Sometimes life can be pretty shit! What a joyful read this is going to be! I am coming to the 2 month mark of my time volunteering in a refugee camp just outside of Athens, Greece. Skaramagas is where I have spent most of my days and even when I haven’t been physically there (on a rare Sunday ‘off’) it is a place that has consumed me since I arrived here in Greece.
Skaramagas is home to 3400 official refugees and currently 50 ‘non-official’ campers. It is the largest camp in Greece and the first ‘long term’ camp set up following the refugee crisis of 2015. A long term refugee camp is as depressing as it sounds. It’s a direct response to an indefinite need of refugee camps. The situation here in Greece has changed a lot in the past year. I wasn’t here a year ago but, like most people in the part of the world I come from I was following the journey of refugees through my phone and TV. Like many people I watched with tears in my eyes and shivers down my spine the horrific scenes of 100s of 1000s of women, children & men being rescued off boats by volunteers, screaming for loved ones lost along the way and bodies washed up on beaches. Although boats still arrive daily on the island, I am now working with the survivors of these horrific scenes in the waiting stage of their journey.
For many people this journey started a long time ago. Skaramagas is made up of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. I remember protesting in 5th year at school against Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq. That was 13 years ago and still people are fleeing their homes in complete desperation thanks to that decision which paved the way for the destruction of the country. Afghanistan is a country that has been totally torn apart, initiated by the superpowers of the world and once again it’s the innocent everyday people like you and me who continue in 2016 to suffer the consequences. The ongoing attacks on Syria, a country which not that long ago was ‘development’ and stable has resulted the country being totally distroyed with 5 million people refugees outside of the country and 6 million displaced inside Syria.
Choices of fellow humans has resulted in a pretty messed up world we currently live in.
Before the European boarders closed in February of this year refugees arriving to the Greek islands from Turkey often quickly made their way through Greece and further into central Europe in the hope of making it to countries that they had a chance of building a future in. Due to their own economical crisis, Greece is not one of them so when the boarders closed in February of this year the 169,794 refugees who arrived to Greece since Feb 2016 it has been a waiting game. Many are waiting on relocation which involves registering as a refugee, going through three interviews & waiting for a phone call sometime in the next year! This applies mainly to those nationalities that European countries have agreed to accept as Asylum Seekers. For the most this is only Syrians, meaning for Afghani’s, Iraqi’s and other nationalities the success of relocation cases is not as likely and for some their options are apply for asylum in Greece, pay a smuggler to get into another European country or pay a smuggler to return home; yes, pay to be smuggled back into their war torn homeland. The fact that different nationalities receive different treatment shows this is not being treated as the humanitarian crisis it is but more a political game for the powers that be.
Understandably people are pissed off.
Every day I am here I feel increasingly angry and frustrated at the state of the world we live in. Thankfully these feelings of despair are balanced with the appreciation I feel that I have been given an opportunity to come into these people’s lives and try to make their days a little less shit. The spirit of refugees has fully blown me away. The resilience, determination and appreciation for life that I have seen every day since being here has left me feeling amazed and inspiried. It really is incredible the spirit that comes from having to fight for survival.
My role here is a coordinator for a small Norwegian NGO. This means I get to welcome, introduce, support and work alongside an amazing team of international volunteers. The turnover of volunteers is high with some only staying a week / 10 days. Others can commit to a long period of a few months. This means in my short stay I have met an enormous amount of different ‘types’ of people from every corner of the world! Regardless of the length of time they have spent here I have seen nothing but good intentions from each person I have had the privilege of working with. Ordinary people, leaving their often comfortable lives to come to positively contribute to their fellow human beings in this sate of crisis. This helps restore my faith in humanity.
The organisation I am volunteering with is one of many NGO’s present in Skaramagas camp offering services to the community. We run a Mother Baby space from our ISObox container (a bit like a caravan). Here mother’s can bring their babies up to the age of two for a bath; the babies get clean clothes in exchange for dirty ones, can have a bottle or mothers can breastfeed in a safe, comfortable environment. This service is very special. To look in the eyes of these mothers gives me an overwhelming feeling that I can’t put in to words. These women have made the horrific journey from their homeland either pregnant, with a newborn baby or have given birth in a refugee camp. I am not a mother so I can only imagine the feeling of a mother’s instinct. To protect your baby above anything else, to do everything in your power to ensure it is safe from harm, to sacrifice all you have for their future. Some women in mother baby space sit and daydream; I don’t know what they are thinking about and I don’t dare ask. In my eyes these women are the ultimate heroes. This service attracts many equally heroic volunteers who radiate such a love and care for these mother & babies that automatically a trusting, relaxed atmosphere is generated in the space. One day I watched a volunteer sitting beside a mother who was having a rough day, the volunteer simply put her hand on top of a the mothers hand and the two sat in a comfortable silence for a long time. They didn’t share a language, they didn’t share the same culture or journey here but from one woman to another they understood each other. This woman let out a few tears and when she left the woman volunteering did as well. These special, touching moments put this whole experience into perceptive for me. We can’t be overwhelmed by how messed up this situation is or the lack of skills, resources or capacity we have make it better; we can simply do what we can at that time to show compassion, share a moment of feeling, saying without words ‘you are not alone.’
