Our paths through the Island of Lesvos also led us through the village of Moria, situated at around 1,5 km distance from the barbwires of the camp of Moria on the flanks of a hill covered in olive trees.
The village seems to sleep as we walk through its streets- on its highest point a stony church in that’s shade two boys suck their time from cigarettes and replace it in the world as grey vapor. The view from the church’s portal directs into the hills covered in olive groves, that’s silvery green is pierced by the cubic white of Moria camp’s housing containers, fences, and pylons. Moria camp is a “hotspot” that gathers all new arrivals on the island in order to register and separate them and facilitate asylum application process for those who are considered to be in a situation endangering enough to ask for asylum. All new arrivals are being restricted to move and have to stay in a fenced area of the camp for 25 days, before they are allowed to resettle in other areas of the camp or move to different campsites.
As we dive back down into Moria’s sleeping streets, we pass an abandoned playground, overgrown by dry grass, a caterpillar from steel rigidly steering through the coloured fence. The energy that Morias inhabitants seem to invest into the tidiness of their houses and yards desperately aims to push back the slow death of the village. Empty buildings are being torn down by time and space, the facade of a building still advertises the past, through its windows the sky and backyard pierce onto the streets. The center of the village -an accumulation of small shops and three Kafenions, greek coffee bars, that are all occupied by men, who pass their time searching for the bottoms of their bottles of ouzo and wine.
Following the invitation of one of those sitting, we enter a Kafenion that seems to be a shrine, conserving the past in photos of the owner playing in the local football team, and his family in the Café dating back to the 1970’s. We are being served coffee by the only woman in the place, with hair precisely cut into a bob, her eyes underlined with water blue of the Aegean Sea.
Marios, whose invitation we followed, is the only one of the four men inhabiting tables on each corner of the luminous Kafenion, who knows a bit of English- remains of a former life in the US, where he used to be working in fashion industry. He left daughter and son there.
We try to investigate how the camp that is only a fifteen minutes’ walk far from the centre effects the life in the village. Marios tells us about around 5000 people living there, each of them supported by the EU with 400 € per month. A note of disappointment flows out of his mouth as he chews out that information. Tells us, how the money that is supposed to support the Greek population gets lost in serpentines and meanders of lies, and that for normal people like him on the end of the chain there is nothing left. Consequently, he has to spend his Saturdays in a Kafenion, in compliance with three other men trying to conserve memories of their past in alcohol, in order not to drown in the non-secure present.
We enter a shop, close to the Kafenion, where a man and a woman in their 60s and 80s sit and chat in the shelter from the sun. He speaks of 1000 people living in Moria, and as Marios before he mentions a high police presence around the camp and in the village. Those who have permit to exit the camp come often to his shop in order to buy food, since the food served in the camp is not eatable. As we ask him for the way to the camp, he tells us: “Just ask one of the guys from the camp. It’s those with the dark skin.”
Eventhough on this very Saturday afternoon we cannot find a lot of the people from the camp in the centre of Moria, we find our way. An abandoned oil mill points out the border between village and the fields. As we approach the camp of Moria, we pass by a wild camp in the olive groves.
On the flanks of the concrete-fence-barbwire constructions that constrict the Containers of Moria Camp, an accumulation of large white tents builds the Red Cross Camp. Right next to it, we enter a warehouse. We meet the two women who, in a collaboration, opened a shop in one corner of the warehouse, in order to provide the people living in the camps with more affordable and easily reachable food.
Enthroned behind the counter of the improvised shopping corner in the vast darkness of a warehouse that was originally meant to supply hotels, the “Mother of Moria”, a woman in the end of her fifties, operates the cash, giving all of her customers a benevolent smile and some nice words on the way, before they pass the door. “I know them all.” She says. “They are like my children, they come to me to ask for help, if they need something. I try to help them as I can, and they invite me in return to come to their tents, have a coffee or tea with them. This young man here came to me once in the morning and told me that he could not sleep for the whole night because they were put with 32 people in one of those containers with 6 beds, and there was too much noise.” She continues: “I feel sorry whenever I witness those moments- and the camp bears a lot of them. They put the containers because of the incident that happened in November 2016. Moria was a camp all built of tents, and in one of them, a gas can have had exploded, and a child and its grandmother died in the flames, another 2 people were transferred to hospital on the mainland with serious injuries. After there were riots in the camp -at that time hosting more than 3000 people- to address the miserable living conditions, and through the pressure coming from Human Rights Organizations, requesting to improve the standards in the camp, they installed containers. So now they stock the people in them like chicken in breeding factories.”
We are about to move when a young man, white T-shirt, the Blue jeans knee-long, his half-long hair accurately held by a black ribbon, pops into the warehouse. He comes to get a big knife for cutting Schwarma, that they are preparing for the first evening of Ramadan. We start to talk- us initially not being sure about the identity of the young men we are facing- his attitude could be the one of a local Greek volunteer. But he is from Bagdad, arrived 9 months before on Lesvos, passed through Moria and volunteers now in the NGO Humans4Humanity, an US-american initiative that runs a centre close to Moria camp and provides food, clothing, schooling activities and community support for people who turn towards them, searching for help- not making difference between local people in need and (relatively) new arrivals.
