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In Arabic, the root word of Ramadan means intense heat, which is exactly the taste that Amina Ramadan likes the most.  I found this out in the most unfortunate of ways when I was working side by side with her in the garden of Kara Tepe.  She picked a perfectly ripe green chili pepper that was dangling from a plant she had just weeded around, and after taking a bite, passed to me and said “Here. Very good.”  I’ve learned so far that cultural norms dictate I accept most offerings out of politeness, which I immediately regretted as my eyes swelled with tears and I coughed like a first time smoker.  With fire rising from my tongue, I passed the pepper back to her and said the most obvious statement of the day: “Hot!”

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Amina poses with David, facilitator of the Kara Tepe garden project.

I have worked side by side with Amina for more than a month now at the chai station that functions much like a water cooler of the western business world, only with much more importance.  People come here not just to fill up on the over-sugared hot batch beverage that wasps swirl around by the dozens, but to make meaningful connections.  They grab snacks of dates and crackers laid out for them on a table up front and talk about new camp policies, people who have left for Athens, news from back home.  They practice English with volunteers, teach us Arabic or Farsi, and ask questions about Europe.  Sometimes they just come for hugs or friendly smiles.

Nearby, there are benches where people can sit and charge cell phones using the four outlets running from an extension cord.  In the heat of the day, thin mattresses appear in the shade of the awning and people shuttle back and forth to the chai station to fill their cups with Amina’s brew.  Across from the chai station is a stack of pallets near the popular centers of operation for several NGOs.  Also in a shaded area, residents hang around the area waiting for a new pot to reach sweet perfection so they can pounce on the dark brown elixir and suck it down in its still boiling form.

Amina prepares each batch with pride, measuring out the right proportions of sugar and tea for each pot that she has whoever is available carry over to the propane stand from the faucet after filling.  A bunch of volunteers hang out in the gated area, but everyone knows Amina is in charge.  Whenever someone wants a new cup, they ask her.  Whenever someone has a question about anything in camp, they ask her, and rightfully so, because as the leader of the central point for camp communication, she knows everything.  Amina has the most humble personality you will ever encounter and even if she won’t wear the paper Burger King-esq crown I made her, she is still the Queen of Kara Tepe.

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Queen Amina relaxes while being fanned by Eddie and I as Janos feeds her dates on one of many blistering days in Kara Tepe.

Her unfathomable journey from Aleppo, Syria to the Greek island of Lesvos has a storyline that falls far short of what your worst nightmares are made of.  Every week, I would hear bits and pieces from other volunteers who had formed a strong connection with her or had seen a BBC documentary she was featured in which I hadn’t yet forced myself to watch.  I couldn’t bear to ask her about her story after I saw a reporter interviewing her where she flipped through pictures of her husband and tried to hold back the tears she was too strong and proud to show.  Whatever the wound, I knew it was deep and I didn’t want to be the one to pick at it.

As a loud young male from America who tries to keep as much skin exposed to the breeze as possible, I didn’t know how to properly interact with a conservative elder female from Syria who stays covered from head to toe like most women here do, despite the heat.  Could I hug her like the girls do? Could just the two of us have a private in-depth conversation?  Language was not the issue, our interactions felt awkward because we both were constantly feeling out the cultural expectations of one another.

I would bring her candy once I saw she had a sweet tooth, and she would give me extra food once she saw I had a bottomless stomach.  Amina was always making salads for volunteers because at her core she is a caretaker.  Some days she would see us glossed over in sweat and famished and force her own food upon us pretending that she was not hungry or had just eaten something else.

Basil, another world class resident volunteer, her and I would spend hours in the tea station area with other young vested helpers, sharing laughs, stories and tea pouring responsibilities.  Kids would try to sneak into the tea station to play with volunteers telling them to leave to no avail.  Amina would say the same thing and they would instantly listen.  The same went for adults trying to skirt the known rules such as getting more chai than allowed.  She has a fair strictness to her that commands respect, but one that never counteracts her radiating love and kindness.

She often holds and cuddles an infant I like to call the miracle baby.  As Amina explained to me, this child made the crossing over the Aegean from Turkey when she was one month old.  There was a shipwreck somewhere between the coasts and the child was assumed dead as the other passengers struggled to stay afloat.  After a half hour of capsized refuge seekers treading and searching, they the miracle baby bobbing up and down on her back with the waves, a big smile on her face.  Amina is now a central part of the whole village that is raising this child.

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Amina holds The Miracle Baby while Basil squats beside them.  [Photo shared with permission from parents]

Many afternoons had been spent sitting next to each other, exchanging short pleasantries during long periods of silence as she crocheted different pieces to give to friends’ babies or showcase at a local art show.  Amina and I shared the same space for weeks, yet still we felt distant.

But this day in the garden was different.  As I crouched down to take a picture, she enthusiastically approached me with a double fistful of tomatoes.  When I accidentally pulled up plants thinking they were weeds, she covered for me by hiding them deep into other piles of discarded pluckings.  She twisted random leaves off different plants and handed them to me to try, saying things like “Good for soup” or “Good for salad.” She seemed to know everything about this domain of greenery as new leaves kept appearing in my mouth with commentary like “In Syria, this very good.”

Amina is sharp and witty in all interactions even here as she picked up a small jagged-edged leaf that crunched too loudly when she bent it.  “David [garden organizer] wait too long, this no good now” she lambasted, noting that this beautiful tea herb was now a few days past its prime.  It was the first time we felt like real friends.

In the revolving door of a refugee camp where resident and volunteer goodbyes come more often than sunrises, many are hesitant to develop bonds they know might get packed down with soil before they have the chance to really bud.  Today after gardening, Amina spoon fed me a potent heap of Za’atar so I could taste the in-demand spice I thought I had purchased for several people, hopefully saving me from messing up again.  We full-belly laughed at both my obvious mistake and lip puckered face fighting to hold back a shot of the fine powder thyme-based blend.  I nodded my head to her, and her to me, silently acknowledging that through our cultural and gender hesitancies, we had in fact blossomed.

After getting back home from camp well past midnight, I woke up early the next morning I did what I had avoided doing since I got here.  I went to a cafe with wifi, watched the BBC piece she was featured in and tried to be as strong as she was in holding back the tears.  The video would be enough to make my eyes well-up if I was sitting on a couch one thousand miles removed from the situation, but now it had a whole different level of intensity.

After months of waiting in Kara Tepe, Amina has finally gotten her papers to travel to Athens and will make the journey in the last week of August.  I worry that she might be lost without a task to devote herself to and a team of volunteers to take care of.  I’m scared that she might miss the outpouring of love and respect from the triple digits of people that flock to drink her tea every single day, even in extreme heat and darkness.  The opportunity to move along on this next stage of her journey is a blessing a long time coming, but also comes with a loss.  I know how strong she is and I steadfastly believe she will rise above any hardship life throws her way.  After watching her story as told by the BBC, my mind can’t help but play on repeat the words of a famous Maya Angelou poem:

‘You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise’

‘Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise’

‘Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise’

‘I rise
I rise
I rise’

 

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