A Cowichan Valley carbon buster in a Greek refugee camp

Many residents of Greek refugee camps suffer intense personal trauma beyond routine needs of food and shelter.

Peter Nix Special to the Citizen

Many residents of Greek refugee camps suffer intense personal trauma beyond routine needs of food and shelter. As a result, neglected children are everywhere: infants crawl alone in tents, smeared in feces; toddlers wander onto the highway, hugging teddy bears on the centre white line; and bands of rogue boys open the car doors of startled visitors as they drive through the camp.

Scientists have warned that parts of our planet will experience mass migrations as people fleeing the severe environmental and economic stresses of climate change events; like people from Fort McMurray, and like these refugees — a 10-year drought bankrupted many Syrian farmers and the resulting social unrest was one cause of the civil war. These problems will escalate if we continue to burn fossil fuels.

In a response to this flight of people, international volunteers swirl through dusty Greek refugee camps — a spontaneous and inspiring mobilization of ordinary people who want to help: British university students during summer vacation, Spanish firefighters donating holiday time, Jews from Israel, Muslims from America, and retired couples like my wife and I from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.

We spent three months in Greece; mostly in Ritsona, a refugee camp one hour north of Athens. At first glance, I see a human anthill of perplexity and confusion: good-hearted volunteers looking for meaningful work, harassed managers of charities trying to organize work, and 800 frustrated refugees who want work but must line up to get food, drinking water and showers; and of course, the many unattended children who throw themselves into your arms.

In spite of this chaos, we are greeted by refugee residents with smiles and invitations to share a meal or coffee in their meagre tents. Margaret succumbs willingly; but me, less often. After all, Arab women need time to cover their bodies before I enter their tents, my arthritic knee dislikes squatting on floors, and my stomach does not like a diet of boiled and bitter coffee.

So my wife is often hidden inside a tent with Arab women, providing therapy by listening to their stories. I wander the camp, doing odd jobs and trying to find worthwhile projects.

Every evening, I try to find Margaret, but the Arab sense of privacy means that tent flaps are closed. My plaintive cry of “Where’s Margaret?” becomes a standing joke throughout the camp. Well, laughter is a sort of therapy.

But I am uncertain, what is my role? For several weeks, I do routine work like food distribution and making ramps for the handicapped. I wonder why refugees themselves are not doing these routine jobs? Am I creating a culture of dependency so common with many aid organizations?

Finally, I get permission from the Air Force colonel who runs the camp to create a park in an area of pine trees. From my cultural perspective, these people need a quiet, restful place during the summer heat and to get away from the confusion within the camp. They need picnic tables.

Quickly, before any manager of a charity takes ownership of this space, refugees and I level the ground with picks and rakes and spread gravel over the dirt — even a four-year-old helps.

When they hear about this project, camp managers warn me that any picnic tables will be chopped up for cooking fires or stolen — refugee tents are not heated or furnished. Well, I recognize these possibilities; but really, you have to be pretty hard-hearted to call taking a few chairs for their own use “stealing “ or burning a few tables for heat “vandalism” after the horrible tragedies experienced by these people.

I say let’s give them a break, and more control over their lives. After all, a lot of money is spent in these camps, sometimes foolishly. So the loss of a few tables is not exactly a huge risk.

As I discuss the project with refugee friends, I learn that many are expert carpenters. But they want furniture for their own tents, not picnic tables for a park. So instead of buying wood for tables, I buy hundreds of used wooden pallets, lumber is too expensive for my budget, and lots of saws, hammers and nails to be shared. I hire a truck and place them in a large pile in the centre of the camp.

I wait for hours, but the pallets remain untouched. The residents, accustomed to lining up for everything, are wary. Then, hesitantly, one young man asks me for three pallets so his pregnant wife can sleep above the ground. He smiles when I said “take them and make whatever you want”. I see therapy in that.

And that broke the proverbial log jam; whole families emerge from tents and the pile of pallets disappears in five minutes. When I arrive the next day, a buzz of hammering and sawing rises up with the morning dust.

I buy more pallets. They are torn apart and recycled by resident carpenters into furniture, shelves, benches and beds. A two-story tree fort appears in a pine tree. But nobody makes a picnic table for “my” park.

The managers are so impressed that they order more pallets. Refugee carpenters make tables and benches for community projects, like a woman’s centre for moms and kids and a communal kitchen with a Syrian cook — no need for volunteers, and no line-ups.

The time comes to leave for Canada. A large bearded Syrian friend playfully hugs Margaret, calls her “mom”, and pretends to crawl into her backpack as her baby son — some laughter, some tears.

Maybe picnic tables eventually will get built. And sure, maybe some will become firewood; but hopefully, not before a few quiet game of cards, a meal under pine trees, and a laugh or two.

Sure, it’s only a drop in the ocean. But families fleeing chaos deserve the small comfort of furniture made from pallets in otherwise stark tents.

Peter Nix is a Maple Bay resident and self-described carbon buster, dedicated to environmental causes.