I’ve been putting off writing this post for some time now. I’ve been back in Greece for around a month, and yet haven’t really put aside the time to do some writing or any proper reflection on what’s been happening here. Perhaps this is because of lack of time or energy – but my lack of writing probably isn’t a good thing. When I was here before Christmas, I definitely found this platform a really good way of sharing my experiences and articulating and expressing thoughts that might not otherwise find their way out into the open. It’s strange how you can keep putting off something that you know is good for you. It’s like doing exercise – you know that you’ll never regret doing it, but still it’s so hard to put your trainers on and get out of the door.
The situation in Northern Greece has, in particular over the last few weeks, become very intense. Of course, this has always been the case, but more recently thousands of people have been arriving over the land border with Turkey. Many are fleeing conflicts in the Northern Syria and Iraq, where Turkey continues to carry out deadly offensives against perceived Kurdish heartlands. Lots of the new arrivals have been put on a bus to Thessaloniki from overcrowded detention centres on the Greek border with Turkey. They have no plan, and arrive in the city in the middle of the night with nowhere to go. From there, their only real options are to sleep on the streets in Thessaloniki, or try their luck in one of the refugee camps nearby. In Nea Kavala, where I am based, we have seen many arrivals of this nature. Some individuals or families may know someone in the camp, or have heard about the camp through other means. They then travel to the camp and try to either find an empty container for themselves, or squeeze in with their friends. However, living in the camp unregistered is not easy, and without being officially recognised these individuals are not entitled to the same rights as those around them. Unfortunately, the registration process takes so long and is so arduous that it could take months for their situation to improve. With more and more people arriving, and no quick solution coming from authorities, we are likely to see an increasing number of people squeezing into extremely overcrowded containers, or squatting outside of one. In the last few days, we have see huge rub halls (large white tents which can fit hundreds) erected around the camp. Although we haven’t had direct information as to why, it seems that they are going to provide accommodation for expected arrivals.
It can be easy to forget that, although they might be “refugee camps”, these environments become home for thousands of people around Greece and beyond. In Nea Kavala, there are people who have been here for over a year, and families who raise children here. Of course, this is far from an ideal scenario, but the incredible ability of the families living here to make the best of that situation astounds me every day. People make their containers homely by decorating them and creating mini separate rooms within them. Some build extra shelter and benches so that they can socialise outside. Every evening delicious meals are cooked, coffee is drunk, football is played. All of this combined has created a relative sense of normality, which might be enough to see these people through until their asylum claims are processed. Grassroots organisations such as We Are Here can also play a valuable and perhaps vital role in creating this sense of safety and community. Through various activities and lessons, we are able to get to know the people in the camp, and encourage different ethnic groups to integrate and communicate with one another.
Recent developments have had a huge impact in terms of the dynamic in camp, proving how fragile that sense of safety can be. Whereas before Christmas most of the people in Nea Kavala at least knew each other by face, if not by name, there are now countless individuals that nobody has seen before. The relative sense of stability that existed for several months last year has inevitably slipped. Of course, this is no fault of the new arrivals, but rather endemic of an asylum system that is so full of bureaucracy that new people feeling conflict have nowhere to go but these overcrowded camps. Logically, or perhaps morally, when a person flees conflict and potential death, they should be the first people that are looked after and greeted with open arms. However, in reality, they seem to be the last people to be noticed by this system.
The effects of these circumstances are not just ones of physical depravity for new arrivals, but also persistent psychological damage that, from what I’ve seen, is likely to be permanent. In order to process conflict or trauma, individuals need to feel safe. But Nea Kavala and camps like it cannot provide this safe environment to anyone when they are overpopulated and under-staffed. This situation doesn’t benefit anyone: new arrivals don’t have proper attention or accommodation; and older residents lose their security and safety. This has an effect not just on the adults in camp, but also children who pick up on this atmosphere perhaps more than anyone. Of course, this is not to say that there ought not be new arrivals to the camp, but rather that if there are, they need to be integrated properly, and given proper attention from when they first arrive in Greece. These are people who have often very recently escaped a war-zone. They deserve to be welcomed with open arms, as opposed to being left to fend for themselves both mentally and physically.
In terms of our role here as a community centre, it can be very hard to know where to draw the line. The lack of support from larger organisations on the ground means that there are often emergency situations where we are the only ones here and willing to help. This puts us in a very difficult position as none of us are trained or experienced in dealing with the kind of trauma that a lot of the people here are going through. And yet, when someone is in danger, we often don’t have any option but to help. Over the past few weeks there have been more and more moments like this, and there are likely to be more to come. Of course, the professional advice is to avoid becoming involved in situations that you are not qualified to deal with; but in reality, on a human-to-human level, it is almost impossible to stick to such advice. Of course, we are trying to refer such situations to the appropriate authorities, and to communicate the problems we are having to organisations who can help. Yet a solution is not often forthcoming. As a team, we are putting all of our energy in our community centre in the hope that we can salvage as much of a sense of community and safety as we possibly can.
As volunteers, these realities seem to hit in waves. In our centre, we have a relatively strict schedule of classes and activities, and so there is a deliberate sense of normality and predictability in the working week. This is not only good for the residents of the camp, who value this routine and feeling of security, but also for us as it means we can effectively plan and carry out lessons and activities. The We Are Here Centre could not be more valuable at this time. So often have my students expressed their gratitude for the space we provide, and spoken about how relaxed they feel there. I feel a sense of pride in both the strength of my students, simply for turning up to class every day, and in ourselves as a centre for providing this safe space for them to come to. The value of grassroots organisations in camps like Nea Kavala is unmeasurable, and this has become even more clear to me over the past few weeks. We are able to reach out to those people on whom so many backs have been turned. It’s very easy to account for the lack of response by many larger organisations with arguments about how complex the refugee crisis is, and how much bureaucracy must take place to deal with new arrivals. However, I remain unconvinced by these arguments. If European governments truly wanted to help, they could find a way. One of the most treasured aspects of humanity is that when a person needs help, you should help them. Yet, although this value is upheld vocally in both political and individual discourse, it seems that European civilisation is far removed from this most basic form of humanity in its response to a crisis that is growing daily.
I couldn’t help but put a Frightened Rabbit lyric as the title for this piece. Their music has guided me through some very tough moments over the past few weeks, and has proven to me once again how powerful music can be as a source of empathy and solace. Thank you, Scott, for all of the tiny moments of relief and joy and comfort and reprieve that you have provided to so many of us on this wee planet we call home.