Skaramagas 2020

The below writing documents my experience as an volunteer worker from September to November 2020 at Skaramagas refugee camp just outside Athens, Greece.

Skaramagas, Athens, Greece
September 22nd, 2020
Nº 1
Sitting in a cafe in central Athens. I’ve only spent three days in total in the camp but it feels like I’ve seen so much in this short amount of time. After a week quarantining in my Airbnb in the neighbourhood of Pangrati, which included freelancing, watching 2004 Olympic repeats in Greek, a lot of BBC World News and only venturing out three times to the supermarket for figs, peaches, bread and olives etc., I was blasted back into the world on Thursday 17th September for my first day of volunteering (after a negative Covid test the day before). So good to be out and about in the world again!

I took the Metro out west and met the Italian volunteer coordinator at the bus stop and another Italian woman who was starting with me. At this point I was quite nervous to meet everyone and didn’t have a clue what to expect, but as soon as I met these two friendly faces, I knew all would be fine. After a quick induction we took the 15 minute bus journey together and got off at the camp stop.

Skaramagas. An ex-industrial port area where 2,500 people call home—mostly seeking refuge from turmoil in Syria and Afghanistan. Some residents are French speaking African but they are in the minority. We were brought through security (intimidating on the first day but now I’m very used to it), signed in, got our temperatures taken by the Greek Navy who oversee the camp (we have to do this every morning) and then were brought on a quick tour. All the time in masks of course. Very important that Covid guidelines are adhered to or the camp management could kick out us out at any time.

Sunset outside camp

First impressions—dusty, hot and a very surreal moment for me. The Danish Refugee Council also operate at Skaramagas, as well as Drop In The Ocean (my NGO) and we both have our own areas which comprise of prefabs called Isoboxes and ex-shipping containers. These are located in the camp’s communal areas. The resident’s Isoboxes (generally two families per box) start a little bit away from us and we aren’t permitted to go into this area unless it’s for a pre-organised outreach mission (we were asked would we like it if strangers were just roaming around our houses/streets and having a gawk? No.) The residents have built a row of shops and cafes which are actually technicaly illegal due to non-payment of tax to the Greek government. We are forbidden from buying anything here.

I’m told it’s a very different experience to working on the islands which are currently deemed an emergency situation. Our main task everyday is simply to bring happiness, distraction, respect and learning to the daily life of a refugee. Next it was time to meet the rest of the team. The other international volunteers are from Italy, Libya, Norway, UK, America, Bulgaria, Netherlands and Australia. ‘Resident’ volunteers live in the camp and come from Syria and Afghanistan. They act as translators and are invaluable to the running of everyday activites. It’s been incredible getting to know people from these countries. Everyone was so welcoming and it is very organised, yet also laid back and fun.

So far, I’ve been in the Teen’s Space where we did a beauty sessions with thirteen and fourteen year old girls, distributed nappies to a long line of parents who don’t have a ‘cash card’ and rely solely on such donations. I then helped an Afghan man with his English which was pretty much me dictating approx. one hundred English sentences while he dutifully wrote them out (he’s so cute and dedicated and this is all he loves doing, so I’m told.) There is also a Women’s Space where females can just come and chill as they often lead difficult family lives. There’s also a Sewing Space, a clothes distribution shop (Drop Shop), a Library and a Kid’s Space.

View from the Women's Space
View from Women’s Space

Now on to the kids. My God, I’m obsessed. On the surface, they don’t have a care in the world. Happy to run around with each other and just hang out. They very rarely cry and are just so happy to sit in their mother’s arms and watch the world go by. Maybe it’s just me but they seem far more content than Western children. The younger children don’t understand us but have picked up a little English. I found it so unusual to see some of these younger ones use such mature mannerisms picked up from their parents. The beauty of it is, I don’t even need to know Arabic or Farsi to communicate with them! They call me ‘my friend, my friend’ or ‘teacher’. They loooove playing with hair and will fight over whose hair they get to do. If anyone is on the rob they will shout ‘Alibaba, Alibaba’ which means thief! They have the most gorgeous eyes and skin. They’re just beautiful...♥️

One of many hairstyles  | The best lunch I’ve had in a long time prepared by a resident volunteer’s mother

I’ve had one afternoon of activities with the children so far. We have to try and follow the Covid precautions which involved putting about 50 masks on the kids which are huge on them (these masks then disappear about 5 minutes later). I think they just like asking for one and then getting one! They are also obsessed with hand sanitiser and at one point I was completely surrounded by children and a chorus of ‘please please please teacher teacher hands hands’. One of the resident volunteers put on some Arabic music and they were all dancing around while I sat down with the others with chalk and drew on the ground. One little girl had no shoes and her head was shaved. When you see children like this, the reality of the situation hits and I can’t help but wonder what their future holds. I just hope they will be happy and have good lives further down the line.