Ahmed*takes us to the organizations’ close by community centre, the House of Humanity. It is situated on the opposite of a military camp on the flanks of the hill. An abandoned warehouse, transformed through new colourful wall paintings and some space holders into an improvised day-centre, home for the people who don’t have a better option to stay. On the entrance, the reception that hands out the food tickets for the food station that offers basic elements such as sugar, rice, baby food… Children enjoying themselves with plastic toys, Schwarma for the evening roasting on the spit in the cooking tent, some young families sitting around, talking, playing with their children.
Neda Kadri, the coordinator of Humans4Humanity explains us their situation: “We are trying to support the people who are in need, who are away from their homes and a life-sustaining security. Our principles are to treat people by honouring them as dignified humans, therefore giving them the opportunity to choose what they need. We have this clothes shop, where they can choose what they want to wear, and our food corner where they are able to choose what they want to eat. Humanitarian aid is always in the risk to be harming people’s dignity, because you are pushing them into this state of being dependent. You are basically deciding for them, don’t giving them much space to be active, to be subjects. That’s what we want to change. We are employing people just as Ahmed, who came not long time ago, supporting them by providing accommodation together with volunteers that join the project from abroad, and therefore giving them the chance to start a new life here and do something meaningful, helping other people that are in the same situation that they went through.”
The area of Moria is a weird split between realities, fences being held up to desperately separate them, enabling people to close their eyes and others to proceed in the unseen. Yet those who stay awake are trying to take down those fences, in order to keep up a togetherness in mutual support and activity for a more human environment. But it’s an unequal balance act, one of those indicators of a world lost in a general disorientation of values and their realization.
Mosaik Support Center for Refugees and Locals aims to integrate refugees and the local community in Lesvos, through language classes, vocational training, workshops, cultural events and much more. The colorful painted walls of the center welcome everyone who wants to join one of the many classes provided (20 to 25 per day on average) for free. However, this is not a place to just sit down and chill in the city, but to really study and learn – no food and drinks are allowed and no Wi-Fi connection is provided, as the center works following a school model. Two absences in class for no reason also means you are not registered anymore. Over this solidity learning design, the center aims to bond migrants and local community, and also gives some sense of normality for the migrants living in the camps. As their webpage states “by learning a language or a craft, producing art or joining creative projects, by seeking support in the asylum procedure from our legal teams, or simply by sharing a space that is safe and supportive, refugees and migrants regain some semblance of normality, empowerment and, often, fun.”
More than 400 students are registered in the center, where language classes are the majority, with English, Greek and Arabic being the main subjects. However, computer classes, a children’s creative space and day care, sports, choirs and art classes are also provided.
Mosaik is located in Lesvo’s city center, in a busy street, very close from local shops, markets and stores. Even though the rent is twice as expensive as it would be in some place closer to the camps, the idea of being located away from the settlements enhances the integration with the local community. As it has been said in our visit:
You see someone once, you don’t interact;
You see someone twice, you start noticing the person;
You see someone for the whole week, you start saying hello;
You see someone walking your street everyday, you start becoming a friend.
The center also provides the bus tickets for free to the students – two per class: one to go back to the camp and one to attend the class next time. The next tickets are giving only at the next class.
Our clowns are performing a magic trick at Kara Tape refugee camp in Lesvos. The little kids, sitting at the edge of the stage delimited by a rope, are mesmerised. One kid, a little older than the others, comes to sit on the ground next to me, and with a witty smile tells me that he knows the trick, he saw the hidden cup! I try to contradict him, but with a very unconvincing grin on my face. He’s a smart, sweet kid, I already like him. Then I ask him if he likes the show. With an expression that conveys thoughtfulness, he says: “It’s ok. But I like to see my brothers and sisters happy”, gesturing in the direction of all the other kids who are now laughing.
Gess came from Congo. Because his mother was from Angola, he could speak with me in Portuguese, with a very rusty but still charming accent. Gess got to Greece from Turkey, after spending three days in the jungle. Three days not knowing where to go, following instructions. He arrived in Lesvos after taking an inflatable boat with capacity for 30 people. They were 42 standing in the same boat, in the middle of a cold January night. The boat’s motor came down three times that night. On the fourth it did not start again. Gess never learned how to swim when he was a child. Nor him nor any of the 41 other man he was sharing the boat with. He was always afraid of the water, afraid of drowning. On that cold January night, Gess was afraid. The water was covering the boat fast and the darkness would not allow anyone to see any piece of land, any piece of hope. When the water was reaching their bellies and the prayers were loud enough for any God to hear them, a light appeared on the horizon. A rescue boat finally found them and took them safely to the island.
Gess is now living in the temporary tents outside Moria, as there was no more space for him in the camp. And Gess is fine with everything. His smile is shining in every sentence, even when he talks about the hot tents, the poor nutritious food, the lack of activities, the bureaucracy. In fact, he is never complaining of any of those, he is still grateful and happy to be in a safe place.
