Soup & Socks we cook with people in katsikas

From March 26th to April 24th 2016 we headed out to Greece again. Following our first successful trip to Athens, we wanted to take a stand for solidarity with the refugees, lend a hand, make a difference and see with our own eyes, what's going on along the Balkan route. We would like to share our experiences and impressions with you.

It begins!

At the end of March, after two month of planning, everything's set to go. Once again we start from Heidelberg.

The plan: Making use of our recently donated field kitchen, the equipment we already had and the donations we received in order to spend four weeks cooking for 1000 people per day. Boxes of clothing as well as drug donations are also stored in our busses. Now it's about loading the vans, attaching the field kitchen and starting the engines! Off we go!

And these people were on board this time:

Florian, Hane (one out of many s(o)upporters from within the camp), Jenny, Mimi, Konny, Tobias, Manuel, Sonja, Henri, Kat, Matze, Anna und Frank (who unfortunately is not in the picture)

Like on the first tour it is unclear where exactly we will finally end up. The situation along the Balkan route is changing almost daily and we want to get involved where our know-how and our equipment makes the biggest impact. Consequently our rough destination for Tour #2 is Greece.

On our way to the port of Ancona we just have to "quickly" resolve an engine failure - no problem thanks to the team of CarTec.

After two days of traveling by land and by sea our little convoy arrives on the Greek mainland. Now it is getting serious: We finally have to decide where we are going! For one week we've been in constant exchange with different organizations, who are working in Greece as well. They tell us where support is needed most. An hour away from the port camp Katsikas is located which was built only ten days ago. The initiative of OIVIDAdos informs us, that the people there are lacking the most essential things, and we decide to make a first stop there.

Katsikas - Impressions from the camp

As soon as we arrive in the camp we agree quickly: We will stay! While one part of the team heads off to support volunteers at a clothing warehouse, the others start exploring the camp to gather further information. After a few hours we manage to organize a flat nearby where ALL THE TEAM (little insider^^) can stay for the next month. From our balcony we have a view over the military barracks as well as the tent city of Katsikas. A strange feeling.

At this point of time about 1050 people live in the camp, approximately a third are children. The people who stay here have no access to adequate sanitation. The toilet-boxes placed around the fences are not illuminated and within few hours unacceptable to use in terms of hygiene, especially for children. For them the toilet seat is too high, which is why some of them don't know how to help themselves other than doing their business on the floor.

There is no warm water which is very problematic for personal hygiene, the laundry and dish-washing. The few taps set up alongside the camp have no drainage. Drain water gets mixed with food left-overs which not only leads to the spreading of diseases but also attracts rats and subsequently snakes.

The camp is officially run by the Greek military. They are also responsible for the provision of three meals a day. In the morning they give out pre-packaged chocolate croissants and sugar-water called “juice”. For dinner: untoasted buns with either chicken nuggets or cheese and turkey. Lunch was so bad that people refused to take it shortly after we arrived. This is the daily food for EVERYONE. This might be acceptable for young men for a short period of time but definitely not for babies day in and day out. Therefore, one of our daily tasks is to prepare some kind of puree for babies made out of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The tents set up by the army accommodate up to ten people each and stand directly on rough gravel. In the beginning only a thin plastic layer serves as floor people sleep on. Step by step, mattresses and mats were gathered. Just before we left camping beds were handed out by the army.

When it rains (which is the case quite often in this area) the tents and all the people’s belongings are flooded.

_ _ _

Ready, set, cook!

There is much to do. We set up the kitchen tent and get started with cutting and cooking.

Little by little all ingredients that have been washed, peeled and cut make their way into our big pot. Planning, preparing and serving the food is a thought-through process and we do our best (quite German, hey? That’s racist;) ) Our goal is to prepare a tasty, healthy and warm meal once a day for everyone in the camp. This is our small contribution to a healthy diet and quality of life.

We have a German saying: “Love comes through the stomach!” Solidarity too!

Once everything is done we start serving our meals. It’s all about proper organization. (we know what you are ZINKING again!) Two queues work best. One for men, one for women and kids. Behind our improvised counter we ladle soup, garnish hummus breads with salad and top rice with mint yoghurt. For the first two weeks our kitchen is placed in a tent in the center of the camp.

Food distribution from the kitchen tent

We move to the barrack. Habibi kitchen develops.

