Not Your Average Greek Package Holiday

My wife Nicola and I had a week or so free from our children for the first time since 1993.  Having sat and watched helplessly as people – the seeming flotsam and jetsam of the war in Syria – floated in and out of view over the past years, washed up on beaches and rocks along Europe’s southern coast, we decided to see for ourselves what was going on and – hopefully more usefully – to do something. 

 We didn’t know who these poor people were, only that like generations before us, their lives had been turned upside-down, and they were now displaced, fleeing from whatever terror was chasing them.

 In the end, through CalAid, a wonderful group of people who have been working with refugees in Calais’ “jungle” for far too long, we found ourselves heading to Filippiada refugee camp on the western side of Greece. It’s about 150km south of the Albanian border, and maybe a little less than that north of Kefalonia, about 40 kilometres inland. The camp is housed at an old Greek military base, and is currently home to about 450 people, living in about 80 tents, mostly in family – or part family – groups.  There are a few individuals there without family of any description, and about a third or more of the camp are children.  We paid our own way to get there and for all our own expenses, and sought donations from friends and colleagues to be used to help fund some activities targeted at the teenagers in the camp.

As individuals, our ability to help is somewhat limited, but I can at least start by sharing our experience in the hope it will perhaps help others understand a little more about what is happening. And so I wrote a number of short posts from the camp, some of which are set out below, to give a sense of life in Filippiada.

1) Tea

 Had tea (I think it was tea – it was very sweet and something hot) in a ‘garden’ room attached to the family tent of a Syrian couple from Damascus.

The man showed us pictures of his five sons: two in Germany, two in Sweden, one in Damascus.

All the sons are too old to justify family reunification.

So the old couple sit and tend their little collection of mint and tomato plants.

They show anyone who will stop for tea with them their photos of their sons and grandchildren. ‪


2) Vienna

 K is in ‪Filippiada refugee camp with her young child. Her husband is in Vienna. It is not clear how they ended up in different cities, but they did. She shows us her wedding ring and says Vienna. She smiles a lot. She came to get water this morning and smiled a lot.

 filippiada-campP is a marketing consultant from near Alicante. He is a volunteer, here for a week, schlepping. And can he schlep. My increasingly weak Portuguese comes in handy, and I spend the morning shift speaking Portanol (the mix of Portuguese and Spanish that sort of gets you by) with him as we check some 100 boxes of children’s clothing, much of it sent by charities from the UK to this camp.


3) How I think it works

The way I think it works is that the Greek army seems to run the camp at ‪Filippiada, but only superficially. The soldiers at the guard post say hello if they see you. The UNHCR are very present too – they seem to have provided the tents. I think the Army provides the daily food – it’s rather unimaginative fare, but no-one starves. It’s undoubtedly not culturally appropriate food, nor does it appear to be Greek food, but it’s not pork, etc, so the people eat it. I’m told one of the meals on the 3 day cycle is pasta with potatoes – I’ve not seen it, but…

 The warehouse gets filled up by someone – I’m trying to find out by whom – bottles and bottles of water on pallets appear when you’re not looking and we refrigerate some (cold water) and not the rest (hot water), and give it out in rations in exchange for tickets that every household (tenthold?) presents. No one is short of water, but it’s a hassle collecting it (them) and distributing it (us). The kids try to rush into the warehouse; we carry them back out. It’s a game. We win.

 A Spanish group of volunteers are in charge of the overall volunteer cohort. The Brits are involved with education and food. So I’m schlepping. No one has yet sought advice on their software contracts.

Many of the Spaniards seem to be called Ana. Loads of young women who seem to be here for a few weeks and who are putting in a good shift. Two shifts, every day. I’m taking my orders from a Spanish woman who must be in her twenties. She seems to know what she’s doing, or at least I hope she does! She works in a bookshop back home.

I think I’ll be sorting shoes tomorrow – yesterday we moved the shoes into the shoe room, without sorting, so tomorrow we’ll sort.

More about the UNHCR tomorrow. Maybe. Hasta manana.


4) Birthday

 Tawalodat mubarak!

Today is X’s birthday. She tells me in her country they don’t have birthdays. They cry when it is their birthday. It is very sad. They cannot celebrate. She says here it is not so sad – not so happy, but not so sad. She is happier here, but it is still not good here. She is doing sums with Nicola. She has a mind desperate to learn. She is a bright, smiley kid who wants to do maths on her birthday because it is good to learn maths.

Tawalodat mubarak. (I think that’s right – I’m not as bright as X, who had never met English people before she got here about six months ago, yet somehow now speaks enough English to learn maths and chat with us. Tomorrow she wants to read a book with Nicola.)

I think it means happy birthday.

She arrived on a boat that sank and they swam.

She turns 11 today.


5) Excess stuff

 So this afternoon/evening I did a shift in the room in which two days ago we’d put all the boxes and bags of duvets, pillows, sheets, blankets and towels. But by ‘put’, I mean with little regard for use of space or any real sorting. It was a case of simply getting the stuff in there then.

 First, though, we had to move the boxes and bags of winter clothing donated that were blocking the entrance to that room, to one side of the corridor, so we could get to the duvet, etc., room.

 And to do that, we had to move the empty wooden pallets that had been left there; and to move them, we had to clear the womenswear overflow room. The whole afternoon shift felt like we were playing a mix of battleships, Tetris and Jenga.

 But in the end, we had put everything in its roughly rightful place.

 I tell this somewhat mundane tale just to note how wonderful the people who give away their excess stuff are, where it goes, how it gets sorted, and to confirm that as far as I can see, it gets used. As more families arrive at this camp, they will have beds (of a fashion), bedding, towels, clothes and toiletries. All provided by people who do not know them and almost certainly never will.

