The air is breezy and warm on the balcony of Sayed and Nahid’s 6th floor apartment. The top of a large plastic table is a mosaic of plates piled high with rice and meat and vegetable dishes, mostly Afghan. From the table, we can see the Acropolis — 17 of us perched on rickety chairs or lounging on a small sofa that looks like early Ikea.
We praise Nahid’s cooking. Ayat, a 10 year old Kurd, dances with Pippy, a Portuguese 20-something. Through the click of plates and songs from Sayed’s playlist, there is a lot of laughter that suggests a little mischief.
Of the 17 diners, most are people I call family and everyone else is potentially family. In this community of people thrown together by war and circumstance, you can get close quickly. Some members of this family came to Greece to support humanitarian relief efforts. Most are refugees (I prefer to call them “people”) from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Among them are several children. The oldest adult is 34.
To my great surprise, I have seamlessly become an honored member of this small but growing tribe. With my new (and forever) friends Nanci and Anne-Lene, I am one of the moms. Our new children are a few of the 57,000 people who have been effectively imprisoned in Greece since the borders to northern Europe closed in February.
The conversation at dinner turns to family members who aren’t with us tonight, especially Mama Nanci, who is in Oakland waiting for the end of the 90 days she must be out of Europe’s Schengen area before she can return to Greece for her fifth visit in 8 months.
We make a video call to Nanci when dinner is over. She playfully but emphatically tells us she is jealous that we are having a special dinner without her. “Jealous” is a word that comes up a lot in this group’s long distance conversations so we can laugh about how much we want to be together.
Our new children seem perfectly comfortable with our strange and wonderful relationships. We know they have emotional stresses we can’t even imagine but they are generous in spirit and adept at supporting us and each other. Although we may stumble through language and cultural differences at times, our new children trust their instincts and ours.
In contrast, the three moms have agonized trying to solve the mystery of how our new family could be increasingly important to each of us. We talk on the phone and text each other for hours in the middle of the night to make sense of how our lives have changed. Are there other moms like us in Greece? What is it about Middle Eastern (Muslim? Youth?) culture that encourages such unorthodox relationships? Why do we leave our families at home and our privileged lives to be with people whose experiences are so vastly different from our own in this damaged place called Athens?
Anne-Lene doubles over with laughter as she describes leaving the comforts of her life in Norway to “sneak past the police to get into a refugee camp.” (We all have our methods. I always advise to just walk through the gate with an air of authority. Nanci seems more committed to the ever-changing rules but she routinely violates the rule that never changes by sleeping in the camp for weeks at time).
We try to explain what we are experiencing to family and friends not expecting to be understood but hoping for acceptance.
We have without intention found a kind of love that can’t be explained in the context of whatever our lives have previously taught us about love. We worry about our new children the way we would worry about our children at home if they were living in such difficult circumstances. We have connected with them in various ways according to their personalities and our own. But there is something else here that is not familiar and it makes us — strong, independent women — lose sleep and cry without warning.
As time passes, we are analyzing less (or differently maybe) and just enjoying the poetry of our time with these young people. We are learning from them to gracefully accept how fate has thrown us together. Inshallah, we will be with them as they navigate their uncertain futures. For sure, we will be forever grateful for the gifts of joy and courage they have so far shared with us.