Creativity knows no bounds in Nea Kavala

As I enter the DropShop market this Tuesday morning, I am greeted by a cheerful Syrian woman. She is on her weekly shopping trip and is taking her time. The woman is seven months pregnant and has just learned she is carrying a little girl. She adds a pink onesie to her shopping basket. Text

As I enter the DropShop market this Tuesday morning, I am greeted by a cheerful Syrian woman. She is on her weekly shopping trip and is taking her time. The woman is seven months pregnant and has just learned she is carrying a little girl. She adds a pink onesie to her shopping basket.

Text and photos: Kari Ronge.

When I was twelve, I was given an intriguing writing assignment in school: “The history of a penny”. As I tell the story of how a wealth of ideas flourish in a refugee camp in Northern Greece, I am reminded of this mottled journey through life as experienced by a tiny little coin. This ancient Chinese proverb also fits the bill: “As the ocean has room for the drop, the drop also has room for the ocean.”

The proverb appropriately describes a well-organised recycling project directed by the Norwegian aid organisation A Drop in the Ocean (DiO). Field coordinator Signe Korntved from Denmark has been handling this recycling initiative – developing it further day by day. It includes a craft project where you combine top-notch logistics, wisdom and know-how about utilising whatever resources are at hand in the moment, in a fun cooperative undertaking crossing any barrier that separates people into “them” and “us”.

Take the story of a pink, sheer cotton onesie, size 62 cm, with a little bear embroidered on the front. The onesie begins its recycling journey together with many other clean and neatly folded pieces of clothing for the youngest amongst us. It is then added to one of four filled-to-the-brim plastic bags that Kirsten Falkung and I, two grandmothers from Norway, bring with us to Greece as we embark on our two-week volunteering journey with DiO in May 2017. We have brought a total of 147 kg of goods, from generous neighbours, friends and family. Mostly summer clothes collected by my sister and delivered at my door before we left. No spit-up stains, no rips; all ready to be reused.


After our arrival, the bag containing the pink onesie is unpacked in DiO’s sorting warehouse, then QR-coded through an app developed by two former DiO volunteers from Holland, Maarten Hunink and Bart Driessen. The pink piece of clothing is then put in a box marked “One-piece, baby 0-3 months – 40 Drops” and placed in the market known as DropShop. A group of volunteers from The Timber Project completed the DropShop building in November 2016 for DiO. Working with the camp residents, of course.

The first thing I see as I enter the DropShop this Tuesday morning is the pregnant woman. The pink onesie ends up in her shopping basket together with other summer attire she has selected for herself and her family, bought for the “ration” of 120 Drops (pretend money) per person that is awarded the roughly 500 residents of Nea Kavala weekly.


A pale blue “short sleeves, female“ costs her 40 Drops, a pair of socks is 10. Women’s sandals are unfortunately not available this week either, but she finds a lovely brand new tunic donated by one of the international clothing chains based in Spain. She can easily afford that, since she has saved Drops from last week.

Back home in the shipping container, her husband minds their seven-year-old boy. The family has been on the run for more than three years. At first, they escaped from Damascus to a shabby camp in Turkey, before embarking on the dangerous boat journey to the Greek island of Chios last summer. The little family has lived in this camp near the Macedonian border for almost a year now. Soon, three months will have passed since their second interview. This is part of the relocation agreement the EU-countries have committed to – and to which Norway is a party, agreeing to house a disgracefully low “quota” of 1 500 fellow human beings. Now, they are carefully selected amongst those who hope to draw the winning lottery ticket, amidst the more than 30 000 refugees that are still stranded in a financially distressed Greece. 

The Syrian family is still waiting to be assigned a country – a country that not only asks them to remain “in the neighborhood”, but one that offers schooling for their son, safety and a way to make a living. It is painful not to know what future awaits. It is painful to read about European countries bickering over refugees, clearly wanting to accept as few as possible, of those escaping war and aggressive conflict. Fortunately, the woman has a sister-in-law and friends in Nea Kavala. She takes English lessons and participates in activities in the Women’s Space in the camp – the Community Centre. This was built by yet another aid organisation, ‘We are here!’, sometimes called ‘We are (still) here.’

The female pursuits in Nea Kavala are abundant and productive. In this ramshackle house where the rain is pouring in, needlework is going on several times a week; for beginners and experts, using sewing machines recently received from Notodden University College in Norway. With fabric, rags and yarn every colour of the rainbow – and with instructions, knitting needles and crocheting hooks, all part of an ad-hoc project known as “Knitting across Borders”. All of this is sent to the camp from a collection we craft-women organised at the beginning of the year.

Take the story of a pair of black jeans, size ‘medium, man’. Today is Friday, and ‘Buy Back’-time from the little kiosk where DiO distributes fruit and vegetables a couple of times a week, packs of rice weekly, and other dry good rations when stock and money allows.

