I arrived late on a Saturday in October. The thing about Saturdays (and Sundays) in Greece is that everything shuts early on one day and doesn't open at all on the other. This meant I'd have to wait until Monday to get a Greek SIM card for my phone, the man at the car rental place told me, and that meant I'd have to get to the refugee camp at Petra the way we used to in the days before we had mobile phones and SIM cards. So I stopped at a garage next to the place where I'd picked up the golden compact car that was going to be my steed for the next three weeks and bought a map and a pastelli (A sesame seed snack that I remember from a childhood holiday in Greece. Not essential for getting somewhere.) and asked the gentleman behind the counter to help me find Petra.
In 2016, the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital near the village of Petra in northern Greece was turned into a refugee camp for Yezidis, a religious minority that lives mainly in Iraq but also in Syria.
He'd never heard of it. The psychiatric hospital shut down long ago and there was little reason for anyone to head up the winding mountain road, other than to visit the picturesque village of Petra at the very end, before the paved road turns to trails for hikers and shepherds. "It's near Katerini," I told the man, and as he looked for it, I recognised five Greek letters - my ability to read Greek is another legacy of my childhood holiday on the island of Poros - that spelled Petra. "There it is," I said, triumphant. He told me how to get to Katerini and advised that I then ask a local for directions.
View from the village of Petra.
It was getting dark when I got to Katerini. The map I'd bought covered all of Greece and didn't show details of the roads through the town near Mount Olympus. I went right and eventually got to a roundabout that I would get to know intimately during my few weeks in Petra. I turned right and stopped at a petrol station, where a man with bad teeth told me to keep heading up the hill until I saw a road off to the left with the word Petra on it. The camp would be up that hill. I couldn't miss it, he said.
A fine drizzle was falling. It was getting cold as the sun went down. I did everything everyone told me to do -- uphill all the way, turn left, and then left again at the sign that said Petra. This is where the map that I'd been sent before I left America told me to go. I'd see a gate and there would be a policeman at the gate, I was told. Only there was no policeman and the gate was locked. I tried calling the person I'd be working with, but no answer. I waited. I shouted out people's names into the damp mountain air. No one heard. Verizon had explained the charges I would pay if I used my phone in Greece, and they were big. But the idea of sleeping in my golden Lancia rental car after traveling for something like 24 hours was even less appealing than the prospect of a large phone bill. I was desperate and tired. So I texted my contact in the US, using my US mobile phone.
It took some explaining and my battery was dying but eventually, I got the person in the US to call someone in the camp and get them to come get me. Jac is a tall, young German woman. I'd gone to the wrong gate, she explained. She parked her large van near the gate that I should've gone to and jumped in the golden Lancia to drive down a steep gravel road to the main area of the camp. "You might want to park up near the gate yourself," she explained. "The kids sometimes scratch the cars." It's OK, I said. I took out full insurance.
Jac walked me into what must've been the main building of the psychiatric hospital, up a flight of marble stairs caked thick with mud, down a hallway to where the other volunteers slept -- Jac herself was staying in a tent with a family, which is how she'd learned to speak Kurdish. In the room, Emma was in the bed right by the door. Gema was in the bed parallel to Emma's. And Karim was in the bed perpendicular to the others. To get to my room, I had to walk through theirs, out the door onto the balcony, and then in through the glass doors to my room. Someone took me to my room -- can't remember who -- and showed me how to lock the door. I didn't need to, though. The camp was safe.
My room at Camp Petra. The green fleece sleeping bag is my own.
My room was sparse, to say the least. Double occupancy with two twin mattresses on the floor. Toilets down the hallway -- so through the room where the others slept, and then out the door and turn left.
There were two cubicles in the lavatory but neither had doors, so only one person at a time could use the facilities. Next door to them were the showers. Both the toilets and the showers were, quite frankly, filthy. The floors were caked with mud. The toilets smelled of urine where someone had probably missed the bowl and wet the floor. The two pink sinks in the toilets -- one didn't work, the other was grey with soap scum and God knows what else. I made a mental note: bleach. I need bleach. But for the time being I needed to get some sleep.