On a stretch of private land outside the city of Katerini in northern Greece, hundreds of UN tents sit nestled in the shadow of Mount Olympus. A refugee camp sits directly behind a family-owned restaurant occupying a site that was once used by the local commune to run summer camps for Greek children. Today there are still children playing on the dilapidated red and yellow slide set, and families still gather to eat together in the communal outdoor cooking area. But the end of the long summer days will not bring with them the possibility for anyone at the camp to leave, or to return home.
On my first afternoon visit to the camp with RefuAid, I was instantly struck by the apparent normality of the surroundings. Proud fathers walked around with their babies in strollers, stopping to say hello and to give us news of their daughters, who smiled up at the curious faces bending over them. Teenage boys sat hunched over a smartphone watching YouTube clips, momentarily raising their eyes to smile and say merhaba.
But it did not take long for sharp reminders of the utter abnormality of life in the camp to become apparent. From the deathly silence that gripped the outdoor kitchen when an Al Jazeera report of (another) Syrian air strike came on, to the sight of hundreds of empty tents that just a week ago were home to residents who have since “moved on” to another unknown location.
The scale of the upset and frustration bubbling under the surface layer of normality became clear when we held a meeting with community representatives. Following the evacuation of so many residents the previous week problems related to overcrowding had lessened but was far from being resolved.
The camp does not have regular access to hot water, and the chemical toilets frequently leak causing banks of glutinous mud to build up alongside them. Residents are profoundly frustrated over the utter lack of control they have over basic elements of their day to day life. They are denied choice over what they can eat, what clothes they can wear, when they can wash, when they can see a doctor. Although RefuAid is taking big steps through its work with social pharmacy to extend medical services to the camp (they can provide any medication for free providing the patient has a valid prescription) there is no consistent onsite doctor.
Despite our efforts to steer the conversation on to what we were concretely able to do, we were submerged with questions that we had no possible way of answering. Why have we been given donations of window cleaner when we live in tents? we were asked by one bemused man. Why do ambulances never come if we call them? What is going to happen to us this winter if we’re left in the canvas tents? Why is more not being done to help us with registration and relocation? Why do people not care about what is happening to us?
Faced with so many un-answerable questions from people who have had to risk their lives to flee unspeakable horror, it is hard to not to feel overwhelmed. My own frustration has grown as I begin to appreciate that hands are tied at every level. Whilst volunteers and Greek locals are doing their best to ensure that refugees have access to basic amenities, it is hard to stress the extent to which austerity measures have crippled Greek public services.
There are 2 ambulances to serve the whole municipality of Katerini and volunteers are forbidden by Greek law to take refugees to hospitals in their vehicles. The local hospital has completely run out of basic supplies like cotton wool and bandages. Schools have been closed when their running costs proved too high. Day to day essentials remain heavily taxed in supermarkets , leaving many Greek families struggling to make ends meet almost 5 years after the bailouts.
The work done by RefuAid provides sustainable, community-lead solutions to these problems, however, it remains small, constrained by funding, in contrast with the demand. It is impossible to understand why the world’s privileged minority are not clamouring to help people who need appropriate care and support as opposed to chaos and uncertainty.
By herding the world’s most vulnerable citizens in to remote fields out of sight from visitors, or in to the shells of abandoned psychiatric hospitals stranded at the top of mountains (an actual camp location), I feel like we have allowed a humanitarian crises to reveal the worst that is in us. But it does not need to be like this. I am struck every day by the extent to which good can triumph even in the harshest circumstances. Despite our differences in language and situations, refugees and volunteers work side by side every day , with mutual respect, warmth and humour.
On my first evening at the camp we were invited to eat with two young men who have been helping RefuAid for months. We were spoilt with an abundance of delicious food they’d prepared from scratch. As we sat and talked after dinner a 1-year-old girl took her first step across the floor of the communal eating area, and gurgled happily when the entire room turned around and cheered in unison.
Sitting in the car on the way home I wondered how much, if any, of these early experiences she would remember. Would she be afforded the basic right to grow up in a world that was peaceful and stable? Would she know anything beyond the confines of the camp, and all the chaos that place entailed? Would the borders ever be re-opened allowing her and her family to reach new shores? Would she and her two baby sisters have a house filled with toys? Would she get to carry a school bag crammed with books, whose pages could hold the tentative promise of a different and fairer world? Would world leaders finally start to take steps to safeguard the future that she and every single person in the camp so fundamentally deserved?
I wish I could confidently answer yes. But I can’t.
And I think that has been the most difficult realisation of all.
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