Words by Marina Malthouse
A recent trip to Greece provoked me to write this article. My particular experience of travel on this occasion was, on many levels, different from those that I’ve previously had, for I was there to volunteer at a refugee camp in northern Greece.
Having booked and signed up for this trip, and despite being assured of my decision, I found myself feeling somewhat apprehensive. But why, I wondered? I’m half Greek, know the country and culture well and have travelled there countless times – but this trip entailed something different. I was concerned about the space I would inhabit whilst on the refugee camp, a space amongst people displaced by war, who have run in order to survive and whose lives have been on hold for too long. And then, reading a description of the former military-turned-refugee camp as having a heavy military presence inflamed my imagination. But I reminded myself that I usually enjoy difference; it decentres me and challenges me, opening up new perspectives to difference and ways of being. From hereon, the concept of travel took on new meanings.
Departing from my hometown of Bath, I had at least secured some certainty. I’d signed up to volunteer with a charity called Bridge2. I would fly from Gatwick to Thessaloniki. I knew which buses I would need to catch. I had examined the map to locate the places I would be travelling to and the distances between them; noticing that this region of Greece is called Macedon and that its northern border is with Macedonia. I was thrilled that I would be in the region known to produce the best make of my favourite food, halva.
After twelve hours of travelling by car, plane, two buses and a miscalculated three-minute taxi ride, I arrived at the front door of my hotel it the town of Veria, where all Bridge2 volunteers stay. Apart from the shock of a harsh winter wind that hit me as I exited Thessaloniki airport, my journey had been smooth. By the next morning I got over my final hurdle, of successfully finding Sam of Bridge2. The job of travelling from A to B was done. I could now begin to relax. Sam is the son of Sarah Griffith, the founder of Bridge2. Sarah has mastered the art of disaster relief having dedicated herself to attend to those in need following tsunamis, earthquakes and now, the Syrian refugees in Greece. A mother and son team makes this a very personable charity; all communication is with them directly and they clearly value kindness, goodwill, tenacity and patience. They are extremely organised. And Sam is pretty handy with a drill.
Camp Veria lies a few kilometres outside the city of Veria just beyond a small village called Aghia Varvara. It’s a former military camp, which means there’s a guardhouse at the entrance and wire fencing demarcating the perimeter. The camp has many pine trees in the grounds, a dirt-ground football pitch and a neglected basketball court. Below, a blue-watered lake formed by a dam with the Aliakmonas river foregrounds several snow-capped mountains that tower in the distance. As I stand admiring this view, I see forty or so beehives nearby and hear the familiar sounds of my childhood summers in Greece, of goat bells, sheep bleating and cockerels crowing. I discover that these belong to a farmer whose small land-mass of milk and honey is paradoxically sandwiched between the edge of this military camp and the banks of the lake.
Despite having learnt that all of the refugees on the camp had risked their lives crossing over from Turkey and had since survived dehumanising conditions in previous camps (Idomeni, Polikastro and Oreokastro), as Sam walks me around, I have a sense of peace and settledness. Each time we encounter a refugee, we stop. I observe their huge smiles as they warm-heartedly greet Sam, and between the men, some form of physical contact occurs – a handshake, a friendly thump on the upper arm, or a hug. A mixture of Arabic and English are spoken and a conversation may ensue in English, or not. Communication, of course, is vital so those that do speak English are often used as interpreters to enable Sam to understand the regular bombardments of questions or requests for one thing or another. Life on the camp can become tedious for its residents. What seems like the tiniest of problems when life is good can magnify into something pressingly important when there is little else to do.
