that time I came back from Greece and wanted to leave my husband and kids...
Abdul was a tailor in Syria from the age of 15. The SwissCross provided him with a space in their warehouse and a sewing machine to mend clothes for the community. He's only 45 years old but he said the last few years have made him feel like an old man. As the week went on this would be something I would notice more and more. Young boys look like grown men. Everyone looked so much older than they actually were. Perhaps living in war zone followed by a refugee camp does that to you...
It wasn’t intentional but perhaps it was subconscious that I arrived and left the refugee camp in exactly the same clothes. I travelled from Lake Geneva to Basel on a typically clean, punctual and perfectly safe Swiss train. A kind hearted stranger put me up for the night and ran me to the airport for my flight to Thessaloniki at just after 6am on a clear, blue-skied Saturday morning in October.
The first person I met in Greece was Yanis the wonderfully helpful car hire chap. Yanis was born in Switzerland but his parents moved with him to Greece when he was 2... I didn't get a chance to ask if he knew what their motivation was, but if I was a betting person I would put money on the fact it would be because they felt that their family was better off in that particular place for one reason or another. Yanis told me he was going close to the volunteer house so I could follow him there rather than attempt to find it….good job really as the little unmade roads weaving up the steep hills full of houses like some kind of Greek favela were best navigated without one eye on Google maps!
At the volunteer house, I was greeted by a huge group of smiling faces just about to set off to the camps. My bed was one of three in the top floor of the house, laid out with fresh sheets. A handwritten welcome note from sweet Anna one of the coordinators gave me the Wi-Fi codes and an invitation to help myself to food from the shared fridge and cupboards.
Feeling a bit wooly from the 4am start I tucked into cheese on toast and a cup of tea! Anna told me to send her a message when I was ready to join them at the camp, where they were busy building the new baby bathing ‘hamam’ tent which needed moving in from its outdoor location as temperatures began to drop. Even though I knew a nap or at least some rest was going to be helpful, I also knew I would be laid awake. So I freshened up and headed down to the car, this time with Google maps ready and the ‘pin’ to where the camp was open. I think this is when I first felt my belly flip over in anticipation. I just didn’t know what I was heading to. I mean yeah I knew but I wouldn’t truly know until I arrived…
Of the two camps that Nurture Project International work from in the Thessaloniki region, I was heading to Sindos Karamanlis. Driving to the camp, it became clear that Greece was struggling to deal with its own problems, without the added pressure of the refugee crisis. Empty buildings, closed businesses, derelict warehouses, former car dealers and shopping outlets all abandoned along the main motorway towards the camp. Even the highway roads have massive chunks missing. I would be reminded of Greece’s own plight after a visits to supermarkets with tiny amounts of stock spread out conspicuously across shelves in an attempt to look ‘full’. And stray dogs literally everywhere. I was warned off going for a run in the immediate neighbourhood as the dogs sometimes move in packs and would chase and even attack runners. One dog running along the side of slower moving traffic in and out of the cars going crazy.
I missed my turn off…twice. Actually it just looked like a lay-by but but it was indeed a turn off and I doubled back and followed the instructions from my phone….I was pretty certain it was taking me in totally the wrong direction but in the absence of any other bright ideas I followed, twice passing what looked like a dead end road next to a commercial vehicle dealership which was open but had clearly seen better days. A sign for a big shoe retailer was at the end of the road so I headed down and after a minutes drive passing more abandoned warehouses, I saw some signs of life.
I don’t know what I expected a refugee camp to look like. This wasn’t what I imagined but I honestly can’t tell you what I had imagined either.
About half a dozen cars were parked at the side of the road opposite a run down building. On the other side, up a rocky path, was a massive IKEA blue warehouse, which I later discovered was nicknamed ‘The Big Blue Whale’. I could see a few people by the large open doors and a man playfully throwing a toddler in the air. It was likely a very normal moment for them in a very weird scenario for me.
I got out of the car and the smell was the next thing I noticed. I’m not sure how to describe it. Surrounding the buildings is a huge amount of stagnant and contaminated water, and possibly sewage too. I don’t know. It certainty doesn’t smell good at all and it comes in waves depending on where you are. I sent Anna a message and she said she came straight out to meet me. Some of the other volunteers and members of the community had gone to get the tent that needed building from a storage warehouse so Anna took me on a camp orientation tour.
The Big Blue Whale is a space rented by a private organisation called SwissCross - one activist with a team of amazing volunteers, making big things happen in this camp. I soon realised the massive impact the SwissCross team and their efforts have on life in this camp.