This May morning, a 19-year-old Kurdish man hands in his winter jacket, together with other warm clothes that he and his two-year older brother have tried to wash as best they can – in cold water. The six washing machines donated specifically for this camp have yet to be accepted by the extensive, Greek bureaucracy.

This is the story of a few washing machines donated to DiO several months ago. The washing machines are still stored in a hangar at this abandoned airport, where Nea Kavala has become a well-functioning, multicultural miniature society. It seems to work well for these refugees from several different nations gathered for a life of uncertainty.

Along this airstrip on a bleak field, they are attempting to create what begins to resemble a life. Urban folks will describe this as the countryside, the middle of nowhere. The camp is still run by Greek migration authorities, with most of the task delegated to the Danish Refugee Council. Not exactly efficient. However, things might improve in June, when the Danish Refugee Council takes over responsibility for all residents as well as daily operations. We shall see.

Even if the black pair of jeans has a few stains that the Kurdish brothers have not been able to remove (nor have the other single refugees they share their container-home with), the young man receives 4 Drops per garment in the BuyBack. The Drops are added to their computer file, showing the brothers’ purchasing power next time their container is listed for shopping in the DropShop. Next Sunday, splurging on a Skype conversation with their parents at home in Aleppo, they will tell all about how washing clothes is a ‘piece of cake’ for mummy’s good boys.

This is the story of a pair of slippers with risqué motifs. It would be a bit harder to show their parents what kinds of shoes have been donated to refugees. DiO’s field coordinator, Atle Gabrielsen Førsvoll, calls an emergency meeting inside the DropShop. Handing out slippers with naked women motifs demonstrates what charity absolutely IS NOT. This is embarrassing when we meet our equals with dignity and mutual respect.


This Friday, residents have handed in 585 garments at BuyBack. Those taking advantage of this system are now a whopping 2340 Drops richer. Soon, they can shop for shorts, t-shirts and other summer attire. Assuming it is available. After the heat set in, the newly sorted boxes of clothes have been very popular. Hardly a pair of shorts for boys aged 6 – 8 have been available. Nor have short sleeves for grown-ups. Fortunately, we brought lots from Norway – delivered by kind souls to DiO’s headquarters in Oslo. Everything disappears quickly.

The garments handed in to the DiO kiosk at Nea Kavala are sorted anew. The black pair of jeans gets a run through a local cleaner in the nearest town. But even that does not help, and so it ends up in a box marked ‘sewing project’, in a storage facility in the little village Gorgopi. A striped shirt with holes goes the same way. Soon, a certain pocket will be cut from the black jeans; then sewn into a shopping bag proudly shown off by a Somali woman to her sister refugees.

This is the story of a shabby tablecloth and a duvet cover used to protect looms Kirsten and I take along as a possible supplement to Signe’s sewing project. We are hoping to organise a loom-borrowing system, for people to use outdoors, in the shade; weaving mats, seat pads, belts and handles for the shopping bags. The checkered tablecloth and the sea green duvet cover are added to the box marked ‘sewing project’. Next week they will be transformed into a makeup purse and a carrier bag.

This is the story of a 15-year-old girl from Somalia who has never touched a pair of scissors before. 20 minutes later, she expertly handles the sewing machine with all kinds of seams. Yet another hour later, and she is almost finished with her sea green carrier bag. She is eager to show her mum. A wide grin, before she solemnly swears that both her mum and older sister will come along next time.

The story of the striped shirt with holes? Well, it is cut into thin strips; the strips become a ball of ‘yarn’, and later crocheted as a circular mat. A few days later, the mat is placed in front of the container door of a Congolese family, brought to Nea Kavala by bus two weeks ago.

This is the story of heaps of used clothes, put in plastic tubs on a Sunday Market in Gorgopi. Kirsten and I are running this for a few hours, together with Maria Peteini from Greece and Juliette Tassy from France. We learn that unemployment in this part of Greece is a whopping 60%! There are those who think it is wrong to prioritise refugees when the average Greek has enough on his plate. Anything to discourage such an attitude is welcomed with open arms. Between the hours of 11am and 1pm on Sundays, Drop volunteers bring tubs of clothes and shoes. People help themselves to whatever they need; the only requirement is letting us know the number of garments they have taken.


There are no leftovers here. Nor rubbish from old DiO donations. Only good stuff! I soon find a coat. If I had found this at a flea market at home, I would not have minded using it on a cool spring day myself. However, the coat goes to a young, beautiful girl. She and I nod; give each other the thumbs up and a knowing smile.

