In 2015, over one million people journeyed to Europe from the Middle East, central Asia and Africa in one of the greatest mass migrations of modern history. Another 280,000 souls have made the monumental exodus so far this year, trekking hundreds of miles through all seasons, risking their lives on flimsy, jam-packed dinghies across the treacherous Mediterranean, or left stranded to await their fate at gridlocked borders. Thousands remain in limbo in refugee camps, with over sixty such sites in Greece alone.
A small camp just outside Filippiada in north western Greece is currently home to 400 of these women, men and children. Given the scale of such a crisis, my vague expectation when I arrived was to find a fairly well-functioning and co-ordinated humanitarian effort, led by international NGOs and supported by volunteers with assigned tasks and roles. I was pretty amazed to discover that untrained volunteers were basically running the show. The organisation and delivery of the daily activities, often meeting frontline and urgent needs, was carried out by people who had arranged to work there on the same ad-hoc, unaffiliated basis as myself, albeit most of them for longer periods. UNHCR had provided the tents for the refugees and had an office on-site, and a couple of international charities made transitory appearances to donate supplies, but as far as I’m aware, I didn’t work with anyone in a professional capacity throughout the entire week.
With an absence of official leadership, it was all hands on deck for the volunteers. I was met off the bus by Colin, a Londoner in his thirties who had arrived with his sister, Megan, two days prior to me, but who had already assumed the role of camp driver because he was the only one with a car. We went virtually straight from there to the local hospital to collect Nasir, a calm and kind-hearted 21 year old from Afghanistan and the sole person at the camp who spoke both English and Farsi. When he wasn’t on one of his countless trips to the hospital to translate between his compatriots and Greek medical staff, he was leading daily English lessons for Afghan women and children in the camp, alongside Lee, a retired Liverpuddlian, who had also only arrived a few days earlier. Nasir told us, casually and matter-of-factly, that he’d walked all the way to Greece in the space of about three months, fearing for his safety at home. His goal is to eventually reach Germany, but he seemed content with the prospect of remaining in Greece if that was not possible. I wasn’t really there long enough to get a sense of the status of individual asylum cases, but even successful ones are long and protracted.
Not long after we’d returned to the camp a kids magic show run by a travelling Spanish duo was getting underway in one of the marquees. Amidst the revelry and chaos of the scene, an altercation broke out between a few residents of the camp. I suddenly found myself in the middle of a melee which briefly threatened to break out into a brawl. The incident centred on a personal quarrel, and was very rare in the largely peaceful camp, but it demonstrated the challenge of people of different nationalities, languages and cultures living in close proximity for long periods of time. Around half of the camp of the camp are Syrian – Arab and Kurdish – with smaller proportions of Iraqi Kurds and Afghans. As a precaution, the indefatigable Ana, a Slovenian volunteer who speaks some Arabic and had been at the camp for a couple of months, thought it best to stay at the camp overnight to prevent any afters from breaking out through the night. After nipping out to get some food, a few of us surreptitiously slipped back in through a hole in the fence to avoid the solitary security guard (volunteers are not really allowed to be at the camp through the night). On our return we were treated to some fine Afghan hospitality, sitting up drinking tea and eating dates outside a family’s tent until 2:30am. When it became clear that the camp was safe and quiet, a couple of us headed home, but a few of the other volunteers stayed the night in a tent that had been considerately prepared for them by one of the families.
Of all my first impressions during that whirlwind first evening, however, the most immediately striking was the sheer number of children – over 50% of the residents are under 18. Before I’d even been introduced to most of the other volunteers or properly met any of the adult residents, I was accosted by scores of cheerful, wild and sharp-witted kids. It was like a playground! Much of our time as volunteers was spent either simply messing around with the kids – playing games, giving them piggy-backs and high fives – or thanklessly trying to guard the warehouse gate to stop them scurrying past us. A couple of boys of around ten were particularly fond of the ‘circle game’, in which the unsuspecting victim is punched on the arm after making eye contact with the offender’s hand in the shape of a circle. Disarmed by the cheerful and ubiquitous cry of “My friend, my friend!”, it was frustratingly easy to fall for. There were some nervy moments when the kids would clamber over an 8ft high metal sunshade above the exposed concrete – a glaring symbol of what can happen when big charities make donations without really knowing about the logistics of the specific camp. Many of the children were also incredibly affectionate. Sometimes kids I hadn’t even met would start hugging me out of the blue, perhaps a manifestation of the psychological toll of everything they’ve been put through. One of the highlights of the week was watching a choir of Syrian children from the camp perform at a local music concert inside an atmospheric ruined fortress in nearby Preveza (though not after we’d sat through ninety minutes of rather sedate Greek traditional music before realising we were in the wrong venue!).
