Volunteering at Skaramagas Camp, Athens

It is 9:30 in the morning when we arrive at the final bus stop along the A16 route from central Athens. This is the route we travel every day, to reach the camp at the industrial port of Skaramangas. As I step onto the embankment of the busy motorway I am hit by a wave of heat. We make our way through the pedestrian underpass, accompanied by some refugees – a young family with two babies in a pushchair, a couple of teenagers returning from the city. As I follow the rubbish-strewn path I am already wishing that there were more shade.

At the entrance to the camp we pass a Greek policeman who doesn’t raise his eyes from his paperwork. We take a shortcut by climbing across some disused train tracks and through a large hole in the wire fence that surrounds the camp. From this corner of Skaramangas I can see much of the large concrete expanse on which the temporary structures have been built. The dusty ground is painted with lines, symbols and numbers that presumably had some function when this area was a shipping yard. To my right there are prefabricated cabins and containers which belong to the Red Cross and the Danish Refugee Council. In the distance I can see row upon row of white Portakabins that are home to more than 3000 people. “My friend! My friend!” shouts a small girl as she runs up to greet me. The little ones in the camp say “My friend” to all the volunteers; I like it, there is something so heart-warming and trusting about it. The girl proudly shows me a beaded necklace she has made. I can tell she is Kurdish by her traditional string earrings.

The Community Centre

The strong wind blowing from the sea is a relief as we cross the concrete and head towards the centre of the camp. It is a joy to see the children playing on the swings and flying a homemade kite. The charity I am volunteering with is named ‘A Drop in the Ocean’, or ‘Dråpen i Havet’ in its native Norwegian. Each morning the volunteers gather on the steps of the community centre, a brightly painted wooden structure with three rooms. The first room is the Hope Library. Inside are a few shelves of books for adults and children in English, Farsi and Arabic.

The librarian is a young refugee volunteer who was once a professional athlete in Syria. On the walls are drawings and paintings by the children. One of them shows a cat and a butterfly, another has a large boat with a Greek flag. At a first glance the boat picture looks bright and light hearted. It is only towards the end of my stay that I notice that the boat is surrounded by tiny people, waving their arms as they are tossed in the waves.

The Mother and Baby Centre

The mother and baby centre is a small white caravan on the edge of the camp. Outside there is a shaded concrete area with a few tables and benches draped with brightly coloured rugs. There are also several drying racks, loaded with towels and tiny baby clothes which are flapping in the strong coastal breeze.

I am carrying two cartons of milk that I have just bought from a young child at one of the many makeshift shops in the camp. I wade through the sea of pushchairs and add my shoes to the heap outside the caravan door. I try to gently coax a toddler to release his tight grip around the bars of the baby gate as I step inside. The cool air and smell of baby lotion are a relief from the stifling August heat. I bend down to cuddle a baby girl who is wearing a pretty yellow dress. Another toddler grips my patterned linen trousers to steady himself. To my left there are two female volunteers preparing baby baths and changing mats. At the other end of the room there is a soft foam mat with cushions and baby toys. Two young mothers have removed their headscarves and are sitting cross-legged on the floor. One is breastfeeding a tiny baby while the other is rocking her child as he sleeps.

The Mother and Baby Centre

“My friend, my friend!” I hear from a small girl as she tugs at my arm. She hands me a blue toy rabbit. After much gesturing, I work out that she wants me to tuck her rabbit into bed just like her little brother who is sleeping in the corner. “Shhhh!” she whispers as we gather all the soft animals and lay them gently on all the cushions around the room. She looks so proud of our work as she chatters to me in Farsi. One of the other babies stirs and I pick him up and hold him on my lap. He laughs as we play with a puppet.

