Making dinner in Pikpa refugee camp

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

When I volunteered with Syrian refugees near Idomeni, northern Greece, in April 2016, I saw a lot of misery and listened to many a distressing tale, some of which found their way into my book Hara Hotel. Yet the strongest feeling I came away with was intense admiration for the resilience of the refugees – particularly the women – and pride in the “ordinary” Europeans, who were flocking into the area to plug the many gaps in provision left by the EU and the big NGOs.

Two years later, on the anniversary of the EU-Turkey Agreement of 2016 – the one which drastically slowed the flow of refugees into Europe via the eastern Mediterranean route – I returned to Greece. This time I visited Lesbos, to meet recently arrived Syrians.

Fewer people have been deported to Turkey under the Agreement than was originally anticipated. The threat of deportation remains, however; and the Greek policy of confining asylum seekers to the islands whilst their asylum claims are processed has caused unnecessary suffering. For a refugee fleeing war, torture or sexual violence, a wait of up to two years in a tense and overcrowded camp a few nautical miles from the Turkish mainland can have a devastating effect on already fragile mental health.

I was not optimistic when I arrived in Mytilini, port city of Lesbos. I’d read about the dire conditions in Moria, the former army camp where up to six refugees died of cold in the bitter winter of 2016-17 and where some new arrivals are held in detention. I’d heard about the extreme overcrowding, the protests which regularly become riots, the fires, the police use of tear gas, and the ubiquitous sexual violence, which makes the camp a place of serious danger for lone women and unaccompanied minors. I also knew that a recent change in the rules had put single Syrian men at risk of detention on arrival, in preparation for possible deportation to Turkey.

Moria is strictly off limits to visitors; but on my first afternoon I met a young Syrian woman in the road outside the camp. She offered to take me in, advising me to wrap my scarf around my head. I did as she suggested, and together we sauntered through a gap in the high wire fencing.

What I saw as we toured the camp fitted with the descriptions I’d read, confirming my sense that Moria should be a major embarrassment to all EU governments. Most of the flimsy summer tents had now been replaced by metal “Isoboxes”, but 20 men sharing a box is commonplace; communal shower blocks offer only cold water in winter and, for women, the risk of assault; food consists of ready meals in plastic boxes. The worst thing I saw was a ten-foot-tall wire cage, inside which I could just make out the shape of refugees, seated at tables, undergoing asylum interviews. It reminded me of the metal cages through which the Israelis herd Palestinians seeking to enter Israel.

Later in the week, however, I discovered two remarkable projects which I’d not read about in the press. To me, these projects set shining examples of how refugees can be received and hosted with sensitivity and respect. They also demonstrate the huge advantages to be gained through active collaboration between refugees and helpers; both projects draw heavily on the skills and energy of the refugees.

* * *

One Happy Family (OHF), as it is optimistically named, is a community centre that operates on a disused industrial site on a hilltop overlooking the sea. It was initiated in February 2017 by a Swiss man, Michael Rabers, who had felt uneasy about the plight of refugees while holidaying on Lesbos. He and a group of his Swisscross volunteers went to Moria and asked people what they needed most. “Something to do!” came the loud and clear reply. Rabers and his team got it at once. While the refugees wait, month after month, for their asylum claims to be processed, they desperately need the sense of purpose that comes with meaningful activity.

OHF is now an independent association funded and supported mainly by individuals. The British charity Help Refugees is one of a few bigger donors. The site was constructed, and is now run, by the combined labour, creativity and ingenuity of refugees and helpers. Sixty-two refugee volunteers attend the centre every day to help operate a wide range of projects, in collaboration with around ten internationals and six coordinators, all of whom are volunteers. As to the “users”, between 600 and 700 refugees visit daily from nearby Moria and Kara Tepe camps.

I was met on arrival by a smiling Swiss primary-school teacher who was on a three-month sabbatical. “OHF is like a bubble for the refugees,” she explained as she ushered me into the main hall, where a hundred or more people, mostly young men, were conversing at trestle tables. “For a few hours each day they’re free to live a normal life. We try to make it a safe space for everyone.” I noted a cluster of women with buggies at one end of the hall and a couple of teenage girls arguing in a corner.