Kid's Space
Kid’s Space
To summarise, the residents are going about their lives and living as best they can with their reality. They have been there for years and are waiting for their asylum to be processed so they can officially leave the camp (however, they will then stop getting any money/donations at this point and will just have to fend for themselves). Overall it is a peaceful environment (sometimes fights can break out between different ethnic groups but so far I haven’t seen anything) and there’s a sense of community and a lot of smiles and laughter.

For two weeks we will be working reduced days as a Covid precaution so I’m off today. There are three known cases in the camp so realistically there are more and we have to be extremely careful. Sadly, Kids Activities are on pause for the moment too.

So yes, that’s my first update! Thank you for reading ♥️ and I will update again in a couple of weeks.

Skaramagas, Athens, Greece
November 17th 2020

Nº 2
It's coming up to two months since my last update so this is well overdue! I extended my placement with A Drop In The Ocean by a week so my final day at Skaramagas camp was Friday 6th November. I will always remember those final day feelings—the warmth from the friendships, the shared experience, and the knowledge that I've been useful in one way or another! I have gotten to know all the volunteers, the camp and the activities so well which makes me very happy. ♥️

It feels like a lot has come to pass between this day and the previous weeks leading up to it. Each week has been totally different from the next. It's been a whirlwind of a two-week camp lockdown, emergency distribution, camp break-ins, kittens dying (I'll explain) and refurbishment of all the organisation's communal spaces. Now we are in the midst of an Athenian lockdown and a good few friends have departed either for home or on to their next chapter abroad, but also there has been some amazing new faces joining! Hoping I will be able to see everyone again after lockdown supposedly ends here on December 1st...

Moon at sunset by the Skaramagas hills
Moon over the Skaramagas hills

For the first two weeks after I last wrote, I was working just three days a week. We had to be more strict with the number of both volunteers and residents allowed into the spaces, all the Kid’s Activities were on hold, and general attendance was decreasing as the word spread that Covid was in the camp.

Next came the news that the camp was going into a two-week full lockdown to curb the spread of the virus as more and more families were being diagnosed. This is an awful situation as it then becomes more like a prison, activities are stopped and only the organisation's coordinators could keep attending every day. During this period, I helped out across three days with 'essential distribution'. As the residents could no longer leave the camp to buy food and supplies in central Athens, the UN Refugee Agency lorried over palettes of emergency food boxes. Prior to this distribution, we had to do outreach to the residents and give them their food collection tickets. This was my first time in and amongst the resident's Isobox homes (which are usually off-limits to volunteers). I was struck by how many children I could see peeping out behind their mother or father that I hadn’t come across before. It's hard to assess the scale of the camp when we spend all our time in the NGO areas at the front, but it holds more people than it looks from the outside. Some Isoboxes have multiple families while others seemed less crowded. Each container has two rooms in total with a shared bathroom dividing the rooms. Take a moment to appreciate your house. ♥️ Some people made the best of what they had by keeping the outer areas tidy and growing plants, but others didn't.

This afternoon is very special to me as I met so many friendly faces both young and old as we tried to communicate. (I did a lot of smizing above the mask). It was also lovely to recognise and reconnect with some of the people who I'd met at the Women's Space, the Teen’s Space etc.