I ask Gess where he wants to go, where he wants to live. He says he would be happy living in Greece, the country that is taking care of him for the last 5 months. Or maybe he could live in France, as he is a native French speaker and it would be easier to find better job opportunities there. Or, who knows, maybe even Portugal, so he can improve his Portuguese.
Anywhere, Gess says. He would be happy anywhere, as long it is a safe place.
A safe place. That’s all he needs.
It was the last day of our project in the Balkans. We were exhausted. As one of us said, we didn’t have energy even for clapping to our clowns’ performance! And then we arrived to City Plaza, an occupation in the center of Athens, housing many refugees and families. The atmosphere was so cozy and welcoming that we forgot about tiredness and we clapped and laughed and played and talked. This is the magic of City Plaza.
As many squats around the world, this diverse and welcoming community is now under threat of eviction. I hope that solidarity with the project will stop the eviction and City Plaza will continue to be the wonderful place we had the chance to visit.
I didn’t even ask his name, I think we didn’t exchange one single word the entire time. When he first saw me in the Kara Tepe camp in Lesvos, he just ran and hugged me like we’d known each other from before. Just laying his head on my belly. I gave him all my love, his cheeks were so jelly and soft and funny! It didn’t matter where he came from, which language he spoke, nothing. I kissed the top of his head while his arms were around me and warmly hugged back, protecting him. Just love sharing, that’s all that mattered. When I picked him up and swung him around, I noticed how his eyes were incredibly sparkling. Can you see? It’s pure magic!
Each life jacket has a story, each child’s shoe that we find by the shore makes us wonder. Did they make it? Are the baby flip-flops from one of the kids that laughed with us in a camp across this journey? Did one of these jackets save the life of a man that is maybe trying to cross some border tonight? Where is everyone? In the camps waiting to know what will happen to them, or starting a new life in some European country? Back in Turkey trying to come again, or even on the bottom of the sea? Too many questions with no answers.
More than 1.000 kids trapped in a refugee camp near Athens for approximately 1 year. 365 days in this grey playground where they spend their childhood, after all the tough journey they’ve already been through – and that doesn’t seem to have an end. Their families are waiting every day for a phone call that will tell in which country they will have a home again – if they ever get accepted as refugees. When we play with the children, some are shy and take a while to smile, others are loving from the first second and don’t let us go without filling our hearts with love, hugs, smiles and a special connection that doesn’t understand languages or cultures. It’s full pure love, it’s an exchange of caring and heart greatness. And it’s hard to leave it behind everyday and say goodbye, when all I want to do is to protect them from stagnated days with no joy, when all I want to do is to play until there’s no more energy in our bodies.
Lesvos, you were all about the ups and downs. I’ve been waiting to meet you for the past 2 years, but I didn’t expect this roller-coaster of emotions. The nature is breathtaking, we’ve met some incredible people on the way that are bringing a bit of light to this whole crisis, but I’ve also felt lots of heartaches and too much human injustice throughout these intense 4 days. I still don’t have many words for you, only that you were too intense for me to process. I’ll take my time.
I never thought I would feel this, but today I found a beautiful community-led refugee camp called Lesvos Solidarity (also known as Pikpa), where I felt at home. From the first step in, the colorful walls with nice words and kids’ drawings predicted a different energy. The children were very confident and apparently happy, they talked, made fun of us, challenged us in an interesting way. They seemed strong inside. The volunteers were warm, dedicated to each one of the residents, creating a family feeling between all of them. The wooden houses created nice homey places and everyone was relaxed. They told us a story of *Amir* and other kid. One spoke Arabic and the other Farsi. They were inseparable and best friends even though they didn’t speak the same language: “Me bike good, you bike no good”. That shows a little of the magic of this special camp: a union, dedication and community feeling very rare in such a situation, a very positive environment when all expects the opposite. Discovering this place made this a very good day!
Special people just cross our way. We were not allowed into Moria Detention Camp, so we wandered around and accidentally met Sefaudin from Ethiopia. There’s no space for him inside the camp, he’s living “temporarily” in a tent for 4 months already, which will be unbearably hot in the next month or two. He is fasting for Ramadan but didn’t leave the cooking area for hours preparing food for him and his friends for the night, re-cooking the not so tasty meals provided by the camp, trying to make them a bit delicious. His very shiny eyes showed a very peaceful soul, a patience that only sometimes got conquered by frustration. He had a good management job back home and Moria is the worst place he’s ever imagined he could live in. But he’s calm, waiting for his moment, “I know I need to stay strong”. When people from the village insult him, he replies with a smile, because “I know I didn’t do anything wrong”, even though it still hurts him that they are afraid of him just because he’s black. He just wants to restart his life, get away from all the waiting, and help people, “like you’re doing, thanks for coming, I wish there was more people coming to see and talk to us, we would change the world one by one”. I just felt that I was the one wanting to thank him for the opportunity of meeting such kindness. We need more people with his aura and good energy, I’m sure he’ll change someone’s world one day.
