The Reading Circle - Lily Cosman

Dragging each foot, one by one, up the steep slope of the camp. It’s just early enough that the endless cement hasn’t fully absorbed the sun of a summer day in Greece. The straps of a well-worn Ikea bag dig into my shoulders as I drag piles of books, flashcards, and water up the hill. Each tent I pass is just starting to shake, as its occupants wake to file into the long line to wait for their morning breakfast. Each person I encounter has nothing but a smile and kind words to share, which will never cease to amaze me. I recognize familiar faces each morning at the same time, in the same place. This is only a glimpse of the monotony and stagnant nature of time in a refugee camp. 

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As I slowly make my way up past each level of the camp, a parade of children forms as  they join in the morning ritual. This is the beginning of morning reading circle. Activities like this allow for these displaced children to expect safety and contentment for a period of time, which differs from their typical atmosphere of frustration and rejection. The anticipation of a moment of joy, no matter how small, can be extraordinarily significant to the lives of wearied children living in a refugee camp. They can count on something, even if it is only the promise of a march of friendly faces past their makeshift homes each morning. The positive impact that this routine allows is emphatically tangible through each interaction with a child. They call out “my friend, my friend!” Tiny hands desperately grasping for one’s attention. With a child hanging off both of my arms and legs I gradually make it to a patch of dirt underneath a few olive trees.

This dusty haven sits just outside the barbed wire fences and is home to kids activities, held Monday- Saturday. From there I look up to the camp and see little bodies hurtling down the hill tripping over their matching, mass distributed, rubber sandals. We instruct them to form a circle, “Duera Kabira”. Although many don’t speak Arabic they are not unaccustomed to hearing unfamiliar languages and mimicking the sound, “Duera! Duera!”, like parrots. Hands joined, we start to sing songs accompanied by very enthusiastic dance moves. Every face in the circle lights up when a melody begins. You can see a young mind recognizing a familiar tune and being able to continue it despite the language barriers. The more devoted adolescents, who rarely miss a morning of reading, start to be able to conduct the activities themselves. They know the ins & outs of the operation and begin to take initiative. It’s enormously inspirational to observe these children asserting their knowledge in a place where, more often than not, their voices are not heard. After we have gone through all of the songs, multiple times, two books are chosen from the heavy sack laid underneath one of the olive trees. The books are mostly in English but the universal truth for kids is that the pictures are the main event. Three volunteers sit cross-legged in a circle with upwards of 15 energetic children huddling around to hear a story. Capturing their attention is no easy task. It involves hand gestures and sound effects that makes reading Where the Wild Things Arefrightfully dramatic. For a split second, everything seems to be going smoothly until I peek over my shoulder to see one little boy grabbing fistfuls of ants swarming around a pile of trash with a devious grin.  I watch him lunge forward, but before I can take any preventative measure, the ants have been shoved down the back of a young girl’s shirt. 

Every morning at reading circle there is some time spent juggling rock throwing, hitting, spitting and those actually eager to read. Just when you turn your back you hear a call from another child, “ALI BABA!”. The reference to the Tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is a very effective way the children have found to call attention to those stealing.  The whistleblower stands, pointing a small finger in the direction of the thief who has two books stuffed under his shirt and a pack of stickers poking out of the hole in his back pocket. This is the most popular game of all. As frustrating as it is, I understand the appeal. As a child, all you notice in that moment is the attention the act provides, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. This is the type of interaction and connection that many kids in the camp crave and seek any opportunity to receive.  

After all of the organized chaos has ended and the books are safely returned, we say our goodbyes. The depart down the slope of the camp does not differ much from the ascent. Each hand is occupied by a smaller one and the well-rehearsed songs are repeated once again. Tomorrow, reading circle will be held again and although this routine is repetitive in nature it allows for consistency in a painfully uncertain environment. See you tomorrow. Wallah. 

Samos Volunteers