NB: This post has nothing to do with seminal 90s hiphop groups. You just got click baited.
The military jeep at the entrance is the only overt clue the old factory is not what it seems. You could pass its unassuming walls everyday and remain unaware that hundreds of people live in purgatory within. The guards are to prevent unwanted visitors, and its refugee residents can leave whenever they want of course. However with international borders closed and the world looking at its feet, calling the camp anything but a prison feels like a semantic slight of hand. Among the scrubland pocked with industrial detritus, hope is a fragile thing, as insubstantial and difficult to grasp as the whirling dust clouds that whip across the hard, ocre dirt.
The camp I visited lies just outside Thessaloniki in northern Greece, but this scene is repeated again and again across Europe. Images of sprawling tent cities that populate peoples’ conceptions of refugees camps do exist: mostly at the entry points to the continent – Greek islands, Italy, increasingly Spain. Camps are more often are hidden away though, in warehouses, abandoned factories or stacked containers in remote border villages. Out if sight, out of mind.
These not-so-temporary residences are as insufficient as they are inconspicious. Greek authorities, through a combination of underfunding and antipathy, provide the bare minimum. The job of providing the rest – the shared spaces and shade, the schooling and advice centres, the things that elevate life above mere existence – falls on the shoulders of rag tag volunteer groups that understand if they don’t act, noone will.
What they have achieved is inspiring. Jenni, the sweary no nonsense Kiwi, who started travelling to camps with a van full of tools, is a case in point. Despite moving around on crutches, she fundraised, she bulldozed, she dyed her hair blue to play the eccentric foreigner cards and get easier access to camps. She now has a team and workshop in Thessaloniki, in the warehouse that Help Refugees operate from and works in camps as far off as Cios near the Turkish border.
When I arrived to help her team, they were finishing off a community centre outside the warehouse-come-camp: a sturdy one room building built of chipboard and reclaimed materials. Plenty of gaps for sure, but a welcome source of shade for the 200-odd residents next door. I’m not sure how cosy it will be when temperatures drop to minus 20 like they did last winter. But it’s something.
Its an achievement all the more impressive considering the group consisted of accountants and office workers and teachers, whose general experience of woodwork before coming to Greece extended as far as tree climbing. A visible wave of relief swept across the workshop manager’s face when I told him my profession. Windows needed making and noone had the foggiest how to go about it. It felt good to be able to give back something tangible and practical. Even if this offering was a few paltry bits of joinery and roofing. I’m under no illusions as to my overal importance though – my skills were a luxury not a necessity. If I hadn’t been there they would have just got on with winging it. Because that’s what they’ve been doing for years now.
I suspect it is a story to be found anywhere in Europe where chinks can be found in increasingly hostile borders that block people’s onward journey. Underskilled and underfunded people are doing amazing things to plug the woeful gaps that governments should be filling. If you have a bit of spare cash, or time to spare, I can’t think of organisations that need them more. And out here, a little goes a long way.
Before leaving I gave 500 euros of your donations, split between the construction team, the Help Refugees warehouse which provides clothing and emergency supplies, and a soup kitchen helping homeless locals and refugees alike. Thank you for making that happen.
Back in Bulgaria, I saw firsthand the ugly distrust of foreigners that is fermenting here. I pitched my tent in the remains of a county fair one night, next to a large family with some horses. They welcomed me at first but soon – I think after I told them my final destination – they turned suspicious. The only word I understood was terrorist. With the help of Google they told me they wanted to search my bag for bombs. The offensiveness and sheer lunacy of this demand only slightly dulled by an algorithm with poetic tendencies that wanted to know if my back purse would make thunder. The numerous swastikas you see scrawled illiterately in towns and cities amplify the sense that Bulgaria isn’t the best place to be with dark skin.
In fact I already knew this to be true. Hearsay and online messageboards advise refugees to stick well clear. The stories I heard, at a camp on the Serbian border told of beatings and organised bands. Refugees still stranded in Sofia live under a self-imposed curfew out of fear of attacks after dark.
“They hate anyone with black hair” is how one man put it.
“So you were fine then right?,” I replied, pointing to his finely polished dome.
He laughed and invited me swimming with the camp’s children.
Previous to this, my overwhelming emotion had been sadness. Tales of hardship and helplessness tend to do that. But splashing around with the kids in the shallow river nearby acted as a balm. After all the suffering – with education cut off and childhood deferred – these children can still be, well, kids. They can splash and dive and scream with the best of them.
As I dried myself on the bank, I spoke to an Afghani teenager, the son of the bald man who was currently absorbed in creating extremely precarious water-bound human missiles from delighted kids. In perfect English, the young guy explained his aim to get to England and fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. There was something resolute and indefatigable about him. Despite the huge obstacles in his path he made me believe it was possible. Maybe I was wrong: there is hope after all.
In other news
- It took five months of detailed analysis but I can reveal that Michal Jackson’s Bad is the ultimate walking album. Its got just the right tempo, nostalgia and know-all-the-words sing-a-longability to get you moving at a pace. I already told you that I’m at meat saturation point. Well, its reached my brain. Every time I listen to Another Part of Me from that same album all I hear is meat. Am I going mad or is MJ promising send out a meatloaf in the first line of the chorus??