I Spent the Day at a Greek Refugee Camp

Helen Nianias

Helen Nianias

Two-thirds of all those fleeing to Greece land on the small island of Lesvos – just one stage on their long, arduous journey to find sanctuary in mainland Europe.

There is rubbish absolutely everywhere and the smell of bodily fluids is ripe in the heat. Used nappies, empty crisp packets and scrunched up cans of Pepsi, Coca-Cola and fruit juice cartons litter the ground. Even with a brisk breeze, it's uncomfortably hot in the midday sun. Groups of people – mostly young men – crouch in the shade of olive trees, talking among themselves.

A woman standing under a shower head laughs and lathers a young boy's hair with shampoo while he giggles. More small children play as a man and a woman bicker quietly in a tent.

Washing hangs from every spare bit of barbed wire fence, an immaculate pair of green-and-blue Nike Roshes dry on a rock in the sun.

I'm at an emergency migrant and refugee camp in Kara Tepe, just five minutes' drive from Mytilene, the main city on the Greek island of Lesvos. It is currently home to 3,000 displaced people, run by the International Rescue Committee, and there's barely enough space for those who've been lucky enough to arrive safely on the island. Two-thirds of all refugees to Greece land on Lesvos, and their time here is just one stage of their long, arduous journey to sanctuary in mainland Europe.

The average stay for residents here is three days. It's just long enough to wash, get papers in order and try to find a ticket out.

Throughout the day and night, small motor-powered RIB boats land on the shores of Lesvos. The passengers leap out, kiss the ground, hug their families, take victorious selfies and quickly leave the scene.

It's hard to stress how common an occurrence this is. The camp's population – around 3,000 people – arrive on the island every single day. The population of Lesvos is estimated at a little over 86,000 – within just two months this summer, nine times the population of the island has passed through. The International Rescue Committee says that 85 percent of everyone coming to Greece – including the hordes of families on package holidays to Corfu and 17-year-olds getting wrecked in Malia – is a refugee.

A few years ago, men had started leaving Syria to tentatively find new lives for their families in Europe. Now, as the situation in their home country becomes more desperate, their families have come to join them. 80 percent of the refugees to Greece are Syrian, and there's been a recent spike in the numbers of women and children.

(All photos International Rescue Committee)

I approach a group of young men to ask about life in the camp. The four men, aged 25 to 38, decline to give their first names and refuse photographs in case they're identified. They left Syria 15 days ago, and have spent a week in the camp, waiting for their ferry booked for the next day. They all want to go to Germany.

When asked what the conditions are like in the camp, one guy smiles wryly: "Not bad."

Another cuts in: "The place is not very good to stay here – but we don't have any choice. There isn't any [space in the] hotels or any room to stay – and here we have no bath, no WC. Well, there is bath but it's very, very dirty and the WC is very bad. But we're booked on the big ship for Tuesday, so we're just waiting until we can go.

"We thought we'd be here for one day or two days, but one week..." He sighs. "It's very long."

Another says: "This is the first time we have slept outside a house, or in a tent, or in a street. It's very strange."

The group travelled from Aleppo on a journey they all describe as "very difficult". One man says: "It's a very small boat we took to come here – it's maybe nine metres long and there were 50 people in it. The journey is one hour and 20 minutes. It's not such a long time but when you feel [the situation is so] dangerous, the distance is very long.

"We stopped in the sea for 30 minutes and he [gestures to one of his friends] fixed the motor – he is a mechanical engineer – and then we got to the beach. We were very happy."

The men mostly want to go to Germany to study before finding work. They're all middle class, well educated and had good jobs in Syria. One tells me: "I am a pharmacist. I graduated last year and I want to get a Masters and a doctorate in Germany. I worked in a pharmacy in Syria but they wanted to get me to the army." There's a chorus of "yes" from the other men. "So I had to get out of Syria."

Is the same true of most men in the camps? He gestures round: "All! Most of the people."

All the men I speak to say they intend to go home one day. "When I have finished my studying and working, we will go back."

What would have to have changed to make them go back? "Every system! Everything. Everything is built on a false[hood]. Nothing is right in Syria now. We will change everything if we can."

It's a big task to start a new life somewhere strange. Is it scary? "No. It's not scary. It's like an adventure," one man says.