This is the story of a happy event: a traditional market with cackling women squealing over the goodies. Many ‘customers’ strike up a conversation, asks where we’re from and tell us they themselves are Albanian, Greek or Bulgarian. There is no begging, but lots of humour, warmth and wonderful noise.

Just as we are about to break our record of 450 items handed out across the counter, a man stops by the market. His wife is expecting twins, a girl and a boy. And so this becomes the story of two carrier bags full of baby clothes from the storage and a final count of 485 items. I recognise many of the home-knitted garments we brought along the last time I was a DiO volunteer. Plus a few colourful caps the woman can wear next winter. Definitely Norwegian knitting patterns. I send a well-earned thank you to everyone who contributes in the heart-warming north!

This is the story of Signe’s sewing project, held twice weekly in the Women’s Space. Us grandmothers (or rather Kirsten, much more skilled at sewing than I am), have been asked to help facilitate these activities. We rig all the equipment and set out the sewing machines. What a success! No one cares about language troubles. When we try our hand at the weaving-workshop in the camp, well, then the fun is complete! Because this is also the story of flexibility, and about being open to new reuse ideas from others. It is the story of four little balls of strong, woollen Rauma yarn, which Kirsten soon will turn into a new warp, using a few table legs and a stool in the Women’s Space. Four colours that become a belt within a few hours, on a spring day in Greece. Made by a mature, dexterous Afghan woman, very skilled at weaving.

This is also the story of a bonus moment for me; I have seven grandchildren at home, dearly missed. A woman in her twenties arrive at Women’s Space with her five-month-old son. She eagerly studies how the loom moves up and down – and how the warp makes a beautiful pattern. I play with the baby as best I can, but am probably a bit abrupt. Mum clenches the baby to her chest. ‘It’s her first child,’ someone says. But would you believe, this is also the story of how far baby language, humming and song will get you? Soon she hands me the baby, after I have sat next to them a little while. Many verses of Pål sine høner (a Norwegian children’s’ song) before yet another finished hair ribbon is cut from the warp, and a happy mother takes her sleepy son from the arms of an equally happy ‘Kari Trø.’

Meaningful activity does something with you. The pride of mastering something you have not tried before, creating a product that might be sold in the DropShop, which you might even be paid for in the form of Drops. The idea is that the women can sew, crochet and even weave and knit products to be sold for real money through DiO’s web shop in Norway. However, that is still a ways away. For now, it is all about the joy of creating, and the satisfaction of having made something you can use.

The only fly in the ointment is that these indoor craft activities are for women only. Both Syria and Afghanistan have long traditions with men as tailors and weavers. They even knit and have other household skills. Unfortunately, that will not work here. One reason is cultural barriers. A lack of available space is another. But there is a great deal of trust. The men are welcome to borrow sewing machines from the Women‘s Space, to repair clothes or other items. And lately, there is hope. Plans to create a carpenter’s workshop is already underfoot, where residents can borrow tools and materials for the tents in front of the containers. Just as soon as the hangar or a shipping container becomes available.

It is still morning; all is quiet in the camp on this third day of Ramadan. Not all the residents of Nea Kavala are Muslims, but they all live side by side, in mutual respect. The day before yesterday, 24 new refugees from six different countries arrived; all brought here to Northern Greece by ferry from the island of Chios, then onwards by bus. Here, they have shelter. They become a part of this small community until it is time for interview rounds and their asylum process moves a step further. Hopefully to a European country that has agreed to take them in. Unfortunately, for most, returning home or creating a future in a new home country is far into the future.

This is the story of how everything that lifts the residents’ spirit is gratefully accepted. Any alternative to passive waiting is greeted enthusiastically. Burying your nose in your mobile phone all day is harmful: reading about the horrors of war at home, longing, waiting, missing. Whenever there is an opportunity for a lovely, bubbly moment in Nea Kavala, the groundwork is laid for hope and careful optimism.

An afterword: I wrote this article a week after I returned home. Since then, there has been upsetting news from NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting). For the first time in seven years, Norwegian authorities will begin returning refugees to Greece. The reason is beyond my comprehension. As per the Dublin Regulation, the country in which the asylum seeker first applies for asylum is responsible for either accepting or rejecting the claim. However, after various organisations criticised Greece’s asylum system, many countries – including Norway – suspended transfers back to Greece. Additionally, in 2011, the ECHR ruled that returning refugees to Greece violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

As I write this, it is Pentecost 2017. According to the European Commission, conditions for asylum seekers in Greece are now considerably improved, claims state secretary Torkil Åmland (FrP) to NRK.

‘It is now completely safe to return refugees according to the Dublin Regulation,’ he adds. ‘Greece now has better reception facilities, processing procedures, and so on, so we can get started again.’

The spokesperson for the government does not know what he is talking about. He has no idea! But I know! I can say loudly: Go A Drop in the Ocean! And thank you!