Welcome to Greece
Upon entering Greece’s Diavata refugee camp this past summer, I immediately noticed a warehouse, painted over with a bright and eye-catching mural that reads “ONE LOVE.” If only the leaders of many European nations, and US President-elect Donald Trump, shared this sentiment. As the refugee crisis continues to intensify, the US and many European nations must welcome far greater numbers of refugees, provide them with suitable and sustainable housing conditions, and facilitate access to education for children fleeing some of the world’s most violent conflicts. Instead, the global response to refugees only continues to increase in levels of hostility and xenophobia.
Diavata is the temporary home to over 1,700 refugees, mainly those who have fled Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, about half of them are children. It is an archetypal refugee camp. Tents are lined up, barely a few feet apart, in the summer months they provide shade to families trying to escape the blistering sun. Some take shelter on the floor of the camp’s one large, empty building, as it is cool, dark and less cramped. The building’s windows are cracked. Its floors are covered with dirt. There is no electricity.
About 30 meters away, if you stand in the children’s play area, close your eyes, and only listen. You might mistake your surroundings for New York’s Central Park, as laughter emanates from every corner of the play area. When your eyes open, you spot UNHCR’s flag flying high in the sky, and can easily distinguish these joyous sounds from Diavata’s harsh daily reality.
I volunteered in Diavata in July 2016. While in Greece, I also visited the “Refugee Hotel” in downtown Athens, and saw how different life for Diavata’s refugees, and refugees in numerous other European camps, could be in the interim period between arrival and ultimate resettlement.
The once-abandoned three-star City Plaza Hotel has been overtaken by Greek activists, who consider the housing “a gesture to reclaim the right of the visibility of refugees.” The organizers told me that they had enrolled 69 children in Greek public schools for the coming year, and were at capacity hosting about 400 residents. Every family has a private room. I smiled when I saw a young boy, about four years old, exuberantly running around the hotel. It was only when he turned that I noticed his left arm was missing, amputated from the elbow, presumably lost as a result of violence in his homeland weeks, months, or years before. Welcome to one family’s reality in Athens—far better than refugee camp life, but a far cry from “postcard Athens”, with guided Acropolis tours, delicious Greek moussaka, and luxury hotels.
Creeping towards permanence
2016 was the “deadliest year” ever for migration deaths. Over 5,000 people died attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. UNHCR declared that the likelihood of a migrant dying en route to Europe has skyrocketed from one death for every 269 arrivals, to one death for every 88 arrivals. This loss of life is encapsulated in harrowing moments, such as the infamous image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on the Turkish shore, after he drowned fleeing Syria with his family when their asylum application was denied.
Many governments have stood by passively as hundreds of thousands make the perilous journey across the ocean alive, only to suffer further in ill-equipped, under-funded camps upon arrival. As of June 2016, approximately 57,042 of the world’s refugees were resident in Greece, many waiting to reunite with family members throughout Europe. These numbers continually climb. The crisis will have effects for decades, devastatingly worsened if the US and European nations do not accept more refugees and provide suitable housing.
Projects such as Athens’ City Plaza Hotel offer an alternative model for hosting refugees. The responsibility does not lie solely with activists in Greece—the hotel can serve as an example for refugee housing worldwide. Such projects deserve EU funding, and can be an alternative to life in camps like Diavata—meant to be temporary, but creeping towards permanence.
Harsh daily reality
In the city’s outskirts, Diavata’s refugees are invisible to tourists en route to beach holidays in the nearby peninsulas of Chalkidiki. The camp, about 12 km outside Greece’s second-largest city Thessaloniki, can take two hours to reach by public bus, though it is accessible in 20 minutes by car. The residents of the camp do not have cars, and cannot regularly afford bus fares, leaving them with restricted mobility and scarce options for purchasing food other than the limited amounts provided.
In the afternoons we led activities such as dance, music, art, and sports for Diavata’s children, while working on English and Greek. I benefitted from rapid-fire learning of Arabic, Kurdish, and Farsi phrases. The upbeat bubble of children’s activities was consistently pierced, such as when one young boy abandoned a football game, took the ball to his tent, and hid under a fort made of blankets as he furiously wept. His despondent cries indicated these were not simply the antics of any five-year-old. I can only guess about the traumas he witnessed.