In Thessaloniki, Greece, we had a possibility to visit the warehouse of TruckShop, a free shop for refugees. The warehouse was full of clothes, shoes and useful products such as sun lotion. Everything is packed in boxes that are labelled for example as “men’s jackets, medium” and “women’s shirts, small”. The name TruckShop comes from the idea that the clothes are distributed by a truck that drives around to other organizations, individuals and groups. Part of the philosophy is that the refugees can choose the clothes they take themselves – this way they can get something they really like, because if they don’t like the items, they might easily throw them away when they find another one. The initiative is run by volunteers who collect, sort, pack and send out the donated items.
The TrucksShop has clear rules for their volunteers: no consumption of alcohol or arranging parties is allowed in the premises, you cannot use the resources of the warehouse for yourself, and it’s also forbidden to host guests in the warehouse. The size of the warehouse is impressive, it feels like the piles of boxes continue as far as you can see. When seeing that and thinking of all the individuals who donated these items, I was filled with hope – people care after all.
We met Melinda from Starfish Foundation in a lovely little restaurant in the Lesvos Island in Greece. The movement began when the first refugees arrived and there were 50-60 people wet and freezing on the beach and people turned to Melinda since she was known for her charity work background. “Some people say I had a choice, they say I could have looked the other way, but I don’t think I did.”
Melinda continued accommodating refugees and assisting them with their transit. She got almost accused for trafficking but then an adjustment was made that helping is not trafficking unless you take money for it. That’s when they decided to become a registered organization. She says that with the thousands and thousands of refugees passing, nobody never stole anything and they didn’t have problems with anybody. She saw volunteers turning into beautiful people by this experience of helping.
Melinda got the name Starfish from a story about a girl who is saving starfishes on the beach by throwing them back in the water. And old man passes by and says: “Why do you bother, you cannot save them all” and the girl replies “At least I can save this one!” and throws one starfish in the water.
In Lesvos we visited a center for unaccompanied minors. There was not much time and in total I spent approximately an hour talking with the young boys, about the age of 14. We taught them how to create juggling balls from rice and tape, Clay the clown was performing his usual clowning tricks and we played a little bit of guitar with them. The children I talked with spoke astonishingly good English. They seemed curious and confident, yet very kind. They told me where they are heading, and first I thought it was just a destination in their head, not a concrete or realistic plan is it unfortunately was with many refugees we met on the way. But these boys were different. Their travel plans were real and they were already studying the languages of their future home countries. “I’m leaving to Germany in three weeks!”, “”That boy there will go to France next week”, they told me excitedly. When they heard I’m living in Belgium, they pointed a boy nearby “Hey, he is going to leave to Belgium next month, he is learning French now!”. The boy looked at me and said “Maybe I will see you there”. “Maybe I will”, I answered.
On the 29 May in the morning, all the team came to a place named Palios, in the North of Lesvos. Our mission there was different from the other activities we carried out the rest of the time. We helped two volunteers from Lighthouse Relief to clean the beaches in the area. Their work contributes to reduce the environmental impact of the massive flow of refugees who arrived every day on the island. Indeed, even if not very highlighted, the ecological consequences of the refugee crisis have been important. As Alex, one of the volunteers, precised, thousands of life jackets and dinghies have been left after people arrived on the shores. The Environmental Clean-up operation helps then alleviating the material aspect of the crisis and bringing back the nature to the local community.
During the time spent there, we could have a new perspective of the refugee crisis. By seeing all the plastic bottles, life jackets, dinghies and even toys and shoes left behind, we had a more concrete insight of the reality refugees experience when reaching Europe in such difficult conditions. Finding the belongings of people we don’t know, with the only hope that they have been able to make it to reach a safe place, was emotionally challenging.
“We need to go”. This sentence has passed in the mouth of the whole group many times, but no one actually stopped the activity he or she was doing. As if that “we need to go” was meaningless compared to the pure joy and the pure fun of that moment.
Some of us were dancing with the men in the camp, learning step by step; other ones were running chased by screaming and amusing kids, some had become unrecognizable because of the creative face painting that some small artists had decided to spread in figures, harmonious only in the idea. The clowns were playing and made bubbles, others were chatting interested.
In short, that “we need to go” sounded so untimely and amiss that no one really gave it importance.
We had arrived at the Veria camp in the early afternoon and as usual we entered in a parade to gather people and children. The camp full of people, the relaxed atmosphere of those supervisors, the perfect space for the show: only a huge dark cloud on us. Even if the storm blown up to cool the air, it has not stopped the show. The show must go on.
Despite the fact that the water had made everything damp and cold, the show went on.
Veria, its guests, the volunteers, music and us. It looked like a party and it was indeed.
“We need to go” and slowly, one by one, we greeted our new friends that had – as usually – half happy face for our arrival and half sad for our departure.
Some children did not give up and try to get on our bus in order to delay as much as possible our departure. It was not difficult to persuade us to stay, many of us continued to greet and go back for the last chat or joke.