Part of me thought I wouldn't see the camp again once lockdown was imposed but miraculously the lockdown was lifted and activities started again. So grateful that I then had three full weeks of volunteering. The Navy stopped taking our temperatures (slightly baffling but there you go) and we didn't hear more news about the virus spreading. However, resident’s attendance at the activities was quite low that first week back, at the Women's Space and English classes in particular, but as the weeks went on, more and more started to appear. The organisation took the chance to completely refurbish some of their spaces, so we deep-cleaned, sanded, painted walls and furniture and reorganised supplies. It was a big job but almost finished now...! I was also given the task of re-designing all the signage so it's cohesive and branded with the organisation's logos and colours etc. In my element doing this of course. Also ongoing was the winter clothes distribution whereby residents are given a slot to shop in the 'Drop Shop' and pick up warm clothes and hygiene items for themselves and their family. Just one of each item is allowed and sometimes the quality wouldn't be the best...let’s just say I saw some questionable (yet well intended) donations.

View of the Isoboxes through the Library window
View from the Library window at sundown

Stand out memories from these weeks are the simple things—playing board games and doing jigsaws in the Teen's Space, waving to every baby and child I met, getting woolen bracelets made for me, many a hair braid being done, plucking a woman's eyebrows (a first) during beauty day at the Women’s Space and teaching English to one of the Afghan resident volunteers. We both cried as I said goodbye to her...she’s 18, hasn't been to secondary school, doesn't even have a phone but is dedicated to learning English and shows up every day to help out. Something I'll always remember too is when a little one just comes up and hugs you for no reason—it's the best feeling. The Kid’s Activities is just getting off the ground now this week which I will sadly miss but I made sure to absorb their presence as much as I could when I was around them day -to-day.

Oh and the kittens. In Greece, there are stray cats everywhere and it's the same at Skaramagas. The coordinators adopted four abandoned camp kittens found in a cardboard box which they took home and drove in with every day. They were tiny at first and had to be bottle-fed every two hours. After a week or so, the smaller two passed away, but we had high hopes for stronger pair who were getting fatter by the minute. But in order to keep them alive and warm we had a heater on beside them. One day this heater was on far too high and...they died. I don't know why this shocked me as much as it did but the fact that they were alive one minute and gone the is so fragile. That week also saw the Women's Space and Library being broken into at night by bored resident youths we suspect, and some of the organisation's supplies were stolen, so there was many a low moment too. But the resilience of the coordinators is truely outstanding, they don't visibly let anything overwhelm them during the day and they just keep going. Will be taking this resilience into my own life.

RIP little alien child
RIP little alien child

I'll finish up with an insight given by one of the new coordinators who has worked in a few camps. Some women told her that many of them don't feel safe walking around Skaramagas camp and that's why we wouldn't see many new faces at the Women's Space for example. It just goes to show that a lot can be happening behind closed doors and if you scratch the surface you see that these are very complicated places with hundreds of untold stories. She also noted that there was a lack of community leaders who are unofficially elected by residents, as is normal in the other camps. These leaders are great for resolving any grievances and communicate the needs of the camp with the NGO leaders. Skaramagas has been in operation since 2016 and I got a sense that there is more work to be done to get it to where it needs to be. But in saying that, I don't wish for anyone to have to settle there longterm. At the end of the day, none of the residents actually want to be there. They want to move on, get to Germany, Sweden or the UK to name the more popular destinations and start a new life. Many already have relatives settled in these countries and wish to join them.

I won't know what happens to all the men, women, teens and children I met over the past weeks but I just hope, hope, hooope that life will be better for them in Europe when they finally get their Greek passports and they can make a new life for themselves. We are all human and we all deserve a chance, even more so if your life as you know it has been stolen from you, through no fault of your own.

Hoping to do another stint next year at Skaramagas and/or in Lebanon so we will see. I hope this piece gives a bit of a window into what's happening in just one camp in Europe and goes a little way in ensuring the residents aren't forgotten about. So spread gratitude, warmth and hope today and support however you can! ♥️

A few links:

Indigo Volunteers
If you’re interested in volunteering, this is the platform I used which connects volunteers with NGOs around Europe.

A Drop In The Ocean
The NGO I worked for at Skaramagas camp. 

Choose Love
If you wish to donate, Choose Love is a great place to start.

United Nations Refugee Agency
The UNHCR is another place to donate, if you can.

On a seperate note:

UNICEF Lebanon
The horrific explosion in Beirut on August 4th changed the lives of thousands of children. While the story has faded from the international news cycle, UNICEF Lebanon continues to provide psycho-social support, access to sanitation and water and nutrition supplies, amongst many other humanitarian actions. Read more or donate here.

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