There are Christmas fairy lights hanging on every magnolia tree that lines the long central avenue of Ioannina, a university town in the Epirus region of north-west Greece. The empty shops that dot its backstreets are evidence of the country’s unending economic crisis. But the centre of this city of a little over 100,000 people – situated by a large lake and overlooked by snow-capped mountains – is a lively place, full of busy bars and restaurants.
Go five miles south along the road out of town and you’ll find Katsikas refugee camp, where it’s the glare of floodlights that illuminates the December nights. Established in March on the site of a disused military base, Katsikas was filled with refugees who had made the sea-crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands, the last arrivals before the EU-Turkey deal came into place, effectively barring the route to the mainland. With the land borders of the countries to the north closing, Greece has become a holding pen for an estimated 60,000 people who are now stuck in limbo, waiting to have their asylum applications processed through an EU relocation programme that is grindingly slow.
With the initial emergency over, and with Brexit and the US presidential election dominating the news agenda, the situation in Greece seems to have drifted from people’s consciousness.
“At the end of 2015 it was incredible how much support we got,” says Mimi Hapig a volunteer at the camp for German relief organisation Soup and Socks. “The topic of people coming to Europe looking for asylum was everywhere. But keeping the interest and the awareness is very challenging.”
“Between April until July there were so many volunteers coming to the area – around 100 monthly – and there were a lot of donations flowing during this time,” says Stephanie Martinez, another volunteer who has set up a school here. “But into October, as the American elections became the main focus of the world and there was barely any coverage of the refugee situation, the volunteers became fewer and fewer.”
This happened just as weather conditions began making life even harder for people forced to live in camps. Now, winter has set in and temperatures are dropping to below zero at night.
The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called his country a “warehouse of lost souls”. It’s a powerful phrase, but it’s not the whole truth. As Yannis Anagnostou, a psychologist working for Médecins du Monde, tells me when I speak to him in one of the portacabins of the medical facility at Katsikas Camp: “They are survivors. These people are strong. They have many more coping skills than I do. I see them as people who are much stronger than I am.” While the level of human suffering is profound, there is also spirit and resilience, humour and grace to be found here.
In this mountainous region of the country an atmosphere of permanent and exhausting uncertainty reigns for refugees and aid workers alike. Rumours and misinformation are everywhere, while life is improvised as best as it can be.
The Greeks know something about this themselves. Spiros Kapsalis, a local taxi driver who drives me out to the camp, has a smart business card with a Mercedes on it. These days, he tells me, he’s also driving the local buses to make ends meet. He feels for the people forced to live out here, their powerlessness, the anguish of not being able to provide for their children, “They need to live, they need to find work, to live in peace,” he gesticulates into the rear-view mirror. “It’s logical.” It seems to be the overriding attitude of local people in this region of Greece, where the far-right party Golden Dawn has little to no presence.
Despite the best efforts of many of the people working here – the Greek army, the UN refugee agency, Oxfam, the International Organisation for Migration and many smaller NGOs – Katsikas has barely provided minimum standards of human dignity for the thousand or so refugees who have passed through it in the last nine months. When the displaced people arrived off the buses from Athens, following harrowing journeys over land and sea, they were shown to basic, unheated army tents and simply handed a blanket. The days became weeks and the weeks became months, with little information about when or where they might be going. The army tents were cold at night and stiflingly hot in the day; when it rained they flooded. The food provided by army contractors in plastic packets is dire. The site is covered in large, jagged stones that make the simple act of walking across it painful.
Refugee camps in Greece are like London tube carriages: they contain people from all walks of life. Factory workers, poets, shop assistants, engineers, students, builders. In a bleak irony, I was told that earlier in the year Syria’s former minister of tourism ended up here. There are nice people and a few nasty people.
And like the tube carriages, everyone is uncomfortably squashed together. With no internal authority, unofficial power structures develop. Tensions and divisions have led to violence drawn down ethnic and national lines. There have been Syrians, Afghans and Yazidis here. In the summer, the Yazidi population of some 450 people – forced from their homeland in northern Iraq by ISIS – were moved en masse to a site the other side of Ioannina, citing threatening behaviour from elements of the Syrian community. In April and August protests broke out about conditions in the camp and the lack of information regarding its residents’ situation.