 Those small acts of kindness count. And Brits, for all our concerns about increased racism and xenophobia, seem pretty good at giving away their stuff at times like this and to places like this.


6) Shoes

Shoes. Also boots. Slippers. Flip flops. Furry things. Sandals. Big name brands. Unbranded. Brand new. Old. Single shoes, separated from their sole-mate (see what I did there?)

 Shoes made in Tunisia, China, Poland, Czech Republic, UK, Portugal, in fact almost everywhere. And many via high streets up and down the UK. We even found a train ticket – from 2014 from Birmingham for £2.40 – in a bag.

From (EU) sizes under 20 (I forget how small babies are) to 48 (that is very, very big).

 And the question we kept asking ourselves, to ourselves and sometimes out loud: are these good shoes for walking from here to Germany? Yes: for walking from here to Germany.


7) Logistics

 I can’t vouch for all donations, but the logistics are incredible.

 I can only talk about the penultimate steps. Boxes of stuff arrive at a camp. Delivered by a charity you might or might not have given to. A charity that almost certainly acts as the transport organisation, I’m guessing for various more local charities.

 Mostly in second-hand house-contents removal boxes. Boxes originally marked as ‘kitchen’ or ‘front bedroom’, and then over-written with a generic description of what’s now inside: say, ‘women’s clothes’.

 You open the box – it will typically have two or three sets of sticking tape holding the lid down, one set for each stage of the box’s life – and you check. Women’s clothing is a very broad term of art: underwear, nightwear, summer wear, winter wear, skirts too short for these women to dare to wear, maternity wear, dresses, trousers, t-shirts, jumpers, cardigans. Mostly in decent nick. Some brand new. Some dry cleaned before being sent on its journey with its little safety-pinned ID attached; but some just thrown in a charity bag like the discard it is. Who owned this stuff and what is their life? It doesn’t matter – the stuff has made it over, and now it needs sorting. Sorting by type and by size – some with UK sizing; some marked S, M, L or XL; some unmarked; some with EUR sizing; some with US, or another other countries sizing. It’s hard to tell whether some items are women’s wear or menswear, in which case brighter colours go in as women’s wear. And each item is inspected, folded and stacked neatly. Stacked on shelving made from discarded pallets on which the water has been delivered. Each box emptied. And on to the next box.

 And each item, hopefully, given to someone in the camp who owns nothing.

 I guess it’s recycling.


8) Volunteers

Talking with volunteers back in the town where we are staying. We are all confused be so much of what we see and ultimately all of us are just well-wishers concerned to do something. We don’t have answers, only questions.

 So, to share a random few:

So why does the UNHCR and Greek army provide basic accommodation and food, but not education for the kids in the camp? They have fallen behind and fall further behind, and will almost all make it to out of the camp, where they will struggle to engage. They have experienced and seen too much. They need a mix of love and stern discipline. Structured learning. Homework. I sound like a Tory education minister. A grammar school in every refugee camp… The heat gets to you.

Why do the parents send their kids out to collect the twice daily water rations? We see six year old girls carrying litres and litres of water back to their tent where their parents sit around. Maybe they feel beaten by the journey here, the losses, the nightmares. Maybe they are just too tired.

 And – connected to that – why do the adults not seek to take charge of their lives in the camp? It’s not obvious that there is a camp committee, say, presenting needs and wishes to the authorities. We are mere onlookers, doing a bit – some, like A and B of whom later, doing more than their bit – and cannot usefully intervene in the minutiae of camp life – or maybe all we can do is engage with the minutiae and not the bigger picture stuff?

And there are really big issues: the camp houses Afghans (who speak Farsi), Syrians (Arabic) and Kurds (Kurdish and Arabic) – and the Syrians and Kurds have been at war, or at best at odds, with each other for years. So they live parallel lives in the camp and – as far as we can see – don’t really engage, at least at adult level. The kids sort of engage with each other, but only sort of.

 Or I might have misunderstood what is going on. It’s confusing.

 I look up and see Switzerland and Austria are playing beach volleyball at the Olympics. Those countries so famous for their beaches….


9)  A and B

I said I’d write something about volunteers A and B.

They are retired teachers, in ‎Filippiada for four weeks, staying in the volunteer house (no air con, electric cut-outs, no en suite bathroom), because I guess four weeks in a hotel is unaffordable whatever your job, and certainly for retired teachers.

They go into the camp twice daily and teach. She tends to do craft with the kids, and he runs an adult education programme for the Afghan adults – men and women together, learning English. Who knew that Afghan women would be happy to stand up in class and read out loud? 

Their mission this past week was also to buy those elasticated lightweight trousers women wear – women who are hippies, Israelis, middle-easterners – I don’t know what they are rightly called, but you know them too. They ended up collecting every woman’s size amongst the refugees and getting someone back in the UK to agree to buy them and get them delivered to Filippiada. It’s what you do, I suppose.

A and B have previously spent over a year as VSO volunteers in Nigeria.

That’s pretty unsung heroism, in my book. I think they’d hate to be thought of in that way though.


10) Done

 So, we are done.

 Four days of volunteering at ‪‎Filippiada refugee camp and we are free to go. We are now going to take a short holiday before heading home.

Boy, are we lucky. Lucky that our grandparents and great-grandparents also left their countries of birth, where their families lived for generations – the Lithuanians, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Poles – and moved west, some aiming for North America, some happy to be anywhere else that chance took them.

 I hope these short posts have given an idea of what we have seen here. Part of our reason for coming was to see what was going on here, do what we could by way of heavy lifting (me) and teaching (Nicola), and share our thoughts.

 I will try to work out what else we can usefully and achievably do.

 Thanks for coming along with us.

Article originally published on JCORE’s Website. See the original article here.