But the time was running and the next train was waiting for us. We needed to go.
It was an extremely hot day and we were at one of the military camps, having delicious falafel prepared to us by Syrians after the show. A young man came out of his barrack to greet us with a tiny kitten on his arm. The kitten was clearly very young and clang to his cardigan like a little monkey. “Watch”, he said, and when he put the little cat down and took a few steps, it followed him immediately like he was the mother. It was clear that these two had a special bond. The boy was a Syrian Kurd, and as I did not speak Kurdish and he did not speak much English, we were left with Arabic as our only common language. We quickly became friends and the language was not a problem. He was a wizard with phones and electronics and also knew how to be a carpenter. We joked about him knowing everything, but he was always a bit sad about not knowing English.
One evening before I had to continue my journey I sat in a café with him and his brother. We talked about everything from cultures to life, music, and our dreams. In between serious conversations we joked and laughed a lot, and I thought to myself: How can it be that three people that are in such different situations, and from so very different backgrounds can just sit together in a café and chat like old friends? Two escaping war and passing through transit countries, trying to get to their sisters in Europe, and one European on a study trip with a ticket home. For that moment we were just three people, having a cup of coffee, discussing life from the East to the West. When it was time for me to go to my hostel, they walked me back making sure I was safe, shook me warmly by the hand and hurried to catch the last bus back to their camp.
“Greece between integration and deterrence”, was the title of an article I read before leaving for this journey; I read it again when I came back and I thought that Greek management of migration is indeed a reeling game between these two poles. In the middle there is a limbo, that takes the shape of reception camps. Like the one we visited in Veria, close to Thessaloniki.
Despite the strict instructions that the manager gives us at the entrance, the atmosphere inside is quite relaxed. We find families, youngsters and children. While the parade and the clown show go on in the general excitement, we find out that it is a special day because of the relocation of two Iraqi boys, who would leave the day after for Athens. Dabka music starts right after our show, and all the men begin to dance in circle lifting the lucky boys up in the air.
Alahddin tells me about it, he is a Palestinian from Damascus, Syria. He has been in Greece for one year and 2 months; before he was on Chios island. There, thanks to some volunteers, he has learnt English, which he didn’t speak at all before. I congratulate him on his level, surprising all considered. He hopes to have the chance to study electronics, no matter where, the only thing that matters is that he can be safe. He hopes the same for his family, still in Damascus.
Limbo and precariousness are meant to discourage new flows from the Turkish shores, that despite lower proportions, have never stopped. Likewise, integration, extremely slow and with a lot of gaps, doesn’t give any long term prospects to refugees who have been here for some time now. This is a big source of frustration, as reflected in Alahddin’s words when he says: “They gave Greece a lot of money to help refugees, but the money is lost, don’t know where don’t know how”.
The efforts directed at integration are insufficient and mostly promoted by civil society rather than public institutions. We will see the results of some of these efforts along the way.
We just got to a hotel where there are mirrors and I saw that I have two new white hairs! I’ve always wanted many because I like them. Now I kind of know that one of them has to do with age but the other one, I’m sure it appeared at that moment when two little girls were following me to the gate of their WIRED FENCED tiny section at the Moria camp, surrounded by police officers and the guard ( who’s a volunteer working with not sure which NGO).
he opened the door for me and banned them from coming out.
The 12 year old girl told him ” oh but I am allowed to go out, this other little girl is not”
I looked thinking it has to do with their age! The little girl started screaming, put her hands and feet on the fence and kicked it hard and harder. When I asked the volunteer he said ” she’s new arrival, and new arrivals can’t leave this section for the first 28 days”.
They can’t leave this section !!!! For 28 days!!! Did u get that?
I had to walk away fast, breathless and in total shock. Walking and to my right a little girl is stuck behind a fence shouting kicking and crying.
We came back the following day and performed for the least number of kids ever and it was the hardest show I’ve done in my life. These kids couldn’t focus or stay still for more than 2 min! The show went mostly as such ” one clown on stage performing for the adults in the back and 4 team members putting kids back to their place.”
Dignity, human rights and Europe don’t mix apparently !!!!
So much for looking forward to having more white hairs…
The warm sun of Athens, announcing the forthcoming summer, beats strong on our heads. The trip took us back to the capital after the intense stop in Lesvos. The clowns are tired, the all crew is tired, energy returns only when the fancy curtain opens in front of the School.
Tatattatarata… our anthem introduces us and the little student faces in front of us start being enthusiastic. A local clown joined us with the accordion, and he follows the rhythm of the show.
Children seated in the shade away from the rope enjoy themselves in a good manner, laughing composedly. There is the moment in the show where the clowns look for one little assistant to perform the scene with the gymnastic ribbon or a valorous Superman, these – the children – raised their hand composedly.