The camp I visit has quietened down and slowly emptied over the last few months. Most of the residents are now in ISO Boxes – converted shipping containers – and regular buses take more people to accommodation in down-at-heel hotels rented by UNHCR. Many have dates fixed for interviews next year that will decide which country they are to be relocated to.
Among those left are the Afghan community, who after nine months are still in tents. In the freezing cold. Unlike Syrians, Afghans are not eligible for the relocation emergency programme adopted by the EU last year, and their future is highly uncertain. I speak to Javid, whose family fled to Iran to escape the war in Afghanistan, and where he then found himself dismissed from his job at a pharmacy by the authorities and barred from taking any other employment. He’s bewildered and upset, worn down by unfulfilled promises. “Why? Why?” he asks, circling repeatedly round the same point. The UNHCR had promised him a container. Then they said they would go to a hotel. Then there was a container but it had no electricity. “They’re just helping the Syrian people and not the Afghan people. Every organisation. I don’t know why. There’s been 15 years of fighting in Afghanistan. Why do they not help the Afghan people?”
On the outskirts of Ioannina, in a makeshift camp on a hillside that overlooks a petrol station, the Yazidis from northern Iraq are being asked to go to UNHCR hotels in Athens and Thessaloniki. The strain on the face of the powerfully built community leader, Ibo, is evident as he pulls on a cigarette, his other hand rolling prayer beads between thumb and forefinger. The Yazidis, with their incredibly tight community bonds forged through the difference in their religious and cultural practices from the wider Iraqi society, are desperate to be together. Currently they are spread out in camps across Greece. Ibo says the UN has given an assurance that they will be reunited, and asks me whether I believe them. I say I don’t know and ask him what he thinks. He shakes his head grimly. He’s heard too many of these empty promises already.
Beside him a young man in a leather jacket holds out his phone with a YouTube video playing. It’s a BBC News report of the flight from Sinjar mountain in August of 2014, when ISIS drove the Yazidis from their ancestral lands, massacred them in their thousands and kidnapped women to be gang-raped and sold as sex slaves. They want me to see this, to understand. The video plays on the small screen as we sit in silence. An elderly woman breaks down beside me, sobbing.
I visit a weekly camp coordination meeting of all the organisations involved that takes place in one of the military hangars on site. The cadaverous ex-mayor of Ioannina, Philippos Filios, who has oversight of the camp, sits wrapped up in an overcoat, methodically chain-smoking cigarettes, alongside Georgios Kontakis, a stocky, well-meaning former army officer who is the site manager. They run through the issues of the week. Rats in the camp. The floodlights are not being turned off in the morning. Frozen pipes. “Everything costs money,” says Kontakis sadly. There is the issue of flu and hepatitis vaccinations, which are being constantly delayed. The ex-mayor says there are shortages in Greek pharmacies. “The winter will end and the flu vaccinations will not have taken place,” reflects Kontakis. It’s unclear whether this is resignation to The Fates or a warning-call.
A knock-on effect of the lack of vaccinations is access to the Greek education system, which refugees are entitled to under Greek law and which has been promised for months. Vaccinations are a minimum requirement for students to attend school. Having apparently made positive noises the previous week, the woman from the Ministry of Education who’s come along to the meeting can only shrug embarrassedly when asked when access to the school system will start.
Seeing that the traditional relief models were providing so little beyond simply keeping people alive, it’s independent organisations that have been able to innovate to make life temporarily better for those stranded here. They are, of course, completely unaccountable, but they have been free from the bureaucratic constraints that restrict larger organisations.
German relief organisation Soup and Socks, which had previously run a community kitchen here, has now taken over a disused furniture showroom that stands across the road from the camp entrance as a space for carpentry and metal-working workshops.
“We noticed that during our time in the camp people were constantly coming up to us to ask for tools,” Mimi Hapig, one of the volunteers tells me. The vibrant atmosphere is so different from the grim desolation of the camp across the road. There’s a buzz of purposeful activity.
