A Skaramagas Sojourn

Hind! Hindia! Hindi!

For the 18 days I spent at Skaramagas Refugee Camp, off Athens, my nationality was my name. Not because they didn’t know or speak my name - for they fondly called me Naddoush as well – but because they know and love India more. The mere mention of India brought wide smiles to their faces and sparkle to their eyes! For India is a country known to them for A. Bollywood and B. beautiful and loving people. Period.

Being looked upon as the representative of a country that is known for tolerance, acceptance and the fantasies its cinema sells, gave me a sense of pride for my nation I have not felt in a long time.

Friends at dance class and falafel shack. And learning the 'dabke' from the girls.

Early this year, I took a sabbatical from work after 15 years, to travel. Although I have been to Greece earlier and come to love everything about it, this time Greece warmed my heart a little more by the way it has opened its arms to refugees of one of the largest humanitarian crises, despite its own ongoing economic crunch. The ongoing refugee crisis has been making me very uneasy for a while. Thus began an all-out research on how I could be of help while in Greece. I did not have anything to donate except time. A Norwegian NGO, Dråpen I Havet (A Drop in the Ocean) that works solely on volunteer-participation and donations and focuses more on women and children accepted my application and I set out on my first solo international travel; a bundle of nerves.

Skaramagas hosts the largest, long-term refugee camp in Greece with approximately 3500 residents largely from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, those very people who fled their war-torn countries in search of a better life. The very people who got on to rubber dinghies with remains of their homes in bags and families in their arms, and braved the rough seas, knowing their shot at life itself was a mere fifty-fifty. People who had lives and jobs like ours back in their home countries until a show of political bravado by those who wield power with vested interests, got their homes bombed and dear ones killed. People who have seen life and death like not many of us have… Yet.

Sunset at Skaramagas camp

Skaramagas is one of the many second-base camps on mainland Greece where refugees are sent, on their way from the islands like Lesbos and Chios where they first land, and is managed by the Hellenic Navy. From here they seek asylum in other accepting European countries or work permits within Greece. Here begins an excruciating process of registration, interviews and seemingly endless wait for calls. The big picture is rather bleak since most of the European countries have shut their doors to refugees from the time the exodus began. The immediate call however is Restoration of Human Dignity. To elaborate:

- When a person from another country or state comes to yours because of a dire situation, you treat them no differently than you treat yourself. You do not treat them like they are at your mercy. This could be you in another time or another place. For no fault of yours.

Food. Shelter. Clean clothes. Health and hygiene. Brief moments of happiness. A semblance of a normal life. The ten plus NGOs working on site out of IsoBoxes (a tame version of a shipping container) are working towards this common goal. Coordinators and volunteers of Red Cross, UNHCR, Save the Children, Hope School, Danish Refugee Council, International Medical Corps, Action Aid, and other NGOs are consistently seen applying the best of their skills to bring some respite to these despondent lives.

The DiH container at Skaramagas

The “Drops” as we are called at DiH (Dråpen I Havet) have a particular commitment towards women and children. The volunteers of DiH tasks run a mother and baby space through the morning where women bring their babies of up to 2 years for a bath and exchange of clothes for fresh laundry. Post noon there are activities like Craft and Creative/Beauty/English classes/Dance for kids and women of various age groups. DiH volunteers also work at central warehouses to sort and organise clothes and shoes donated from the world over, to either send them out to other camps across Greece or distribute at Skaramagas. I got to work with the Red Cross for 3 days, distributing winter necessities and sleeping bags to all registered families at the camp. DiH is also constructing a Community Centre within the camp that will consist of a library, media room and space for socio-cultural activities for the refugees.

Clockwise from top left: Painting the newly constructed Community Centre. English classes for teenage girls. A girl shows off a bunch of rubber bracelets she made in creative class. Boys warming up for an evening football session. Under 12 dance class. DiH volunteers engage kids in music and conversation. Distribution of winter necessities by Red Cross and DiH.

There are around 1300 children under the age of 12 at the camp and over 90 unaccompanied minors. Take a moment to let that sink in. These children have had their childhood taken away. Their schools, friends, families, homes… They have seen death, gore, war. They have survived a precarious journey to reach here. Like all children, they are bundles of energy and curiosity, many on the verge of adolescence; confused, bored, angry, sad and what is beyond my comprehension… numb to pain. Let us understand and acknowledge the fact that the conscious decisions of fellow human beings are responsible for creating an entire generation of bewildered, directionless youth.