So educated. Much different from the behavior of the children we have met up to now, in refugee camps and in the streets. In that context, the little ones, sitting around the rope that divided the scene from the audience, used to advance silently and strategically by shifting the rope millimeter after millimeter, second after second to approach the action as much as possible without being noticed. The tallest kids did not mind the puny ones sat behind them and each of them wanted to be Superman, with determination and bravado that they all used to jump on stage, convinced of their right to be on the stage.
No composure in the fields. Composure, composition, from the Latin compositum: with a position, a place.
Perhaps because the children of the school of Athens for a while have found a place and this also gives peace to their restless young souls. Perhaps because the kids in the fields, do not have a place yet and they try with all their power, unconsciously, to create one. Whether it’s in life or in the comic scene of a clowns show, it does not really matter for them. Like in the reality there is no difference sometimes.
I met a young man of 17 who could not stay still and who had a rebellious attitude towards everyone and everything. Some of the first things he uttered to me were accusations that I hate refugees and Arabs. I got slightly angry and started to speak to him in Arabic to prove otherwise. He gave up and left but we were soon standing next to each other again. Despite his confrontational attitude, something about him made me very curious, and in the end we talked for long. He told me he was from Syria – or hell, as he calls it. He had spent his teenage years in the middle of war and bloodshed. He told me he hates his life and that he should have died in Syria. He also told me that he hates people because people have many faces. I asked him what he loved, and to my surprise he gave me an immediate answer. He replied that he loves dogs because they are true friends. He used to have a dog in Syria but somebody shot it. He tried to get a dog in Greece but it was not allowed in his accommodation and he cried for two days when the dog was taken away from him. From behind all the hatred, restlessness and confrontation I could see flashes of a different boy. Just a boy playing outside with his dog.
Loubna approaches me with big eyes fixed on the crappy sketch in which I try to capture Chiki, the dog that usually hangs around Pikpa, an open refugee camp of the initiative Lesvos Solidarity close to the shores of the Aegean Sea in Lesvos. She carefully observes the movements of my hands, with widely opened eyes, and slowly we start to talk. She speaks an impressively good English; words leave her mouth with a touch of surprised self-evidency, that has built up in the 11 years and exactly 10 months of her life. A life of which the two last years have been time of insecurity, uprooting, a journey, and an open end, in that’s white noise a normality is rose up.
She left her hometown Bagdad 2 years ago, moving with her parents and the younger brother northwest, until arriving on Lesvos 8 months later, going through fences and barbwire of Moria Refugee Camp, till she found home in “House 8” -a small wooden hut on the grounds of Pikpa, a camp for most vulnerable people on the move. Here she is at home for 1 year and 2 months.
She invites me to her house, a bungalow that formerly hosted vacationers, carefree visitors to the beautiful shores of the island. Her father is sitting heavy-limbed in front of a small air conditioner, that stirs the sticky, garlicy air, soaring from a pot in which her mother is preparing falafel.
Lubna introduces me to her family -both her parents only very barely speaking English, she mediates with a dancing language between us. Tries to introduce me into her reality, moving from one thing to the next, never stopping, always trying to catch more, vagabonding in the small space left unoccupied by beds, shelves, table, her parents or the kitchen. Shows me what makes this place home for her- her Superman mug that she uses to eat Cornflakes from. “I just love too much to eat it every morning.” Tells me about the life with the vagabonding cats that come to sleep with her every night, and the little kittens that died. Shows me with a pretendedly hidden smile that photo of her, taken in the moment just before she opened her mouth to sing on the stage in Mytilene, the close by town. “I just love singing too much, I could sing all the time.” Explains that she is part of a choir of refugee and local children, initiated by Mosaik Support Centre, a schooling initiative that offers activities and courses to bring people from different backgrounds together and connect through learning and the opportunity to gain new skills and create a life through self-initiated workshops with a little income.
And then, more or less supervised by the rigid voice of her father, she writes me a note:
“I am Loubna, I love my country Iraq and I couldn’t live in my country and I hope that it will be safe again.”
and then, when her father turns away, she quickly adds: “And I love life in Pikpa.”
I am impressed and shaken by the moments that this young girl shared with me, the energy and positivity that she savours every moment with this light in her eyes, the excitement in her cheeks speaking about the things that are now her normality- nights next to cats, cornflakes in the morning, Greek school in Mytilene, the choir, gralicy Falafel in this small wooden house- a souvenir from a life that she left behind.
I am impressed by her way of counting time precisely. Her age: 11 years and 10 months. Left Bagdad: 23 months before. Arrived in Pikpa: 14 months before. The way of making the time solid, tangible by counting it exactly. Time is a crucial factor in moment that space it not reliable, and normality is build up on slippery ground. Time means the possibility of movement -or stagnation for the year and 2 months. Time is the wool that dreams are woven of. And time is the enthusiastic dedication that Lubna expresses to all the things around her, being completely present in the here and now. Not in Bagdad, nor Turkey or Germany, but in the roaring sound of crashing chickpeas transformed into another life as falafel, the portable expression of home.
