There are so many misconceptions about what a refugee camp is like but the biggest of them all is certainly the ‘ambiance’. People seem to believe that a refugee camp is overwhelming, threatening and depressing when it is not. Don’t get me wrong: it is extremely shocking to see the awful conditions which people, normal humans just like you and me (in defiance of another misconception: that these people are ‘different’ to us due to either status, ethnic or religious identity) must endure. There is a clear lack of a basic human need, a human right: health and hygiene. It comes to question the privilege we live in which is so ingrained in how we live that we have come to see it as the normal or the expected, forgetting that this immunity blanket is only so large that it only covers the smallest percentage of the earth’s population.
Returning to the first misconception, I found that once I entered Souda refugee camp in Chios island not only was I welcomed by a swarm of laughing, cuddly and playful children who wanted to hug me from every possible angle but also whole warm-hearted families. They were so appreciative of the hygiene products (underwear, pads and condoms) we were distributing through The Unmentionables organization that they would invite us in for sweet mint tea or even whole lunch meals that would accommodate for all the volunteers. They were incredibly kind and benevolent especially considering the limited resources they had access to due to mobility and monetary factors.
One of the anecdotes that really stirred me emotionally was that of a sweet little girl named Sadaf, with a smile that seemed like it could never fade despite the hardships she had inevitably faced to arrive in Souda camp. She is from Iraq and we first met her and her family when we wanted to complete our need’s assessment surveys for our distribution. It only took 10 minutes of talking to them when her proud father ran off to bring us her sketchbook and showed us her drawings, telling us that his dream was to see his daughter go to art school and become an artist. Indeed, her drawings were excellent for a child of just 11 years old: her use of detail even in encapsulating a woman’s hair was exquisite. His aim was to reach the Greek mainland and from there he seemed ready to work hard to help earn money that would pay for his daughter’s education. On our part, the least we could offer this young, talented girl was First Degree Education. Thus, since her parents were unaware that she was entitled to go to school in Chios island, on their behalf, our coordinator, Kaleigh Heard talked to the director of the local school and he was more than happy for her to join one of the classes. Her father was almost in tears when we brought back the news…
A very different story is Hareth’s. Hareth is a young man who, practicing his profession as a psychological therapist was threatened and forced to flee. When we met him he had been in the camp for 5 months and was still waiting for a UN call to confirm that all asylum procedures had been completed in order for him to be transferred to a big city like Athens and be able to earn a living again from his profession. He explained to me that there was a shortage of resources in the camp and the high heat was unbearable in the tents that were obviously not made for summer conditions whilst there was a shortage of cold drinking water. For months, people slept amongst insects and often snakes and he described the camp as an ‘open prison’. However, he did acknowledge the opportunity to continue his schooling education on Chios island, primarily through language classes. Unfortunately, when he did receive that call it came in a different form than he had expected and he ended up in Asda which he claimed was unbearable. Luckily, he decided to reapply and was allowed to move to the city of Thessaloniki, where he is now.
Stumbling across some of the UN containers, which are considered of much better quality than some of the self-put tents of the camp, big red graffiti struck me saying ‘We are not animals, we are humans’. This is what gave this blog post its title. I think it is very fitting considering that a camp of 700-800 people (depending on the time frame) has to share 16 toilets with rarely-working locks, and where the small percentage of women in this camp fear for their lives or sexual/gender-based violence and thus are reluctant to use the toilets at night alone; where a tent has become a home for 2 or 3 families simultaneously and privacy has been trampled upon; where everyone’s belongings have had to fit within less than a meter from where they sleep and yet they wake up often to find their personal belongings stolen; where fights break out when it gets darker and tensions (quite naturally – this is how most of us would react in such a situation) rise dramatically due to lack of personal space and resources as well as cultural and ethnic differences between all the people of the camp, making coexistence almost impossible; and where the police, instead of helping to calm down fights and separate them, stand around watching only to intervene when the fighting has stopped. Now imagine you were in this situation and tell me you would not react in the same way, call for freedom and dignity, when your whole life is in the hands of other people: whether that be the police, local municipality, UN or another organization.
I started off this blog post making it clear that the ambiance of the camp, in my personal experience, was not as popular thought has it. Every hardship I have recorded is of course a reality that I either witnessed or was told by refugees in the camp themselves. This is the two-pronged and often contradictory reality I found in the camp. Of course, it is different living in the camp, and like me coming as an outsider from a privileged world. Thus I have tried to incorporate all these competing realities to both show that volunteering, helping our fellow humans, is something everyone should become more involved with and it is easy to get involved and easier to get along with these people, who could just as easily be us, our family, friends, neighbors. Simultaneously the harsh reality I have presented serves to show that not enough is being done: these people live in impoverished conditions that are far from dignifying, and far from what any being deserves.
If you are interested in volunteering, I highly recommend The Unmentionables! They run projects like Unexposed, “aim[ing] to give young refugees a sense of dignity, a chance to tell their story and to give us a look into their world from their own eyes” and the one I participated in, on-field volunteering in form of distributions of hygiene products. Most importantly, they especially empower women by breaking the taboo of “pads and periods” and challenging the consensus that these should be unspoken words. Get involved!
Words by Valia Katsi
Photos by Andy Prahl
Photo courtesy of The Unmentionables