I was quickly befriended by two teenage brothers, Omar and Ali, who were more talented in their abilities to make puns and jokes in English than any native speakers I know, often laughing about the ways certain words are translated from Arabic to English. Many children in Diavata speak English fluently, not surprising given the pre-2011 quality of English language education in Syria.
Nesrin and Fatima, girls aged eleven and seven who had fled Syria, also befriended me. Nesrin, from a Kurdish family, insisted that I come meet Mamain her tent. Rarely in my life have I been made to feel so welcome. I was offered dates, coffee, fresh fruit, and orange soda, despite limited quantities. I was met with equal hospitality by Fatima’s family who ran a make-shift tent shop with snacks, cigarettes, and goods purchased for re-sale. After months of residency, a micro-economy had formed. Nesrin’s mother told me, “Syria was very beautiful. Life here is not beautiful.” The refugees in Diavata felt it essential to convey they are not in Europe by choice. They had to leave their homelands because their lives were under imminent threat.
Palestinian crisis, redux
The “refugee crisis” is portrayed as a new phenomenon plaguing Europe, but generations of Palestinian children have been suffering like Omar, Ali, Nesrin, and Fatima for nearly 70 years. The difference is that they did not show up on Europe’s shores en masse, so were deemed a problem to be solved later, not a European “crisis.”
Over 5.1 million Palestinians are registered as refugees with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). In 2015 an UNRWA funding crisis—a $101 million deficit—a cyclical occurrence since UNRWA relies entirely on donations, led the agency to announce that delayed school openings for approximately 500,000 refugee children would be unavoidable. Ultimately, donations from western and Arab nations enabled schools to open.
We are approaching 70 years since the start of the Palestinian crisis, and yet 500,000 children live in UNRWA camps, perpetually uncertain if their right to education will be terminated.
Also victims of the violence in Syria, 560,000 Palestinian refugees resided there prior to the civil war and 110,000 have fled since 2011. If the west does not change its policies, we will face yet another unresolved refugee crisis marking its 70th anniversary. Refugee children should have uniform access to public school education in their temporary countries of residence, and should not be relying on volunteer-led lessons in camps like Diavata for a couple of hours per day.
A distant homeland
Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani offered an account that resonates with the plight of modern refugee children. He described the experience of his son realizing he was from a homeland from which their family had been expelled. He writes,
I heard you in the other room asking your mother, ‘Mama, am I a Palestinian?’ When she answered ‘Yes’ a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, then – silence. Afterwards … I heard you crying. I could not move … I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again: hills, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child… (Palestine’s Children)A generation of not only Syrian children, but Yemeni, Sudanese, Somali, and many others, are growing up trapped in the violence of their homelands, or torn from their nations in exile. As the Palestinian struggle continues seven decades later, we cannot permit western governments to turn their backs on yet another generation of refugees, victims of wars that more often than not, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been impacted or initiated by western military powers. “Syria was beautiful”, and although life in exile will never be the same for families like Nesrin’s, life can be improved if refugees can access proper housing and education.
I will be returning to Greece later this year. As much as I look forward to reuniting with friends in Diavata, I hope to hear that some of them have left before then to Germany, or Switzerland, or one of the many countries in which they seek family reunification. I fear, however, that I will find many of them in the same position as last summer. I hope the presence of volunteers like me makes their time in the camp easier, but it does not come close to solving their problems. Governments must respect international law by welcoming refugees in far greater numbers and exploring alternative housing infrastructure that is more secure and stable than bearing the elements in UNHCR tents, not blatantly threatening to abolish international legal protections as Donald Trump has done. Even so, this will never address irreversible injustices that children like Aylan Kurdi have suffered, losing their lives. But until the hundreds of thousands of refugees in limbo are treated justly, no longer forced to put life on hold, activists and the refugees themselves will continue resisting injustice and demanding respect for refugees and their rights, including rights to safe housing and just access to education.
All names of residents in the camp have been changed to protect identities.