During this holiday season, it is so important that we remember all that we have to be thankful for, and that there are so many out there in the world that struggle, worry, and wait to find their home.
In a previous post, I shared information about the remarkable Ritsona Refugee Camp, and specifically, about the Youth Empowerment Space and the incomparable Ritsona Kingdom Journal, a collection of writing and art created by young refugees. Ritsona is located in Greece, and the men, women and children living at the camp are from many countries in the Middle East, although most come from Syria, having escaped what is perhaps the most treacherous and war-torn area of the world. The artwork and writing profiled by the Ritsona Kingdom Journal offers readers from around the world a very intimate and unedited lens into the experience of individual refugees. Each writer and artist has hopes, dreams, interest in art, sports, fashion and a powerful desire to share and to be seen for who they are, rather for who the media might purport them to be.
When I did research for that piece, I was able to connect with the humanitarian workers and organizers of the Ritsona youth programs, those working with the Lighthouse Relief organization, and to learn about their experience and the highlights and challenges they face on a very daily and real basis. After publishing the piece and receiving positive reactions from friends and colleagues in the art and activism world, I was most intensely touched to receive feedback from the Ritsona workers themselves. They shared how the piece had been circulated throughout the Ritsona camp, with the youth and artists of the Ritsona Kingdom Journal, and how eventually, the piece was actually blown up onto a large poster board and displayed in the Youth Empowerment Center, otherwise known as YES. These young and inspiring survivors put their works together into the Ritsona Kingdom Journal to reach out and to be recognized, and I am honored to have been able to play some role in providing them with additional recognition.
Since then, I have been studying more about the Ritsona camp, and realize that the unique and positive programming extends beyond the Youth Empowerment Space, and how the staff behind Ritsona have created programs to help virtually every member of the camp community on an individualized basis, with real attention and sensitivity to the specific needs of women, children, and those who attempt to be reunited with family already situated in other nations.
Ritsona’s Female Friendly Space, or FFS as it’s known at the camp, is a closed off area that is only accessible to women and children- and even the staff who enter can only be female.
In fact, at the entrance to the space, there is a large sign with a drawing of a man, and a long red stripe through it, indicating that men are simply not allowed. Within the FFS, music, giggling, the smell of fresh baked goods, and the chatter of women can be heard. Sewing, drawing, spa activities, dance classes and programs for children all take place within the FFS. Many women take off their hijabs upon entering the space, a haven from stress. The FFS programs are designed by staff with an educational and supportive approach in mind. In her blog, FFS program manager Christina Khouri describes one example of how a fun activity can have greater meaning. She wrote that “making eye pillows filled with lavender and chamomile is a way to initiate a discussion on the importance of sleep and ask if women have any issues with sleep.”
Although children can enjoy the FFS, there is a special program designed just for them, which is especially important during the summer months, when the children lack the structure of school. All year long there is a Child Friendly Space, or CFS, but during the summer, there is a special Ritsona Summer Camp program. Both programs have multi-layered impacts, and the intention behind them is not as simple as keeping children occupied. For one, the programs offer relief and space for their parents. But just as important, the CFS and summer camp programs are based on the recognition that these children have been through high level trauma, to varying degrees, and some continue to experience neglect or abuse, often times the result of being parented by traumatized, displaced adults. The children's programs are designed to recognize, support and sometimes root out the experiences of each individual child in Ritsona. Staff are trained on the delicate role they play in managing and supporting the children, who sometimes come to regular programs like arts and crafts or sports with pain, anger or agitation that is related to what they went through in their home country or what they are enduring in the present, as residents of Ritsona.
These programs, among others, demonstrate the complex and lifesaving efforts that Lighthouse Relief staff and volunteers take on to support and protect people of the Ritsona Refugee Camp, those that have been through the unimaginable, and to help them process and imagine a new life after evacuation, after surviving the often perilous journey from Syria to Greece, and to embark on building a future and a life after Ritsona, as individuals empowered, understood, and able to take on whatever comes next.