Under the blistering midsummer heat of northern Greece lies a disused military airfield surrounded by dramatic hills and fields of sunflowers. On the approach, there’s nothing that hints at the existence of the international community of displaced people housed on its long tarmac strip. A small turning off the main road gives way to a quiet lane, running past fields and a couple of houses. Soon a handful of people walking in the midday heat, laden with LIDL shopping bags, come into view. At the camp entrance, a Greek soldier sits at his makeshift al fresco office under a tarpaulin, checking visitors’ documents. A motley crew of stray dogs have made themselves at home here and they sit at the soldier’s feet, occasionally bursting into action when a camp resident cycles past the entrance. Even the dogs cannot sustain too much action in this heat, and after a few minutes of yapping they return to their shady siesta spot. There is no escaping the sun in this open, flat expanse of land, completely devoid of trees. In these incessant baking temperatures it is not surprising that Nea Kavala camp by day appears something of a ghost town. The only signs of activity in amongst the long lines of white UNHCR residential containers are a few children cycling on ill-fitting bikes, a couple of women squatting beside their temporary housing, washing pots and pans in a tiny triangle of welcome shade and dogs wriggling underneath the housing blocks in search of a cool place to rest.
I have arrived part way through the holy month of Ramadan, and many of the 500 or so camp residents are fasting. The NGOs and grassroots organisations operating in the camp are running a reduced timetable as most people are too tired to study or participate in activities. I learn that the camp demographic has changed a lot over the course of the last year or so of its existence. Located around 60 kilometres to the north of Thessaloniki, Nea Kavala camp opened when the nearby unofficial Idomeni camp (read a little about the background in James’s earlier post here) of around 10,000 people was evicted. Initially Nea Kavala was mainly inhabited by around 3,000 Arab, Kurdish and Yazidi refugees from Iraq and Syria, but the population has since shrunk as tents were replaced with containers, and many of the Syrians and Yazidis were moved to other camps or to alternative accommodation as they waited for the final stage of their lengthy asylum claims to be processed. Recently, most of the remaining Syrians have left, relocated to other EU countries, and the population has become much more multiethnic and multilingual.
Wandering around the camp, during the cooler evening hours, is a strangely enriching experience. Every encounter involves an exchange of greetings, a friendly handshake or kisses on the cheek, depending on the cultural norms of my interlocutor. Little tots try out their best English (‘hello, my friend’), as they run up and wrap their arms around my legs or gesture to be picked up. It’s an odd community, given the circumstances, but a warm and welcoming one in which I instantly feel surrounded by new friends. People make the most of the limited resources to give a semblance of home to their temporary abodes. Many of the residents have modified their containers, building porches and little benches to make things a bit more comfy. This spirit of resourcefulness despite the challenging conditions is perhaps best exemplified by the pop up barber’s shop that appeared recently in the porch of one of the resident’s containers. Within days every little boy in the camp was proudly sporting new haircuts with exciting zig zag tramlines.
My English students are excited to see me wandering in their ‘neighbourhood’ and invite me into their ‘house’ for chai, coffee or food. Their insistence that I sit in the comfiest spot, and eat and drink more than I can possibly manage is reminiscent of childhood moments spent in my Granny’s house. ‘No thank you’ is not an acceptable response. This warm hospitality is at times embarrassing, given our very different lots in life, and when invited to my Pakistani student’s house later in my stay, I feel humble to sit before a veritable feast as my hosts watch me tuck in to their gastronomical delights.