This peaceful moment is shattered when a young boy aged maybe 7 or 8 charges through the door. He is crying and shouting desperately at me in Arabic but we cannot understand each other. He tries to knock over a plastic chair and throws all the books off the table and onto the floor. This violent outburst leads two of the other volunteers to take him outside. He is kicking and screaming as they try calm him down and communicate with him in English. It is only later that we realise why he might have been so distressed. We learn that the baby boy I was holding was his little brother. Presumably the older boy was so distraught because he thought I was going to take the baby away. I realise that the distress I witnessed in that young child is only the tip of the iceberg of the trauma that some of these children have experienced. I realise how helpless we are when we cannot communicate properly. We cannot help when we do not understand.

The Social Mile

The social mile is the name the volunteers give to the main ‘street’ that runs through the camp and along the waterfront. It comes alive at lunchtime when people gather around the makeshift falafel stands. The stand I’m at today is built from pieces of fencing and wooden pallets. It is covered in the UN Refugee Agency tarpaulin which is a common sight throughout the camp. A big loudspeaker is blasting Arabic music and outside there is a seating area with tables made from old crates. Some of the chairs stand out – they are made of dark carved wood with red velvet upholstery and bronze coloured pins. In the kitchen the table is covered in shiny blue foil, and the nineteen-year-old owner is singing as he works. After a few minutes he comes outside and gives me a piece of falafel straight out the deep fat fryer. Delicious! As I wait for my food I have time to marvel at the quirky decorations. There is a large Santa statue on one shelf, and a tiny water feature trickles on another. Hanging on the door are a soft toy Santa and several silver baubles. Out on the water I can see a few container ships and some mountainous land in the distance. A man perches on a bollard on the edge of the concrete and casts his fishing line into the sea. His T-shirt is oddly familiar – it takes me a minute to recognise that it is Sainsbury’s staff uniform! Another man pulls up a makeshift lobster pot which now has a pushchair and some other mangled metal entangled in it.

As I eat, I’m joined by a young father and four of his small children. I know the babies from the mother and baby centre. One of the toddlers is playing with a ball, and the father keeps a close eye that she doesn’t fall into the deep water, which is a sheer drop from the edge of the concrete. The two older girls come up to me and point at my hair. I let them touch it and before I know it there are five young girls plaiting my hair and two women tugging at it, trying to work out if it is dyed. I ask the father how old his children are and he explains with the help of some photos on his phone. He tells me that the youngest child is 6 months old and was born in Skaramangas. Another child was born when they first arrived in Greece, and he delivered another baby when his wife gave birth as they were crossing the border between Syria and Turkey. This physical representation of the timeline of their long journey in the form of these beautiful children is so moving.

English Lessons

I’ve never taught English before. Actually, I’ve never taught any school subject before. However, within hours of arriving in Skaramangas, I learn that I am to be an English teacher. My first class is for adults who are complete beginners. As the students arrive – two men and two women, I hand them a small piece of paper and a pen. I write my name in big letters on my paper: “Is-o-bel,” I say, pointing to the letters and gesturing for them to do the same. In hindsight I would feel naïve for thinking that complete beginners would be able to write using English letters. It rapidly becomes clear that some of the students are unable to read or write in their own language, and I soon realise the scale of the challenge facing me. For some students, learning to hold a pen would be the first hurdle.

A few days have passed now and after some ups and downs we’ve got into a rhythm. If I want to teach the students a word that I can’t draw a picture of, I find it in an English to Arabic dictionary. Then I show the Arabic translation toone of the men who is Syrian and can read and write well in Arabic. He then passes on the translation to another man who is a Yazidi Christian from Kurdistan. The message is passed on in Kurdish to his wife who translates it into a different Kurdish dialect for another lady who is from Iran. Today I’m testing them with paper flashcards that I’ve made with pictures of different animals. “A cow!” says one man proudly as he explains through gestures that he used to own a herd in Kurdistan. “A coat!” says one of the ladies. “Almost!” I say, smiling. We laugh as I draw a coat and a goat side by side on the white board.

English lesson

Later in the lesson we continue practising the English alphabet. We celebrate when one of the ladies writes her name from memory for the first time. Her improvement and perseverance is amazing. At the beginning of the week she was breaking the lead of every pencil she tried to write with. Now she is radiant as she proudly shows me her name in rather shaky but definitely recognisable characters.

