Cecilia Taylor-Camara is Secretary to the Office of Migration and Policy of the Conference of Catholic Bishops for England and Wales. She travelled to Greece at the end of May with CTBI and spent a week as part of a twelve woman delegation visiting refugee hotspots and refugee projects.
When I set out with a group of twelve women representing some of the Christian denominations across the four nations on a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) trip to visit refugee camps in Greece, I knew I would be visiting ‘prisoners’ in all except name.
We refer to them as refugees but many of the residents live in prison-like conditions in camps. The visit was a call to be present with refugees, to be witnesses of God’s presence among other women and their families, to listen to their stories, and to share their experiences.
Nineteen years ago I was in a similar predicament as a woman victim of war. I was forced to flee civil war in Sierra Leone with very young children. In some ways this visit should have been familiar territory for me, but not so, because every situation is different and every refugee woman is a unique individual with her corresponding unique story.
The trip included visits to hotspots (official state-managed closed detention centres) for registration and identification of migrants and refugees and wild camps (open and informal temporary settlements) – as well as a series of exchanges with refugee women and children, faith groups and NGOs coordinating the humanitarian response on the ground – to identify priorities in a wide range of policy areas they are working.
Two places on the itinerary were the island of Samos and Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki.
Many people around the world have seen television pictures of Greece’s beautiful islands whose tranquil blue waters have been safe navigation routes. The islands are also the site of unmarked graves for many migrants and refugees who set out to travel to far away destinations but never made it to shore. For those who made the journey to the sandy beaches of Greece their stories are varied and I was privileged to hear some of them.
On arrival in Samos on the early morning flight from Athens on Tuesday 24 May, we had breakfast in the beautiful square where refugees sometimes congregate. It was a good way to start the day.
Compliance with airport security and the routine display of liquids that passengers carry on board aircrafts has made me a hoarder of clear freezer bags! But this time they came in handy for a different purpose. Soon after breakfast I hastily filled my freezer bag with toasts and sesame rolls with little tubs of butter form the breakfast platter to give out to children in the camp.
The hotspot in Samos is perched on the hill overlooking the sea and the approach is quite impressive. As we got closer, the razor-wired fence became visible. A small crowd of less than twenty people stood at the gate and a few more could be seen in the distance. It look rather sparsely populated.
Estimated to hold over 1000 refugees in the facility, I had expected see a number of the residents on this visit. But we were not allowed on the premises. Behind the veneer of business as usual and what appeared to be freshly painted buildings were the visible scars of anxiety, uncertainty and dissatisfaction. The young children excited at the sight of visitors ran towards us shouting ”hello”. They ran in and out of the gate while most of the adults were held back by a man in uniform.
I got closer and spoke to a few adults through the fence. I took my camera out to get some close up photographs of the building, but an angry voice yelled “no pictures”. Suddenly it became quite noisy as more people approached the fence shouting out their names to us. “Write it down” a man instructed me.
What is in a name? Refugees want to be remembered by their names. It’s their identity. They are unique individuals and not statistics.
He held out his card, and asked me to write his name. I politely complied and more people followed. He explained that he was suffering from heart condition, had diabetes II and needed to see a doctor.
A woman who may have thought we were doctors shared her concerns over lack of medications at the centre: “My child has had no vaccinations and I am still waiting”. Another had pain in her breast and was only due to see a doctor in two months.
It was heart breaking that so many vulnerable people were in such a pitiful state. Another mother’s sick baby had had a fever the night before. The war wounded showed up with deep scars from weapons. They bore the pain and the anger of being incarcerated. More mundanely, some complained about the potatoes and pasta. They needed to talk and I was here to listen. I looked on again rather helplessly wondering what I could promise.
The needs of the refugees were immense and their motivations for coming to Greece were mixed. Many were in search of a better life. Some separated by war had hoped to be reunited with family in other parts of Europe. They had not anticipated the closure of Idomeni at the Greece/Macedonia border.
And nothing could have prepared them for detention in government-managed centres with ‘restriction of liberty’ for the first 25 days. Boredom through inactivity, anxiety and frustration were visible. A woman explained that her life was ebbing away and given the choice she would return to Syria. At eight months pregnant she would rather be in Syria. Another family bought return tickets to Syria but were sent back from the airport in Athens.
I had a privileged conversation with a woman who lived at the centre with other family members. She was a medical professional and was happy to take up the offer of asylum in Greece. Her husband, also a medical professional helps out with translations in the camp but she is not allowed to work.
As we made our way out of the camp a number of residents walked through the gate and came after me including the man who had given me instructions to write down his name. I showed him my book and assured him “your name is written … in my book”. I called him by his name prefixed with Mr and he returned the gesture with a heartfelt smile.
In the remaining minutes of our time at the hotspot I emptied the contents of my bag and we watched the kids break bread and share it with others: a reminder of the presence of God in middle of the most challenging situations.
You can listen to some of Cecilia’s immediate impressions in the audio diary she recorded a few hours after visiting Samos.
Out next destination was Eko camp in Thessaloniki. Eko is a wild or open camp, unregulated by Greek authorities. It’s an unauthorised occupation of the forecourt of a gas station by refugees who organised themselves into this temporary settlement after the closure of Idomeni. This camp is now home to over 2,500 residents of which an estimated 700 are children.
In this open camp we were allowed to mingle with families and largely free to take photographs of the facilities. We had conversations with the residents: the horrors of war and squalid conditions of the camp were laid bare.
Overcrowding and security were paramount in the minds of women. They feared for their children and relations. Violence including fights among women and tensions as refugees wait in uncertainty have become permanent features in these settlements. Many women are forced to stay awake all night to protect their children. Sexual exploitation for as little as 5–10 Euros is the experience of some refugees in the camps. Lack of adequate infrastructure for unaccompanied minors coupled with bureaucratic structures that delay access to facilities has yet to be overcome. The disappearance of unaccompanied minors into the hands of criminal gangs remains one of the biggest challenges.
Most of residents I met were from Syria longing to be reunited with loved ones who have made it to Germany and Sweden.
There appeared to be no restriction of movement of refugees in the Eko camp and we moved around the residents with ease. Some opened their homes and invited us into their tents. Following a conversation with a older woman, the head of her household, I had more names in my book. A family name has been passed on to a charity that is working on the possibility of family reunification.
Like all of us, every refugee is known to God by their name. He assures us: I have called you by name you are mine” (Isaiah 43: 3).
I will keep the names I gathered and came away with in my thoughts and prayers.
Photos by Clare McBeath, Sarah Moore, Esme Allen