My first trip to the refugee camp

I arrive at the front desk. The Turkish security guard looks at me and asks “Sie besuchen?” I nod. I am nervous. In the entrance hall, tens of young men are sitting in their pyjamas and tank tops. Some are staring at their smart phones. Others are chatting, killing time. It looked like this unclaimed space has become their new home now. A handful of women were also grouped in a corner glimpsing at me and chattering among themselves.

Big spaces populated with strange faces make me uncomfortable. The security asks me again whom I am visiting. I was told “if they ask you who you are meeting, just say the two sisters. Everyone knows us.” Apparently, everyone knows them except for the security guard. My bad German did not help, nor did his non-existent English.

As I am trying to remember their last name, Hanadi appears. I felt relieved. I also felt slightly empowered in front of all these questioning eyes. Yes, I know someone here too! Hanadi and I walk up the stairs. The walls were jammed with A4 paper announcements in Arabic. There were too many to read while I was climbing up to the fourth floor. One special announcement caught my eye. It read “To Arab men: there will be a psychologist…” I did not bother with rest of the details on place and time. I agreed, in my head, that Arab men are indeed in dire need of one.

We are finally on the fourth floor. The smell wasn’t too inviting. Perhaps we were too close to the toilet. We walk a few steps through the narrow corridor. Room 1415. There is a sign with the name of Frau something. The camp used to be a corporate office.

Since I moved back to Germany in August last year, I had every intention to volunteer and help those who fled the war in Syria and risked their lives on a death journey seeking refuge here. I didn’t know where to start however. I was never the ‘social entrepreneur’ with the bright integration idea. There are hundreds of those out there. Plotting away in cozy cafes or working hubs. Drawing circles, mapping refugees, and inventing life-saving, life- enhancing blue-prints.

I had a simpler idea in mind. I wanted to show up at a refugee camp. Be there. Speak Arabic. Show a familiar face from the region. Take someone’s hand and offer sympathy. We Palestinians have been there too 68 years ago. There is something very powerful about the collective memory of national tragedies. You experience the emotions of loss and pain even if you are many generations down the line.

Etab, the other sister, takes me in her arms and hugs me strongly. They are very happy to see me. I was equally thrilled. I finally had the moment to help. I didn’t have an entrepreneurial plan, only a bag of Lindt Easter eggs chocolate.

Hanadi and Etab are two Palestinian sisters, in their mid- forties,  from Tarshiha, near the coastal city of Akka. They were born and raised in the Palestinian refugee camp of Hama, Syria.

They nostalgically narrate stories of the Norias of Hama. The Norias weep by the river, they said. I try to imagine how they sound in my head. They play a sad melody as they move in circles into the water and out.

I tell them about the beautiful old city of Akka. The Crusaders Citadel, the Ottoman bazar, the fish market, how ancient are its walls and how insanely brave are its kids- jumping from high points into the rocky sea on a hot summer day.

As we exchange stories, tell jokes, and sip on our tasteless instant coffee, someone knocks on the door. It’s the security guard reminding me that my visit time is over. It’s 10 o’clock in the evening. I pick up my bag and make sure I am still holding on to a cheap plastic card that identified me in the last 3 and a half hours as ‘Besuch 23’. I thank them for their overwhelming generosity and leave with a big smile on my face.

I was there to brighten their day. They brightened mine.


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