A volunteer’s perspective on returning to Greece

19. October, 2016
By Tomas O’Loingsigh

Tomas joined Better Days after being exposed to the intensity of the refugee crisis on a previous trip through Greece and Europe. Here he shares his perspective on the desire to help and his work at Elpida.

Last year I was in Athens documenting the austerity crisis and the movement against it, but now I’ve been caught up in the larger, spiraling refugee crisis. I slept out on cardboard in Larissa Square in Athens, close to Golden Dawn’s headquarters, with little groups and families of Syrian refugees sleeping all around us, who were waiting to take the train to Thessaloniki the next morning and passing around rumours about what was happening on the borders. In Pedion Tou Areos, the vast park in Central Athens, we talked to Afghan and Syrian migrants at their makeshift camps.

That summer we hitchhiked north from Greece to Germany, following much the same route as the refugees, often waiting for hours at the borders as Europe closed its frontiers. We crossed into Austria on the day its Hungarian border was closed, all roads and trains stopped and shut. We hung about the last little Hungarian village until we heard that the border was open to people on foot, so we started to walk the fifteen or twenty kilometres across the border to the nearest Austrian town. At the border we saw containment camps, the police and military men, the military trucks lined up to take refugees onwards towards Germany.

In the year since, however, the story has ossified and become stale in the media. The vast movements of people have slowed and stopped in some places. There are still refugees all across Europe and the Middle East, in camps from Kurdistan and Jordan to migrant centres in Sachen-Anhalt, in anarchist squats in the Greek cities and in dirty and chaotic military camps outside them. Now the refugees are waiting, waiting for asylum applications to be processed, or for smugglers to take them onwards. I am back again now, and this time I am not moving much either, but working here in Elpida, the safest camp that I have seen for families yet.

Looking at a photographic exhibition in Thessaloniki’s Museum of Photography, at the images of men and women walking, carrying their children, along railway lines and barbed wire, I am struck by the monumental nature of this crisis. My secret motivation to be here might be, more than any unselfish altruism, the desire not to be a bystander but, for once, a participant in the events of the world. This time I can say, at least, I was there too. I did what I could.

The trouble is that much of the time there does not seem to be all that much we can do. The days of last summer, last winter, when men and women arrived on the islands, soaked and shivering, are over for some. What many people need now is not hot tea. The original solidarity of the Europeans who welcomed the first refugees last year has stagnated as displaced people wait and wait in their camps. But here we are. And Elpida is no ordinary camp. This camp is proof, held up to Europe and the Greek government, that asylum seekers can be treated with dignity.

So the children study Arabic in the morning. They attend Greek schools in the afternoons – the first refugee children in Greece to be integrated into the Greek schools. I am teaching English to adults, grown men who listen attentively as I try to guide them through the nuances of English grammar, and to teenagers, who already speak it well but want to learn more, to study at university when they finally reach the country where they will settle.

And it is not all one-sided. I have been learning too, learning Arabic from a young man who was unafraid to stand up in front of a group of foreign volunteers and start explaining Arabic grammar. Despite the tension and boredom common to asylum situations, here at Elpida we are starting to build something more, a community. It is something you see in the communal kitchen where the women cook their traditional dishes with fresh food, in the sweaty t-shirts on the football courts in the afternoon, and in the classroom, where laughter and solidarity are emboldened by learning together.