As the world is gripped by the refugee crisis, there’s one community in a quiet corner of Greece that’s becoming a blueprint for a global society.

Editor's note: First published in November 2015, the camp is now under threat of closure. If you wish to show your support you can sign this petition. Please read on to find out about the fantastic support provided within this refugee community.

 

Migrants
Image: Fade sits with his 18-month-old son Mohammed in PIKPA

Fade, a 40-year-old telecommunications officer from the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, is tending to his vegetable patch in a refugee camp known as PIKPA, on the Greek island of Lesbos.

“I plant this garden with vegetables for those who come after me,” he says, while gently tilling the soil in the morning sunshine. “My family and I will have travelled on by the time these are ready to eat, but the next refugees who come here can benefit from it."

“I had a villa with land and horses, but the war changed all of that. When I sit here, my mind is still in Syria with our friends who haven’t been able to leave. We know Europe isn’t a paradise. If the war ends, we’ll return—my life is in Syria. But for now we need safety.”

PIKPA is the name of an old social welfare holiday camp for children established in 1938, situated a few hundred yards from the Aegean Sea in Lesbos, Greece. The site had long been closed when, in September 2012, a loose group of individuals and local NGOs established a self-help network, initially perceived as an antidote to the social and economic devastation in Greece after the 2009 banking collapse. They called their group “The Village of Altogether”.
 

boy refugee
Image: A refugee child plays in the grounds of PIKPA

Driven by its ethos of solidarity and mutual support for all people, the group approached the mayor of Mytilini—the island’s biggest town—and asked that PIKPA be used as a facility to accommodate the refugees drawn to Greek shores from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and others.

The Village of Altogether now runs this camp as a haven and hospitality centre under the principle that all people should be treated with dignity. The autonomous group lacks any national or European funding. It has over a hundred affiliated members on Lesbos, but an active core of around just ten to 15 people.

They provide accommodation for the most vulnerable refugees; the disabled, injured, elderly, pregnant women, single women with children and family groups with very young infants are, if possible, referred to PIKPA. Volunteers offer food, clothes, hygienic facilities, medical help and legal counselling. Most importantly, they offer a warm and open welcome.

Mytilini resident Efi Latsoudi is a long-time volunteer at PIKPA, active in The Village of Altogether since the beginning. She recalls, “Last week it was like a war zone. We had 20,000 hungry and tired refugees on the island with no information from the government on where they should go and what the correct procedure for their registration was." 

 

"Europe is now experiencing its biggest movement of people since the end of the Second World War."

 

The island—with a population of 80,000—is still receiving around a thousand new asylum seekers each day. Europe is now experiencing its biggest movement of people since the end of the Second World War.

Dimitria Ippioty is a 25-year-old voluntary nurse. She’s unpaid and on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “The only solution is to somehow stop these wars, so people can go home," she says. "Until then, we must do the best we can to help.”
 

rufugees
Image: 22-year-old Hassat Abdul Haman from Syria arrives safely on Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea
 

She adds, “We have a lot of people injured during the crossing, legs cut open as they scramble over the rocks to shore. There’s also a high amount of mental trauma caused by what they’ve seen and been through.”

There is, for example, six-year-old Abdul Masavee with his sister, parents and grandmother. The family came from Bamiyan in the central highlands of Afghanistan. They crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey in a flimsy dinghy, described by a volunteer as “bits of rubber with the glue coming apart as they cross the water”. Their dinghy was so overloaded with people that Abdul’s leg got broken when he was trampled underfoot in the crowded conditions.

Today, