The small restaurant erupted in a cacophony of singing, shouting and clapping, Spanish and Syrian women and men dancing to flamenco music between two long tables packed with more Spanish and Syrians, as well as Greeks, British and Eritreans. The friendly, welcoming owner, Giorgos, brought plate after plate of delicious food to the group, the Syrians breaking their Ramadan fast after sunset.
The multinational theatre group had taken over the restaurant to celebrate the performance of their show at the local theatre in Polikastro, a small town north of Thessaloniki close to the refugee camp of Nea Kavala. Outside on the main square in the cooling but still hot midsummer evening, children whizzed around the fountain on their bikes before the show, and afterwards families and friends gathered, sipping iced coffee as the sun set.
A Spanish group had been working with local Greeks and refugees in the camp for the last two weeks, running theatre workshops and devising the show. The 20-strong cast sketched a mimed tale of relationships; friendships, fortuitous meetings, unrequited love, longing and playfulness with a battered park bench as the central, and only, prop. A monologue in Greek telling a Syrian woman’s tale of fleeing home opened the performance, and another in Arabic talking of the injustice and suffering of conflict closed it. Towards the end, the actors each spoke their name and voiced their desires in English: “I want peace”, “I want a world without borders”, “I’m hungry”, “Me too”, “Me three!”, “I want to live in a free world”, “I want to live”. A young Syrian guitarist and a Spanish cellist picked floating melodies to accompany the drama.
Walking through the town from the theatre to the restaurant, we were joined by four playful teenaged boys. “Where are you from?” “I’m from Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Egypt, Turkey, Greece,” one boy told me. “He’s my brother, and so is he. And so are you. Everyone is my brother. Not the police. Police not my brother.” He was fourteen, he said.
I sat next to Ahmed at Giorgos’s. He’s a tall, smiling young man from a small village near Raqqa. A gifted actor, his expressive, angular movements on the stage were captivating, and he was warm, relaxed and welcoming in conversation. Ahmed was good friends with the Catalan theatre group, and wanted to move to Spain to continue performing and learning, his passion and desire for theatre evident. “I will go to Barcelona, Inshallah,” he said. “My father said choose the people, not the country.” He doesn’t get much of a say in where he will go in the pot luck of the refugee relocation programme, and he knows.
Ahmed was in a theatre group in Syria, before it was banned. He’d been in Greece for a year and four months, arriving on an island from Turkey, before moving across the mainland but becoming stuck after Macedonia closed the border at Idomeni. Understandably, he didn’t want to talk about it too much. “I want to forget,” he said. At the end of the performance he’d broken down in tears, the emotion of the occasion clearly overwhelming as the audience applauded.
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that creative projects such as this bring to people waiting in the limbo land of a refugee camp. A sense of community, joy, an approximation of normal life, and for me a glimpse of a positive future. Little acts to help try and sustain the incredible will power it takes to not abandon hope.