This is a personal account of one volunteering experience and does not represent the views of any organisation. Names have been changed.
Opening of the Kara Tepe summer fete, August 2016. Image from Angels Relief musicians.
Time of Youth
Disney’s Peter Pan wouldn’t have been my choice of film to show at the refugee camp cinema evening (Frozen and The Jungle Book were popular choices in previous weeks), but like everything else during my short time in Lesvos, I had much to learn and nothing went quite as expected.
Kara Tepe camp was established in September 2015 as an emergency shelter when Lesvos was the hot spot for many thousands of people fleeing war, persecution or poverty. They arrived in inflatable dinghies, often with poor or faulty life-jackets supplied by people smugglers, across the Aegean Sea from adjacent Turkey. The distance is five miles at its shortest point and looks about the same as Edinburgh to Fife on a clear day. It has been a migration route in both directions for centuries.
Austerity-stricken Greece has had to absorb and respond to this humanitarian and human rights crisis. Larger NGOs were initially absent, so locals and small informal groups of mostly young volunteers mobilised to provide the basic humanitarian needs of traumatised people.
Before the crisis Lesvos was famous for ouzo, olives, and an Ancient Greek poetess called Sappho. Greeks are rightly proud of her, and encourage tourists to visit her home town of Skala Eresou. Reading aloud Sappho’s poem, Time of Youth from my souvenir copy, the participants in Kara Tepe youth and women’s groups persevered with the challenge of translating Ancient Greek to English to Arabic to Farsi while trying to retain a lyrical quality. But bolder and more imaginative than Sappho’s words were the Kara Tepe poems written collectively in response.
The creative writing workshops only succeeded because of the help of new friends like Afia, a talented young woman from a town near Kabul who wrote in her piece that she wants to be the first female President of Afghanistan. Able to exercise her right to a continued education, anything is possible. I also had the help of Ramin, a graphic designer from Damascus who made animations for the games industry before war split his immediate family across two continents. Like many, Ramin wants to be reunited with relatives who arrived and settled in Germany before the highly controversial EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, aimed at reducing the number of people travelling to the Greek islands then further into Europe.
Both Ramin and Afia are classed as particularly vulnerable by the authorities, and therefore can stay at Kara Tepe due to their personal experiences. Afia witnessed murder and extreme violence to her family by the Taliban in Afghanistan, while Ramin, after leaving Syria to avoid military service, was one of few who survived when their boat upturned on the crossing to Lesvos. But neither has yet been registered into the long and arduous asylum administration system. They are left waiting, spending their time of youth without access to formal education, each day passing much like the one before it.
A human rights crisis
You don’t need to be a legal expert to observe that human rights violations are being committed on a daily basis in Greek camps. There is a lack of formal education for school-aged children, a lack of adequate or accessible housing, and in some cases a lack of access to healthcare. Even in the relatively well-organised Kara Tepe camp, children play next to bulldozers. Immediately outside the camp exit, children and their parents have to negotiate the walk to Mytilene city centre along a busy and poorly-lit highway.
The UNHCR estimates there to be approximately 60,000 refugees in Greece. First-hand accounts from Lesvos suggest about one hundred new arrivals come from Turkey every night. Most boats are now intercepted by Frontex, the EU border agency, in EU-Greek waters and the people taken to reception centres.
Kara Tepe was designed with infrastructure and accommodation for 1,000 individuals. There were 1500 people when I arrived and about 1800 three weeks later. Across Greece, volunteers work independently and in organised groups, filling the gaps left by established agencies. They take over abandoned buildings to ensure people have somewhere to shelter, provide nutritional supplies to young children, and set up language programs. None of this can be a substitute for securing safe, permanent homes for refugees but it is something.
Provided with paper and pens, the children I met drew pictures of crowded boats crossing a choppy blue sea, orange blobs dotting the waves, and exaggerated Jaws-style fins protruding from the hatched scribble-lines. In a rare quiet moment when less stones were being hurled across the playground, when I could account for all the art materials and there was relative shade from the mid-day sun, I asked Zahara, aged eleven and an Iraqi Kurd, to tell me about her drawing. She said it showed her family arriving in Greece at night. Her first encounter with the sea is permanently etched in her mind as a formative experience. Zahara proudly added a number 12 to the side of the boat in the drawing to illustrate that her family now live in tent 12 at Kara Tepe. She speaks six languages (English and Spanish self-taught in Kara Tepe) and wants to go to school. The drawing might be her version of a Neverland trauma with pirates and crocodiles.
The little boy sitting on the ground next to us was Humza. Aged eight and from Syria, he was quiet and liked bouncing a tennis ball against a wall. On his piece of paper, he drew the recognisable triangle of a house roof sat atop a large rectangle with two smaller rectangles inside for windows. But Humza’s house had flames burning through the roof and a man standing next to the house with a gun. He wanted me to keep the drawing but didn’t say more.
Facing the world
The main thing that distinguishes Kara Tepe from other refugee camps is that the management and NGO staff refer to people as residents rather than refugees or migrants. Longer-term residents (some have been at the camp five or six months) are encouraged to help and lead in daily activities, including the distribution of breakfast, the digging of trenches for installing a solar panel system, and cultural activities like a weekly Saturday night disco where a generator is borrowed from a local restaurant to amplify music familiar from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq (as well as an unfortunate number of Justin Bieber hits) across the camp. In these ways, human dignity is maintained and people who were professors, doctors, teachers, chefs and musicians in their home countries, have their skills and experiences recognised and the boredom of legal purgatory lifted temporarily.
