Greece and Madagascar. Don’t ask me why, but those were the two countries that fascinated me most as a kid. And for the record, I was on the Madagascar train before the lemur movie came out. Turns out Madagascar is a bit far out of the way for this trip, so Greece it was.
After an aimless month wayfaring through Italy and Switzerland, Greece provided a healthy dose of structure to my travels. While here, I’ve been volunteering full time with Zaatar, an NGO based in Athens that operates a local refugee shelter: The Orange House.
Most charities in the U.S. seem to have at least one full-time staff member. Zaatar is of a different breed. Founded by a vivacious 27-year-old French woman who speaks a daunting five languages, Zaatar has never had a a paid employee. The founders work full time jobs to stay afloat while managing Zaatar on nights and weekends.
Zaatar’s primary endeavor is The Orange House: a refugee shelter in the heart of Athens’s anarchist district, Exarcheia. Lingering tear gas from recent skirmishes between protesters and police often nip the eyes when entering the building, but no matter the sensory stings just outside the door, love pervades just inside. One year ago at opening, the Orange House was dilapidated and abandoned. It is now a thriving community center serving upwards of 100 refugees per day.
On the upper floor lies 18 free beds for single women and their children. A plurality of the residents come from Syria but the house’s nationalities dot the Middle East and Africa including Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, and Algeria. Residents are given a safe dorm-style bed to live in while utilizing the rest of the shelter’s resources. In exchange, Zaatar’s residents keep their home running by cooking, cleaning, and teaching classes. The Orange House is based on building self-sufficiency. With each resident’s departure, sweet beats the bitter. Success at Orange House is marked by frequent going-away parties celebrating job acceptances or the news of acquiring asylum elsewhere in Europe.
The main floor of the shelter is a hub of the refugee community in Athens. Kids walk themselves to the shelter for the free childcare which includes the famed 4:00pm gallop to the park (no job is more stressful than shuttling 2 dozen children through Athens’ chaotic traffic to get there). The masses arrive shortly before 3:00pm to indulge in the home-cooked Middle Eastern meals our residents prepare daily.
But Orange House’s most impressive service and biggest draw is its full selection of classes ranging from Greek for Farsi Speakers to Pilates for Muslim women. The kids’ dedication to their studies is heart-warming, especially when compared to my habit of hiding under the covers in hopes my parents would forget to wake me for 1st period. Most refugees are unwelcome at local Greek schools, so their entire education comes from the Orange House. They arrive before Noon armed with pen and pad prepared to scribble notes through a full battery of afternoon courses. The teenagers generally already speak two languages and are working towards fluency in two more.
The Orange House is a fundamentally happy place, and compared to the tales of inhumane conditions that dominate refugee camps around Greece, that is a blessing. But past scars from the horrors of war remain visible both through the emotionally rocky state of the teenagers to the healing gashes that stain the smiling faces of children as young as ten. My time here has built a smorgasbord of emotional responses I haven’t quite had time to confront, but I know I’ve learned more here than my incessant Politico reading back home could ever teach me. I’d been desensitized to the words “refugee crisis.” Meeting just a few dozen of the millions fleeing their homes has humanized them all. They are not more special than us. Not less special. Just special, as we all are.