Today, at the Skaramagas refugee camp in Athens, where 3500 people have been waiting for more than a year to get relocated and/or to meet their loved ones in other European countries, I asked a 5 year old #syrian #refugee little girl where was she from
She said ”from here”
I thought she didn’t understand my question! So I asked her again
”what’s wrong with you? I told you I’m from here”. She said
Speechless again and again ! More and more ! everyday on this journey
Layla is a lazy student
Layla is a lazy student
Layla is a lazy student
Layla is a lazy student
ليلى طالبة كسولة
All kids were laughing and chanting out loud. Laughing and chanting
When I asked them who’s Layla? They all pointed at this little tiny girl (max 5 years old) who was standing right there with us.
I looked at her, she had her head down with bright eyes looking up at me, her lips shivering and she ran away until we couldn’t see her anymore.
They told me that the teacher today put this sentence on the white board and asked everyone to chant it.
I ran to find Layla who was running so fast! I was calling her but she wouldn’t stop or turn back. Another little kid was fast enough to catch her.
I kneeled down, we looked at each other with tears in both our eyes. We hugged and I couldn’t help myself but hate this teacher at that moment (who apparently was another refugee trying to help the kids giving them lessons at the camp). In my turn I couldn’t help but telling her how smart she is while bullying this teacher of hers to save us from this miserable situation. She smiled and came back with us.
I felt terrible to behave as such but didn’t know what to do at that specific moment.
This little kid who was born in the camp will probably remember that moment at school for the rest of her life and I will always remember that I didn’t know how to make her feel better without making the same mistake as her teacher.
Bullying is terrible and we human beings can be so evil sometimes. How many of us have been bullied and do bully other people without even realizing it!
Lesvos is this beautiful welcoming island that embraced so many desperate people fleeing war and misery hoping for a better life.
Some made it, some lost their lives on the way, and some are still stuck on it or on other parts of the route… all waiting…
Every time I come here I get the feeling of never wanting to leave.
This time more than ever as I am meeting all those who last year were stuck inside Moria camp and we clowns couldn’t meet because we were denied access.
I’m overwhelmed with feelings of joy and complete sadness.
Lesvos is where I learned that love has no limits and no borders.
Today the sun is shining and the sea is calm. Our last show at #lesvos was at Kara Tepe camp where kids followed us dancing and singing and playing music. A much needed show for both the refugees waiting to be settled somewhere in the middle of this world and us the team who’s trying to make sense of the harshness of the world after performing on the island for 4 days. I can’t put in words (just yet) the mixture of this island’s calmness and craziness. Of the beauty of nature and the ugliness we carry within. Thousands of people we met on the road had blank big eyes and big perturbed souls. They’ve been waiting for so long, so long sooooo long. Longer than their souls can bear, longer than this life can bear.
Thankful to be a #clown always and forever
Since not the whole team was allowed inside Moria’s camp, most of us hung around the camp, where there are many little cafes and a temporary camp. There, I met several young men from Congo Kinshasa.
*Paul* really appreciated the fact that he could talk to some “outsiders” in French. “Tu es ici, et ça me fait bien au coeur”*. He was always smiling, even when remarking the difference between us: “Tu peux voler, comme un oiseaux, et moi, j’ai des barrières. Je veux aussi voler, partout”. However, he was not complaining about the situation in the camp, as bad as it was, he was grateful to the Greeks who were providing him with a safe place to stay. But this does not change the fact that we are not equals in the opportunities we are given: to move freely, to seek a better life, to fly free.
* You are here, and this does good to my heart
** You can fly, like a bird, and me, I face barriers. I also want to fly, everywhere
*Robert* is a computer scientist and had been there for three months. He asked me my opinion of the situation of migrants and refugees in Europe, and then he pointed out the racism that European countries exhibit against black Africans. On the one hand, many European countries have economic interests in Africa – and Congo especially –, and they benefit from them even as they create political instability. On the other hand, after contributing to creating the mess people flee from, European countries close the borders and do not allow refugees to enter their territories in search for peace and safety. Talking about the conditions in the camp, he told me how people slowly go crazy because they don’t have anything to do, don’t know how long they need to wait, and for what outcome. Then the food arrived and he showed me how they get plain rice and other tasteless and poorly-nutritious food, while the guards condescendingly tell them that it’s good enough because they are used to eating like that. They always recook it at the camp, adding spices and other flavors or ingredients. They also receive a pocket money that he feels is ridiculous. “Don’t give me money, give me a job and I will provide for myself. I will work better and harder than you do”.
Talking to the people in this camp, I really felt how wasteful, unjust and stupid the migration system that our countries created is. People who, in a better world, could ask for a visa, fly to another country, look for a job, work, contribute to society, have a family, be safe, creative and happy, are instead stuck in some hellhole, alone, doing nothing, receiving donations to survive; donations that could be much better spent invested in well-planned, long-term solutions that are not rooted in fear and racism. How wasteful it is not to provide a legal way to migrate so that crossing borders illegally becomes the only available option to some people, exposing them to all sorts of violence, abuse and incertitude, wasting their resources in paying smugglers – resources that could be invested in the countries of arrival –, and wasting their time in long, tiring, damaging journeys – time that could be spent feeling productive for society and connected to new communities. How wasteful it is to have people, who invested years and energy studying and learning to be a doctor, a lawyer, a computer engineer, a cook, a whatever, do nothing on an island in Greece, see their ambitions vanish, get depressed and think about self-harm and suicide.
