I’ve just got back from spending two weeks volunteering on a refugee camp in Athens. But what if I told those two weeks were the most life affirming and joyous of my entire 45 years?
Before I left, a series of well meaning friends and family sat me down with furrowed brows, suggesting that perhaps I wasn’t emotionally ready for the harrowing scenes I may encounter. “Be careful with your mobile phone,” my 81-year-old mother warned me, the Daily Mail’s fearful take on refugee camps having got the better of her.
It’s true, Eleonas, where I was based on the outskirts of Athens, is a model refugee camp. With a capacity of just over 2000 people, it is run by the Greek Migration Ministry and houses residents mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Shipping containers have been converted into basic dwellings and generally house entire families or thrown together collections of unaccompanied males.
For a start, Eleonas is not stretched beyond its capacity unlike some of the camps on the Greek isles, where unconfirmed reports suggest 5000 people are crammed into camps created for just 1000. And while basic needs like food, shelter, and clean water are met, thanks to the work of the grassroots organisation Project Elea, cultural activities, education and just good old fashioned fun are also part of the camp’s daily life.
Yes, you heard it right. Refugees also like to laugh and have fun.
For most of us, being able to raise a smile would be impossible after experiencing firsthand the atrocities of war, persecution, enduring conditions that would break even the most hardened of individuals, and entrusting one’s fate into the hands of armed, unscrupulous people smugglers in order to cross the perilous waters between Turkey and Greece.
And yet, from the moment of setting foot onto Camp Eleona’s dirt paths, one is met with one beaming smile after another, interspersed with impromptu hugs from small children or a respectful nod from an elderly, Afghan gentleman.
This is not to paint a rosy hue over the horrendous suffering almost everyone has lived through on the road to Europe, or the unbearable sense of limbo many face not knowing if they will be granted asylum or be forced to return to their country of origin. In fact, the reality of camp life is often one of interminable monotony; wake up, eat the often inedible meals handed out in food distribution, drink tea in your container, Skype chats with far-flung family members, and then bed again.
With no papers, finding a job is impossible, particularly in Greece which remains a country on its knees. That’s why Project Elea was set up, to give little glimpses of a life left behind, where children learned arts and crafts, teenagers put on theatre productions, women got together and hennaed hands, and people bettered themselves by studying a new language.
Everyday an international group of twenty-something volunteers with a fire in their bellies to make the world a better place, facilitate activities aimed at breaking up the boredom and stimulating the imagination of the camp’s residents. Amongst the volunteers are many refugees pitching in where necessary; translating from English into farsi or arabic, hosting sports activities or assisting the teachers in English classes.
An average day sees most volunteers invited into residents’ containers for tea and a chat, and on regular occasions a Persian or Middle Eastern banquet.
You see, despite having nothing, the vast majority of refugees I met displayed a level of generosity I’ve never experienced in the west. In fact, I’ll happily add a whole bunch of other virtues such as kindness, dignity, tenacity, gratitude, and unfathomable resilience to the list. I wasn’t around during or after the second world war, but to me it appeared much like the blitz spirit, so often mentioned with fondness as a time when determination and stoicism got the British people through their most difficult period in modern history.
I saw nothing of angry young men fuelled by hatred and extremism. The only ones I met who expressed an interest in the UK were romantic anglophiles who dreamed of Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter. Others had translated for the British Army in Afghanistan and longed to hear again the friendly, blokey banter they had once encountered.
Dancing was a regular occurrence.
Yes, many refugees like dancing. Admittedly, in contrast to the UK, the most enthusiastic of movers were the young guys who, arms across shoulders, would leap and pogo with pure joy (and no alcohol). Women, were less visible in the evenings, with dancing in public for many a source of shame. That’s not to say that dancing was completely off limits. The women’s expression group facilitated by volunteers gave them the opportunity to bust some moves only they were party to.
Like me, most of the volunteers spend as much time as they can with the residents. Not in some do-good ‘let’s-help-the-poor-refugees’ kind of way. In fact, I don’t know who received more from this exchange – the refugees or us.
All I know is that every day I left that camp (as a non-resident I had that luxury), I felt joy in my heart. Forget tea and sympathy, I will forever treasure those moments of chai and honesty. No pretension, no expectation, just a simple exchange of common humanity.
And so the question I can’t help but ask myself is why there is such resistance by the British Government and large sectors of the population against welcoming more refugees into the UK, when many of them display the very traits we identify as the best of Britishness? Could it be that we are the ones who would benefit most from their integration into our society? My two weeks in Athens suggests that it would.