Please, lady, don’t choose the Ugg boots, anything but the goddamn Ugg boots.
I’m in the clothes tent at a cliff-side refugee transit camp in Lesvos, Greece. It’s a slow day, so the Iraqi-Kurdish lady has time to pick out which shoes she’d like. Having just clambered out of dodgy boats, most refugees come to the camp shivering in wet shoes and clothes. We volunteers distribute dry replacements very sparingly: all of these shoes and clothes are donations and there aren’t enough to go around.
But back to the Ugg boots. Even on an average day, they really drive me nuts. An Australian invention, the woolly, sheepskin slippers were originally designed for indoor wear in an Australian winter. As an Aussie living in London, I’ve become (irritably) accustomed to seeing sodden Ugg-boots shuffle and drag Londoners through the cold, damp city. But this refugee woman is about to attempt to cross Europe…in winter.
I hold up a seriously ugly (but seriously sturdy!) pair of electric-blue snow boots. These, I say, are just perfect for crossing the Balkans. Those, she says, are the ugliest pair of shoes I have ever seen in my life. As there are no translators present, she says this with one eyebrow.
I have a go at mimicking a person wearing Ugg boots in the snow. Have you ever tried to mimic a person wearing Ugg boots in the snow? It’s a challenge, but I lay it on thick: I drag my feet through an imaginary Balkan field, I shiver, I grimace, I curse my soaked Ugg boots, and squint wearily out at the dense Balkan snow… She raises that eyebrow again, pauses, and, to my utter surprise, lunges out playfully and starts tickling me. It’s that intensely painful kind of tickling everyone hates, and I grimace for real ─ eventually forcing out something that passes for a chuckle. I assume such tickling is a Kurdish response to idiocy.
It takes working in the clothes tent, or in one of the warehouses, to realise that most of the stuff we humans wear (or wore and donated to charity) isn’t even remotely warm. There are coats with wool and fur trimmings, or jumpers that seem to be made for winter because they have a turtleneck or a hood, but too much of the stuff is poor quality, synthetic crap that wouldn’t keep you warm on a European spring night. Coming from a warm climate myself, I know that unless you’ve shivered through a few northern winters you don’t really get winter clothing: rejecting puffy jackets because they make you look fat. The refugees I’ve met at the clothes tent similarly don’t quite get the idea of layering, or of snow proofing, or of thermal gear, or that it’s going to get much, much colder where they are going (it’s 8° in Lesvos this evening, it’ll be -2° in Austria as early as next week).
After our excruciating tickling session, this woman (half my size, twice my force of personality) grabs the Ugg boots and starts shoving her foot (kind of violently) into one. It’s a struggle and she’s stretching and straining. We’ve all been there lady: you love the shoes but they just don’t fit. The Uggs are reluctantly put aside. I cheer inwardly and reach for the electric-blue space-boots. Another eyebrow moment and she slips them effortlessly on. A perfect fit. Another punishing tickle-break and she runs off barefoot into the cold night with her new shoes in hand. It’s possible she’s not ready to be seen wearing them in public.
I feel really good…and only partly because the Uggs were defeated. I felt the same way the night before when I slept in the huge tent next door with a group of newly arrived Iranian refugees. It was raining and cold outside. The wind beat against the tent and it groaned and creaked all night. But the huge electric heater was blasting out and everyone was fast asleep – all dry and wrapped up in grey felt blankets. It was so warm, so safe and so serene. Thinking about where these people had come from, and where they were headed, it felt to me like a one-night reprieve. A too brief moment of calm within the storm.
The philosophy that inspires the local organisations and volunteers that clothe and house refugees in Lesvos is one of welcome. Something along the lines of: ‘We can’t do much, but we offer our hospitality and a warm welcome’. The warm glow I received from seeing the Iraqi-Kurdish lady in snow-shoes or the Iranian refugees slumbering in a tent was, I think, the glow of successfully enacting hospitality. Such enactment is universal, ancient and no doubt has an evolutionary basis. It’s definitely thriving in Lesvos: an island that has been dependent on such interactions with strangers for thousands of years.
But where does the responsibility for guests end? Say you have a guest who comes to stay at your house for a week. For that period of time you become deeply engaged in their welfare: you feed them, you make their bed up, you hope they sleep well and their concerns become your concerns. So too the refugee welcome here: unnourishing but momentarily satisfying nutella sandwiches, warm tents, provisional clothing – all serve to welcome the traveller in the moment they are under your roof (or on your island). But once they get on the bus that takes them on their journey, they also leave the realm of your responsibility: ‘Take care!’ ‘Bon voyage!’ ‘ (you’re on your own now…). Sure, you care what happens beyond the time you share together, but the ‘hospitable impulse’ seems to me to be bound by time and space and finds its special quality within those boundaries.
These snow-boot inspired thoughts have struck me while I welcome refugees to the coldest winter they are likely to have ever experienced. But winter is just one of the many threats they will encounter as they smack against the rapidly closing doors of Europe. They will face government-sanctioned brutality at the Greece-Macedonia border, they will fear violence from their increasingly desperate fellow travellers, they will feel abandoned by the international humanitarian community, they will come up against razor-wire fences, and many, many of them will be sent straight back home. Being here, it’s easy to get caught up in the hospitable impulse: I see a lady walk away with warm boots and I feel my work is done and, hey (I think), what else can one do anyway in a humanitarian crisis? But there is also this dilemma: why are we welcoming people to such cruelty and danger? And, who am I to provide snow-shoes that walk straight into harm?
Many thanks to Karim Ani for the cover photo.