I Started Work In A Syrian Refugee Camp. Here’s Some Of What It’s Like.

A semi-permanent home to around 600 refugees, the camp exists in an almost constant slow burn of emergency — depression, disease, tainted ground water and other hazards. To top it off, it may be soon destroyed.

I hadn’t been inside the gates for 5 minutes before I was frantically unloading half-frozen water bottles from a repurposed ice cream freezer, piling them into a crate and running them out to a throng of mostly-screaming children. Tucked away in the agricultural areas in Greece’s hinterland, the camp (for now nameless so that I may provide you more detail) is hot. Very hot.

This is where I will be working for at least the next 2 weeks. And as hundreds queued up in front of the warehouse for food, water and necessities, my coworkers assured me that the frantic pace was routine.

600 people depend on the small cadre of mostly self-organized 20-somethings to survive. We’re not the only organization working on the site — but we are the only ones with food. The reality of this situation is at turns Beckett, Orwell or Wiesel. Arriving in the camp not long after dawn, volunteers prepare the abandoned Greek air force blockhouse we use as a warehouse and distribution facility. A couple short hours later, the flood of hungry people for breakfast begins. Following is cleanup, prep, then lunch. We repeat for dinner. And in between many other projects and tasks.

Eventually it let up enough for me to take a lap around the camp. Circular and maybe 300 meters in radius, the camp sits in a bed of pine needles in patchy shade. The perimeter is composed of ad-hoc service providers — the thrice-weekly Red Cross truck, the NGO-sponsored women’s area, the blocks of portable toilets, many more — and the center is a solid mass of tents.

 

The population of the camp is mostly self-segregated along social and ethnic lines. In one area are more religiously conservative Syrian Muslims, in another the more secular folks. Interspersed are Syrian Christians, Turkish people, many Kurds, and on one far side of the camp live Syrian Domari (close cousins to the Romani). The old prejudices against the Domari have followed them into the camp. They are constantly accused of stealing of conniving.

While I walk, a Greek military jet howls above us; everything stops as children begin to howl. Often of these people are from communities obliterated by aerial bombing and PTSD afflicts many.

People mill about everywhere. Unsupervised children wander the road circling the camp, laughing and pulling each other’s hair, looking dirty but in good spirits and health. Women sit in circles building small fires. The secular young men especially are friendly to the volunteers. Many speak English, and trapped in this camp for months they are eager for any conversation or task.

It’s easy to relate to many of the residents. And it is hard to express how eerie it is to hand food through a blockhouse window to a secular refugee from Damascus who looks just like my tattooed and fixie-riding neighbors and friends back in Brooklyn. An order with a tent number comes, and we hurry to pack the army-provided food into bags and send it back through the window. Some are elaborately grateful, others yell and push, children reach out for high-fives and beg for an extra cold water from the ice cream fridge.

Ivan the tailor works in the back of the warehouse
Ivan the tailor works in the back of the warehouse

The back of the warehouse is an oasis of quiet. Many of the refugees arrived in the camp with little but their crafts.  Most residents are not allowed in this area, but Ivan Mohammad, a 17-year-old Kurdi tailor from the embattled city of Kobani, sits and quietly repairs an endless stream of damaged garments.

 

At night, I return to a house of dirty and tired volunteers — near the beach. After seeing the conditions that many in the camp live in, the comforting facts of my roof, my pillow and blanket feel almost criminally unfair. But we rest, and a few hours later we get up and do it all again.

While most of this is routine, an unusual problem is looming; the Greek government may decide next week to destroy this camp, the near-permanent home of these 600 people. As it sits on government property and is partly supported by their money, they have the power to do so. The refugees would be thrown into even more uncertainty than they currently endure. I don’t have more details, but I am seeking them and will write more here on this blog.