Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Refugees in Greece take first steps towards self-reliance

This article was published by IRIN News

A man sits in front of his family tent at Ritsona

RITSONA, Greece - Masoud proudly lifts his bedding to reveal the construction of his makeshift bed: he has hammered together four wooden pallets normally used to stack cargo, and fitted legs under them. It’s poorly padded by a yoga mat covered by two woolen blankets, which seem to radiate heat in the June afternoon; but the 34 year-old Syrian chef has a solution for the heat too.

Outside the three-tent compound he has stitched together for his family, he has constructed a sort of summerhouse in the shade of some pine trees – a platform raised on several metal drums and rendered private by a bedsheet that flutters around it. There his wife, Mezgin, spends her afternoons cooling off, while Mohamed, 4, digs holes in the earth with the family claw-hammer and Linda, 9, works on a potted flower garden. Masoud has even built an earthen cooking stove, connected to a chimney on one side and an oven on the other, so that two meals can be prepared at once. He fuels it with dead wood foraged from the surrounding pine forest.

This Arabic version of the Swiss Family Robinson is part of a growing narrative in self-reliance at Ritsona, a former Hellenic Air Force radar station about 100km north of Athens. The facility has been abandoned for decades. The few brick-and-mortar buildings dotting it have gaping holes where machinery was ripped out of them. Even by rural Greek standards, it is the middle of nowhere.

Three months ago, as borders were reinstated across the Balkans and more than 50,000 refugees who had intended to make their way to northern Europe became stranded in Greece, the government began parcelling them out to abandoned military camps. Some 800 landed in Ritsona. Many have applied for asylum here or relocation elsewhere in Europe, but the process is likely to take months.

For volunteers and NGOs as well as the refugees they are helping, the emphasis is now shifting from providing everything they need to helping them fend for themselves. Handing out tools and pallets was a first step.

“For the first month it wasn’t happening at all,” says Ryan DeHane Templeton, an American volunteer with Echo 100 Plus, a Vienna-based charity. “And in the last three weeks it’s grown immensely.”

Across a dirt road from Masoud, another Syrian, Shem, has built a two-storey tree house to keep his pregnant young wife cool, draping pine needle-covered branches around it to provide privacy and shade. He is trying to coax rose vines out of four plastic water bottles.

The camp has no running water, and only the store room has electricity, yet another tent has managed to install a satellite dish, and children now sit around an ancient donated television.

Echo 100 Plus is encouraging such initiative-taking by the refugees. “We have a couple of sewing machines and a couple of tailors living in the camp who are going to start making the clothes,” says Templeton. “More conservative clothing is hard for us to find here in Greece. So, for example, they’ll start to produce long skirts for themselves.”

Some of the refugees find a sense of purpose by volunteering as translators and in other capacities for NGOs like Echo 100 Plus. One of the most sought-after translators is 23 year-old Soham Yazidi from Iraqi Kurdistan. She speaks Arabic, Kurdish and English, and finds the work therapeutic – especially as much of it is done in a pair of tents that serve as a Red Cross clinic.

“I try to spend my time translating, helping volunteers with food distribution, helping with clothes distribution, helping in the hospital,” she says. “I’m trying to spend my time away from the tents because life is really horrible here. But I’m trying to have hope; talking to people and taking some hope from them.”

In another effort to try to achieve a semblance of normality in the camp, a Canadian charity, Light House Relief, has fenced in an area for educational activities. “The kids are wanting to go to school and parents are trying to make sure their kids are on time,” says Patti Fink, a volunteer. “That’s part of the intent - to get kids to understand what it’s like to go to school and get into that routine.”

The Greek migration ministry has announced that it will open schools with Arabic- and Dari-speaking teachers in all the camps by September. In the meantime, the children of Ritsona, many of whom have never attended school, are taught punctuality, cleanliness and the ABC song under the shade of two enormous Aleppo pines.

Other improvements are on the way. Children watched excitedly as an air force excavator prepared a trench to lay down a sewage pipe. In a matter of weeks, Ritsona will have flushing lavatories rather than a bank of portable toilets.

On the outskirts of the camp, four plots of land demarcated with stones are the beginnings of a vegetable garden, currently on hold until irrigation water becomes available.

Ritsona’s refugees are not the least fortunate of the 57,000 currently in Greece. More than 8,000 are incarcerated on the islands of the east Aegean, on orders from the European Union, and have no scope for initiative.

Some 11,000 were last month evacuated from the border area in Eidomeni and relocated to hurriedly erected facilities in brownfield sites. Phoebe Ramsay, an independent volunteer from Canada, describes one of these in an industrial zone in the suburbs of Thessaloniki as “129 tents set up inside an old tannery... It's absolutely filthy-they didn't even sweep the floor before they set up tents. There's scrap metal and debris all around. There's only one tap of (theoretically) drinkable water for 800 people. And this is a good one.”

But neither are Ritsona’s inhabitants as fortunate as those spread through Athens in subsidised rentals and small communities that have been set up in disused buildings. Inside the urban fabric, these are closer to donors, volunteers and charities. They have enjoyed a greater degree of comfort and even face the prospect of limited integration.

Even with this self-empowerment, refugees at the camp are still largely cut off from Greek society. The International Organisation for Migration is seeking to address that, too. “We’re working on a plan to give each family a pre-paid Diners Club card with €250 on it. The idea is to put them on buses and send them to Thebes to do their own shopping,” says one volunteer. IOM hopes to fund this programme at least to the end of 2016.

Some people have gone further. The mayor of the island of Lesvos, which received more than half a million refugees last year, wants the European Commission to subsidise job creation schemes to improve refugees’ integration.

“What I said was that this small island… would also receive some of them – hundreds or even thousands - on a permanent basis. The only condition I asked was that a certain number of jobs should be created, half of which would be filled by refugees and half by locals.”

Galinos sees such subsidised jobs as a form of compensation for the millions of euros his municipality has paid in water and electricity bills for refugee camps, but the Commission has yet to respond.

Others are picking up the baton. Melissa, an organisation for migrant women in Athens, is launching a programme to help the newly arrived refugees integrate.

“It’s a crash course in Greek that a group of linguists has developed at the University of the Aegean – it’s utilitarian Greek,” says Nadina Christopoulou, who founded Melissa. “We have done focus groups at Melissa to discover what situational vocabulary is most useful, such as going to a hospital, dealing with children, paying bills… We’d like the seasoned migrants to be the connecting tissue between the refugees and society.”  

Melissa also plans trips to markets and museums, so refugees get to use their Greek.

“I think it’s very important for these people to emerge from the camps and start mixing with local society… The key is to forge a path to income-generating activity, where they will be agents of their own learning, not just passive recipients.”

Most people in Ritsona have escaped war, but they don’t seem to mind the screech and rumble of Greek Mirage fighter jets and F-16s taking off from the nearby Tanagra air force base. “We know we will stay for a long time here, but we are safe so we are happy,” says Soham. If life is what happens while people are waiting for it to begin, it is surreptitiously taking root in Ritsona.

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