This is my first visit to a long-term refugee camp. Ritsona is one of the very numerous camps that Greece has had to create in great haste due to the closing of the borders. Trees were cut down in an abandoned airforce base, the ground cleared and tents provided.
It is, as expected, very different from the transit camps that I had known in the winter on Leros and Lesvos. On the islands, the joy of finally arriving in Europe helped the people to forget, for a while at least, some of the extreme hardship and heartache due to past histories, dreadful war injuries and memories, or tragic loss of family members. In general almost everyone arriving on the islands was full of hope and excitement for the onward journey. Here, in Ritsona, these very same people are now forced to realise their stay in refugee camp in Greece will almost certainly be long and may even end by a deportation from the Europe reached with such cost.
Their courage is truly remarkable. They organise their lives as best they can with practically no means and create a « private » and individualised « home » for themselves and their children. In general morale seems to be reasonably good, although the eyes of the adults often look sad, and the children are very often bored. The camp is in theory an open camp but the nearest town Chalkida is very far to walk and there is no bus service. Some activities like simple classes are being started up by volunteers to help occupy the kids and teach them language skills.
The airforce truck in water as there is no running water and their deliveries are very insufficient. There are just seven showers for the 700 residents and a certain numbers of european style toilets and which I have heard are being replaced soon with a style that the residents are more used to and understand better. The army also provides the food three times a day, but the distribution of it is entirely done by our team of volunteers of Echo 100Plus as we are responsible for the distribution of food and clothing. The meals are of poor quality and of course not what the people are used to, so although they have little to eat, they are unable to stomach some of the food provided.
The entire camp is in fact run by volunteers. There are three main groups, “Echo100Plus”, “I Am One” and “Lighthouse Relief”. Independent volunteers are also welcomed and often arrive with a project to fill a gap in the camp amenities. The Greek Red Cross has set up a medical tent but apart from that above absolutely everything is provided by volunteers from food and clothing to breast feeding help and education. These activities are only made possible by the donations that come from generous people elsewhere. Without this network of caring individuals from all over the globe, the refugees in Ritsona and the other camps of Greece would be left with absolutely nothing but the very bare necessities and no doubt no hope in their hearts at all. As it is, desperation sometimes leads people to say they would be better off dying back home in Syria. We are failing them by blocking their way to a safe life for themselves and their children. We are failing ourselves.