Most of the work itself took place in the congested and sweltering camp warehouse – ten minutes there and you’d be drenched in sweat – which stored a variety of essential items such as water, clothes, and toiletries. These were allocated based on the number and specific needs of the people in each tent. The distribution of these to all the different families and keeping track of who had received what was often a stressful process for volunteers and refugees alike, and the scene at the warehouse gate was typically quite hectic. Volunteers had to be quite strict about water bottles in particular – the Greek authorities hadn’t yet given clearance that the tap water was safe – and one day we ran short of what was required. I had checked in advance that help was required with general tasks, as I didn’t have any linguistic or medical skills to offer, and my short-time at the camp involved such diverse jobs as helping guys to choose clothes, building shelves, organising storage rooms, allocating toilet roll and distributing baby nappies.
The food, provided by the Greek military, was one of the toughest aspects of camp life for the refugees. Most days they are given plain, clumpy spaghetti, or occasionally peas and potatoes in a tomato sauce. The week I was there the residents launched a camp-wide boycott to try to force the authorities to vary the food. With all the surplus, I tried it along with some other volunteers. It was passable for one meal, but eating that stuff day in day out for months on end would undoubtedly grind you down. It’s especially difficult for people from societies where food is a key expression of personal pride and cultural identity. Those who could afford it defied the rules against naked flames in the camp and cooked on their own little stoves. While I was handing out baby nappies, a woman enthusiastically insisted upon making me a vegetable wrap, and I couldn’t resist obliging her generosity.
While the situation is clearly extremely challenging for people living there, in all sorts of ways, the quality of life at Filippiada is relatively good in the circumstances. I never got the impression that it compared with the sometimes harrowing or scary reports I’ve heard from other camps, such as on the Greek islands or the Calais “jungle”. Many of these sites shelter a few thousand people and are dangerously over-crowded. Filippida by contrast is fairly open – there is enough space for a mini football pitch, a basic Mosque inside a marquee and a tea tent which was set up by a German volunteer group. At the bottom of a small hill at the back of the site there’s a river that provides a quick escape from the camp and the perfect spot to cool off from the baking heat.
The generally positive relationship between the refugees and volunteers probably helped too. In particular, the aforementioned Ana was a real friend and ally to countless of the residents in her two months at the camp, and seemed to be the go-to person whenever anyone had an issue. She could barely walk five paces without being greeted with excited shouts of “Ana! Ana!”, and we would end up leaving each night about 20 minutes or so later than we intended as she was stopped multiple times on the walk from the warehouse to the gate. Among our unaffiliated group, there were people from Spain, Catalonia, England, Slovenia, Scotland, Bulgaria, Italy and Mexico, who stayed in two flats together. It was a pleasure meeting such committed, easy-going and likeminded people. Beyond our little crowd, there was a Spanish organisation, Olvidados, comprising young people in their late teens/early twenties, as well as a small German contingent who stuck solely to the tea tent. Meanwhile, an enthusiastic and resourceful Catalan youth group, similar to scouts, spent their first few nights in a warehouse because no one had organised accommodation for them. Before Ana’s imminent departure to work in Palestine, a few of the guys drew up a comprehensive introductory pack so that there was a better structure and clearer guidelines for arriving volunteers.
That much of the burden should fall on these volunteers and an already beleaguered Greece seems symptomatic of the abdication of responsibility by the EU (certain countries more than others). The institutional response has been piecemeal at best, nefarious and xenophobic at worst.
On my last day, I accompanied a few of the volunteers to Preveza to drop off Farooq, a young, outgoing guy from Aleppo, an historic and once illustrious city, now the battered epicentre of a proxy war. Farooq was transporting bags to his wife and newborn baby. We were joined by four of his nieces and nephews, and all stopped for an ice cream. Time spent with people like this make the racist billboards, sensationalist headlines and dehumanising language of politicians feel not just cruel, but jarringly and eerily detached from reality. These people are on an odyssey most of us cannot comprehend – whether fleeing from civil war and Daesh, or escaping corruption, poverty or persecution; prepared to hand their life savings to people-traffickers in a desperate attempt to reach fortress Europe. Then to live in 40-degree purgatory in a crowded tent, with the daily tedium, the lack of peace and quiet, and undoubted sense of powerlessness that goes with it. Anyone forced to put themselves and families through all that, for a journey most of us would be free to take with a five hour flight, deserves nothing but our support and solidarity.
By Callum Macdonald