The Blue Whale is a community space. There are no tents and the space is divided between a warehouse storing donations. There is a library, kids indoor play space and a women only space. All of these are fashioned from wooden palates and bits of old furniture and donations.
One of the other small enterprises the SwissCross has supported is the amazing falafel stall. Oh. My. Goodness. Being vegetarian, this on-site scoff was music to my ears and I couldn't wait to sample it. I can confidently say that €1 bought me the tastiest falafel sandwich I have ever eaten. Hasan and his family have been in the camp for 8 months and I would imagine the sense of purpose helps with the uncertainty of how long you will be living like this. I was regaled with tales of how Hasan’s falafel was famous in Aleppo and told about how everyone else is getting it wrong. Take note: no breadcrumbs in the best falafel.
It was while I was standing eating at the stall, just looking round the large warehouse, particularly at Abdul in his little tailors space, that I first felt overwhelmed. I had to stop myself from crying. I did well, because I love a good bawl. I had seen Abdul’s photo on the NPI Facebook pages in the weeks running up to coming out to Greece. I’d been moved by his story. And there he was; a real person. I mean there, in front of me, with his tape measure around his neck. A real life actual person. I’ve seen the photos, the videos, the news reports. I knew there was a refugee crisis - damn I was moved enough to come here. I’ve seen the overloaded boats. The dead children washed up on beaches. The piles of lifejackets. The coverage of the destruction of Syria. I know it’s real. But you don’t realise that it’s still all so abstract until you are standing in a big blue warehouse looking at a face you recognise. I want to cry now recalling that realisation.
Even though it did feel overwhelming at certain moments, this was not a place of total round the clock despair. I could see that. It was Saturday and there were lots of kids running around the communal space laughing and playing. People sat chatting to each other, walking between the Blue Whale and the main living building and almost everyone saying hello and smiling as they pass you. SwissCross were getting organised for a kids party and you could see the kids were excited - running up and grabbing your hands to lead you to the preparations. People who had been moved in to accommodation were visiting friends and family who were still living in the camp and drinking tea together.
As we continued our tour of the camp, we went for the first time into the building that housed the tents. Green canvas stabilised by wooden pallets at the sides. Washing strung between them and piles of shoes outside each one. Toddlers playing in the long corridors between the rows. This building is a disused lead factory….and in places full of asbestos. Running down one side of the building is a line of portaloos like you would find at a building site or festival. Next to them are half a dozen or so sinks for washing. Only cold water is available and this water is not suitable for drinking. In fact there is one drinking water tap which is next to what can only be described as some kin d of lead contaminated swamp. God only knows how dangerous that it might be if one of the kids fell in…..and again, that smell.
We bumped in to Mohammed who was visiting the camp. He and his family were being housed outside of the camp temporarily after the birth of their youngest child. After two straightforward births the third had resulted in Mohammed’s wife having a hysterectomy. He flatly blamed the living conditions in the camp and in particular the porta-loos. I only used them once while I was there as NPI volunteers were permitted to use the military office toilets. Once was enough. When you visit people in their tents you can see that they are incredibly aware of the compromised hygiene in the camp. Everyone has antibacterial hand gel in their tents and when I was invited to eat with one family, it was passed around the circle for everyone to wash their hands before the meal. As a habitual nail biter I have never been more aware of hand hygiene as I was in the camps.
I assumed that Mohammed and his family would be happy to be enjoying time out of the tents and in an environment more fitting for healing from major surgery and welcoming a newborn. There was no doubt he was grateful but it wasn’t straightforward. Being away from the camp meant being away from their support network. Instead of having neighbours, friends and extended family able to lend a hand with their other children or pop in and listen to all the normal worries of a new family, the undoubtedly more comfortable surroundings still left them feeling isolated. This really resonated with me again. As someone living outside my country of birth, with only my immediate family, I know how important that sense of connection and belonging is, especially at times when you are feeling vulnerable. I cant possibly compare my experiences and journey as an economic migrant to that of a Syrian refugee, but I know how much the support of people in my community helps. Human connection is something all of us fundamentally need.
Mohammed also told me how much the community appreciated the support given by NPI. From the nappies and supplementary food packs for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and the practical support with safe feeding, to the woman’s space where they could relax, be heard, share their concerns and bond with their babies. Everything that was happening in those two little tents in Sindos was making a huge difference.
I’d been there a couple of hours and I could see this situation was way more complex than it had previously seemed. This kept being reiterated over the whole time I was there.
Once the new baby hamam tent had been built with the help of Mohammed and some of the other men from the community, the volunteers got together to drive to the other camp in Kalachori.
