Recently I spent a week in a refugee camp in Greece. Four of us from Dublin joined Remar S.O.S. in their work in a camp outside of Athens. In our prayer group we kept the refugees in prayers over the last year, and especially the countries they come from. Sometimes you have to bring your feet to where your payers were. Personally I wanted to go and see what the situation was like, away from the news clips, but in a real day to day life.
Just a day before the trip I celebrated eleven years of living in Ireland; coming to Ireland was my biggest ever dream come true so far. It took around ten years of longing, dreaming, waiting, praying, wondering, before the dream came to be. I am glad it was not quicker than that, because it makes me appreciate some of the feelings others might be having as they wonder about their future. As I was travelling to Athens that Sunday morning on 28th August, I was acutely aware that for every dream come true there are probably at least hundred shuttered somewhere else in the world.
Every day during the trip I was writing my row, often emotional, thoughts on Facebook about how the days went, and I want to share some of it here.
28th August 2016 (Sunday)
I want to share some of my initial impressions. You have to bare in mind I am still fairly ignorant, at the end of the week I may have other things to say, but this is raw, unprocessed, honest.
We went to the camp straight from the airport, helped until the evening and then back to Athens. We are going there again in the morning, every morning. Even before we were told that we cannot take photos at the camp, I decided I won’t, at least initially. It just didn’t seem respectful, and also I have a tendency to find beauty or to turn ugly into beautiful, but here it would give a wrong impression. The conditions are just so bad. My unedited thoughts about the camp are, “this is a place where dreams die”. If I had a family, I mean if my family was a refugee family, I would not stay there longer than a day; but I probably wouldn’t have much choice. And then I would probably die inside, or something would. Unless you are really a surviver type and tough situations make you dream more, but I suspect in general those people are exception.
People smile at you as you walk past them, they are absolutely beautiful, almost like their soul opens up with a smile; children run, play, guys try to flirt with you, even if they don’t know your language. That’s kind of normality and I think I would cling onto that normality for dear life if I had to be there, ‘stuck there’, as I’d say most are. I don’t know what gives them hope. I haven’t spoken to a lot of them, but one other volunteer said things that resonated with my first impressions.
I heard there is a poet in the camp, and he wants to write a book. Well, he seems to be keeping his dream alive. I hope to look for him tomorrow and talk to him. I don’t know how to finish this, as I said it’s raw, unprocessed, unpolished.
A few weeks on, I still don’t know how to gather my thoughts properly. I was reading an article ‘Prisoners of Europe’ about the bad conditions that refugees encounter in Greece. Many of them “said that the limbo they are trapped in – which has left them far from loved ones, without access to work and education, and without any clarity on their future – has led to a wave of depression and mental health problems”. I did not see that when I was in Greece, but I could ‘feel’ it.
31st August 2016 (Wednesday)
Every morning I pray through St. Patrick’s breastplate. It focuses my mind in the right way and I come to the camp ‘clothed’ in God’s presence. One image that I remind myself in the morning is of a small bucket of water that I can use for watering a few ‘plants’; in other words I remind myself that I have only a small bucket of water with me (what I can do is limited), so I will not attempt watering the whole desert as that would be futile, but I can always bring blessings (water) to a few people.
Yesterday I wanted to bring joy, today in the morning I thought I wanted to bring life. Pretty soon after we came to the camp I deserted that idea. The place is so desolate that if I thought ‘I want to bring life’, the task would overwhelm me and I would fail at every step. I decided just to do what needs to be done and meet people with kindness, joy and hopefully love. Through the day I would remember occasionally that I have water to give, ‘bringing life’ would come into my mind now and again, but I didn’t stress over it.
One thing in particular struck me today. As I was walking in the camp I noticed that one of the families had a pet bird; most of you would know birds are my favourite animals. Normality of life again, having a pet. But the bird was in the cage, not just any cage, a very small cage. I think it was a goldfinch, so a beautiful little creature totally unable to fly. What is even more heartbreaking about it is that this bird in the cage is like a symbol of this camp. These people are all beautiful but their freedom is limited. They are allowed to come and go from the camp, spend the day in Athens, and many do, they don’t have to stay in the camp all the time. But they cannot leave Greece. Not legally anyway. If they try to leave illegally and they are caught, they will be sent back to their own country. And you don’t escape your home for no reason. What choice do they really have? What freedom? Same as that bird in the cage, their freedom is .. hm, I don’t know whether to be blunt or not, but their freedom is a fake freedom, it’s an illusion. It’s sad, really.
Another thing that struck me was during the conversation with someone, they mentioned ‘home’ and first I thought they meant their own country, but they actually meant the tent here in the camp. I know that when I go on a holiday, or I’m travelling somewhere, wherever I am staying I soon start calling it ‘home’. But this is different. What kind of ‘home’ are these tents for these people? They don’t deserve that name. If I think about it for even a little bit, I find it quite disturbing.
1st September 2016 (Thursday)
Today was a hard day. I don’t even want to write about it. I cried after lunch, though I felt like screaming. And then I cried some more in the van on the way to Athens. I find it hard to see where the people in the camp live, it’s not good. Not good at all. There were good things today too, don’t get me wrong, …. I don’t like writing negatively here, I’m sorry. I’m used to using this space to encourage and inspire. But the desolation of the camp gets to me. And I wonder, what’s the use of my tears?
They should be living in better conditions. I could not get my head around that they were living in tents that were very much unsuitable for living, and this reality would get me down on most of the days. In this camp, in Malakasa, they have toilets and showers, they are not hungry, they can even cook for themselves, which gives them some dignity, but the conditions where they sleep are so poor that it makes the place really desolate.
I will write more in the next few days about my experience, but for now I want to say that Europe should do more. The people we were with are mainly from Afghanistan, wonderful people, but there are other nations among the refugees in other camps, people from Syria, Iran, and other countries. We cannot abandon them in Greece. They have nowhere to go, they have to stay there, and it does not seem like a good solution for all of them. It is good that Greece took them on board, perhaps generous even considering the problems they have anyway in the country. Yet certain things could definitely improve in the camps there.
I am not a politician, so I do not know what exactly needs to be done, but opening up some of the borders again, and providing an organised help, a thought-through project, may be part of the solution. As well as raising awareness about racism and trying to counter-act it with real human contact which has a potential to remove barriers. People we met were wonderful people, and same as you and I they simply want a better life.
© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 15th September 2016)
Photo ‘Longing for freedom’ by © Iva Beranek