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


The kindness of strangers

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Photo permission given verbally by children's mothers/ carers and recorded here as per Glocal Roots policy

'Oh, my friend!'

I looked up to see who was trying to get my attention. It was a girl of about ten who I think is an Iraqi refugee at the camp. I'd never spoken to her before so the phrase she'd used to refer to me said nothing about how she'd assessed me personally. But as I've discovered over this week, being called friend is a standard form of address by the women from the camp. Maybe it's a direct translation of a greeting in Farsi or Arabic but I think it is more of an appeal to the person being addressed - 'I come in peace; please show me the best side of you.' I might start using it myself in my daily interactions with strangers.

What I liked most about it was that it suggested that this ten year-old had had enough experience of the kindness of strangers to know that it was at least worth opening our conversation this way. And it made me think about the chances that my volunteering on Samos has given me to see the best side of people, whether those met here for the first time or contacts I've know much longer who've given various forms of support when they heard about my work with the refugees. Sometimes the support was money, sometimes goods, sometimes social capital through sharing posts on social media and putting me in touch with relevant people. All these people who have given what they've got have been brilliant.

Like the British woman who gave me a patchwork she'd never got round to finishing, in the hope that the fabric hexagons might be useful for a craft project here. When a refugee came to the centre on her own and sat silently without even going to collect a plate of food, eyes glazed with trauma or tiredness, and my efforts to smile and talk to her failed, it was this patchwork which reached her. I set it down in front of her casually with needle and thread, and gestured that she could work at it if she wanted to, and soon she was focused, nimble and purposeful. She produced a neat traycloth within less than an hour and proudly presented it to me. At first she didn't believe me when I explained that it was for her to take back to her tent.

Like the American who passed on a bag of children's books (one of which you can see in the photo above) that I've been able to read and talk through with the children who come with their mothers to the We Are One centre. Dredging up bits of Arabic vocabulary and trying my chances, I have been delighted to discover that while enjoying the Thomas the Tank Engine picture book we can count the 'feluccas' on the coast of Sodor. Like the woman who gave me money to spend on whatever need I saw while I was on Samos. One need that became clear was to wrap up gorgeous bundles, like that in the first picture here, in something clean and fleecy - and we bought a set of baby blankets to keep at the centre, for babies being lain down for a nap.

Or others who've made donations for the We Are One centre via the Glocal Roots website https://glocalroots.ch/donate/

Today, I give thanks for all of you whom the vulnerable of the world, like the children pictured here, can call 'my friend'; thanks for the kindness of strangers.

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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