“We know that what people actually want is to get to the countries where they have family members or where they imagine their future is,” Mimi says. “But we cannot open the borders. We simply can’t. But what we can do is try to make sure that within the time they need to spend here they gain new skills, they are empowered; that the time they need to spend here is not completely wasted or lost.”
On a quiet suburban street on the other side of Ioannina, not far from the Yazidi camp, Stephanie Martinez, another so-called “graduate” of the Soup and Socks’ summer community kitchen at Katsikas, has started a school called the Habibi Centre. Running since August, she and a small team provide classes in English, Maths, Geography and whatever specialisms particular volunteers might have. Around 60 refugee children up to the age of 15 attend in a series of rented shops they have modified. I ask her how they’re able to operate in an environment where no one seems to know what is happening from one day to the next.
“Part of our vision or philosophy in all this is to be the most constant thing available for the children. Many NGOs have a new volunteer every two weeks, or an NGO comes and sets something up and, one month later, they leave. So that’s something that we’ve decided: to be constant. We’ve only been closed for one day.”
Sitting in front of brightly painted walls covered in drawings by the children, she tells me how they started in August. “I didn’t ask permission from anybody. UNHCR, UNICEF, Oxfam. I got into a little bit of trouble for that,” she says. “If I ask permission then I am restricted completely in the way we do things, or who comes and who doesn’t. But if we just provide something and make it available for anyone – if Greeks want to come, it’s free, and it’s open and they can come.”
Both projects are funded purely by donations, many of them from family and friends, and the volunteers themselves can only be there by virtue of dipping into their own pockets, quitting jobs and putting careers on hold. The desire to be fully independent is partly a determination not to give into demands for separation on lines of nationality or religion, which is often made by the various different refugee groups. “We want to structure something like it would be structured in Germany, for example, where they’re not going to be separate into special schools.” This has been a struggle, she says, but with time and stubbornness most of the critics from the established organisations working here have come round to the idea.
The main problem bigger organisations have with the independents is the lack of background checks on staff, their bolshiness towards the bigger organisations and a general cavalier attitude towards normal humanitarian aid protocols. But the fact is that within this chaotic and highly imperfect situation, without their entrepreneurialism these children would certainly not be receiving an education, and would have had little structure in their lives over the last five months. Provision on this scale just isn’t coming from anywhere else.
But it came at a cost. The summer influx of volunteers brought with it some pretty dodgy characters, by all accounts. I heard stories of sexual relationships between volunteers and refugees, a “sex tent” being organised for teenagers and one volunteer illegally smuggling a refugee family to Spain. There are huge moral questions here: in the context of humanitarian relief, is there equality of status between a passport-holding European university student on holiday and someone stuck in a refugee camp? The influx also brought with it the uneasy introduction of permissive Western attitudes into a largely Muslim setting.
But this element appears to have drifted away as summer turned to autumn. From what I see, those who have remained for the long-haul are impressive and committed people, whose energy and integrity is making a huge difference to many people’s lives, even if they are finding themselves supported by dwindling numbers of fellow volunteers.
The wider issue of vulnerability, protection and predatory activity is very real, though. Several volunteers tell me they have seen cars coming into the Katsikas camp at night to pick up young boys. Just half a kilometre down a track from the camp there’s a brothel calling itself “Studio 69”, in whose direction girls in the camp have been seen driven off on the back of mopeds. At the camp at Doliana near the Albanian border, where all the bigger NGOs have pulled out over security concerns, it was suggested to me that the sustained sexual abuse of children may have been taking place.
Refugee camps, with their concentration of the powerless and the traumatised, are even more susceptible to the abuses that occur in villages, towns and cities everywhere.
Lighthouse Relief is a Swedish NGO that tries to make these camps safer. Morgan Tipping, from south-west London, is the manager of the Female Friendly Space at Katsikas, which is a closed-off area for women and adolescent girls that offers privacy and a safe, communal environment away from some of the hardships of camp life. Here they have organised yoga, fitness classes, painting, jewellery-making and sewing workshops. Morgan also feels it’s vital to develop connections with the local community and has organised an exhibition in Ioannina for a Kurdish painter, Toni, who has been producing dozens of paintings in the camp. “In my mind the aim now is to support and enable a full integration into European life,” she says.