When mother baby space closes at 3pm the ISObox is transformed into female teenage space! Girls 12 and over queue outside the caravan full of excitement; they try to get in before it starts, looking at which volunteers are on that day, introducing themselves to new volunteers and showing from the beginning who it boss – not much different to a youth club at home! The themes of this activity rotate from Creative, English and Beauty – Beauty being a clear favourite! The girls run into the caravan, sit in a circle around make up, nail polishes & mirrors and paint their faces! Following this the space is then dedicated to Women over 18 for Women’s Space which follow the same themes. While the teenage girls run across the camp to another container where volunteers run dancing! The same 6 songs have been played on loop since well before I arrived; the volunteers in this activity deserve a metal for not throwing the speaker out the window! Even outside of the 1 hour dance activity; girls run around camp all day everyday singing Waka Waka by Shikria. They have their own routine and don’t get sick of practicing over and over again!
While these activities are being run by female volunteers, male volunteers run boys activities in another container. The early teen boys in camp are a nuisance to everyone! This does not surprise me. For any 12/13 male their hormones are off the chart, many are struggling to figure out who they are, battling with a constant facade of masculinity; and puberty lurking round the corner too! Mix that with a traumatic experience of having to flee your war torn country. Not being able to protect family members who were lost along the way. Arriving in a camp with 3400 people, some who don’t speak the same language. For some they arrived alone as unoccupied minors. Behind these cheeky faces I know there is fear. Where am I going next? What does my future hold? I am now in a camp where its survival of the fittest; I must be a man but I am afraid. These young men break my heart. Some have scars on their wrists. Some break NGO’s containers. Some push volunteers. Some have zero respect for anyone or anything and no fear over consequences to their behaviour, with literally nothing to loss. They are crying out for help; sadly I fear it will take years before anyone hears them.
A very exciting project being developed at the minute in Skaramagas is a Community Centre! When this camp opened in April this year and volunteers realised it would be a long term refuge for thousands of people, the coordinator here previous to me and another volunteer with carpentry experience got their heads together and devised a plan of building a community centre. The idea was endorsed by the organisation we volunteer for and since July of this year it has been under construction. The lead carpenter, a volunteer from England has been single handily managing the project for 5 months. He has worked tirelessly in blazing Athens sun and tropical thunderstorms; we live together and I have never once heard him complain and have witnessed his limitless passion for this project which is contagious. He has been joined by a team of volunteers from the community of Skaramagas, Afghani and Iraqi men with trade backgrounds who have also dedicated a lot of time and energy to the project. My favourite time of day in camp is when the sun is setting. The water and mountains in the distance make for a beautiful sunset view but what is most heart warming about this time of day is when the construction volunteers put away all the tools for the day, sit in a circle under the structure they have built and share some grapes and juice. A hard day’s work is done, bodies are tired, the purpose of the day has been fulfilled and everyone is smiling.
Giving people the opportunity to fulfil a purpose to their day is the first step in restoring motivation, dignity and self worth to people’s lives. Many of the people living here have no reason to get up in the morning. Their days consist of worry, pain and fear. They are waiting on a phone call, an opportunity, a break; but sadly it doesn’t often come and people end up going to sleep that night feeling unfulfilled, afraid and frustrated. The development of the community centre has offered something different to these men’s lives for this short time. Is it going to bring peace to their homeland – No. Is it going to help them get relocated to another country – No. Does it add value and purpose to their days – Absolutely. And isn’t that a need every human being shares.
It is planned that the community centre will create an opportunity for those in camp to get involved in all aspects of its running. The centre will have a management committee made up from representatives from the community. It will have volunteer centre managers from the community and every activity will be run by volunteers living in the community alongside international volunteers from the organisation we volunteer with who have funded the project. This centre has the potential to provide a space where opportunities can arise for the residence of Skaramagas to use their skills, their brains, their passions, their experiences and unlock their potential. The narrative we often hear is refugees need handouts and pity; this has to be challenged. Being in a ‘helping’ role is often one sided and creates a massive power in balance, which isn’t always justified or productive. In my experience to effectively enable people to make their lives better we must go beyond a tokenistic gesture where the only person feeling good about the relationship is those giving the help. Effective change happens when people are empowered. When they have a sense of ownership, belonging and value in what they are doing; and when this service can be sustained without relying on the good will of international volunteers or charity donors. Skaramagas Community Centre has the potential to be a space to facilitate this change.