After two weeks we move from the tent to the barrack. A fence runs around the property with a big metal gate at the front. Other than expected, it is not much calmer here. Most of the people in the camp are kids that are extremely bored and have nothing to do. Naturally, everything even slightly interesting becomes a game for them: e.g. help in the kitchen, smuggle out bananas from the warehouse, conquer the metal gate or queue up for food as often as possible until we realize that we got fooled and have to react to their shenanigans. All they are looking for is attention to get rid of boredom.

Finally interaction, finally being part, finally showing-off their skills! We understand their motivation but there are too many to include all of them. Additionally, the kitchen is a hazard environment with knives and gas bottles and the clothes-storage next to us has to be organized by volunteers where kids can’t run around unaccompanied.

One option would be to close the gate. The complete areal separation. This is practically not possible because the gate has to be opened quite often to receive deliveries, do the dishes at the taps and let volunteers get in and out. Furthermore, we don’t want to build more fences and close gates – That’s what the people experience enough on a global level already. Every day we are looking for solutions so we can offer participation but not jeopardize the order we need to cook and eventually provide our daily meal to more than 1000 people. And that’s how a new topic arises that has to be addressed: Kid’s activities!

Meanwhile, there is much to do in the barrack: fixing the roof, building shelves (A LOT!), arrange the interior.

While Habibi Kitchen slowly gets bigger and bigger with equipment that is meant to stay after we leave (e.g. refrigerators and hot water supply) a part of the team is constantly cooking. Sometimes outdoor with our field kitchen. Half of the team has to leave after the first two weeks… (very sad moment)

Sustainability – building a foundation step by step

We start early to include more and more s(o)upporters from within the camp because we want to create a structure that will be continued after our departure. The Habibi Kitchen is supposed to be a community kitchen where people cook for and with each other, prepare traditional meals from home and decide for themselves what to cook. This way at least a little bit of self-determination is achieved.

Everyday life?

Our day starts early in the morning...

…with the best breakfast ever!
… and ends late at night – sometimes with a team meeting
- Sometimes with an invitation to a bonfire & music

Every day there are special quests to complete. Some days they are fun and bring joy: The Setup of a football transmission (Madrid – Barcelona) including popcorn, handing out one ton of donated apples or giving out ice cream in a dragon’s costume on our last day.

Helping hands often appear in different and unexpected ways. For example, three great guys from Minden, Germany that we got to know in a traffic jam that will be mentioned later again… They were on their way to Idomeni with their own agenda called: Minden helps. Three days later on their way back they stop at Camp Katsikas again and surprise us with a generous donation. This comes in very handy for our remaining days where we want to push through some final projects and the finalization of Habibi Kitchen.

Unfortunately, unpleasant moments occur almost every day, too. A power-cut, breakdown of the water-supply or the arrival of busses…

These busses are filled with people from other locations (e.g. the port of Athens or un- and official camps) that are supposed to be relocated to Katsikas. The camp’s conditions are so bad that they refuse to leave the busses. They want back to Athens or move on to other camps. Some people tell us that they got lured into the busses by authorities showing them photos of nicer and luxurious accommodations. This has nothing to do with the reality in Katsikas.

What we can’t believe at all is how the officials deal with this situation. It comes to long-lasting trials of strengths between the affected people in the busses and authorities. For us, it is unacceptable that 180 people, men and women of every age, including babies as well as infants are left in the busses without water, food and access to sanitary facilities for up to three days.

Our team provides them with water, bananas and hot meals and our female team-members give out diapers and sanitary pads. Additionally, we set up a generator close to the busses, where people can charge their phones to get in contact with their families.

Water & electricity for the people

To make one’s voice heard!

The refusal of people to leave the busses is a clear sign of protest against the current conditions in the camp. Also the people which already “live” (if you can call it living) here show their discontent towards the bad state of the tent city with a peaceful road blockage. Three men from Minden have to wait as well in the traffic jam which is caused by the protest...

On the next day, after some people slept on the road, the sit-down strike gets cleared by the police. 15 persons get arrested, two minors and three volunteers that stayed with the people to take photos or collect sleeping bags from the prior night. During this happening we are not on site. We only get told about the sequence of the evacuation by others and cell phones with footage about it got confiscated by the police.

The message about the arrests create despair within the camp. For weeks they are looking for a dialogue with authorities, but no one feels responsible.

