Silently waiting for how the room will be painted
I’ve been in Nea Kavala for two weeks now, but it feels as if it could have been a lot longer. Each day is filled with so many moments and faces that it’s hard to remember what my mind was preoccupied with before I came here. This entry couldn’t possibly contain all of these experiences, but I’ll try and use it to and give a feel for what this place is like and an insight into the position that the refugees I have met here are in.
Nea Kavala is a military-run refugee camp that hosts around 400 refugees. The people here used to live in tents provided by the UNHCR, but now inhabit containers that basically look like shipping containers. These are undoubtedly much better, since they have air-conditioning and heating for the winter, which is very much necessary since the Greek mainland experiences extraordinary heat in Summer and then intolerable cold in Winter. However, the containers are allocated per-family or friendship group, which means that although so might contain a reasonable amount of people, the ones that host larger families are extremely tight. Although the camp used to exist exclusively for Syrian refugees, it now hosts a wealth of nationalities, including those from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, DR Congo, Cameroon, to name but a few. Unsurprisingly, with so many ethnic groups, this means that walking around the camp you hear a symphony of different spoken tongues. These voices carrying in the quiet breeze of the camp are certainly beautiful, but there are consequent difficulties with communication between groups, and between refugees and the authorities on which they rely.
One of the other pervasive issues for refugees in the camp is ultimately boredom. Although residents might now have the semi-comfort of the containers, there is little to do in the day-to-day and life is essentially characterised by waiting. This camp serves as a limbo for individuals and families waiting to be granted asylum in Greece or beyond. It is situated an hour's walk from the sleepy traditional Greek town of Polykastro, and is far from any town or city into which these refugees could comfortably integrate themselves. The length of their wait for asylum is essentially an unknown, and many have been in the camp for months longer than they foresaw, with intermittent overnight bus journeys to Athens and back for interviews regarding passports and other documentation. Days lose intention and follow namelessly on from one to the other without the structure of the working week and without a concrete final destination to aim towards.
‘We Are Here’ not only helps to to tackle communication barriers between individuals, but also provides the structure, support and psychological relief that is craved by so many within the camp. It is one of the only NGOs left working here and as such offers an invaluable contribution to camp-life. On my first day, I went into the camp to shadow a few English lessons and was immediately greeted with wide smiles and warm eyes. There are lessons provided for adults and children, with adult lessons split by proficiency, and children’s lessons being focused more around stimulation and various activities. I was also immediately drawn to the “Women’s Space”, which is a beautiful project situated in a wooden-built space into which only women can enter. This place is truly valuable for the women in the camp as it gives them respite from their intense family situations, an opportunity to make new friends and talk about their lives, and more importantly to laugh with one another.
My schedule here for the first few days was rather variable, which is natural as you first enter a project such as this. However, I now have more of a concrete structure to the day, which has made me feel settled and motivated. I spend three mornings a week doing music with kids – two mornings are spent doing basic music theory and then the third is for a kid’s choir (today we mastered 'oh when the saints go marching in'... Proclaimers tunes to follow soon!). The other mornings I run some English classes and other kid’s activities. My afternoons are spent solely in the Women’s Space where I’ve been doing English classes as well as various activities. I’ve now run two ‘Women’s Choir’ sessions which have been a great success! I had no idea what it would be like, and whether the women would want to sing at all, let alone sing in a group. However, unlike in many choirs I’ve participated in in the UK, the women absolutely love it and are wholly willing to give it a go. It’s a great opportunity to teach them a wee bit of English, too, and I’ve decided that a good way to go about it is to change the words from English songs into useful and relevant vocab for them. For example, last week we did a rendition of ‘No Woman, No Cry’, but with altered words, singing‘With Women, No Cry’. They seemed to really like it, and I’ve heard a few of them humming the tune even days later which has been really heartening. Already I feel as if I've had a taste for how music might elevate spirits and help to overcome the language barrier, with women of Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish origin all singing together, and even incorporating some dance moves!
After a rather tumultuous post-graduation Summer, it’s been truly uplifting to feel a sense of being in the right place at the right time, and to know that I might make a genuine contribution to this project. The situation for many in the camp is truly a desolate one, and I can already see how much 'We Are Here' does to enrich and brighten the hours within resident's days. At times, it can honestly be very easy to forget the position that the friends I have made in the camp are in: the beauty and grace with which the women handle their daily struggles and responsibilities; the quiet hands of the children holding yours as they settle down for the weekly kid’s cinema; the men laughing together and talking about politics over cups of sugary tea. However, a stark reminder of the darker memories that lie behind the smiles of the refugees came last week when a factory close to the camp went up in flames, pumping smoke into the sky. Although the fire roared at a safe distance from Nea Kavala, the sight of a sky full of smoke was intensely alarming, and I personally felt a deep sense of shock and fear. As soon as I saw it I ran out to the front of the camp to make sure that none of the kids ran towards it. As I stared up at the thick cloud of smoke, a Syrian man I'd met once before walked over to me to discuss the potential causes of the fire. I expressed my shock at the sight of all of it, but he explained that "in Syria, we see this all of the time every day".
The title of this entry comes from the War on Drugs song 'You Don't Have To Go'. It felt appropriate because of this sense of "silently waiting" that echoes through the camp. People wait for interviews, for information, for the next month and the next year without any true knowledge of how their life will ultimately be painted. Unfortunately there's no influence that I or other volunteers can have upon this fate, but we can at least try to add some colour to the days spent in Nea Kavala.