After a week on Lesvos, we decided to see if we could help on the mainland. We had heard there was a need for volunteers at Ritsona, an abandoned military base an hour north of Athens. Last week, there were nearly a thousand people here and only a handful of volunteers.
Ritsona is one of the camps where people may end up staying for an extended period of time, while the Greek government and the EU figure out what to do with the refugees. They are registered refugees, so unless there is a good reason, they will have the right to stay in Greece or the EU. The camp is being run by the Greek military and they are currently very accepting and appreciative of the assistance of volunteers.
It is a fascinating place. The refugees were formerly at Piraeus but were encourage to move north. The camp itself has only been open for just over two weeks. In just three days, the ground was cleared of trees and levelled and tents were set up by the military.
The officer in charge of the camp – everyone just calls him “Colonel” – is a wonderful man. A senior officer in the Greek Air Force, I don’t imagine any of his training prepared him to take care of 1,000 refugees speaking at least three different languages, yet he carries out his work with humanity, strength and humour.
The camp does not have any electricity, running water, or kitchen facilities. Currently, three meals a day are brought in by a caterer, but this is very expensive and is probably not sustainable. There are 135 tents each with a capacity for ten people. They are all numbered and arranged in orderly rows. One large tent that is used for community meetings, children’s activities and - most importantly – the camp school.
Every morning, lessons are provided for the children in Arabic by two lovely Syrian teachers – a husband and wife. There is a smaller class in the afternoon for Kurdish children. In the late afternoon, there are informal English lessons for everyone – children and adults. We joined in today and, after the group learned some of the English words for parts of the body, we played “Hokey Pokey” to practice the new words they had learned.
It appears that the camp is functioning, at least at a basic level. The Greek Red Cross is on scene to provide basic first aid and generally assist. There is a women’s tent where Greek midwives offer prenatal care to the many women in the camp who are expecting. There are over thirty pregnant women in the camp.
A couple of the stories I heard from the women’s tent show how precarious the situation is for expectant mothers at Ritsona. One mother has had four Caesarian sections – one pregnancy was twins – and she is now in the eighth month of her fifth pregnancy. It is impossible to think that she will not need a C-section this time.
Another mother is currently at the Children’s Hospital in Athens with her two and half month old child. Her husband stayed back in the camp with their other three young children. Today, we scrambled to find a way for the husband to get down to Athens to be with the baby, to allow the mother to come back and see her other three children.
The children of the camp are beautiful. They are eager to just be children – to play, to run, to laugh, to learn. Today, Julia and Isabella spent the whole day with the children. They started by working with the kids to clean up the camp. Putting on a plastic glove and filling a garbage bag became a game.
Afterwards, they played cards and soccer, inflated balloons, and cuddled and cradled the kids. One little girl latched on to Isabella’s hand the moment we arrived at the camp and I am not sure she let go for a second throughout the entire day. When I rejoined the girls at the daily camp meeting in the big tent, the little girl was fast asleep on Isabella’s lap.
There is very little we can do in a purely practical sense. We did help clean up today and I spent some time with the team working in the women’s tent. Tomorrow we will help with food distribution, but I think our role is going to be primarily to bring some joy to the children and, through them, to their parents. Nothing puts a smile on a parent’s face like watching their child enjoying themselves.
Finally, we were all struck by one particularly amazing young man. He was the first person we met when we arrived. Jason is tall, handsome, and neatly dressed. His English is nearly perfect. We assumed he was one of the camp coordinators. In a way, he is. He and his family are refugees, but in a very short time, Jason has quickly become the primary translator at the camp and a vital part of the community.
Jason is a natural leader. He and his family are well-educated. He has a degree in community health and his sister is an electrical engineer. His sister also speaks excellent English and helps as a translator for the midwives in the women’s tent. These two young people would be an asset to any country that would be smart enough to take them. Instead, they are stuck in the middle of a muddy field in the middle of nowhere.
It was fascinating to watch the daily community meeting just before dinner. Everything is presented in English and Arabic, with another interpreter translating for a small group of Farsi speakers. The meeting is used to share information, solve problems, ask questions and make plans. All questions are welcomed and women are strongly urged to participate, although the majority of attendees were male.
I pointed out to Julia that we were watching the formation of a system of governance. Nobody really knows what they are doing. There are no large NGOs here. Some of the volunteers who are taking leadership roles have worked on Lesvos or one of the other Greek islands and they are putting their experience into action once again. It is still – by and large – a humanitarian crisis that is largely being handled by freelance humanitarians, including refugees who volunteer to help others. It is amazing what a group of big-hearted caring people can achieve.