Filippiada: Where Time Stands Still

Filippiada refugee camp is set four kilometres northwest of the small town of Filippiada, Epirus, in a former military base. The disused army barracks now act as a warehouse bursting with donated goods. They are desperately in need of men’s clothing.

The camp opened in March 2016. It is is now “home” to 441 people. Most are Syrian, though there are also Afghans. As in Katsikas, half are children. Some have been moved here from the now infamous refugee camp at Idomeni which swelled to 12,000 people after Western Balkan countries sealed their borders to Refugees trying to reach Germany, causing chaos and sparking accusations that European nations were passing the migration crisis buck. Idomeni camp was shut down in May and refugees evacuated.

In order to enter the camp individuals must apply in advance for a permit from the Mayor’s office. We need to collect our permits in person from the Town Hall. After weaving through the narrow, blisteringly hot backstreets of Filpiaddia in search of the Town Hall and after a seemingly endless wait once we get there, we are told that permission must now be granted from the army.

We are dismissed, instructed to find the army chief and told that we may, or may not, need to return to the Town Hall once we have spoken to him. We are given vague directions to the camp. These are thankfully supplemented by a cleaner who, having overheard our conversation, helpfully embellishes the minimalistic directions we have been given. Everyone here it seems, knows about the refugee camp.

When we finally reach the camp, we drive through a military entry point and seek out the head of the army who gives us permission to enter. The reason for this procedure is to prevent smugglers and human traffickers from entering the camp.

Marta Larrea-Pombo, Volunteer, Olvidados

We then find Evangelia Boboni, a volunteer with CalAid who has helped to coordinate our visit, and introduced to Marta, a bilingual engineering student from Madrid who shows us around the camp. She is spending her summer here, volunteering with Olvidados, the Spanish NGO we met at Katiskas. Olvidados were invited here in June, by the Greek army on the basis of their work at Katsikas.

The Greek army’s resources are severely stretched. As one would expect with an army, their expertise is in combat and defense, not managing a refugee camp. They are grateful that their efforts here are supported by Oxfam, the UNHCR and Mercy Corps as well as Olvidados.

Oxfam provide food and hygiene products here. Mercycorps have created a community space where tea is served to refugees (it’s the closest thing to a café one can imagine in a refugee camp), and Olvidados generally oversee the camp.

Donations of clothing, shoes and basic good have been made predominantly by the local population, but also from overseas, especially from Spain through Olvidados and the UK through CalAid. We unload our carload of donations with the help of Dawood from Afghanistan, who escaped over the Turkish border in the boot of a car. I suspect he is about 16 or 17. He is here alone. He repeatedly thanks us for the donations as he works.

A crumbling, disused building to the right of the warehouse, composed of two rooms, has been given a lick of paint and transformed into an impromptu school. Between the warehouse and the school, stand a legion of canvas tents with the UNHCR logo emblazoned on their roofs.

The informal school runs each day except Friday and Saturday and is attended on an adhoc basis by children of primary school age. Their lessons here include maths and history. A mural of the Little Prince has been painted on one of the school’s exterior walls and translated into English, Arabic and Dari for the camps Afghan inhabitants. Inside, three alphabets have been painted on the walls. The school is run by refugees who teach in Arabic and Dari. Volunteers supplement their efforts by providing informal English lessons. Marta says to me ”It’s not ideal because some children don’t want to go. Or their parents wont let them. It is only for children up to the age of 12. They all need better education.” A painted clock is permanently set to 2:50.

Beyond the school, stand 50 portable lavatories and a shower block. There is no hot water.

Behind the shower block, a vanity space has been created to help boost morale, and an improvised hairdressing salon has been set up. Somehow this strikes me as the most cheering thing I have seen. It is so normal.

A third building has been renovated by a team of Spanish volunteers and painted by the refugees. When it is finished, the three-roomed construction will include a sewing workshop (non electrical machines are needed), a children’s play area and a yoga space. Until the building is ready, volunteers organize activities for the children that include painting and sports.

The UNHCR, whose efforts in Greece have been widely criticized as inadequate, are at least present in this camp. Around the camp, men sit in the shade of their tents patiently constructing solar powered lamps given out by the UNHCR. Oxfam are trying to secure solar panels to provide proper electricity to the camp.

There is also a prayer tent.

Behind the camp a dense forest leads to a river, which though difficult to reach, provides the camps inhabitants with some much welcomed and refreshing paddling. Women collect firewood here to light fires in the camp at night. Open fires are not allowed by the army (there is a high risk of forest fires), but as the camp has no electricity, they turn a blind eye to it.

Throughout the camp refugees have planted herb gardens outside their tents. The seeds were provided by Olvidados. This is not just a bid to grow herbs to add to the flavourless food that is provided daily and which volunteers tell us is almost entirely lacking in nutritional value. It is an attempt to take pride in their “homes”, to channel their energy positively and to invest in a future that many have accepted is likely to involve remaining much longer than anticipated in Greece.

The majority we speak to have family in Europe and they are desperately keen to reach them.

Amar is a Doctor from Damascus who proudly shows us his herb garden. He is here in the camp with his family. But he is trying to reach the U.K where his mother and sisters have been living for 13 years. He left Syria a year ago, travelling first to Turkey, where he stayed for 8 months, and then on to Greece. He paid a trafficker $2,500 to smuggle him and his family from Izmir to Greece in a plastic dinghy.

He says he had no choice. He could not stay in Syria with bombs and bullets raining daily from the sky. There was no future there for his children. He said that worse than the chaos of war, was the fear of looters who routinely pillaged and intimidated people by regularly turning up at their houses in the middle of the night. He says they did not know if they were thieves, or regime spies.

So for now, Amar and his family sit and wait. They occupy their time as best they can. Building solar lanterns. Digging gardens. Playing cards. But it seems absurd. A doctor, in a place where medical professionals are urgently needed, not allowed to work but instead made to idle his days away by and just wait. The perpetual waiting.

The atmosphere in this camp is different from what we saw at Katsikas. It feels more organized. The people are more hopeful. The conditions in which they are living are still very basic. On a psychological level, they are not simply dealing with the trauma of war, loss and the journeys they have undergone. They are dealing with uncertainty and waiting for permission to continue their journeys.

On a physical level, they are living in great discomfort with the most basic supplies, in an inhospitable place plagued by snakes and scorpions (the army have set snake traps). On a social level, there are reportedly tensions in the camp between the Syrians, who are automatically granted refugee status because they are fleeing war, and the Afghans who are not classified as fleeing war and therefore not automatically granted refugee status (tell that to someone fleeing the Taliban).

But as in Katiskas, the volunteers, NGOs and army are doing the best they can to make the situation as bearable as possible. It is now a waiting game. Like the clock painted on the school wall, time for the refugees here, seems to stand still….

Prospero World have set up a Refugee Fund. If you would like to support the fund, you may do so here

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