“One refugee camp is not like the other”

Hannes, an international volunteer field worker with A Drop in the Ocean, arrived in Nea Kavala just as the refugee camp was moved to a new site. In this blog post, he shares his thoughts and experiences of volunteering in Northern Greece.

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Hannes. Foto/Photo: Nives Zun

Before I came to Nea Kavala refugee camp, I had a preconceived idea in my head of what a refugee camp would look like. I pictured flooded tents, soaked mattrasses, no access to water and desperate people. I expected what I had seen on the news. It turned out that Nea Kavala was different. One refugee camp is not like the other.

I arrived in mid-March, during the final stage of ‘the move’. Hundreds of old containers placed disorganised on the runway of the disused airfield, some painted with graffiti and many damaged, were replaced by new containers in the new site. The new containers consist of a bathroom, air-conditioning, and a little kitchen. They are numbered and well-organised in three sections. There is also a playground with a swing set and a slide, as well as a basketball court and a volleyball pitch. Overall, it seemed to me like a huge improvement for the residents.

The move happened after my first day in the camp and left me with many questions. I could not justify the anger towards authorities in charge that I had developed before I came. This clean and neat new camp made me think that efforts to improve the situation were taking place.

Running the youth club and teaching English, I quickly came to know the residents. Though I was confronted by a language barrier by not speaking French, Arabic, or Farsi, I had some good conversations with residents who spoke English. These conversations gave me a better understanding of the situation the residents are in.

I found out that the new containers are not welcomed by everyone. The new containers have better facilities, but the layout means that there is much less floor space. Each container is shared by up to eight people, sometimes from different families. I started thinking how I would feel if I had no option to ever be by myself when I needed it.

The wall around Nea Kavala refugee camp. Photo: Thea Jerejian

Soon after the move, the authorities ordered the residents to build a concrete wall around the entire new camp. In the Greek summer heat, men were stacking concrete elements the size of small cars for pittance. I struggled to act normal while walking past them on my way to English class. I felt lucky to be carrying English sheets instead of a hammer, but also ashamed of my privilege to be able to do so. This is probably the most inhumane thing I have ever witnessed.

Quite a few things have changed after the wall was completed. The camp now feels more like the inside of a prison, while our Youth Club activities have been put on hold. Children that once played during these sessions keep asking when Youth Club will come back. I don’t know. I have come to realise that the move and everything that went along with it is not at all in favour of the residents.

How do the residents respond to all of this? I do not know and do not dare speculate. I have only met with a fraction of the about 1200 people that live in Nea Kavala. I have listened to their stories, their worries, and their fears. Quite often I am at a loss for words. Their lives and their experiences are so different from mine. Nevertheless, these people express hope, positivity, and a strong will to move on and go forward no matter what.

I am from Germany, my family is safe, and my passport means I can go, basically, wherever I want. Volunteering with A Drop in the Ocean, I have come to understand that all the things I have taken for granted – education, safety, opportunity – are what the residents want. I knew that going to Greece I would have to confront my privilege. But I did not expect to meet so many inspiring persons. I leave with a newfound appreciation for the things in my life.