After a few days volunteering in the camp I begin to unravel the complex layers. The appearance of order in Nea Kavala belies a turbulent reality in which bureaucracy and politics seem to trump fairness and human dignity. Having undertaken treacherous journeys to get this far, people are forced to endure depressingly long waits (anything around a year and a half seems to be the norm) for their asylum claims to be processed by a broken system. I learn from a volunteer in a different camp that there is a three-hour window to make a Skype call to the Greek asylum services, and that it is so hard to get through to this number that a team of volunteers make it their job once a week to press the ‘call’ button on loop until they get through. They say they are lucky if they have a couple of successfully connected calls each week. Information seems painfully hard to come by, and I start to wonder if the authorities hope that people will just give up. The sad truth, as I learn from discussions with new friends from the likes of Aleppo and Raqqa, is that going home is not an option. Indeed, despite what the right wing press might have us believe, people do not wish to leave their homes to come to our rainy island. These are people with their own lives and individual stories: talented, educated, funny and hospitable. Many of the people I meet were part way through their university studies when war or persecution chased them out of a country they loved. The ‘pull’ factor of Europe is, I think, grossly overestimated. The truth is that there is a disgusting war on Europe’s doorstep leaving millions with nowhere to call home. Friends speak with tears in their eyes as they tell me of family and friends that they have left behind, in the grips of war, and Daesh brutality. A confident and charming teenager, who seems to model himself on Cristiano Ronaldo in both looks and character, shows me shrapnel wounds on his head, hands and legs. Finding himself exposed to gunshots between Daesh and other fighters one day when walking to the shops in his hometown, he decided that it was the moment to leave Syria. Another friend tells me of how beautiful his village used to be, but now the gardens are — he searches for the word in English — graves.
A small group of under 5s has already gathered by the time my fellow volunteers and I arrive at the camp’s community centre. It’s 10am on ‘SatARTday’, and the children await our arrival with great excitement, keen for the popular weekly ritual to begin. The volunteers have to keep shooing the impatient children out of the classroom as we try to prepare the morning’s activities. The assault course components start to be assembled. Hula hoops. Check. Bowling ball and skittles. Check. Apricots for ‘apple’ bobbing. Check. Water balloons. Check. Wooden plank for ‘walk the plank’ game. Check. Cones for course markers. Check. Soon, we’re set up and ready for action. Outside the group is growing and the noise increasing.
Chrissie, a 20-something volunteer leading the morning’s activities, strides out of the classroom holding a large portable speaker. ‘OK, everybody. Ready for Ramsamsam?’ I’ve heard this term discussed in volunteer circles but am still slightly in the dark about what a Ramsamsam is. The children’s reaction tells me it’s not to be missed. Chrissie turns the speaker to full volume and catchy pop tunes boom out of it, prompting twenty little bodies to start bopping with excitement. The jubilant mood is contagious and I follow suit. A charming 5-year-old Syrian girl runs up to me with a handful of daisies and dandelions. She scrambles onto my back and we join the train of dancing bodies.
Today we are some 10 volunteers, a mix of long-term volunteers who have been working at the community centre for several months and an eclectic bunch of friendly Spaniards who have been collaborating with the centre for a few weeks, working on a theatre project with refugees (read about the theatre performance here). Within minutes we have assembled a band of merry children, à la Pied Piper, as we skip along to the infectious beats of the ‘Macarena’ through the hundreds of UNHCR residential containers. In every direction I look there is a little bit of joy. Bemused camp residents pop their heads out of their containers and wave as the parade passes. Children flock to hold hands and skip along with one of the many energetic volunteers. Impromptu running races, football games and bike rides weave their way through the frenetic train of revellers. We dance our way to the end of the containers before heading back to the community centre, smiling and dancing all the way. On arrival the 30-something strong group forms a large circle and awaits the pièce de résistance: The Ramsamsam. For the uninitiated, think ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ on speed. It’s terribly exciting, and the children (and volunteers) love it. I’m told that volunteers used to do this dance every morning in the Idomeni camp and its popularity spread around all of Greece’s refugee camps. This energetic start sets the tone for the rest of the morning, as the children are divided into two groups. I’m assigned to the assault course group, and so spend the next 20 minutes cheering on the little tots as they tear around, dunking their heads in water in pursuit of elusive apricots, smashing water balloons with tennis rackets and other chaotic endeavours.
The next activity of the day is a delightful clown show, put on by the theatre group. The previously hyperactive children are captivated by the show, and twenty little faces stare at the Spanish clown with bated breath. Later the children draw pictures. The ubiquitous house, clouds and green grass emerge. It’s quite a striking image, given their bleak surroundings, and a reminder of the tragedy of this crisis. All anyone here wants, adults and children alike, is a safe place to call home where anxiety, uncertainty and doubt are no longer quotidian concerns. It is a sad indictment on all of us in the ‘developed’ world that they are still here, waiting to live.