I have been working with the community to identify what the gaps in current services in camp are and how the centre can fill this gap. The plan is for the centre to have a media room with laptops, a printer etc to help people process official clams of asylum, keep in touch with loved ones in other countries, research potential new homelands etc. Right now the community have nowhere to access this technology. The relocation and asylum seeking process requires many official papers to be printed, signed, scanned & emailed. This is impossible for people to do with no resources to use. Refugees have to attend an interview to state which country they will apply for relocation in. If someone asked me which country in the Middle East I want to spend my future in I would like to give my options a wee google search to at least have a stab at an informed choice. There are many rumours going around the refugee circles; “I heard Germany are letting more in” “I heard a smuggler can guarantee me into Sweden” “I heard if you refuse your first offer your stuck in Greece forever”……” When people are in despair they cling to every word they hear that may bring any hope, whether it be true or not. There are great organisations around Athens who provide up to date correct information on everything relating to refugees processes. It is planned these organisations can run information workshops in the community centre to ensure people have up to date, correct information so they can make informed choices over their lives. The centre will also have a cafe serving tea and coffee, a library, a meeting room and potentially an exercise/dance room – Active Body Active Mind!
Skaramagas Community Centre can bring life, dignity, purpose and much needed services back in to refugee’s lives. The organisation I am volunteering for is a
small NGO from Norway; they relay solely on volunteers and don’t get any core funding. If anyone reading this would like to donate to the community centre and contribute to this meaningful, sustainable, unique project it would be very much appreciated http://www.drapenihavet.no/en/support/ PLEASE MARK DONATIONS COMMUNITY CENTRE or if anyone has any books, old laptops, exercise equipment; anything that may be useful to the centre please get in touch and I can pass on a postal address.
My time in Greece is coming to an end and the thoughts of leaving makes me feel sick! I don’t feel nearly ready to leave and am a little bit afraid of life outside this crazy bubble that I have come to love! I love the services we provide, the people who come to them and the feeling I have when I am in the camp. I am also leaving at a very exciting time with the community centre almost ready for opening I hate that I wont be here to see this incredible initiative come to life. The situation is still as shit as when I came! And I fear it’s only going to get worse. I wasn’t under any illusion that I was going to work miracles out here; I’m fully aware this crisis is much bigger than any individual can comprehend. But to leave with so much still needing to be done and people in such high need doesn’t make me feel good. People who I have come to see as friends. People who have dreams, fears & goals like the rest of us. People who do not deserve the hand they have been dealt. These people did not ask for this life and did nothing to deserve it. Anyone of us could become a refugee and with the state the world is in I fear this crisis is not going away anytime soon. The fact that there are more displaced people in Syria than refugees who got out shows the need is greater than we will ever comprehend. The fact that Afghani’s are the biggest population of refugees in Greece in 2016, 15 years after America invaded shows the lasting consequence which we often forget when one war replaces another on our news channel. The fact that there many young refugees arrive in Athens alone & afraid and instead of being picked up by support services who’s job it is to ensure their safety they are picked up for sexual exploitation, drug dealing and gang recruitment; makes me very frustrated at this whole system which is repeatedly failing to provide safety to the most vulnerable.
This week I visited the island of Chios to see my friend who is doing great work in Souda camp on the island. Seeing the stage refugees face one step before they make it to the mainland has opened my eyes to the scale of this crisis. The camp is very different to Skaramagas with more nationalities, not as many services and living conditions in the camp a lot worse. There is the similar feeling in both camps of anger, frustration and uncertainty over the future. In this camp the volunteers facilatate food distribution three times a day. This give me a reminder of the importance of providing people with their everyday human needs of food, water, shelter. The theorist Maslow names these are basic needs and says a person requires them before they can progress to the next level of the pyramid which eventually leads to ‘self actualization’; this being the realisation or fulfilment of ones talents and potentials. This reminded me how ever changing a persons needs are. Many people standing in the line for food three times a day were professionals, students, artists. I don’t doubt that many were functioning at the high end of Maslow’s theory; reaching their potential and unlocking their talents. But a turn of events has now lead them to standing in a queue for food and going back to sleep in a tent. I talked to a group of men as I kept them company in the line. They told me about their jobs back home in Syria and Iraq. They were proud men this was clear to see, each had a smile and glint in their eye when talking about their previous life. One said his life is now like an animal; he sleeps and eats.
Once again I have experienced a situation that has made me count my blessings and realise how unbelievably lucky I am to have the life I do. I don’t deserve a good life any more or less than anyone else but that’s the horrible, unjust, cruel lottery of life. Lets just remember this simple realisation; regardless of where we are in the world or what circumstances brought us there; we all open our eyes for a new day, we all breath in and out, we all have hopes & fears. And each one of us has the ability to help each other out, to show the love that’s in our hearts, share a smile when our eyes met and do our very best to create a world where each human being has dignity, purpose and self worth.