Posts Tagged ‘White Container’

I got home and stripped all of my clothes off and watched the water, grey from the dust caked on my legs swirl down the drain.  All day long, I feel sweat dripping down my body, except in the rare moments when I rest in the shade and my attention is drawn instead to the industrial strength stickiness coating my arms.  The most liberating thing is to rip off my shirt, tear off my socks, lather up with soap and then change into a clean pair of shorts.  This I now realize, is a luxury I have taken for granted.  For the residents of Kara Tepe, there often are no clean clothes to change into.

Once a month, families can go “shopping,” although this isn’t the shopping you may be accustomed to.  Getting clothing here consists of making an appointment two weeks in advance and hoping you don’t lose the little ticket that it’s written on.  When your day finally comes, you and your family show up to sit on a newly constructed bench opposite a small white shipping container filled with shelves of clothing bins, the whole area surrounded by a cage.  There is no Kohl’s to take a Saturday morning drive to, no advertisements showcasing latest fashions or variety of styles, there is simply the often barren contents of the white container.


Two HSA volunteers walk toward the clothing distribution center, better known as “the white container” [Photo Credit: Aurelie B.]

A family of eight and a family of five entered the cage and the adults squeezed onto the bench that barely fits them while children ran around in unpredictable patterns seemingly targeting the knees of volunteers in the claustrophobic 10’x10’ area.  There were only three volunteers working in the white container this day and both families competed for our attention with waves and pointing to their feet preceded by “my friend, my friend”, a clear signal that they wanted shoes I knew we didn’t have.

I took the family of five while the two other volunteers started with the family of eight.  I grabbed a clipboard with checklist to track the one item from each clothing category people are allowed to get: Short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, bottoms, socks, shoes, hat, underwear, bra, jacket, flip-flops, other.  Residents are not allowed in the white container so the process, through an awkward series of pantomiming and touching our own clothing, is to figure out what they need and bring out a small selection from the white container to show them.

I decided to start with the father, because I find men far easier to channel my inner fashionista for.  The policies say we are only supposed to bring out four of each item for people to choose from, but that’s a horrible policy, so I don’t follow it.  Here is how that actually works when put into action: A man wants a T-shirt and I bring out one that is too big, one that is too small, one that has a subtle stain down the front, and another that I didn’t realize was bedazzled.  However, back in the container ten feet away from me are thirty other shirts.  I will not force a man into choosing the least awful of a pile of crap when I know there might be better options; this isn’t American politics.  I can prevent this. My own personal policy is that these are human beings and I will keep bringing out items for them to see until they find something that makes them happy.

That father today was quick and easy. Thanks to the unpredictably good stock of donations, he got brand new jean shorts with pockets, brand new boxer shorts, and a black baseball cap bearing the logo of some foreign company.  He now sports a new grey “Football People” shirt that scores of other men around camp wear because we got a bulk donation.  Their numbers are growing to compete with the flock wearing leftover Tough Mudder shirts and those rocking threads with an inspirational quote and face of either Nelson Mandela or Bob Marley.  This man wanted a long sleeve shirt too, which I couldn’t give him because due to the potential of increasing arrivals, we have cut back on what we can give.  So begins the age of the one shirt policy, a sacrifice one must make for the good of the state so as not to draw selfishly on limited resources.

The same goes for footwear.  His were not technically broken, so he’s stuck with them.  The uneven jaggedness of the ground eats through flip-flops in about a week.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Pennsylvania had hundreds of miles of infamous rock clusters sharper than a knife (I still have a scar down the length of my forearm to prove it), but Kara Tepe may be ripping up my soles faster.  People need footwear, but we often have nothing for them.


Four-season shoes of child refugee from Syria that will be considered acceptable for many months to come. They are in much better shape than what most Kara Tepe residents rely on. [executive-magazine.com]

The mother wanted black leggings, the most in-demand item, but all we had were heavy sweatpants and jeans five sizes too big.  She asked for a black scarf, we only had bright colors.  She asked for underwear, but only males were working at clothing distribution, so to avoid awkward and potential cultural conflicts, the family waited for ten minutes while I went to go find a female volunteer to handle the selection.  The mother then quickly tried to make a choice as handfuls of strangers leaning on the cage behind her looked on.

I moved onto the teenage daughter who surprisingly didn’t appear to shoot laser beams out of her eyes at me like most girls do in this clothes acquisition process that is so drastically different from what they grew up with.  I didn’t have anything good for her, but each item I brought out, I held up to my body as I danced and sang, selling it like a cheap infomercial so I didn’t have to tell her there was nothing else for her.

