Greece, September- December 2016
My time in Greece began at City Plaza, a squat hotel in downtown Athens that was occupied by four hundred refugees, as well as Greek and International solidarity. This project was unique in how it functioned. It was more than just accommodation. Residents – both refugees and solidaritarians alike contributed to the project by taking turns cleaning the common spaces, helping out in the kitchen as well as general maintenance work. It was extremely political but it was ultimately humanitarian work with a strong political message and this aspect often left me conflicted. I was an activist who cared about the injustice of the system, yet I was meeting refugees who cared little about the political message of the project. After some time, I realised it was more important to live and be, together – in itself an extremely political act, than to preoccupy myself with organisational questions. It was not until I returned many weeks later that I really understood what the project had achieved, refugees living there had privacy, mutual respect and dignity (inherent in something so basic as cooking their own meals); a far cry from the situation in many of the military camps in Northern Greece. It also excelled as an example of a large-scale, self-organised project.
After I decided to leave Athens and City Plaza to see what the situation was like in Northern Greece, I travelled up North by bus with some others I met at City Plaza. We visited numerous solidarity projects in and around Thessaloniki that were providing services to refugees, one of those projects was EKO Community, a Catalan project located next to Vasilika Military camp. The project began back in March as an informal camp next to the well-known Idomeni camp, set up by volunteers who accommodated hundreds of stranded refugees at an EKO petrol station, on their way to the Macedonian border. After months of living together, the volunteers followed the refugees as they were placed in the Vasilika military camp. The second project was borne. My initial impression of the project was how child-centred it was and seemingly a-political, the volunteers here were great with the children, clearly caring deeply for each individual child. My role here was to run ‘the adult space’ and in particular, a project that provided revenue to refugees. The task was difficult but I felt it was an extremely important one. I was thrown straight into the deep end, with little direction from the beginning. But the project took-off and before long, items were being produced and sold to volunteers. This project grew and developed as old and new volunteers took the project on. Before long we had four more women from the camp who produced beautiful macrame bracelets, in addition to the stitched items made by our machinists.
After my second week with EKO, I left for a seminar in Durres, Albania. The seminar focused on refugee integration and aimed to inspire projects between organisations and participants from countries throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I co-facilitated it and used my experience in the field to discuss the situation for refugees in Greece. This was an important period of reflection, away from working directly with refugees and upon returning to EKO project I believed in the work that we were doing there, more than ever. This also gave me an opportunity to share the experiences of the people I had met along the way who were now stranded in Greece, waiting to be relocated or reunified with family members in Europe.
The final weeks in Greece was about spending time with old and new friends. I visited individuals and families in their tents more. I returned to City Plaza Hotel for ten days and spent time with people whom I had gotten to know during my first visit there, which acted as a foundation for many friendships. The refugees from Vasilika camp soon left for their interviews in Athens, later being placed in hotels outside of the capital. Buses full of people departed every night and as we waved them off, we had mixed feelings of sadness and joy, saddened at the departure of friends but joyful for what lay ahead for them, which at the very least would involve a roof and four walls. I met with Fatima and her family whom I knew from City Plaza, in their new apartment in Thessaloniki. I had celebrated their daughter’s birthday on the floor of their bedroom while they were living in City Plaza, with some snacks and sweets they could afford (with the help of some friends from the neighbouring rooms). Fatima had explained to me earlier in the evening why they fled Syria. She told me about their lives before the conflict and described how remarkable her daughter had been while they walked for days and crossed the sea, in terrible conditions. We sat on the floor of their new apartment, having dinner that Fatima had prepared in their kitchen. I knew Fatima only wanted the very best for her two daughters and I was happy that they now had some sort of normality. But like many of the other people I met over the three months I was in Greece, I knew that the life in Europe they looked forward to may not be all that they hoped it would be.
My experience volunteering in refugee crisis in Greece taught me a lot about people and how much we have in common as human beings. I saw the consequence of war, when thousands of people flee their homes and are displaced in foreign lands. I have learnt about the journey that this involves by land and sea and the nightmare of existing ‘in transit’ to a better, safer life in Europe. I also learnt a lot about myself and met a lot of truly remarkable people. Although I have no immediate plans to return to Greece, I have made friends who will soon arrive in Western Europe where I hope to welcome them.
click the image to go back to overview: