We arrived at the Oinofyta refugee camp not knowing what to expect. All we knew was that Lisa Campbell ran the Do Your Part NGO - which was somehow in charge of the camp - and that we would be volunteers in her NGO.
But we had no idea what we were to do there. When I messaged her to please describe what our tasks would be, she replied, “Our work situation is fluid, so I’m not exactly sure what you will be doing, but we’ll discuss your abilities and wait and find something that should be a good fit.” We soon realised what she meant.
We’ll never forget the first moment we entered the Oinofyta camp through its massive gate… An old abandoned Factory converted into a provisional home for over 600 people, families, distributed between grey tents and some 100 rooms built inside the old Factory building, each ca. 8 m2, providing safe haven for an average of 6 people.
The many moving and dramatic stories of each of the camp’s residents… The decision to leave their home country of Afghanistan and risk a tremendously dangerous trip through the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Turkey on foot, on a packed truck, and eventually on a boat… Beyond all these personal human dramas, the camp at Oinofyta is a liveable place. Life goes on there: Women cook, men play cards, children run around, and the volunteers are just there to help in any way we can.
A few days after arriving, I remembered Lisa’s response. And boy, was she right about the fluid work situation.
Life around the camp centres on the distribution of goods: food, clothes, cleaning products, dishes, blankets… and all the necessary stuff for every day life that we tend to take for granted.
All this stuff has to be made available at the camp, and then distributed to the 600 residents who have no work permit, thus no income, and mostly no more savings left brought from Afghanistan to survive the trip and the first days in Greece.
Everything needed to sustain a basic existence of the residents has to be supplied. No food distributed to the residents means no meals for their families. So it has to get done.
We couldn’t avoid reflecting upon what would happen if one day Lisa didn’t get any more funds from her donors, if there were no volunteers to distribute and assist the residents. Two things jumped to mind: the enormous burden of responsibility on Lisa’s shoulders, and the fragility of the life at a refugee camp. However, during the long workday surrounded by hundreds of wonderful people and all sorts of experiences, you don’t have much time to reflect. Without being assigned any specific tasks, each of the volunteers naturally assumes the responsibility for whatever they can help with and are capable of doing. And the to do list is endless.
But on days in which the basic needs of the residents were fulfilled and the food was distributed, we had time to think about how to enrich the routine in the camp with some small pleasures, especially for the little ones. These kids don’t follow a regular educational program. Their schooling relies on volunteer organisations that provide two hours of classes a day in the summer school that has been set up for them in an open area. But again, who knows how long the school will operate for, and if once the summer vacation period is over there will be enough volunteer teachers continuing the educational project.
We think of the environment our kids live in, things like schooling, television, cinema, tablets, interactive toys and books are just an obvious part of their upbringing. Well, not so in a refugee camp.
That’s how we came up with the idea of playing an animated film for the children every night. Their little window to the exterior world... Their little space for dreaming... It was such a joy to see how they appreciated and loved this. It was the only time most of the children were together in one space. Seeing them interact, fight for a place in the front row, react to the film, and hold each other as they were absorbed by the film, was a delight.
This was our initiative and was approved by Lisa. She has the rare faculty to quickly judge if a proposal by a volunteer is a good fit for the general lifestyle and culture of the camp, amend it if it is, and allocate the resources for an initiative to become a reality in as little time as possible. All while having to deal with running the camp and ensuring that it is always stocked.
The most rewarding part of our experience, of course, was interacting with the residents. After a couple of days there, we felt we were part of a small town. Faces became familiar, residents high-fived us, children jumped on us. It became clear that wearing our Do Your Part shirt meant something to them. On one hand, we were the key for them to receive everything they needed for life. But on the equally important other hand, we were new sources of information from the outside world for them. We had points of view they were interested in. And we were people they hadn't told their own stories to yet - which they were very keen in sharing. Stories about how they got to the camp (heartbreaking), about what their lives were like back home, about the people they left behind. All these stories were as fascinating as they were different. But where they all coalesced, what they all had in common, was regarding what came next.
Unfortunately, geopolitics being what it is, most of them have no clear path out of the camp. Europe won’t give them asylum. Greece doesn’t want them. Their borders are closed to them. The tragedy is that their only viable way out is hiring smugglers to get them to Western Europe, where some of them have families and/or where they can find illegal work. But when you have two or more children, as many of them do, this is a very difficult option to consider.
We realised that they live a purgatorial kind of life. Their needs are met, but they can’t work for their needs, which the vast majority wants to do: to care for themselves, not be cared for through charity.
And in the face of all this, they still generally agree that they are lucky to have ended up in Greece, to be out of Afghanistan for now, and to have landed in a camp run with so much efficiency, care and love as is the Oinofyta camp.