In order to create a sense of normality, the woman explained, everyone who visits OHF is provided with a few bank notes in an invented currency, the “Drachma”. This gives them the ability to “buy” tea in the café or hygiene items in the shop. Or then again they might choose to visit the barber’s booth for a trim, or get their torn clothes fixed at the tailor’s workshop. All are staffed by refugees.

Lunch is provided by a kitchen team headed by a Syrian chef, whose helpers include a Tunisian and two Rohingya. There’s a school, with mainly refugee teachers; an adventure playground, a crèche and a medical centre. For adults there’s a gym, a sports area, a women’s centre, a library, a cinema and a vegetable garden, all constructed collaboratively over the last year. English and Greek language classes are held daily, in one of eight timber classrooms built by volunteers.

The range of activities was astonishing; but what struck me even more was the upbeat atmosphere. Debate and laughter echoed through the hall. Arabic was the most common language, spoken by the Syrians, Iraqis and other Arabs; then came Dari and Farsi, spoken by the mainly young women and men from Afghanistan. French was used by the Africans (many of whom were from Congo) and English was the lingua franca.

“Is the atmosphere always this good?” I asked.

“Generally.” My hostess smiled. “Of course, we’re a big mixture of people with different cultures and different languages, and there can be misunderstandings; but mostly, if there’s a difficulty, people are ready to take a step back, calm down and try to find a solution.”

I “bought” a sugary black tea with my laminated bank note and wandered out into the yard at the back of the hall. Twenty or so Syrian women were sitting on wooden boxes with their babies and toddlers, enjoying the spring sunshine. Behind them, at the foot of the hill, white breakers rolled in on the grey-blue sea. A sharp-looking woman in an orange headscarf eyed me as she rocked a baby in her arms. We started to chat and she told me she’d gone into labour as she crossed from Syria into Turkey. “I had a caesarian,” she added, “in a Turkish hospital.”

I gulped. “Did you get to rest?”

The woman tossed her head. “Few days, then we carried on to Izmir.”

She gestured at a man and a couple of small children playing under a tree, her family. “Where are you from?” she demanded.




“It’s different in your country, isn’t it?” she said in a sympathetic tone, leaning towards me. “For you, divorce is acceptable.” I smiled in agreement. “For us,” she sighed, wrinkling up her nose, “marriage is till death.”

The woman was from Deir ez-Zor, the oil city in eastern Syria from which ISIS had recently been ousted by the regime. I asked how life had been under their rule.

She grimaced. “Very, very hard. We were forced to wear black from head to toe.”

“And now you’re wearing red!” I pointed at her full-length red velvet robe.

She grinned. “I love red!” Then her face fell. “It was terrible living under Daesh. They killed my little brother, just because he wouldn’t fight.” She took out her phone and showed me a photo of a young boy. “He was just 16. They told him, ‘either you join us as a fighter, or we kill you’.” She drew her forefinger across her neck, to be sure I’d understood.

* * *

On my second visit to OHF, a couple of days later, I sat in the tiny tailor’s workshop, watching the Syrian Kurdish tailor deal adroitly with a long line of customers. Most had garments in urgent need of repair, but some requests were driven by the demands of fashion – “I can’t wear these trousers, they’re too baggy, can you turn them into drainpipes?” A young woman brought a sequin-spangled evening gown, to be taken in at the waist.

After an hour enjoying the banter, I thanked the tailor and walked into the hall. Here a child of about three seized my hand and led me to his seated mum, a petite woman in a white headscarf holding a sickly-looking baby in her arms. She greeted me warmly and patted the space beside her. The baby, she said, had just come out of hospital in Mytilini. He’d been poorly for a month. I asked what she’d thought of the medical care.

“I didn’t feel confident, but what could I do?”