Anna had already mentioned that I would see a difference between the two camps. The atmosphere is different and the challenges are too. One of the other volunteers said you could often tell who had spent the day working in which camp - they seemed a little more tired when they’d had a day in Kalachori. We drove about five minutes down more back roads, past stacks of containers and finally arrived at the disused indoor market full of tents.
Whilst the volunteers packed up, we took a short walk around the camp. You could feel an underlying tension. Kids were playing just as they were at the other camp but something was definitely different. After one lap of the camp the main physical differences became clear. There were neither communal spaces, nor little enterprises. Of course people could ‘gather’ outside of their tents, but unlike the Blue Whale which provided, however basic, a sense of community, purpose, worth and connection, you felt a bit like you were walking around an ‘open’ prison. No communal space means nowhere really to escape to. No SwissCross providing a points system so you can ‘buy’ a little fresh fruit, veg and alternative food other than the military provided meals. Your only focus is your tent and the daily routine and it really must intensify the situation. When you hear a story of a pregnant woman actually being smuggled back to Syria, by choice, rather than remain in the camps, something is horribly wrong.
After meeting Mohammed on the first day I was fairly confident that what we were going to be doing with NPI was not only important work but well received. Though this is primarily a safe infant feeding project I quickly realised why the volunteers were appreciated. During the course of a day we would hand out food packs, go tent to tent reminding the women who had appointments that we were open and ready to see them. They might be coming for a prenatal check with the midwives, for their newborn to be weighed, or for follow ups on various feeding or pregnancy related issues. One breastfeeding mother was taken to hospital with a nasty chest infection. Because such supportive relationships were established in many cases thanks to the longer term volunteers, some of whom knew almost every family story personally, we were able to offer support and advice to the father who was left behind, literally holding the baby…and her two siblings under 4! The baby who was being breastfed was understandably missing her mum. Her appetite was reduced and she wouldn’t drink regular cow milk from a cup. Struggling to settle the little one, well-meaning aid workers gave him a baby bottle from the warehouse when our feeding tent was closed for the evening. The next morning when he arrived at the tent with the baby in a stroller drinking (cows) milk from a bottle, I tried hard not to show my concern. After all these are parents who are entitled to make informed choices for their children just as anyone is. Just because they find themselves in a ‘crisis’ situation doesn't mean they become unable to make their own choices. God knows they have been stripped of almost every other right, we don’t need to add to that. Over the few days this dad was caring for his kids without his wife, we were able to ensure he had the information and resources he needed. One of the volunteers spoke to the warehouse staff about the potential risks around giving out bottles without proper support and information so that we could avoid it happening again. While she was there she found two huge tins of powdered baby milk donations too which were quickly removed. It’s not to say that there is never ever a case for artificial feeding, but in an emergency setting, it needs to be a carefully considered case of risks versus benefits. And formula needs to be appropriate. Sending ‘Follow-On’ and out of date or almost out of date formula donations which need to be disposed off is basically a waste of already precious volunteer resources.
One of my favourite moments in camp was when I popped round to the tent of the family of the mother with the chest infection. Arriving with my arms full of helpful supplies I called ‘hello’ took off my shoes and waited for the tent to be opened. Dad pulled back the mosquito nets with a big smile and gestured inside as if to say ‘Look!’. Inside at least 3 or 4 other children were playing together with his own and I fathomed from what he said and showed me that he that he was confidently supervising an impromptu playgroup in his home - a far cry from 4 days before when he came to us like a deer in the headlights just after his wife had disappeared to the hospital. These moments of extraordinary normality will stay with me forever.
Generally the women from the camp are giving birth in the neighbouring public hospitals. Cesarean section rates amongst refugee women are unusually high and mothers are commonly separated from their babies in the crucial first hours of life. Partners are not allowed in the room when they give birth and when you don’t speak the local language this must really add to an already highly charged and emotional situation. We know these things can impact on breastfeeding and that situation seems to be compounded by the practice of also giving the new mums formula to take with them. Again, of course it is absolutely the right and prerogative for a parent to decide how to feed their child but camp life makes this an incredibly risky choice to make.
The Spanish NGO ‘Rowing Together’ provide a crucial medical, gynaecology and sonography service which we could refer to alongside the general medical assistance on site provided by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).
The tent had become an almost unofficial ‘red tent’. A women’s space. Women would come to talk about issues with their menstrual cycles and reproductive health or to talk together in a private female only space regarding relationships and mothering matters.