Our tour around the camp includes army and other NGO offices, four residential blocks for the refugees, each of which has been divided up into small, individual living units with shared bathroom facilities. Bridge2 supplies every family with an electric kettle and portable cooker and another refugee organisation provide beds and bedding. We pass a building that has been set up as a school where refugee children are taught by refugees who were formerly teachers back home in Syria or Iraq. Other buildings include storerooms, a space for men and women to hang out separately, and the ‘shops’ for food, clothing and shoes that are run by Bridge2. These are shops by name only as there is no requirement for money – it is Sarah’s method of distributing food, clothing and shoes. In time, I see the fine motive behind her careful planning where creating opportunities to ‘shop’ provides individual refugees with dignity and choice, offering them perhaps a reminder of better days. It’s a limited choice as it does depend on donations, or what Sarah has bought in from local providers by way of fresh fruit, eggs, vegetables and groceries. With my Western eye however, and with hours and hours of volunteer time dedicated to sorting through boxes of food, toiletries, toys, clothes and shoes, it was my impression that Sarah’s shops have a lot to offer. Her standards are high – when volunteers ask her advice on finding dirty, misshapen or shrunken goods, she’d say, “if you wouldn’t eat, wear or use it, bin it”.
By the end of my first day, Sam hands me a set of keys and assigns me the responsibility of running the supermarket for the month. Opening on Tuesdays and Thursdays for ‘sales’, the supermarket also requires restocking of shelves in-between times from the storeroom behind. Here, there are boxes and boxes of donated goods for volunteers to unpack and sort through, cooking oils to decant and spices, seeds, coffee, cocoa, lentils and chickpeas to be bagged into smaller-sized portions. Inevitably whilst the volunteers work together, life experiences are shared and friendships are forged.
Of more importance though, my days in the supermarket enabled me to spend time with each of the refugees. In total, there were approximately 250 refugees, mostly families with young children, but also single young men and one single woman. They came to shop in turn, block-by-block, unit-by-unit. More often than not, it was the husbands who came alone leaving their wives to care for their babies and young children. When husbands were already in Germany, as was the case for three wives and their young children in Block D, they shopped together. I didn’t need to know Arabic to understand what they seemed to be saying to one another – their expressions and laughter told of women sharing lives whilst shopping together. Occasionally, teenage daughters or sons had been sent by their parents to shop, or young single men who shared a unit space might come alone, together, or with one of the women from a neighbouring family unit to theirs. A glance at Sam’s spreadsheet revealed that two of these young single men were only 17 years old. When I asked about their families, they told me their parents and siblings were either already in Germany or yet to leave Syria. Hearing and reading these dates of birth always made me swallow hard and grab the largest of fruits and vegetables for their food allocation.
By the end of four weeks helping out in the camp, I witnessed a touching humanity where an environment of mutual care and support seemed to prevail over personal and collective loss. I felt ashamed that I had allowed my consideration of the refugees to focus on them more as a collective, one that had risked blunting my compassion for their individual suffering. If it wasn’t women cooking for the single men, it was a friend who’d shop for fellow refugees if they’d been called for a re-location ‘interview’. Young always gave way to old and parents lovingly attended to their children.
Experiences on the camp overlapped with life away from the camp. At the end of each day’s work, Sarah or Sam would return the volunteers to Veria. Leaving the refugees in the evenings was always a stark reminder of the vulnerability of life, that any of us could have their misfortune, of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This particular experience of travel brought to mind the work of the late feminist geographer, Doreen Massey. In her book, For Space, she wrote that space is a product of interrelations, a possibility of multiplicity and plurality, is always under construction, a geographical imagination and a simultaneity of stories-so-far. The lives of the refugees I met have been traumatised, they are on hold, in limbo, and Massey’s notion of stories-so-far seems to exemplify their situation. To any of us volunteers, the effects of multiple losses as a consequence of war were brought sharply into focus. But none of us were in a position to find solutions to the plight of these refugees. Our role was to offer help in practical ways and, above all, to show our genuine empathy and compassion so that they do not feel forgotten during this difficult time in their lives. Sadly, the ending to this story seems a long way off; so much more work needs to be done, and so much more of the story-is-yet-to-be-told.