In the last 3 months in Greece I have seen resilience, creativity, collaboration and kindness beyond belief. I enjoyed teas and meals in the tents of generous Syrian families, joined in snowball fights with kids, sang good morning songs with toddlers and seen volunteers from all over the world initiate photography and video projects, become teachers, start mobile libraries, kitchen projects and refugee support Coops in the cities.
In the last 3 months I have also seen despair and hopelessness, and a heartbreaking lack of care for people in need that are seeking a safe place in Europe. Politics and fears decide who is free and who is powerless and trapped. I heard children talk about bombs that fell on their city, I felt the cold of winter huddled around an electrical stove in unheated tents, and I heard desperate mothers admit to attempting suicide in the camp. The failure of the government and UNHCR to provide adequate shelter and care has been very visible and very hard to understand.
The Vasilika refugee camp
My time in Greece was mostly spent as part of the beautiful EKO community, which supports the people who live in Vasilika. EKO came into being when hundreds of people were stranded in the night at EKO gas station, not far from the border with Macedonia. Volunteers organised themselves at this informal site and offered support with EKO kitchen, education, kids activities, and most of all, community. The situation in Greece changed dramatically in March 2016 with the closure of the Greek and the Macedonian border. Additionally, the EU-Turkey statement went into effect on March 20. For the refugees at EKO station that meant they were moved into Vasilika camp, and the new EKO community decided to establish itself down the road. You can view this video to understand the story of the Syrian refugees and EKO community better.
Vasilika camp in Northern Greece is one of over 42 sites on the Greek mainland. Previously a chicken farm, Vasilika is a sad and inappropriate place for ‘refuge’. Families live in tents within hangars, with basic sanitary facilities, intermittent electricity and mediocre health care. There was a variety of NGO’s present in Vasilika camp like Save the Children. These NGO’s provided some language classes, kids activities and clothing distribution. Food provided by the Greek government was so inadequate that the Syrian people often offered it to us, the volunteers, instead. Families would cook their own meals, burning wood or sharing electrical stoves, as there were no kitchen facilities. Electricity was unreliable, even when less and less people lived in the camp. Surprisingly, it was never a problem at EKO or in our house in the next village. Other then having light in the evenings, and a working stove to cook, if you rely on electrical heaters to stay warm (if you are lucky) this is a huge issue. This frustrating problem was not uncommon in other camps, and sometimes volunteers and refugees would solve the problem where the government could or would not.
Washing clothes was another major issue for the mothers of families of 5 or 6, often with small children. Without washing machines hours were spent with hands in cold water, cracking the hands and making them vulnerable to sickness. When I started offering massages in my second month another world of pain showed itself. Literally everyone confided in me about their back and neck pains, related to poor physical health and emotional stress.
In spite of all this I have been amazed at the resilience and kindness of the families living here. They offered many sweet chais, delicious lunches and always welcoming smiles. People opened small grocery shops, falafel stands, there was coffee at Ali’s cafe, and the Syrian No borders organisation provided all sorts of support in the camp, from refugees to refugees.
Playtime at EKO
At the new EKO just down the road from Vasilika children can come for daily breakfast, play and activities, English classes, and afternoon playtime, all in the garden of kind Greek Papu. EKO revolved a lot around offering children the carefree experiences that should be part of their youth, and the healthy food and the education that they are lacking at this crucial time in their life. For adults we offered language classes in English, German and Spanish and an adult space for creative projects. No children allowed, trust me this was my favourite space too sometimes! “My friend, my friend!” everywhere at EKO you will find a kid that wants to play, climb on you, or invite you to their heima (tent) … If anything it is them that will crack your heart open, with their smiles and hugs and cheekiness. As time passed you get to know the children, their families, and their stories.
So much happened at EKO every day .. I witnessed the opening of the library, there was a photography course and exhibition by children, the making of a song and video clip, EKO TV production, shared lunches, daily kindergarten, volleyball classes and a football competition, the opening of the adult space for making art and jewellery, and sewing machines. There were visiting clowns, traveling dentists offering a day of emergency dental care, musicians performing, percussion workshops with recycled materials, we did massage and aromatherapy, organised football matches, and a spontaneous trip to the mountains when we could play in the snow.