The journey to Germany certainly sounds scary. The guys I speak to reckon it'll cost them at least 3,000 Euros to travel up to the Greek mainland, across to Macedonia, through Serbia, Hungary and Austria before finally reaching Germany. It's been nicknamed "the Black Trail" as it's such a dangerous route. Experts from the International Rescue Committee (or IRC) have heard stories of people being robbed at gunpoint in Serbia and beaten unconscious by Hungarian police.

IRC workers say they have – in total – only met one refugee who wants to go to Britain out of the tens of thousands who have passed through.

For people who are unable to leave the camp just yet, there are more mundane hardships to face. As the stench in the camp suggests, there are major problems with sanitation. It's impossible to cater for so many people at such short notice, and every time an advance is made, more people arrive and access to resources such as toilets is stretched even further. Plus there are problems you couldn't predict. Take this as an example: installing metal shower stalls means that some people, mostly women, have started shitting in the showers.

"They will often have come from closed communities and will normally have lots of close female friends and family surrounding them, so going to the camp toilets alone can be frightening," explains Kirk Day, the IRC's Emergency Field Director on Lesvos. "But now they're in a mixed-gender environment where they don't know anybody and they feel threatened. This means the volunteers now have to clear the shit from the shower cubicles."

Until recently, Lesvos was most famous for local poet Sappho and a group of fanatics who started a legal challenge against people who used the word "lesbian" to describe gay women.

Now, it's become known for coping with a humanitarian crisis despite threadbare local resources and a financial crisis. "The attitude is very much that it's Greece's problem in the international community but that's unfair," Kirk says. "Do you know how many working ambulances Lesvos has? Two! The refugee crisis has been going on under the radar for a few years, but it's now reached this stage, and locals are thinking: 'I've given away everything I can to help and it's starting to look like this is never going to be fixed.'

"Last week alone, more refugees came than they did during the whole of 2014. Can you think of any other country in the world that would see this happening during a financial crisis and react with such generosity?"

It's hard to disagree. The number of refugees arriving each day on the island is the same as the total number of refugees in Calais trying to get to Britain. Compare the relatively easy Greek reaction to having thousands of people pitch up on a small island to the foaming-at-the-mouth fury of some Brits – whether that be the moronic Britain First members who drove to Calais to try to stop the influx single-handedly, or the politicians and media outlets currently working hard to demonise some of the most desperate people on Earth.

In the city, the stalls of food shops offer necessities, such as bread and tinned fish, accompanied by signs in Arabic. Land has also been donated to the refugees by the mayor and local volunteers are very keen to help.

But conspiracy theories still abound. Some people I speak to don't like that the refugees are Muslim. Some are wary of the fact that the people coming over are from Turkey and believe it's a kind of Ottoman invasion. Others remark that the refugees are dirty people.

There have also been reports of knife fights and stabbings by the port as people fight to get on the ferries, although the IRC says there have been some false stories.

A healthy refugee economy has also boomed, with some local businesses doing roaring trades thanks to the new influx of customers. A fast-food stall on the waterfront is getting plenty of custom. The IRC says one local came to the camp and allowed refugees to charge their phones from his van. He claimed he was letting them do it for free, but refugees said he was secretly charging one Euro a go.

When I enter the camp one sweaty day in August, I am greeted by the sight of two women in bright red Vodafone T-shirts selling SIM cards to an eager cluster of men. They're not really from the phone company, just chancers taking advantage of the situation.

While the local efforts have been encouraging, the international community's failure to help refugees can be likened to 1930s attitudes towards Jewish émigrés, Kirk argues.

"Knowing what we know now about the Nazis in Germany, I think everybody would agree they think more should have been done to help. You can compare that situation to what ISIS is doing now," he says.

Is there a racial element at play? "It's worth asking: if the refugees were a different colour and had a different religion, would people do more to help?

"One young refugee showed us what he had in his small rucksack – and two of the items were skin whitener and hair gel. He said he didn't want to look like a refugee, and if he was sleeping rough, his hair might not look tidy and it would be a giveaway that he was homeless."

"Nothing will be as miserable as the life we lived in Syria," the pharmacist tells me. "Here, it's fair and free from racists."

As he follows the Black Trail, I hope this remains true.

To help support refugees on Lesbos please donate to the International Rescue Committee.


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