Still there: volunteering at Nea Kavala refugee camp, Northern Greece

30 March, 2017

Not many people asked me why I went volunteering in Greece. The images of refugees in the camps in Greece and other parts of the Balkans, and those sleeping rough in temperatures of minus 15-20 degrees, as well as the lack of media attention to their situation touched me deeply, as they did many others. I felt frustrated and powerless because of the lack of political will amongst European leaders to come to a quick and humane solution. Is this Europe? Should it be left to individual citizens’ discretion to provide basic humanitarian support such as food, clothing, healthcare and psychosocial support to refugees?

Drop in the Ocean

Searching the internet I came across Drop in the Ocean, a Norwegian NGO providing immediate and direct aid to refugees in Greece. The Nea Kavala refugee camp was established and is run by the Greek military, after the Greek border with FYR Macedonia was closed in March 2016 and 8-10,000 refugees found themselves stuck in Idomeni, with several families divided on either side of the border. Nea Kavala, which used to be a military airport, was rapidly converted into a refugee camp, with UNHCR tents set up to give shelter to 3,500 refugees while their visa applications could be processed in Greece. At the time I volunteered in the camp in February-March 2017, there were around 350 people left, mainly families with young children and single males.

From tents to ISO containers

The UNHCR tents, placed in a hurried attempt to deal with the sudden high number of refugees having to stay in Greece, did not provide much shelter against Greece’s hot summer or freezing winter. Families of up to ten people slept in tents that measured 16m2. Northern Greece experienced its coldest winter in 40 years this year, with temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius. A refugee told me people couldn’t sleep at night because of the cold. The water pipes in the camp were frozen and the UNHCR provided bottled water instead.

In January, the tents were replaced with ISO containers; boxes with a door and one window, and heating. On the floor is a carpet and thin mattresses for each person living in the box. Grey fleece blankets with the UNHCR logo are provided for sleeping and, during the day, for covering the mattresses for seating. The Timber Project has assisted refugees with building provisional kitchens in their ISO containers, as well as extensions to some. The containers were placed along the runway of the airport in a herringbone structure, aimed to break the wind. When I was in the camp, I once experienced that strong wind, and I can only imagine what it must have been like in freezing temperatures. Only in the last few weeks has the weather improved enough for children to come out and play again.

A sense of normality

Drop in the Ocean provides food and clothing to the refugees in the camp. On designated days, DiO volunteers open the Drop Food Market for a few hours for refugees to pick up their pre-sorted bags at a time that suits them. The Drop Market clothing store closely resembles any other clothing store. As most refugees in the camp have been there for almost a year, the most urgent needs for clothing and shoes have been met, and the Drop Market has become a place intended to give these refugees a sense of normality – to make them forget for a moment where they really are and why.  The set-up of the Drop Market is thought-through, from the front door to the till, where people use tokens, allocated depending on the family size, for their chosen items. There is a separate area for women, divided from the rest of the store by curtains.

The logistics behind the store improved a lot with the development of The Drop App, a QR system that makes it possible to track each box’s whereabouts from the warehouse to the Market.

A place of extremes

The currently small size of this camp, the homogenous population of refugees (a majority of them are Syrian Kurds) and the smooth overall collaboration between the different stakeholders working in the camp mean that Nea Kavala is not plagued by many of the issues other refugee camps face. Don’t wander off here though. The camp is a place of extremes, where the traumatic experiences of the refugees, as well as sadness, frustration, and anger about the mere existence of this place on the one hand, co-exist confusingly with the positivity of both the refugees and the volunteers I met, the immense hospitality and generosity of the refugees and, not least, of the local Greek people themselves, who never asked for this situation and live in a country in economic crisis. Nevertheless the local people seemed to deal with the high number of refugees without any (noticeable) complaint. 

Through the everyday conversations I had with refugees run very emotional lines. Whilst sharing dinner, a refugee casually showed me a picture of his apartment, taken the moment before he left Syria. Over a cup of tea, another refugee told me his family’s house in Syria had been destroyed the night before. After a game of football, a young man said he could not sleep at night because he was worrying so much about which country he will be sent to. It was this same young man who shared, over a dinner he prepared for a group of people, how deeply touched he was by protesters who had gathered on the Macedonian side of the border near Idomeni last year, demanding that the refugees on the Greek side be let through to continue their journey. He expressed his gratitude to the European Union, for offering him a safe space now in Greece, and, in the future, hopefully in Germany where the rest of his family lives. He was grateful to the many volunteers, who came and played with the children in the camp and brought a smile to their faces.

A humbling gratitude

Gratitude was the last thing I expected from this young man, who three years ago had to make the decision to flee his country and will be on his way for a long time before he finds a place he can call home again. His genuine expression of gratitude still fills me with humbleness and embarrassment at the same time. Humbleness, because I was reminded of the value safety has as the basis of human existence and growth. And deep, deep embarrassment, for every day European political leaders waste without making a decision about the intake of a fair number of refugees in each of the EU member states, and shorten the period genuine refugees have to spend in refugee camps, their lives on hold.

All photographs by Kinga Garrido.

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About the author(s)
Ingrid Jooren
Administrative Coordinator, Young Lives