A refugee camp is a place you can’t even begin to imagine until you’ve been to one. The images the media portray don’t tell of the sweat, the dirt or the shouting matches. They ignore the love the POCs (persons of concern, the current politically correct term for refugees or migrants) have, the incredible hospitality they show or the fact that most of them would give their lives to protect us as volunteers. Photos, videos or words cannot do it justice, so I don’t pretend to be doing so.
Seeing the camp gates again, a part of me felt like I’d come home. At that moment I realised then that it is indeed possible to leave a part of your heart somewhere. Taking the familiar route up to the EuroRelief hub, I immediately noticed that huge changes had taken place in camp in the year since I last entered in.
Having spent weeks last year trying to convince POCs to take even more people into their overcrowded RHUs (think a plastic shed), I am overjoyed that these have been replaced by air-conditioned shipping containers, or ‘isoboxes’. Vast swathes of the camp were burned during a series of fires last year, necessitating a camp rebuild. There are no longer people living in RHUs or tents. Conditions have drastically improved (although obviously, this is still from a refugee camp perspective).
Huge demographic changes have also taken place since last year. Most of the women and children were moved to a different camp, or better housing during the extremely cold months when conditions in our camp were deathly. Whereas previously children brightened the camp with their laughter, the zones are quieter and manning the family area was a job to be assigned in pre-shift briefing. Over 80% of the camp is now single men, creating a distinctly different atmosphere than last year. Children bring joy to such a joyless situation. They forgive more easily, they don’t remember small discrepancies, they befriend others regardless of race, nationality or political leanings. In some ways, child refugees are the most vulnerable, yet equally the most resilient. Each boat that comes in brings more and more families into camp, this aspect of camp is reverting to the old way.
There are even fewer organisations left in the camp now. Even this week, Samaritan’s Purse seems to have upped and left. As a consequence, the role of EuroRelief has changed considerably: already managing the majority of camp, we are now charged with all clothing distribution, guarding more gates in camp, tailoring, printing and many additional smaller jobs. Thankfully, we too have benefitted from moving from an RHU to an isobox, and the database of POCs we created last summer has been expanded and improved considerably. We are now by far the dominant organisation in camp.
However, the central aspects of camp have not changed; the generosity of the PoCs, despite their desperate situations; the protectiveness of our translators (Pocs themselves) over volunteers; and the pure joy amongst the humanitarian shambles, to name but a few. Unfortunately, a lot of the people remain too. It was truly heart wrenching to be greeted by old friends as I walked into the central base for my first shift back; friends I had hoped and prayed would have been moved on to mainland Europe by now.
My first week has brought many incredible memories from last year flooding back. I often simply remember the hopelessness and desperation of the refugee crisis, but recalling the peals of laughter, the joy-filled friendships and the faithfulness of God in everything has been instrumental in reminding me why I knew I had to return as soon as my feet hit British soil again last August.
I have been starkly reminded of the severity of this crisis and the love that those most affected by it have to give to any who will accept it. Every day my heart burns for those we are serving here in Greece.