Fund We Are Here! Community Centre
During September and October 2016, I spent two weeks working as a volunteer in the We Are Here! community centre that has been built in the Nea Kavala refugee camp in Northern Greece, a short drive away from the Macedonia border. Nea Kavala is likely to be a medium to long-term camp for refugees from the Syrian civil war waiting to process their European asylum applications. This application process can stretch past twelve months and for the people themselves feel much longer.
The We Are Here! centre was built on the camp by volunteers with the aim of providing a space where children can feel a sense of safety, routine and validation, and where adults can learn and engage in activities, attend courses and workshops – as well as be an integral part of the running of the centre, which is a collaborative effort.
We Are Here! post regular updates on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WeAreHereCentre
Although I spent just two weeks there, here is a brief account of my time on the camp which I hope you find interesting. I also hope to raise a useful amount of money for We Are Here! through small donations that will specifically help to fund the maintenance and winterisation of the two classrooms and women’s space as well as the building of an additional structure to be used as an independent study area incorporating the centre’s up and coming library selection.
Currently We Are Here’s two classrooms, which are made out of basic materials like plywood and tarpaulin, are being ripped and damaged by high winds [the camp sits on a very flat former air force base]. Likewise, the women’s space has started to become unusable as the ceiling deteriorates from this same weather which will only get worse as winter unfolds. These structures were never intended for winter as the Nea Kavala camp was only supposed to be temporary. However, as the camp becomes more of a fixture, with the asylum application process stretching into the future, funds are now urgently needed to winterise these buildings to keep them functioning.
This maintenance of We Are Here’s structures is key to protecting the hard fought gains made by long term volunteers to become a trusted partner in the running of the military camp. Its expansion with a study space will enhance the community centre’s positive position at the heart of the lives of the refugees living there.
A main aim of the centre is to provide educational activities. Around 1,000 people live in the camp with 50% being children. For these children there is neither official nor formal education. I now realise that the most important part of school is the going to it. The idea that a seven year old child wakes up in the morning and doesn’t know what happens next is soothed by We Are Here! volunteers who every morning create a human school bus by walking and dancing, Pied Piper style, around the camp signalling that it is time to come outside of their tent and join other children to dance and have fun before lining up to enter a classroom. In this way, very young children have a purpose in the morning that doesn’t end at the same time as breakfast.
As well as exercise books, pencils and teachers there are also games, dancing, drama, singing and sports activities run by We Are Here! volunteers from within and outside the camp. Bigger and better known charities sit adjacent marked out as a place for children only by their own fluttering flags, not by the existence of a single pen, book or splash of colour.
With very finite resources, children who are eager to learn learn the most and the obligation void is great. Requests from those who ask to learn quickly fill the available time of volunteers and language or maths lessons can be impromptu, on a walk or in the shade of the searing midday sun.
Young and old people want to learn. But many have suffered years of successive mental traumas and severe emotional anguish. Some will suffer depression. Yet there is no psychologist to attempt to address this and other hidden issues. One volunteer, a qualified yoga instructor, commented that some of those who attended the yoga class she put on had some of the most tense and stressed bodies she had ever witnessed. This made me think that their mental health would be at least as bad if not much much worse.
Those who live in Nea Kavala used to live normal lives. I met joiners, seamstresses, barbers and countless students whose enrolment in University masters courses seems like a lifetime ago. Occasionally, these skills come in handy to build bookshelves for the centre, makeshift shelters from the cold winds or fix torn clothes, but many struggle to pick up the threads of their old lives. This isn't in 'survival in the wild'. It is survival in a sort of captivity which is far worse.
The camp is situated in the middle of nowhere and refugees are not allowed to take paid work until their first asylum interview, often months and months into the future. Even then, the struggling Greek economy provides very few economic opportunities. Precious money needs to be saved for one last journey to a country that might welcome them or to supplement basic food and clothes donations. Apart from the beacon of a relative or loved one already in a particular country, many people I spoke to have no preference where they might be permitted to live but just want the purgatory to end and get on with doing normal things like providing for their families or working for themselves. This opportunity is mostly removed from you when you live in a military camp.