My other English class is for advanced students. They are all young and most of them have been learning English for a long time, either at school or university. One of the girls tells me that she was a student in Syria before her family had to leave. Another of the students is a young man from Iran who has never been to school and has only had three months of English lessons, all at Skaramangas. Despite these difficulties he is able to keep up with the rest of the class and speaks English very well. I never knew that someone could learn a language in such a short time. Here in Skaramangas, it seems, anything is possible.

Today the lesson is focused on learning directions so we are poring over a large map of a town. “How can I get to the post office from the supermarket?” I ask. “Turn left at the roundabout and then turn right,” answers one of the students. At the other end of the room a couple of children are playing with some balloons. Suddenly one of the balloons bursts with a loud bang. Immediately, the room is flooded by a wave of anxiety and tension. It is clear that this sound triggers a painful memory for some of the students. We try to carry on as normal for the last ten minutes of the lesson, but something about the atmosphere is just never the same again.

A Visit to a Caravan

One of the men in my beginners’ English class has kindly invited me to his caravan to meet his family. Accompanied by another volunteer I walk up and down the rows of caravans until we reach the right number. The door has been replaced with a thin curtain and the family greets us when we knock. The caravan is split into two rooms with a tiny shower room in between. The left hand room has two piles of foam mattresses and a small stove in the corner. The other room has foam mattresses along each of the walls, and the family is gathered on the floor. I’m amazed to learn that twelve people live in this tiny space which is smaller than my living room. Although we can’t communicate well, the family is warm and welcoming. One of the ladies has cooked some coconut sweets and she pours me a very strong Arabic tea. With translation help from the teenagers we chat about food, football and our families. I smile when the women ask me a common question: “How old is your mother?” When I tell them they turn to each other in amusement and disbelief!

The Orange Falafel Stand

This is my favourite place to eat falafel. It is a small shack clad in UNHCR tarpaulin. A shy man in his thirties makes me a delicious falafel wrap with fresh lettuce and peppers. He will only accept 1 euro in payment, and shakes his head when I attempt to offer more. I try to ignore the puddle of water collecting at his feet, which is coming from a nearby residential caravan. This shop is known as the orange falafel stand because the inside has bright orange cloth lining the ceiling and the walls. The wooden food preparation bench is covered in a white flowery plastic sheet. As I balance precariously on a broken plastic chair the daughter of the owner comes out to join me. She is about seven years old with straight black hair and a bright pink T-shirt and shorts. I say hello and she smiles shyly. Taking off her pink sandals she stands barefoot on the hot sticky concrete. I grimace as this is the exact same place that I saw a large brown rat being chased by several small children just hours before. Unfazed, she shows me how she can throw a marble to land in her sandals from several metres away. Her aim is remarkably accurate, no doubt a result of the many months she has been here with very little to entertain her.

Another day at the orange falafel stand I’m joined by two Red Cross workers. They are very friendly and tell me that they are cultural mediators. This means that they accompany residents on trips to the hospital and to Omonia in central Athens where asylum interviews take place. Between them they can speak Kurdish, Arabic, Farsi, English and Greek. As I sit in the small patch of shade under the awning of the falafel stand, a mother and a small child walk past. I know them from the mother and baby centre, and they wave and smile when they see me. The little boy is almost on tiptoes as he reaches up to hold his mother’s hand. As they walk away he kicks off his sandals. “Yala!” (“Come on!”) his mother scolds gently. And as he puts his shoes back on he turns around and grins at me.

A few metres away a teenage boy knocks on the window of a large white caravan. The window opens and an aid worker hands out a white plastic carrier bag. This is the food distribution centre for unaccompanied minors. The camp is home to about 30 children aged under 16, who have no family members to buy or prepare food for them. The boy rummages around in the bag, nods and walks away between the rows of caravans.