl was quiet but very observant and she noticed that it is difficult for me to stand.
The kids stayed with us throughout the day even after their lesson was done. I had more time to interact with them during the evening. I started to connect with some 9-10-year-old girls that were not dancing at that time. They were doing my hair and talking to me about their family, their schooling and their hopes for the future. I especially became close with Linda, a 10-year-old Iraqi girl, who would not leave my site and really had an interest in our conversation. There were a few other girls in our little circle and I am so mad at myself for not writing down their names! One of them asked me “why are you little” and Linda’s response to that question was the one that still resonates with me. Right when I was about to explain my disability to them, Linda said that she doesn’t like that question. She said she thinks of me as a big person and that it does not matter to her. Tears started to well up and I could barely respond to what she had just said. Then I tried to explain what my disability is and before I could finish another girl told me “but everyone loves you, Ana” and then I could not hold it in anymore. A tear dropped and I knew they were all looking at me and the last thing that I wanted to do was cry. I was deeply touched by what they were saying because I had never had such an experience with a young kid. They usually ask something about my disability and move on with their life, but these girls were different. I was shaken by their empathy and emotional intelligence, which moved me to tears. They have experienced events and emotions that kids in a stable environment are not exposed to and such experiences certainly made a difference in how they think and act.
One of the girls took off her bracelet and started putting it on my wrist. At first, I did not think it was appropriate to accept it, so I tried to gratefully return it, but the girl insisted. I accepted the bracelet, but I also wanted to give them something as well. I started frantically looking through my purse, but could not find anything useful. What I did notice before is that all the kids were quite impressed by my scooter, so I decided to take them all for a ride. More and more kids started coming, asking me for a ride, and we ended up having a “scooter party”. It was hard saying goodbye that day, as it was our last day in Skaramagas and I knew I would never see some of these kids. Such experiences are impossible to forget and I am thankful to my new friends that opened up to me and were allowing for such an amazing exchange to happen.
OUR AMAZING GUIDES
Our experience in Skaramagas would not have been the same without our trip supervisor Pantelis and our tour guide Myrsini. Their roles sound very official and distant from what the students were doing, however, they managed to embrace the experience and got involved in our dance activities. They were our unofficial teachers of “get-by” phrases in Greek, they made sure that we would get the most delicious Greek appetizers, Myrsini taught us Sirtaki and Pantelis infected us with the word AMAZING. The latter is an internal phrase of our class that could probably only be amusing to us. Here is a video of Pantelis saying “amazing” just for reference.
Pantelis and Myrsini made sure that everything concerning our involvement in Skaramagas was running smoothly. Aside from taking care of us, they were incredibly fun and friendly people that we all loved and wanted to be friends with.
Yaozhong’s change in perspectives
Before the trip to Athens and the refugee camp, I was really nervous, because I always had the impression that a refugee camp could be really dangerous, messy, and dirty, like a huge landfill inhabited by people who would be hostile to and suspicious of the strangers. Having interactions with them did not sound like something pleasant to me, not to mention teaching them dance lessons for 3 days. Therefore, I was really reluctant to go to the refugee camp at first.
We first arrived at the camp at 5pm on January 10th. The camp is far from the center of the Athens city, located by the water and surrounded by the mountain. Within the camp, multiple rectangular makeshift houses were built and placed in a good order, one of which was the classroom where we taught dance. When I got off the bus, I found the view surprisingly good, while the air smelled a bit like gas. The camp organizer Mohammed greeted us and led us into the classroom where we started our first class with 7 girls. It was at that time when I realized something different about these people.
While doing the self-introductions, the girls looked a bit shy and nervous, but once we started to warm up and proceeded to dance, these girls looked much more eager to express themselves: they participated in the class actively, and even began to ask for more practice. What is more, I still remember two girls who requested us to see their own dance even before we finished that teaching session. I could see that they put a lot of effort into that. After the dance class, Mohammed gave us a tour of the camp. It was really dark, so we could not see things in a very detailed way, but when we came by the sea, I saw a lot of bars, restaurants, and cafes. They were simple without much decorations, but looked comfortable and cozy. More people came and greeted us friendly. On our way back to the bus, we met a few more children. They asked us if we came to teach dance there, and seemed pretty excited about joining the class. When I got on the bus, I felt a sense of relief—the situation at the camp was much better than I thought.
When we came back the next day, more people attended the class. They were mainly kids and, as a matter of fact, were harder to concentrate in the class. In my opinion, there was a bit of chaos. However, with the help of Mohammed and other administrative staff, we managed to teach the class successfully. Although the kids were harder to control, they were much more innocent and easily became friends with us. After we finish our class, a lot of kids still stayed to talk or play with us, or simply just give us hugs. Through their innocent and sweet smile, I could feel their happiness. I knew at that moment, we have developed a strong and deep friendship with them.
I was taking photos and videos with my phones all the time, and I derived great joy from capturing the moment of our group interacting with the kids and teenagers. Through the photos and videos, I could see that everyone was really enjoying the time they spent there, which was actually a great delight to me. I am usually good at controlling my emotions, but during the time at the camp, I was infected by the cheerful atmosphere and felt really good. This experience changed my perspectives towards refugee camps, and revealed to me the positive side of life: no matter how hard the lives of people in the refugee camps are, they still tried to live as normal people and find delight in their lives. I believe that’s the spirit that we should all possess.