We Are Here! also built a women only space that offers a safe area for women to socialise and learn, have fun and relax. The women's space is somewhere breathing space can be found and independence regained. Made from wood from the walls to the sofas, an elegant parlour feel is sought through handmade cushions, throws and painted walls and embraced by the women in yoga, knitting and arts & crafts sessions organised by volunteers from We Are Here!. But its tarpaulin ‘roof’ only made good during the sunny season and is now battered daily by stormy weather.
In an already sexist world the camp magnifies obstacles put in the way of women. If women in the U.K. think twice about walking home alone at night or stay extra vigilant when faced with a range of threatening male behaviour then camp conditions can exacerbate this. Women in the camp are not walking home from a night out but face these problems far more mundanely. Take as an example if they want to go to the toilet during the night. Noisily unzipping the tent and negotiating the snaking grass, the uncertainty of the pitch-black route to the portaloo is matched only by the uncertainty of your family remaining sleeping in the tent. Lurking street corners are constant due to the need to twist and turn around the never-ending tents. Notwithstanding cultural differences, the unisex toilets and handful of cold showers on site fill nobody with confidence or security. Although ran by the military, soldiers have no orders to police the camp. The police require all business to be done offsite and mostly stay near the entrance. There is little deterrent for potential criminals and people do not feel protected.
I was invited countless times for tea or a meal in people’s tents, many more times than I had time to accept. The hospitality, the lovely flavours of the food made so literally from essentials, the insistence on normality – dignity, kindness and normality all reduced to its simplest acts and gestures – that is what it is like to enjoy a meal in the tent of a refugee.
Syria was a vibrant country. And the refugees hold this vibrancy with them. When the numb pain of waiting eases for an evening dancing can break out. On a personal note I am now somewhere in-between beginner and intermediate level of proficiency in Syrian dancing.
It's not that there shouldn't be due process for registering refugees or that there shouldn’t be common sense procedures for managing the great numbers of those people asking for safety and normality in Europe – it's that this process is itself a humanitarian crisis.
Consider the total absence of any hot water. This is not a technical issue. This is an issue of will. When a modern British army sets-up camp, for example in the Iraqi desert, electricity and hot water come as standard. But when a thousand refugees, half of whom are children remember, are in dire need of hot water to clean themselves in a European country it is quite evidently not considered important. Many are waiting for an asylum interview in April, a far away month at the end of shivering winter.
The U.K. has declined to be part of the international sharing system established to help refugees and instead said it will separately give asylum to 20,000 individuals over the course of five years starting from September 2015. According to refugeecouncil.org.uk since the war in Syria began in 2011 until September 2016, the U.K. has resettled 2,898 Syrians which is slightly higher than the average attendance of a home match at Stevenage Football Club who play in the lowest league of professional football in England. Although asked with as much curiosity as anything else, an occasional question asked of me in Nea Kavala is ‘Why won’t England help us?’ Whether you agree with the official British policy of Syrian refugee intake = average attendance of Stevenage FC matches or not, our reputation is not positive.
If in life we are searching for a connection with someone or something to give meaning to our days or an opportunity to better ourselves and our families or to give and feel compassion to and from others then these things are set at a high premium in a refugee camp. We Are Here! tries to give people the time and space to make these connections, to remember the world outside of their tent and to separate their days with more than just the setting of the sun.
I felt guilty in leaving. That I could go back and live in Great Britain and they had to stay on an abandoned Greek airstrip. It didn’t feel right. I could see in the eyes of one man when I told him I was leaving that he had seen it all before - a volunteer flying in an out. It didn’t feel right. All those people I had made friends with and practiced English with and organised activities with, it was as if on leaving they turned back into stricken refugees and I turned back into a privileged observer. Even to say I want to go back is to assume the continued existence of the camp and its way of life and so irrespective of my hope to return I hope also that one day I will be able to see these people again in the exceptional normality of their own safe homes.
Please consider a donation of whatever you can to this urgent and good cause and help We Are Here! continue to make a positive difference during this great crisis.
Thanks for reading.