While this was happening, two children from the large family the other two volunteers were working with had a crying competition in which none of us were the winners.  Their sixteen year old brother tried to calm them down as he helped them try on socks and a pair of shoes two sizes two small.  No one wants to ask where the father of the family was because by the way the older brother was handling things, it’s clear the worst may have happened to their absent father.

He was presented with the only pair of jean shorts in his size, which he at first accepted graciously and then asked us politely for another pair because he didn’t like the stitching pattern on the back pockets.  We knew there was nothing else, but pretended to look anyway.  Just to offer a point of comparison, he was shown a pair of large shorts down to his ankles with no pockets so the originals might look better in comparison.  These are the awful mind games we wish we didn’t have to play.  The whole while children were still crying and people peering into the clothing area were asking for various items even though they knew they needed to make an appointment.

The next hour, a woman of about eighty told me through a translator who was luckily standing by the cage and from Afghanistan as well, that she wanted a long sleeve white shirt that went below the knees.  I knew we had nothing like that in stock, but I always try to look anyway.  She didn’t make eye contact with me the whole time, and when I walked out with the five white shirts we had, she refused to look at them.  With palm down, she waved her hand in the universal sign of “get those out of my face,” then stood up and walked out with the help of her cane.

No one walks away with an entirely good feeling.  Residents may have gotten something that they can tolerate while volunteers have snuck into the white container to throw things, jump around in general boughts of frustration, or cry.  There is a lot of crying on both sides.

Think about if you were displaced in a different country you knew nothing about.  A visibly stressed girl in her mid-twenties approaches you and says something really fast in a language that you don’t understand.  She repeats herself several times, pausing to enunciate more and turns up her volume which you find condescending.  Finally, she gets frustrated enough to just give up and say something different several times.  You know this is a clothing appointment so you ask for a red T-shirt with no writing on it, and a dark colored baseball cap.  Not being able to understand you, she walks away thinking she has it all figured out and brings out four black abayas for you to look at, but not try on, along with the one hijab she has left.  Don’t know what an abaya or hijab are? My point exactly.

Most of our clothes are donations from western countries and some are downright inappropriate for the more conservative dress style of people we work with.  When a woman wrapped from head to ankle with a light cotton, flower-print fabric comes in for an appointment, there is no way I am going to bring her a shirt that says “Bitch Please” on it or a bright pink halter-top.  When a kid wants shorts so he can run around and play soccer with his friends and all I can offer him is corduroy pants and a suggestion to cut them into shorts, we have a problem.  There are some people who would rather be naked than wear the stuff we show them on a poorly stocked day.  If you are more than two standard deviations away from the mean size for your gender, that may very well look like your only option.  We can do better, we need to do better.  I will do better.

Just because international aid standards, as our NGO Head of Mission reminds us, says refugees only need one change of clothes in addition to what they are wearing, doesn’t make that right.  Try sweating in temperatures of 95 degrees for a full month with no escape from the heat because the interior of your housing unit is at least 10 degrees hotter.  Imagine your wardrobe consists of only two pairs of jeans, a pair of flip flops the thickness of three pennies, one pair of underwear, two black T-shirts, and a bucket hat.  With six screaming children, do you think you’ll be able to find the time and energy to hand wash your clothes each day with a bucket and soap you need to hunt down on your own?  Do you think you’ll be able to hold yourself together when a volunteer tells you getting a new shirt is not an emergency and you’ll have to make an appointment next month after you spilled coffee on your only other shirt late last night when you got a text message from your friend back home saying their four children died from an airstrike while at school?


A woman hangs her family’s “summer” clothing up to dry on a fence at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp [Photo Credit: Basil]

Not just as an organization, but as humanity, we can do better and we need to do better.  I will do better.  We can never let our tank run out of empathy, for it is when we are tired and frustrated that we need it the most.  Perspective is important for understanding that no one is coming to us hoping for the awkward, heavy clothing we frequently show them in sizes too big or small that most of you reading this would be appalled to even look at.  Residents here shouldn’t have to accept awful options because as some volunteers have snarkily stated “they are refugees, they should take what I give them and be happy.” They are people.  They have sacrificed everything to get to this point where they are sitting in front of us.  They deserve better clothes and they deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity.  I would say we all need to walk a mile in their shoes, but most of them don’t have shoes, only flimsy flip-flops you wouldn’t last ten steps in.

My next post will be about my mission to do better by organizing a trip to Turkey with co-workers on my day off to restock clothing with generous donations from my GoFundMe page.  I will return again in a couple weeks so if you want to fund some clothing, $10 can buy a pair of brand new shoes, socks, underwear, tank top, and a hat!

In the meantime, if your closet needs a purge and you can afford the international shipping costs, I know many people who would love to have more clothing options.  Please send to:
David Triboulot
Kara Tepe Camp
81100 Mytilini, Lesvos, Greece

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