For me, emotions were soaring low and high, getting to know the people over time. I miss little Ibrahim who loves everything Spiderman, and always wanted to clean the blackboard at the start of dad’s English class. Cute and quiet Naia who would look at you intently at baby madrasa (kindergarten), but never spoke much. Niroz and Selma the clever teenage sisters giggling in German class when we’d play Bingo or Pictionary. Ralia singing beautiful Kurdish songs at the birthday of her best friends sons (who you can see in the video below!). Zakaria, Atef and Mohammed, the dynamic trio who would always spend time with us at EKO and made us laugh, and empathise with the journey they are on. And last but not least I miss and appreciate so much the sweet friends I made, the volunteers I have been honoured to work with.
The good news is that of the initial 1200 refugees only 200-300 still remain in Vasilika camp, as many have been transferred to housing or hotels in the cities. Of at least of one family in Athens I have heard that the children are now attending school. But so far I have not heard of anyone in Vasilika camp receiving a placement in a European country. They are still waiting for the next interview, whenever that may be. Europe is reluctant in fulfilling their promises of offering a home to these people, and the last I heard is that only an embarassing 10% of the promised quotas have been accepted.
The magnitude of the refugee crisis
Even though there has been progress, for many the situation in Greece is still unbearable. According to the latest numbers 62,455 people are displaced in Greece as of December 19. At this very moment temperatures have dropped below zero and snow is falling, hundreds of people are still sleeping in unheated tents on the islands of Lesvos, on Chios and on Samos.
In Serbia’s Belgrade around 1800 people sleeping rough on the streets, weather forecast for this week says that the temperature in Belgrade will drop to -10 degrees Celsius. In Italy alone 5000 children disappeared in 2016 after registering with the authorities. Some may be passed to family, some may be criminally exploited. Worldwide, half of refugees are children, and hundreds of thousands of children that should be in school are missing essential years of education. Even more concerning is that they will grow up traumatised and may encounter xenophobia, discrimination, and exclusion in their future lives.
Beyond Europe it is actually countries like Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon which have by far the largest number of refugees. Of these Lebanon has the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world: 232 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants. These countries have even less resources and infrastructure to support these people.
Join this movement
There are many reasons to feel disempowered and frustrated, but we can choose to turn that around and do what we can in this very moment. I believe in the power of many, who refuse to keep a system in place that creates and accepts such suffering. We don’t need to fight an old dysfunctional system, we can use our energy to build something new and the old will no longer have a place in this world. I believe in people like Cédric Herrou, the French farmer who helped African refugees cross from Italy and provided them with shelter, and is now on trial for his heroic actions. I believe in a world of care and kindness, that I see when the volunteers and organisations on the ground come together to do the beautiful work they do. I believe in the young generation that Gets Shit Done without hesitation or apathy. If enough of us deeply care, and express our values with our thoughts, words and actions, we can shift to a more kind and inclusive world, one step at a time.
What can you do?
Seek out alternative news sources, as reporting on the refugee crisis in mainstream media is very limited – The Guardian has done some good reporting. The daily Are You Serious update to me is the best news source so far, written by volunteers on the ground. A lot of information I also get from various Facebook groups for volunteers, and other social media. Through Refugee Eyes is a beautiful project by Abdul Azez, an 18 year old photographer from Syria, documenting his daily life as he journeyed from Syria to Greece.
Donate stuff or money. Many small and large NGO’s are in need of financial support. Decide where you want to help, in Syria, European camps or closer to home? And decide what you care about most; emergency aid, medical aid, education, support for women?
Friends have asked me for recommendations, but I only know a few directly – or indirectly. I know the wonderful people of Worldwide Tribe, who will take over the EKO project. The Get Shit Done team was active near Vasilika. No Borders Kitchen in Lesvos is supporting refugees living outside of Moria camp. Khora community in Athens offers daily free lunch, education, dentist, legal support and more. City Plaza in Athens offers accommodation, food and education for 400 refugees, and is currently raising funds so they can continue. And, my next month will be spent in Lebanon, working with Salam LADC. For this, I have set up a fundraiser to support them in their efforts to get refugees through the worst of winter.
It is easy to find volunteer possibilities anywhere in Europe or beyond. For Greece the go to website is GreeceVol.info or search on Facebook for various volunteer groups for example for Northern Greece and Athens. In Lebanon I will be working with Salam LADC, active in the Bekaa Valley where about 400.000 Syrian refugees live. They help them get through winter, distribute clothing and food, and provide education, do environmental projects and more.
Volunteer in your city
Not possible to come and volunteer abroad? If you want to offer your spare time to volunteer locally, there are many initiatives in European cities, for example as a language buddy, or offer used furniture to refugees settling in your city. In Amsterdam I have found Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland, the Refugee Company and the Amsterdam Vrijwiligers Collectief. I am sure that every city has their own network that would be happy to welcome you.