I had been working at the refugee Community Center on Lesvos for only three days when I spotted the American couple.
In the middle of the chaos and super charged energy, they stood out, sitting very still on a bench and waiting for ... something. When I introduced myself they explained to me that they had traveled from California in order to remodel the Child Care Center. They had everything, they told me, from paint to rugs and from shelves to educational toys, a whole lot of it waiting in a white van outside, filled to the brim with a somewhat anachronistic world of Ikea goodness. They said that they had emailed the staff many times letting them know about their project, had only received sporadic responses, and that on that morning, no one seemed to be expecting them at all. They looked worried and disheartened and it was clear to me that they had hoped for a warmer welcome, something at the very least matching their big effort.
The woman was a newly retired teacher and ever since she had heard about the Community Center, she had fund-raised tirelessly to bring to life her vision of creating a beautiful, peaceful and inspiring place for hundreds of kids temporarily living in the island’s camps.
I eventually got them connected with some of the Center’s coordinators and it was agreed that the Child Care Center would be closed until Monday, giving the American couple three and a half days to create their makeover.
They immediately put a big “Closed until Monday” sign on the door - written in four languages - and went to work.
The following Saturday was a wildly rainy day and the Center was quieter than usual. In order to get to us, people usually needed to walk about an hour, which was rarely a problem given the big stretch of hours often spent waiting for legal decisions to be made. But when the rain came, it made the trip way more difficult and mostly men would then show up, as the idea of pushing a stroller or two in the beating rain was not a fun prospect for most moms.
As I walked through the sweet calm and dryness of of the main hall on my way to the bathroom, I noticed another couple sitting on a bench, near the door to the Child Care Center. They were wet, looked to be originally from Afghanistan and had two small children with them, including a toddler who seemed to be in a fit of unconsolable tears. I approached them and tried to enquire as to what was so sad. The mom pointed to the big “Closed until Monday” sign on the door and then to her toddler. They had walked all the way from Moria in the rain in order to give their kids a few hours of play, only to find the door closed. In a normal life this would be a disappointment, but in their lives it was a really big deal, one more door shut in their face and one more incarnation of the powerlessness of their situation.
You see, there was so many things I would never know about all the people I shared days with, so many stories I would never hear. But one thing was pretty much for sure: anyone and everyone there had arrived by boat, at night, and in conditions that are the stuff of which drama and scary movies are made. Newborns, kids, parents, old people, they all had crossed that dangerous stretch of water, at least once. And by then I knew enough to know that in doing so, they had experienced trauma akin to nothing I could personally relate to. Whatever had happened before and after the crossing varied, but the crossing was pretty much universal, and that knowledge was always with me.
So on that morning a child was upset and his parents too tired to do anything more than hold his crying body. I knew better than to cheerily propose that they come back on Monday. Because for any child, three days is basically three years and because over there, from Thursday to Monday, many things can happen.
That’s when I noticed that between sobs, the child was looking at something. He was looking at a large clear plastic tote, one of four stacked outside the Center’s door. The totes were filled with “the old toys” while the new, more educative ones were getting tastefully arranged on blond wood shelves, inside. Some of the old totes contained blocks and some contained other treasures. The one that had his attention was full of colorful balls.
Maybe because we could not speak the same language (I mostly only know how to say “popcorn” and “sit down” in Farsi), we were able to communicate really effectively. I looked at the child, I pointed at the balls, I looked at his parents and it was immediately obvious that between all of us, we would be able to solve this situation quickly. Success was within reach and we were about to celebrate a great international win.
All I had to do was reach for the tote and lift the lid.
I was inches away from victory when the Child Care Center’s door opened ever so slightly and a face appeared in its opening. As though telepathically attached to anyone trying to revive the old toys, the face informed me that it had been previously decided that none of these toys would be used again and that the Center would re-open with beautiful new toys on Monday, which after all, was only two days away.
Then the door closed again. Click went the inside lock.
Eight eyes were on me as my brain was trying to catch up to this latest update. One side of me was working on some sort of equation and grasping for a place where any of this made any sense. The other side of me was reaching for the lid with one hand and grabbing two balls with the other.
One yellow ball and one red ball.
Lid went back down, yellow ball went to the baby and red ball went to the toddler.
Breaths were held for a brief second or two, and then a huge smile broke on the kid’s face and the parents exhaled simultaneously. Hand on her heart, the mom thanked me.
That’s when the door opened again and the face was back in its previous place. Undoubtedly telepathically informed of my breach, the eyes now looked at me questioningly.
At that moment, I knew that there was very little in this world that would be capable of making me put these two plastic balls back in the tote. I knew, just knew, that the balls were just where they belonged and that while I could provide an explanation, there was no turning back.
Before I could think clearly, I was graced with an explanation to pass on. What I said was: “you know what? There are a whole lot of things we can’t do much about, but this, this we can fix. So I did.”
And that was that.
I think that the woman might have nodded before closing the door back behind her, the kids were happy, the parents relieved and me ... I was healed.
Healed from the paralysis I had experienced the past few days, the paralysis that had kept me awake at night and sobbing on my way home each evening. The paralysis that came from a thought that went like this: “I can’t fix this huge mess, it’s just way too big.” Followed by: “then I better just do what I am asked and nothing more.”
This way of being had meant that yes I did teach English to my students but no, I did not sit down with them at lunch to hear their stories. It meant that yes, I served tea to the women in the Women Center, but no, I did not give them rides back to the camps. Really it meant that I erected walls around my heart and boundaries around my involvement.
Because it was too damn big for me to really do anything about.
What a lie.
That little red ball saved me from living a lie for the next two weeks.
Immediately, I knew that while I could not stop smugglers from selling false promises and boat engines from falling in the water and the camps from sucking the soul out of people’s dignity and the governments from doing too little, I could still do a lot. I could listen, I could stretch, I could connect. Mostly I could allow life to guide me where it wanted to, where it knew I could bring a little butter in a vast mountain of spinach (that’s a French saying, please humor me)
This, right here is my truth and the place from where I live best.
Today, I invite you to consider that while you may not be able to change laws, generational trauma or even your kids’ finances, there is most likely a little Red Ball waiting somewhere for you to pass it on to just the right person at just the right moment. And that by doing so, you are allowing your heart to stretch to a full breath and you are also applying for a most delicious lifetime position of making life sweeter for others and yourself.
That’s pretty good stuff.