Two women from the camp would stop by everyday to say hello and often bring food for the volunteers to share. These people who seemingly had nothing wanting to take care of us. But I guess this is all part of the feeling of worth and usefulness that I learned over the week was so crucial. Even though camp life was hard, and set to get harder as the winter drew in, the sense of community, human connection, purpose and giving really bound everything together. When an older woman arrived at the tent distressed and unable to speak, we brought her in and sat her down. With the help of our interpreter we established that as of today, she was completely alone in the camp. Her daughter, husband and their child had been moved to Germany. She was thankful they were out of the camp but missing them dreadfully. The memory of her own parents, was as painful to her today as was the day they died. And the tipping point had been that her brother had now gone from the camp that morning. Families get hours notice that it’s their turn to pack up and be moved out. I just can’t imagine how people survive all this constant trauma, and the toll it must take on them. I realised that the toll was etched on her face. How could this woman sat sobbing with me be just 8 years older than me? She looked older than my own mother but then, their lives couldn't have been more different.
Each day the NPI volunteer team never ceased to amaze me. Dynamic, engaged, invested, passionate, dedicated. Late nights taking a breast pump to the mum who was kept in hospital with a chest infection so she could maintain her supply. Planning the logistics of stocking up fresh veggies for food packs around public holidays. Making time to eat a meal or drink a coffee with families in their tents. And all this in an ever-changing situation.
Many simple moments stop you in your tracks. Monday morning, two girls about 8 or 9 years old leaving the lead factory full of tents with little backpacks on heading to ‘school’. They literally looked like my own two with their big Swiss German style backpacks, walking alone to school. Except the school was another makeshift construction with plastic tarpaulins thrown over it next to foul smelling toilets and contaminated water. Yet they meandered along chatting away, oblivious to the world.
On my last full day in the camps I couldn't refuse to eat a meal with Nisreen, Wajdan and their families after what seemed like daily invitations. So when we closed the tent for the day, the whole team had dinner with our lovely friends. These families are from the same town in Syria as Afaf, one of our interpreters and a refugee. We laughed as we were told over and over ‘eat! eat!’. ‘We like to feed our guests well…this is our way’ Afaf explained.
In Syria, Afaf was a public health professional for the government. She told me how her 16 year old son was shot and killed by a sniper before they left Syria. ‘I cant lose any more children’ she told me, ‘everyone here has lost someone’. They walked all day every day for 29 days with theirs kids. After traveling to Turkey they paid to go on a boat to Greece. You know the boats we used to see on the news? Again it hits me. These people I'm sat with today made that journey. They are REAL and I'm so humbled and grateful to have met them.
It’s going to get very cold soon. I’m not sure how the school will function when the winter hits fully. Northern Greece gets cold. The mothers are already worried about undressing their babies to be weighed in the tent. Thankfully we have heaters that we can run extension leads from out to the warehouse electricity supply. But that doesn't solve the problem of the perpetually damp towels the babies wrapped in. Even now, in late autumn, it’s so cold nothing ever seems to get properly dried whether hung inside or out.
My last day in the camps was the Greek holiday ‘Οχι’ or Ohi Day - the Greek anniversary of saying ‘no’ to fascism. I woke to a dawn chorus of wild dogs barking and marching drums echoing through the streets below the volunteer house. I packed my things ready for one last morning in the camps mainly made up of goodbyes and a promise to keep in touch with news of where they will go next. The process is long. It takes months, even years for some. There seems no logic to where people are sent and they all seem to look forward and dread it in equal measures. Will they be welcome by the locals? Will their kids be abused when they turn up for school? Will they be without any support network and feel that terrible sense of isolation? I hope not. There needs to be a happy ending.
I left the camp with a lump in my throat and fighting back tears. This place, these people had got under my skin in such a short space of time. As I took off from Thessaloniki on my safe, albeit slightly delayed, Swiss airlines flight back to Zurich with wine, warm food and a window seat, I searched for The Big Blue Whale from the sky.
When I woke up the following day I felt like I had been hit my a truck; wooly headed, drained, detached and altered. I felt like my life would never be the same. But the sun came up just as it always does. I had to try so hard not to tell my kids to stop moaning about which coat I’d picked out for them because they had no idea how lucky they are. Of course they don’t and I’m glad in some strange way. Being in the camps taught me it’s not all misery and despair. Kids there will complain about the same ridiculous things. People generally only want their basic needs met and to feel worthy, a sense of connection - belonging. It’s so simple and most of us live abundant lives, yet the world today seem to be gripped by the fear of scarcity. Not ‘enough' for everyone. Enough of what?
I arrived home in the same clothes I had left in and they had been washed and properly dried in between. In warm water and soap, in a machine and dried with ease then worn for 24 hours maximum. A far cry from the journeys these families had been on.