Lasting Impressions

June 4, 2016

I have not been able to write about the situation in the few camps that I have been in in Greece until this moment, sitting in the plane, half way home. I'm still not sure if it is possible. How to describe the terrible conditions and the suffering that I have seen? How to describe what it must be like to wait day after day, just barely surviving, for someone to come to explain to you why you are here waiting, how to apply for asylum or for family reunification in Europe? For most of the refugees in these mainland camps have had no visit from the Greek authorities or even from the UNHCR, no explanation as to what they should do or what they can hope for.

 

Every camp is different. However, in general, the Greek authorities try to provide the bare necessities for the survival, at least, of the fittest : three meals a day, some sort of shelter and a minimum water supply but the government is overwhelmed and poorly organised. For the ill, the disabled, the pregnant women and the psychologically handicapped there is a thin borderline that is beginning to be crossed. Lack of census and help for these highly vulnerable people means many are in great danger.

 

In some ways it is probably easier for the women. Their days are occupied with looking after the children, organising and cleaning their tent and clothes, or being able to cook the occasional meal when some fresh food is provided by a volunteer team. But the desperation and resentment is all too apparent in the men's faces, men who can no longer provide for their families but have to queue for hours a day just to get a meal or a cup of sugar for the day's tea? How to imagine their frustration and sadness? How can they not believe there is a complete refusal by Europe to answer their cry for help?  What will be the lasting scars ? As the days go by we see their patience lessen and violence is more and more evident.

 

And the children ? The hundreds of very young children who still have no playground after weeks in the camps, no school, who wander alone around the camps, and whose boredom frequently makes life difficult both for their parents and the volunteers. Or the adolescents who just crave a normal life that every young person wants and for whom it should be a right. Tragic stories are being reported. The teenage girl from another camp who, a week ago, hung herself in a local town and in Ritsona camp too the girl who in desperation repeatedly made suicide attempts.

 

But I cannot record my lasting impressions without mentioning  once again the incredible volunteers. Those who day after day for weeks or sometimes months at a time calmly and lovingly hand out food and clothing, visit refugees in their tents to discover their needs. Or those who put into action brilliant ideas to solve problems in the camp or build structures that are lacking. A tent library for the kids, a mosque for the devout, installing WIFI or giving language classes are just some of the projects that are seeing the day in Ritsona. There is even a project for a vegetable garden if the well which is being rehabilitated provides enough water for all the needs of the camp. I will certainly not forget either the young volunteers in Athens who have opened an office to help the refugees with their asylum applications..

 

So I am approaching Toulouse and home, thinking of all the refugees, the friends I have made and those I didn't have the chance to meet, thinking of all of those who have not had my chance of a safe passage from one safe place to another. I used to be frightened of flying but now I am thankful to be able to.  I am thinking of all

those people in Ritsona, in Oinofyta, in the old Olympic airport, all the 54000 thousand men, women and children who are living in such precarious conditions in Greece and who cannot just fly away like me. We are one, we are alike, and yet our lives are so very, very different.

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