She is assisting another exhibition organised by a bustling Syrian electrical engineer Firas, which will showcase the artistic and handicraft talents of a range of people in the camp at a venue in the town. Firas encourages me to meet Abdullah, a teacher and poet from Aleppo, living with his wife and three children, who has managed to write a novella about life at Katsikas called Neighbours of the Cows. When we meet he shows me the manuscript: 200 pages of tiny, neat Arabic script written on an A4 pad. It seems to me a miracle of creation in these circumstances. Almost as miraculous as Firas’ wife, Hala, who has given birth to a baby girl.
Some refugees have been given hotels, which offer more security and warmth, even if there is a chronic lack of anything to do there. In the lobby of a faded hotel in the centre of Ioannina that has been taken over by the UN, the air is loud with screaming children as they tear around the dingy corridors, snapped at by harassed mothers. Mahmood, 17, a gregarious, fast-talking kid from Aleppo, grins and points out to me a new English phrase he likes in his exercise book: “Running amok.”
He, his mother and four younger siblings were in a tent at Katsikas for eight months. This marathon of endurance was just the culmination of a long and arduous effort to get to Greece. Leaving their father, a former hotel receptionist, behind in Aleppo, they made two failed attempts to cross the border at night between Syria and Turkey.
The slightly-built Mahmood carried his youngest sister across the mountains himself, constantly afraid of losing the gun-carrying smuggler who marched ahead of them. Twice they were discovered by the Turkish army and returned to Syria. The third time they managed to cross the border before finally getting across Turkey – surviving a police inspection of their bus (bribes from the driver), a week holed up in a safe house and a journey in a truck packed with fellow refugees in which they almost suffocated, before the sea-crossing to Chios on an inflatable boat with a faulty outboard engine.
It was a frightening ordeal but Mahmood is in good spirits and making the best of his time. If he was in Syria he would be fighting in the war, he says. And he gives me an animated account of all the horrors that would involve. Here he’s learning English, Greek and German at classes run by the local university. He proudly tells me he knew almost no English before he was in the camp and, as we talk, assiduously notes down any words that are new to him in his exercise book.
A 40-minute drive south from Ioannina takes us to the camp at Filipiada, which – like Katsikas – has seen a fall in its numbers since the policy to place refugees in hotel accommodation came into effect. It’s telling, though, that the place is covered in newly dug trenches – only now are they laying cables to provide heating and lighting for the 200 or so people who have been living here since March. In her unheated metal container, furnished only with blankets, we meet Masoomah from Baghlan, a province in northern Afghanistan that has seen Taliban insurgents make inroads this year in that country’s unending war. Like many of the women we meet, her husband is in Germany.
“I’m alone here with my three daughters and I am afraid, and will feel the same until we’re settled,” she says. “When they are in the tent or container, I don’t feel safe.”
“My hope for the future is to unite my family again, children and parents, to have a friendly and warm family again, in one home, at one place. To have a peaceful life, to have peace of mind – so when my children go out and leave in the morning, they come back at night, God willing.
“I didn’t have this feeling in Afghanistan; didn’t have the hope they’d come back home. Even when I’d go to the market, I didn’t know whether I’d come back alive or not.”
As we walk down the stony track through the camp, the sun dipping below the mountains and the temperature falling, she sighs and jokes with her teenage daughter, Anakita, and a young aid worker, Leoni. They’re all laughing in the fading light. “Women are much stronger than men,” she says. “Women are much stronger than men…”
Relocation and reunion with family members will hopefully happen in 2017. Sadly, a lot of these brave people will still need all the strength they’ve got. And there will likely be many more to join them. The camps look set to continue. The detention centres on the islands are at bursting-point. The European Commission has announced that, from March, EU states will be able to return asylum seekers to Greece if it was their first country of entry. The EU-Turkey deal hangs in the balance, with President Erdogan threatening to drop the drawbridge to Europe once more. Rumours swirl about Katsikas itself: some say that the camp will be closed in a month, others that it will be filled with single men brought from the islands.
Few know yet where they’re going, and no one knows where this is all heading. But the fairy lights of Europe are still a long way off for many in Greece this Christmas.