The above is only a small representative of the absolute number of refugee and internally displaced children the wars have created. Not to take anything away from children born into dire circumstances, the mighty difference in children displaced by war is the element of shock and disbelief. The refusal to reconcile with the situation. The constant angst. The height of hopelessness I witnessed at the camp was when children, who upon arriving on European shores had started to dream again, are told by their parents that they will be returning home. So dejected are these people living the refugee-life; with the lack of improvement in their situation that they would rather return home hoping the war kills them!

I do not speak for everyone here, but what do many of us privileged lot do? Cushion up our cozy little bubbles further with our limited definitions of security and view the refugee crisis as a very distant problem someone else is facing? Mark our boundaries further and revel in nationalistic pride thinking that is what defines our identity, our existence? Run down any argument of inclusion and acceptance with isolationist, xenophobic theories? Not considering that we are one step away from a few egotistic, insatiable politicians, drunk on power making a decision that would put us in the exact same position, regardless of how cushioned we are hitherto. We entrust our nations in the hands of people who we believe will bring us good. Sadly we want ONLY that. Our, immediate good. Perhaps that is why our leaders are only reflections of us in some form or other.

Life does not give us all the time and space to think of and do something for others. We somehow get too consumed with making our own lives better. But amidst their own daily ordeals, many people work for causes dear to them. Some actively, some passively. Some work for several at a time and some for one primary cause. Some believe in charity and some just try to make a difference in the lives of those around who need a helping hand. The important thing I feel, is to be compassionate and discerning of the needs of others.

I am lucky to have met some of the most magnanimous human beings working as volunteers at Skaramagas. A young French woman who went to work in Lebanon to learn Arabic so she could communicate better with the refugees at Skaramagas. A woman who left her high-profile, lucrative job in an advertising agency in Portugal to work as long-term volunteer. She takes up random babysitting/waitressing jobs to make the money she needs to survive, while running an organisation back in her home country with her friends, that collects clothes, toys and donations for refugees. And she is all of 23! An Irish gentleman whose aunt left him some money when she passed and all he used that for is to fund his long-term volunteering in Skaramagas! Two very compassionate women from Spain whose interaction with babies and toddlers would melt the toughest of hearts! Two nurses from Norway who took a week off from their very long and hectic schedules at the hospital, to do even more hectic and stressful work at the camp. Oh! Their idea of a holiday! I have newfound respect for everyone who spares a thought for the less privileged and powerless, thanks to these beautiful people!

“The world is full of nice people. If you can’t find one, be one.”
With fellow volunteers

And all this diligence of the volunteers is well acknowledged and rewarded by the refugees as well. “My friend” is how they address us and it’s a phrase that now holds a world of meaning for me. Most respectful, loving and protective at all times, they would invite us for ‘chai’ or dinner in their containers and feed us to THEIR hearts’ content; which is a LOT! I was happiest being the only Indian they have ever met in their lives. Letting them know that our part of the world also feels for them and sends their best wishes. And may be even charming them with half-Bollywood dance moves as they looked up to me thoroughly star-struck, as if I was Shahrukh/Salman/Katrina/Kareena incarnate!

Love and warmth all the way

Their past is wiped out. Their future is dark. And their present is a chaotic limbo. All I hope is Skaramagas and the scores of other squats and camps where the refugees are placed now, remain a sojourn for them. During this sojourn, may the small IsoBoxes of happiness keep resurrecting lost smiles. And may the children frolicking inside the camp never know hate. I have a home I could come back to. I hope, soon they find one too.

Iman and Neeran playing inside the DiH container
  • Skaramagas is not a reflection of the camps and squats across Greece in general. It is one of the most organised and well-maintained camps. The scene at squats however, is heart-wrenching. With hardly any NGO deployed there, the living conditions are squalid, and even face attacks from fascist elements. The latest such attack was at Camp Souda on the island of Chios, reportedly by a far-right group that hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the tents, forcing refugees to stay outside in the cold, for fear of being attacked again.
  • There are many more internally displaced families in Syria with the ongoing intense bombing of rebel-held areas. All codes of war are now being broken with intentional attacks on schools, hospitals and aids & supplies. Unlike natural calamities, this is a new man-made disaster. Something that can be changed to a large extent by a few decisions by the powers that be.
  • The ideas of a political boundary, religion, community make no sense if they were meant to divide humankind. We cannot own pieces of earth by drawing lines and calling it 'our nation'. Moreover, we don't really belong where we think we do either. Boundaries or Humanity - What do we attach more importance to and where could that be leading us?
  • More on Skaramagas, the refugee situation and what we can do to help, from my colleagues Maggie Miller and Michaela Rafferty.
Created By
Nidhi Sudhan

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