’TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE EID
I have grown up celebrating Eid—the grand feast after the Holy month of Ramadan—all my life. But I, like most of the 57,000 refugees currently stuck in various camps across Greece, and Europe, have never spent Eid in a refugee camp. Until this year, that is.
On the eve of the Eid al-fitr, after the last day of fasting, I sat with a Syrian family at the Piraeus port in Athens, as they took their first bites of food after a 17-hour day of fasting. The family of six—Jaffar, 10, Shahad, 8, Bayan, 5, little Sham, 1.5-years-old, and their parents—ate slowly, and peacefully, not as if they had just abstained from food and water all day long during 95 degrees Fahrenheit heat for one month. They smiled at one another, and they smiled at me. They offered their chicken made in a clay pot over a one-burner hot plate. I gently refused, thinking both how generous these people who have so little were, and how I couldn’t dare take from what scant food they had.
But as I sat on the hard earth, a gray UNHCR blanket between my knees and several sharp stones, I observed some of the most selfless acts of generosity I have seen in years. A plate of cold watermelon appeared in front of me from the Syrian neighbors to the right of the tent; a juice box, and then a donut were pushed into my lap by Bayan; and dates—the traditional food to break one’s fast—were thrust into my hand by her mother. At a certain point I could no longer respectfully refuse, so I gave in to the little things. As the time passed, the youngest child, Shams, came and sat on my lap with a melting brownie in her hand.
As she hand-fed me—one small piece for me, one small piece for her—I noticed a small Pakistani woman standing in the shadows on the fringe of our little circle, and I watched as Sham’s mother beckoned to this woman. She was the neighbor from the tent directly in front, near the entrance to this little tented city underneath the freeway between gates E1 and E2. Sham’s mother knew her, and she knew she was poor and hungry. The Pakistani woman looked at Sham’s mother with pleading eyes and asked for a small piece of the chicken, the shame of her desperation written all over her face. With a huge smile, Sham’s mother chose the biggest piece and passed it her way. The Pakistani woman refused and instead found a smaller piece. She sat down and ate it, hunched over.
Soon, the children’s mother made a small plate with several pieces of chicken and sliced potatoes and gave it to the woman. “For your children,” she said, pushing it into the other woman’s hands. As I followed her gaze, I saw two small children and a man sitting in the zippered entrance to their tent. Waiting. Waiting and looking. They had nothing but the bagged croissants and orange juice boxes that were handed out to everyone at 8:30pm every day. This family had been at the port for eight months, and had drained all of their meager funds. The man, her husband, was skinny and frail looking, and the children not much better. Their faces were smeared with tears and dirt, grubby hands stuck in their mouths for comfort.
I immediately understood how wrong I was to think that this Syrian family had nothing. They had kindness, love, and generosity that extended beyond any hardship that one could imagine. And they had empathy. Soon, Bayan came to sit on my lap as well, sticking the straw of her orange juice box in my mouth while her mother giggled at her two children who were force-feeding me in the yellow light of the single street lamp just above their tented encampment.
As a journalist documenting the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and on the move constantly, I didn’t fast this year. It is an excuse I tell the refugees who ask. But, mostly, it’s an excuse I tell myself. “These people don’t have to fast either,” explained Zahra Ahmedi, an Afghan refugee, earlier that day at the makeshift camp in Piraeus port. “They choose to.” Guilt washed over me then. I knew I could be fasting if I wanted to.
The truth was that I didn’t want to fast, and I had found a perfectly acceptable excuse not to. According to the Qur’an, Sûrah al-Baqarah: 184, all Muslims are required to fast “for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (should be made up) from days later.” It could be argued that for the refugees who are currently stuck in Greece, and throughout Europe, it is not obligatory for them to fast now either, as long as they make up the days they did not fast, before Ramadan begins next year. Nearly all of the refugees I have spent time with over the past month have fasted the full 30 days though. It is a testament to their strength as well as their faith.
The next day, slipping through a heavy iron gate, I quietly make my way into a camp in Oinofyta, on the outskirts of Athens, Greece. It is a small camp, and it is run almost entirely by the refugees themselves. It is nearing sunset and the afternoon heat has begun to subside. Several Afghan men play a friendly game of volleyball on one side of the camp, while the women and children help prepare the Eid meal in the kitchens on the other side. Lisa Campbell, the camp manager and director of operations of Do Your Part, an NGO with a strong presence in the camp, had bought 220lbs of fresh chicken earlier in the day to be cooked for the special Eid feast. At 7:30 in the evening, two large caldrons were already simmering away, one with Kabuli rice and the other with chicken.
Milk crates of chopped vegetables—carrots, onions and tomatoes—and the uncooked chicken that didn’t fit into the pot, sat to the side. Several strong men stirred the pots, occasionally dumping more chicken into one, or carrots into the other. A few women busied themselves with the remainder of the cooking prep, while the others watched, with tired eyes, their children dance to the Indian Bollywood songs blaring from a single large speaker.
There would be a feast tonight, and enough food to fill 200 bellies. But sorrow and hopelessness were not far off, lurking in the shadows brought on by the setting sun. In a feeble tent across the camp, Sakina, 28, sits with her six children and her husband, Nasirahmed, waiting for the festivities to officially begin. Sakina’s only daughter, Uranooz, who is already much older than her seven years, sits in her newly donated dress in front of her mother while she gets her freshly washed hair braided. She fidgets endlessly until her mother releases her, and she dashes off in the direction of the music.
Sakina spent the day plucking eyebrows and applying make-up for the other women in the camp. I ask her if she is happy that it is finally Eid. “Eid?” she asks looking around and shaking her head in disbelief. “My mother and my sister are in Afghanistan. My father and my brother are dead,” she said. “It is very difficult.” As she sits, surrounded by her children, a heavily pregnant woman enters her tent and asks Sakina to do her eyebrows and make-up. Laying down on the floor, her belly shifting entirely to one side, the woman submits herself to the expert and quick hands of Sakina. She is due for a cesarean section on Friday, the last day of the Eid celebrations. “I worked a lot today, helping the women here do their hair and make-up,” said Sakina, as she cradled the other woman’s head in her lap and studied her eyebrows. “It was very hard because I have to manage my children at the same time. My husband suffers from stress and the doctor told him to rest for two months. So I must care for my children.”
Not far off sit Samir Barikzay, 25, and his wife Aria Barikzay, 23. They are from Afghanistan and have been in the camp for nearly three months now. On June 26th, they welcomed their first baby to the world: a tiny boy whom they named Mustafa. Aria returned to the camp in Oinofyta from a hospital in Athens where she gave birth only a few days before Eid. As she sat in her tent cradling the baby, she looked around, letting her gave fall on his crib, some toiletries in the corner and then their bed—a pile of blankets folded one on top of the other so as to provide a little bit of cushioning at night. “It’s really bad with these tents. The weather is very hot and my son feels hot here.” As she shifted Mustafa in her arms, she continued, “it’s very hard to keep a newborn baby in this environment.”
It is the first day of the Eid celebrations, and the sound of tavla and laughter float through the tents, but she does not want to leave her tent for very long. Mustafa is small, perhaps underweight for his age, and she wants to be somewhere quiet and away from the chaos. Watching her lovingly, Samir explains the shame he feels this Eid. “I couldn’t buy clothes for Aria, or for my son. Even for myself. [Traditionally] we buy new clothes for Eid.” Shaking his head he continued: “This is not Eid that we are celebrating here.”
*Some names have been changed or withheld to protect the identity of the individuals