In the meantime, left-wing activist have occupied the town hall in Ioannina and demand an immediate release of the detained people.

Spontaneously Manuel and a Spanish journalist take over the mediation process in the mayor’s office. A few hours later the arrested are getting released, some of them have bruises.

We find it sad that the situation had to get out of control first before the refugees get public attention to some extend in a way they do not deserve. The state in Katsikas is still the same. These kind of incidents get abused by several parties to cast a shadow on other involved parties; refugees, volunteers, police and public authorities. What is really needed here is communication. And the commitment to responsibility. Not only in Greece!

To know how to help yourself

Within the camp social structures and networks, which we couldn’t grasp fully, have developed. Most of them are linked to nationalities which can cause conflicts between individual groups. The military which is responsible for the camp stays in the background – which is quiet an understatement. We ask ourselves how the people organize themselves in order to prevent injustice towards them and their property. If officials can’t enforce law and order, unofficial structures find their own ways to solve these kind of issues.

The lack of essentials makes people creative. Here the power line gets broached in front of the military’s eyes.

At this point we would like to clarify that we don’t blame the military for the bad conditions in the camp. Also the Greek state and the Greek population are not the ones to shoulder the responsibility for the people in the camp and the other 50.000 refugees in Greece alone. It is the responsibility of the European governments to assure that people who come to Europe in search of freedom, peace and security get treated in a humane and adequate way.

Develop a daily routine? Self-determination and heteronomy

We described the everyday life of our team already. But what’s about the daily routine of the people living in the camp? We were thinking about it a lot and rephrased the question. Should a daily routine even evolve here?

For days, volunteers were racking their brains to find a way to build a foundation made out of plywood for the floor in the tents. To protect the families against the cold and wet conditions and make their life a little bit more comfortable. The emotional but explicit statement of a man from the camp considering these plans was: “We don’t want floors! Even if we have a floor, we still live in a tent. We don’t want to live in tents.”

Other than many are hoping for, a soon-to-be onward-journey seems questionable. It is still unknown for how long this camp is intended to exist. A refugee who is talking to a rare guest - a delegate of UNHCR – makes it very clear what he thinks about the conditions here: “This is not living. This is surviving.”

How to the refugees and volunteers deal with this situation?

The school, that is evolving for the kids, gets the name “School of Hope” after a few weeks. First everyone was only talking about “workshops”- non-binding and short-term. The fact that this will now be their school, the toilet boxes their bathroom, the tents their accommodation, that this life (which is not really a life) will be their daily routine for a while, must be unbearably hard to admit. In their daily life everything is other-directed. The place to live. The neighbors. The time when the military gives out food and the kind of food.

We know that many families would like to cook for themselves. If you can barely steer where your life is going – you wish to at least decide when and what you eat. Especially, what your children get to eat. A little bit of self-determination.

We can’t fulfill these kind of needs with our current resources. Our Habibi Kitchen at least offers a structure that is necessary to provide everyone with a self-cooked, healthy and tasty meal where people can contribute to decision-making and finally be a part of something.

The people in the camp cope differently with this pre-scheduled daily routine. Some beautify their tents, some plant tomatoes - trying to make the best out of this messy situation.

But this cannot become everyday life for the people.

This would lead to a whole generation growing up in utter solitude. In a quasi-extralegal space. Without any perspective.

Most people in the camp are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. On their way to Europe they accept every risk in search of security and freedom. While the registration facilities in Germany empty more and more, the people at the European external borders get stuck and there is no getting through. Closing borders without offering perspectives is no solution! These people are no threat but the threatened ones. This cannot be forgotten!


Saying goodbye in Katsikas is very hard for us. We spent one month here and met many people that became close friends. We went all the way to establish structures that will still function after our departure and make life in the camp a little bit more pleasant.

We want to be part of a solution. Our experience in Kastikas motivates us to spread the word about this messed up situation in Europe for refugees and to think about further projects. Stay tuned, news will be coming soon!

Special Thanks to Rob Timmerman for letting us use some of his great pictures here!

We say thank you and see you soon. To you guys and our friends in Katsikas!

Special Thanks to our photographers Jennifer Mallmann, Henri Shabani, Rob Timmerman, Andrea Sánchez Brox, Louis Dowse, Kat, Florian Horsch, Manuel Seifried, Mathias Horsch und Anna Innocenti!

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