Today I sat on a tiny stool in a taylor’s workshop, waiting to put some questions to the taylor, a Syrian Kurd by the name of Diari. I was in a wonderful refugee community centre which occupies a site on a run-down industrial estate above the sea in the vicinity of one of the camps, and is run by a bunch of inspired young volunteers. The workshop is tiny, four walls of white-washed chipboard thrown up at the centre’s entrance. One small table bears a modern Singer sewing machine; another has a built-in, older machine in yellowing bakalite. Spools of cotton thread in different colours hang from pegs on the wall. Stacks of threadbare men’s clothes wait for attention, neatly folded. There are corduroys, blue jeans, brown jeans, shirts, synthetic sports jackets. Clothes which were sent to Lesbos second-hand as donations by concerned Germans, Swiss and Brits, and which, after months of daily use in refugee camps, are wearing out.
Diari is on his feet, a tape measure dangling round his neck as he takes orders from his unending stream of customers. A short, bearded man in his twenties, he listens patiently as an Iraqi from Mosul explains that the jeans he’s wearing are too long. ‘Okay,’ Diari says, ‘let’s see how much needs to come off’’. He gets down on the floor and folds the denim into a cuff. Before he’s finished another Iraqi comes through the open door, clutching a synthetic sweat shirt. ‘It’s too baggy!’ he cries, ‘can you make it fit me tighter?’ He’s tall with an Affro, flamboyant in his mannerisms, and I wonder how much his sense of fashion comes into it.
An older man with stained teeth lounges against the door, very friendly. He tells me he’s Tunisian. We talk in Arabic, switch to French, then back to Arabic. ‘My asylum’s been refused,’ he explains. ‘They don’t give it to people from North Africa, except the Algerians.’
I’m wondering whether I can ask whether he’s likely to be deported to Turkey, when a tall, thin African comes in. His jeans are in a condition to give the concept of ‘distressed denim’ a whole new meaning; and his navy anorak looks as if it wouldn’t keep the rain out even for seconds. Diari and the man communicate in broken English, and a few words of French.
It strikes me Diari is the busiest person I’ve seen in weeks. I offer to fetch him a cup of tea, but he insists that no, it is he who will fetch tea for me. While he’s gone, a young Syrian woman puts her head round the door, clutching a pink and black taffeta strapless party dress, the sort that has to fit tightly over the bust in order to stay on. It’s too big for me, she confides to Diari when he returns with the tea in paper cups. He turns it inside out and starts to pin it. I can’t believe she’s planning to wear it in the camp.