A moment later she pointed out her three other children, who were playing nearby. Then, without more ado, she told me the following. “I lost my two-year-old daughter on the crossing from Turkey. The sea was rough and the boat was overcrowded, with 70 of us crammed in together. I had the baby in my arms and I thought the children were all with my husband. But he didn’t notice when our little girl got trapped under the feet of some passengers. She couldn’t breathe. She died.”

I held eye contact with the woman as she told me the story. The pain in her face was clear to see, and I sensed her need to unburden herself. Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke, as did mine, but I could feel her determination to hold herself together. Giving way to grief was simply not an option.

* * *

A couple of days later, I walked from Mytilini to Pikpa camp, taking the road that follows the coast. The night before, 16 refugees had drowned when their old wooden boat broke up off the coast of Agathonisi, near Samos. Six young children had perished; two women and a man had swum ashore. A bare six miles separates the coast of Asia from the coast of Europe; and as I walked, turning over in my mind the enormity of the children’s plight, I gazed at the rugged Turkish coastline, apparently so close across the narrow strait.

I’d heard that Pikpa was as impressive as OHF, and I was not disappointed. Set back a couple of hundred yards from the sea, in a grove of tall pines, the site was once a children’s holiday camp. In 2012 a group of Greek activists took it over, hoping to provide both support to local families hit by the economic crisis and assistance to refugees. Six years later, Pikpa hosts 120 refugees and is part of the local NGO Lesbos Solidarity (LS). Pikpa is run by a small team of mainly Greek paid staff, a large group of volunteers from all over the world, and the residents, who help out when they can. LS also run a community centre in the heart of Mytilini, the Mosaic Support Centre.

UNHCR identifies the most vulnerable among the refugees in Moria, both individuals and families, for transfer to Pikpa and other shelters. The reasons for vulnerability vary, but include serious health problems, being a survivor of torture or sexual assault, and grief at recent bereavement. I was shown round Pikpa by a tall young woman from LS. She showed me spacious timber huts which house individual families and sturdily constructed tents shared by single men.

I was struck by a sense of order and calm, enhanced by the beauty of the sunlight filtering through the pine branches. All the refugees’ basic needs are met on site, with education for children, language classes for adults, medical care, psycho-social support, a choir, arts and crafts and a vegetable garden. The newest, experimental project was a kindergarten, where local Greek children mix with refugee children.

“Pikpa really is a community,” my guide explained. “There’s work for everybody who wants it. Some teach; others help in the kitchen. We have a construction and maintenance team which is always busy. A very important part of our ethos is to discourage dependency. Take the weekly cleaning programme: everybody has a task.”

“Does it work?”

“Mostly, it works well. We’re a big family and, like every big family, we’re dysfunctional at times.”

She ushered me into a shed where a young Syrian lad sat on the floor with a large pair of scissors and a pile of used neoprene life jackets. “This is Ziad. He cuts the straps off the life jackets and our project in Mytilini makes them into bags.”
The sight of the salt-stained life jackets moved me, because it spoke so eloquently of the danger the refugees had been in on the sea. I remembered seeing photos of Lesbos beaches in 2015, littered with abandoned life-jackets and remnants of rubber dinghies.

As we walked back towards the office, I asked how long Pikpa residents stay. “Anything from one week to more than a year.” The woman sighed. “Pikpa is unstable, because the whole island is unstable. When people arrive, they don’t know if it’ll be for one week or two years.”

I was beginning to wonder why a refugee lucky enough to be placed at Pikpa would be in a hurry to leave.

“Oh, but the island feels like a prison to the refugees,” the woman explained. “People are desperate to be transferred to Athens. Leaving the island is a step away from the risk of deportation, a step closer to their future.”

I left Lesbos feeling less depressed than I’d expected. Of the 7,000-plus refugees living on the island in spring 2018, fewer than 1,000 would get to spend their days at OHF or live at Pikpa. But for those who did, and for the international helpers who mixed with them, the sense of comradeship, respect and mutual support would leave a lasting, positive impression.
It is to Europe’s deep shame that its policy of obliging most refugees in Greece to endure long waits in dire conditions does the opposite.

Donations to support the work of OHF and Pikpa can be made at and