Not to mention all the people who did not make it. All the stories we will never hear, all the potential that sunk at the bottom of the sea or suffocated in a truck container.
I think I will never really understand why humans are doing this to each other, and I probably don’t want to.
Pikpa is a community run reception centre for vulnerable refugees. Inside there are a lot of families and children.
Before the show, we sit and talk with some of the volunteers who help manage the place. They tell us that communication is the key here. Although language barriers – refugees come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Congo – they found a way to live together self-managing every aspect of the life in the centre.
So many curious eyes look at us when we enter. They are thrilled to see the clown show, and it’s difficult to keep them still they’d rather be active participants than normal audience.
The contact with the outside world and new things are an urgent need, especially if you are an 11 years old kid confined on an island inside a refugee camp: even though Pikpa still looks like the summer camp it used to be with wooden bungalows and the playground, living there must not be an easy task.
One kid, with her twin sister, looks like she wants to use up the hoop just by hip swings, she has the same eagerness towards the recorder I show her so that the clowns can recover the hoops.
I ask her if she wants to leave a message to someone, could be anyone she knows or doesn’t know. It can be also a song, a poem, whatever she feels like sharing with us.
She starts talking in Arabic: she’s from Mosul, Iraq. With her family she escaped Daesh and its massacres, she lost three uncles before that. Her first thought goes to Pikpa people, she is grateful and attached to that place and its inhabitants. There she has learnt English, a bit of Greek and so many other things.
Then she wants to add something else, a request to God and all the people everywhere: let the doors be open for refugees, because she’s scared. They came to Greece looking for refuge, but she’s still afraid that Daesh could reach and hurt her family. That’s why she would like to go to Sweden, where her other uncle is waiting for them.
There is a woman on the ship. She’s looking at the island she is leaving. Wrapped in a scarf to protect herself from the wind of the sea, strangely dressed. Slippery socks, sneakers and hair picked up in a chignon. Watching at her means diving into a swirl of thoughts. To hug her is a natural instinct. She turns around in a start and honestly hug me back with a sincere thank you, in an English with a marked foreign accent.
As we speak, the island behind is slowly shrinking: it is Lesvos, the fence that has hosted the woman for a year and two months. On the other side of the journey there is Athens, long sought after, where it is waiting for her a new life, a new start.
In the mind of those who look at her there are only so many questions, in her mind, perhaps, two-year-long memories, from the day she left her home and her life. In Lesvos she had managed to rebuild an activity after spending some months in the center of Moria and then moving to Pikpa.
We met Aristea during our morning visit to Mosaik, a cultural center in Mitilini, where migrants have the opportunity to work and study. She had found the passion in creating objects from paper, and now half of the group wears a pair of earrings made by her. During the visit, her voice, explaining her work, betrayed the anxiety and excitement of the imminent departure for Athens. I need to go, sorry, I need to go.
The Greek capital is not her final goal: she tells me, looking at the phone with a picture of two small faces that look like her in the look of her eyes and in her honest smile. Or at least I hope they come to see me.
Greeting is a mutual blessing and the wind that has now become stronger, makes her shudder. See you around the ship, or see you around the world, which in that moment was practically the same.
“Did you know that more than 23.000 people died in Mexico last year because of the drug cartels? That Mexico is now considered the world’s second-most deadly conflict zone, only after Syria? No right? Because no one talks about it, no international attention is given to this.”
“I can only go back to Mexico when it is a safe place for my parents.”
“And when will this happen?”
“When they die.”
Last 2 days in Athens, we cannot miss Hotel Plaza as a stop. It is one of the most successful experiments of community run reception centres for refugees. It is one year old, but it’s already an institution in Greece and in Europe. We go there for the usual show, and after the performance we move to the bar area, where I meet Behrad, an Iranian boy who left his country together with his family. Now they live together in one of the Plaza’s rooms. When we start talking, he is studying Greek, but I find out soon that he also speaks some Italian. A lot of Italian volunteers passed by the Plaza, and Behrad has got passionate about their language. He doesn’t want to forget it so whenever he can, he dusts off all the sentences and the words he knows. When I ask him if he would like to move to Italy he answers yes, but he adds that life in Athens is not bad. Recently he has started to swim again, like he used to do back in Iran. Going back to his passion made him feel more at home.
One more day and I’ll be back home, after 3 weeks. This journey, especially the last stop in Greece, left me confused feelings and ideas. That limbo situation so palpable like the frustration it generates, has also a lot of potential. All the people who passed by Greece and we met along the route, told us about great struggles and difficulties, but also about their memories of those who helped them along their path. Likewise, refugees who moved on from Greece, left their mark on that land and its inhabitants. The community experiences like Pikpa and the Hotel Plaza are one of the most positive examples of it.