I spoke with this man for a total of maximum 10 minutes. I never got his name, but so he is named after the things he wanted – clothes that fit.
Every day we set up a table and about 30-40 refugees come to us to tell us what hygienic and clothing items they need for themselves. We fill out a receipt, give them a copy, run to the warehouse, fulfill the orders, and deliver it the the receipt holders the next day. Sometimes people say they have lost the receipt or stay for extras, understandably. The system is meant to most efficiently distribute specific needs. It works a hell of a lot better than just opening up a truck full of shoes or bread and igniting a free-for-all where the fittest survive.
This man came to the table on my second day and worked with us to fill out a form. He specified that he wanted a belt size 38, and shoes size 48.
The warehouse where we get our donation items is used by NGOs from all over Idomeni. The hardest things to find are men’s clothes and shoes, so we knew going into the warehouse that it was going to be difficult to meet his needs. When this happens, we tell them at the table that we will try as hard as we can to find his items, but it will be difficult and maybe maybe maybe. If you work as a volunteer here, the most valuable Arabic word you will probably learn is “bukra” – “tomorrow”. (There are other languages in the camps, but majority Arabic-speaking.)
So when we appeared the next day and he presented his receipt, it was an unfortunate exchange of dismayed expressions and gestures. He stayed at the table longer than expected and I stood up to talk to him.
He was a big man – wide and tall – and he spoke with a soft voice in extremely limited English. This wasn’t the setting to sit and have a conversation with him, but I figure he was Pakistani.
As he towered over me, he urged that he needed shoes badly and the pants did not fit him. I wrote down what he wanted in my book to remind myself to look myself – a 38 belt and shoes size 47. I said I would look again, but he can ask others in the camp because it was unlikely I would find anything available.
I told him I could bring something tomorrow, but he said he would be leaving at 4pm that day. I would be going back to the warehouse in the afternoon, but would only be back around 7pm. And this time, he was the one that said “maybe”.
When refugees leave this small camp, it is only to be smuggled in or hike the mountain to sneak into Macedonia. Smuggling has varied consequences – success or jail or violence – and nobody knows the probability of any result. Macedonian police are notorious here for beating and robbing refugees attempting to illegally cross the border.
He found me later that afternoon, but I hadn’t been to the warehouse yet. We stood in the middle of a path by the gas station. The gas station wasn’t functioning, and there were tents surrounding it. Usually when you meet someone you have met before in the camp, there’s a gleeful exchange of smiles. The man who no clothes fit barely altered his expression and we shook hands. He again had to hunch down a bit to speak to me.
“I try to find belt later and bring to you. 38 belt? 48 shoe?”
“I will look for belt and shoes. Shoes is usually no. Belt maybe maybe. But tomorrow I look and I bring. Maybe.”
He nodded, but his expression remained. His eyes were deep and tired. His eyebrows were tilted slightly up. He looked like he was 40.
“Please don’t forget about me.”
I found a belt that night, but he wasn’t at the camp in the morning. I will keep the belt with us as long as possible.