At the end of their second full day in Greece, Rev Kathy Galloway was joined by Church of Scotland elder Maha Campbell who was one of the two Arabic speakers in the delegation.
Greek authorities had started to clear the large camp at Idomeni, so the delegation of twelve women from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland instead visited a nearby informal refugee camp built around a petrol station.
Known as a ‘wild camp’, people staying at the self-organised Eko Gas Camp were free to come and go.
Maha described the sight that greeted her when they arrived:
“As we entered the camp I saw people moving around more freely. I saw a little shop. I saw in another tent there were people cooking Arabic food, making vine leaves with rice. There was another group of people standing in a queue to get food … People sitting around tables with benches as if sitting on a beach or in a picnic area. Very relaxing to see that image to compare with yesterday [on the island of Samos].”
Most of the women they met were from Syria, a few from northern Iraq. A common concern of many of the women they spoke to was separation from family:
“They wanted to be reunited with their families.”
Some of the CTBI group were invited to sit down with some women. Kathy explained:
“The women had mats spread out on the floor of their shelter and they were preparing [food]. One young women we spoke to was one of eleven children: ten sisters and one son. We asked her if all her sisters were in the camp, but she said they were in Lebanon, they were in Jordan, they were spread all over the world really.
The Eko Gas station was originally just a stop off point on the way to the Macadonian border. But since the frontier closed in early March, it has become a semi-permanent camp.
There were many Greek volunteers coming in and spending time with the people in the camp. Caritas, Save the Children, MSF and other NGOs were working on site. But with no state intervention or structure, the camp had a very different atmosphere to the concrete and barbed wire of the registration camp they group had witness on Samos the previous day. Maha recalls one family she met.
[Maha] “What struck me about that family was that they had dignity about them. They cooked their own food. [The father] wanted to draw – he was an artist – and he drew their house to have as a memory of Syria. Their concerns were keeping their spirits intact compared with the camp in Samos who were fighting for their health, fighting for their food, fighting for some facilities. The people here did not complain about the facilities …” [Kathy] “… even though the facilities in some ways were worse. They were basically camping in a petrol station forecourt …” [Maha] “… under tents. They only mentioned very briefly that the tents tend to get hot during the day and leak during rain. But they didn’t complain in the same way about the toilets, the walking they had to do, or being outside, or being fenced in.” [Kathy] “It did feel that they were organising more themselves and for themselves and that’s not something that had been taken away from them.”
Not fighting for survival, many of the women were still separated from their husbands and trying to get visas to be reunited with their families. Kathy concludes:
“… though there were lots of problems with that. When you think about the tens of thousands of refugees that there are all over the Middle East and also in southern Europe. People had sent their passports to Lebanon or Turkey and were waiting for them to come back, …
“The legal and political challenges are immense. But those are the things most needed now.”
Photos: Esme Allen.