volunteering with refugees at the We Are One women's centre


'Common quiet hours' - things I'm learning from volunteering with the refugees in Greece

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

I'm writing this blog in the afternoon. Because there's nothing much else to do... The centre where I am volunteering with the refugees on Samos doesn't work at the weekends, but even during weekdays its core services of offering a drop-in for women refugees and their young children are much reduced during the afternoon. At 3.30 the volunteers start the process of clearing chairs and tables from the courtyard where most women sit during the day to eat or chat. The space inside is much tighter - along with toilets and the yoga studio it's just a food counter and small area with sewing machines that the women can use to mend or make clothes. Outside of yoga classes the studio is used for English lessons and legal or medical consultations from partner organisations, so there isn't much inside space for women to sit to eat, and what we offer has to reduce considerably when we can't use the courtyard, after 3.30pm.

Why? Because of Common Quiet Hours, a Greek legal requirement that I'd not come across on previous visits to Greece. I have discovered that that's because those visits were in tourist areas where businesses are exempt from the law. With seasonal variations the law specifies that from 3.30pm onwards (or 3.30 to 5.30pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays) there must be no organised activity that could cause disturbance (and the chattering and plate clattering of a gaggle of refugees in a courtyard would certainly count). I'm told it's even considered bad manners to call on someone's house at this time, and the residents of the apartment block next to the We Are One centre would have recourse to the police if they saw us active in Common Quiet Hours. A 1996 police order specifies that ‘playing raucous games at the kafeneion, bowling alleys or other public areas’ is also right out. As is 'crying out by vendors and other outdoor professionals, in order to advertise their wares or profession’, and that owners of pets and birds must take all possible measures for their pets not to 'bother with noisy behaviour'. A separate provision also outlaws 'crying out by managers and/or employees of merchant shops or professionals.’ Actually, I know plenty of managers and professionals who are tempted to cry out at about 3.30 in the afternoon. It's the time of the daily slump in energy in offices around the world.

So is this kind of reduction in hours good for anyone? Not for the women who want to come and use our services, but my taxi driver yesterday was passionate on the benefits of people having this time at home.

'But what about Greece's economic crisis?' I asked him. He and I had already had a depressing conversation about the reality of that crisis for him and his family - he'd told me about the loan he'd taken out for the taxi just 6 months before the crisis broke; about how prices then went up for food and for electricity, along with a hike in taxes. About the tourist slump (he was gracious when I asked about the impact of the refugee crisis on the island - 'that was just the cherry on the cake; numbers had been falling anyway') from the drop in the Turkish lira that had reduced Turkish tourists, and then about the court case for repossession of his house, the money he owes for his medical insurance, about adding the prices up as you go round the supermarket so you don't 'look a fool' at checkout when you haven't got money to cover the groceries. 'So couldn't people be encouraged to shop their way out of recession?' I suggested. I sounded like Adam Smith, or American, or certainly more capitalist than I'd choose to be. But really - this is a country in economic crisis and everyone just goes home at 3.30pm and makes sure they play no raucous games at the kafeneion, and that their budgie stays quiet?

The taxi driver was a thoughtful man - he'd already educated me about Pythagoras (who was a native of Samos) and now he tried a basic economic theory on me. 'There are only a certain number of people who will go out today to buy a new piece of clothing, or a replacement part for something that's broken in their home,' he explained. 'So it doesn't matter if those people come to your shop over 8 hours of trading or over 5 hours of trading. If you open for 8 hours you'll just be hanging around for longer in between customers.'

I was surprised by how mind-boggling I found the explanation. But then I'm a slow learner about the concept of slow; I struggle still to be still. It took me 42 years to learn the benefits of daily meditation and so I have plenty to gain from my time in Greece: I remember some of the other messages I've had from my time at the We Are One centre this week, about quiet in the midst of crisis. I hear the voice of the yoga teacher, Demet, who led our session on Monday. 'Sloooooooow!' she sang out, and all of us moved gently and mindfully out of Uttanasana. I remember the notes on the laminated sheets given to volunteers managing the baby and toddler area where I've been working, which invite us to teach the power of deep breathing to toddlers when they are panicking or distressed.

I think of the 'farewell circle' organised yesterday for one of the refugee volunteers. Nineteen years old, alone and pregnant, she has just got her papers to leave the island. She and the other refugee volunteer who shares her accommodation were highly emotional with hope and loss and fear and possibility. The full team of volunteers formed a circle with her and all 17 of us shared a memory of our time with her or a wish for her new life. By the time the babble of English, Farsi and Arabic translations had subsided, at least two of the circle were in tears.

'We need to do some breathing together' one of the co-ordinators announced. The refugee who was leaving was invited to lead us and she solemnly began reminders to inhale and exhale. We lifted our arms up and down in time with our breath and in unison.

So you stood in a circle and, um, breathed together? Sort of like you'd all been doing all day anyway? To my pre-meditating self it would have sounded pathetic, fey, and an inadequate response to the multiple acute, practical demands of the refugee crisis. Though that younger me had been not only skeptical but also ill-informed - I hadn't then read the range of scientific research into the positive benefits of regular time focusing on the breath, for blood pressure, depression, anxiety and sleep patterns. But maybe you had to be there to understand the deep solace offered by our breathing together in that circle. How, across linguistic, cultural and religious barriers, and in the absence of the millions of euros it would take to make this situation alright, an authentic moment of breathing together felt in fact like the very best thing we could offer to each person in that circle.

So that's what I ask from the universe today - some Common Quiet Hours. When I feel myself in emotional, energetic or spiritual recession, I shall try not shopping my way out, or even 'crying out', let alone raucous behaviour at the bowling alley. I shall just breathe.

Elizabeth Gowing is a storyteller for those making positive change in the world. A writer and presenter who shares her stories on BBC Radio 4, she also offers training and consultancy. Use the contact form if you know stories that need to be told and want her help in telling them.




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