Movement on the Ground was set up by a group of Dutch creatives who observed that the infrastructure requirements of a refugee camp are not so different to those of a large music festival – security, water, food, electricity, personal safety, waste disposal etc. With the help of regular volunteers and, most importantly residents themselves, Movement on the Ground, has been able to install a solar-powered grid to provide electric lighting across the camp. The approach is one of community engagement with participatory decision-making, confidence-building, and skills development. There are plans to build a library with books of many languages for learning and pleasure, and computers to help people maintain links to relatives in Berlin or Baghdad, Amsterdam or Aleppo.
The Kara Tepe Summer Fete was a much anticipated date in the cultural calendar of NGOs working with residents to organise a celebratory party for children and their families. Saturday 26 August also happened to coincide with the Highland Games in my family village of Abernyte in Perthshire, Scotland. I tried to explain how our folk traditions of tug o’ war, tattie and spoon race, and scone teas, are also really about bringing people together.
Near the end of the long and exhausting day of the Kara Tepe summer fete (800 children, August heat, near-chaos in the toy distribution line), I was assigned to the face-painting stall. A crowd of excited and over-sugared children jabbed sticky fingers at images of intricately designed Spidermen, butterflies and tigers beaming out from the cover of a cheap face-painting set picked up from Lidl.
Sara, a Syrian girl I had come to see often in the playground, stood patiently in line. When it was her turn to be painted, she didn’t hesitate to point to the image of a fairy-tale pink and white bunny rabbit with whiskers and ears. Sara’s face was severely burned by bomb blast damage in her hometown of Aleppo. Now in Greece with her siblings and parents, there is hope that she will get reconstruction surgery in Germany. While waiting, she must somehow cope with a very visible disfigurement that marks her out in a crowd of 800 children. But there she stood, at the top of the line, wanting her face to be painted as a bunny rabbit. I had seen how much she enjoyed liberally applying samples of makeup and nail varnish to visiting volunteers and that she proudly smudged her own lips with a scarlet red crayon. Weighing up health and safety concerns for a child with major facial injuries and Sara’s evident wish to be included, I resolved to do my best effort at a bunny-rabbit creation from the greying pot of face paint and a sponge dabbed in dirty water. She seemed really pleased to be one odd bunny rabbit among many for a day.
I kept one of Sara’s happy drawings of love hearts and flowers and have it pinned on my wall next to the hall mirror at home in Edinburgh as a reminder to be brave when facing the world.
Kiss with a fist
When I’ve tried before to write about this short but profound experience in Lesvos, I’ve hit a block. I fall short in recording any measure of the depth of courage, generosity and full-heartedness shown to me by residents and fellow volunteers at Kara Tepe. When friends and family ask what I did on my summer holiday volunteering, I’m not sure how to respond. I didn’t fight for legal justice or pull people ashore from boats. I didn’t do anything heroic or brave. I made friends. I learnt to play, again. I overcame my own lack of self-confidence with entertaining small children. And I bore witness to the day-to-day struggles of people who are seeking the safe and peaceful life we all deserve. In small, conscious ways, I educated myself about systematic and widespread human rights abuses, became angrier about my own government’s woeful response to these abuses, and want to return to do more.
Short-term volunteers, well-meaning grown-ups, come and go in the lives of refugee children, particularly over the summer holiday season on Greek islands. My last day helping at Kara Tepe camp was significant for me but just like any other day stuck in the dust, sweat and injustice for those waiting in a limbo not of their own making. Grand farewell gestures aren’t appropriate. I said a personal thanks to the women who assisted as translators and welcomed and befriended me when I felt anxious and uncertain on arrival. Other than that, it was a sincere ‘hope to see you soon’.
Late on Friday evening when the sun had gone down and the camp had quietened down, children and some of their parents sat on UNHCR blankets watching Disney’s Peter Pan, subtitled into Farsi and projected onto the walls of a portacabin. Aside from the occasional cry of a baby or the whine of mopeds from the main road outside, there was a settling hush. The kind of collective reverence that makes committed atheists whisper on entering a cathedral or mosque.
I tip-toed across a gravel path toward the camp exit to wait for a taxi back to Mytilene. As I stood next to the makeshift snack bar and mobile phone charging station, a little boy I didn’t recognise appeared by my side as if from nowhere and tugged on my arm. He exclaimed ‘my friend, my friend’ in broken English and gestured for me to lean in close. I bent down and smiled at him. And then he slapped me. Hard. Across the face.
I gave him a row and he ran away laughing. But I wanted to say, ‘Yes, ok, fair enough. I feel ashamed that I’m leaving you here, habibi. I see you. I hear you. I won’t forget you. And thanks for making me laugh, too, despite it all.’
Lost boys marooned in a Neverland of false promises, pirate smugglers, dangerous creatures and ticking clocks, can’t fly away and must constantly negotiate the safest boundaries. This is a real land very near to us. It’s our European land. And lost boys and girls are the new Europeans.
It can be difficult to know how to help in the refugee crisis. Here are three things that will make a difference:
- Lobby the UK and Scottish governments in whatever ways you can to accept more refugees and asylum-seekers.
- Donate to trusted NGOs. Donations to Movement on the Ground will pay for portable heaters and blankets to keep tents warm in winter months.
- If you are fortunate to have spare time and are financially-independent, volunteer. A minimum of ten days is requested by most organisations and if you have skills like medical training, teaching, or construction, you can be particularly useful. The Greece Volunteering site lists placement opportunities. Or support refugee integration efforts at home such as that led by the Scottish Refugee Council and Positive Action in Housing in Scotland.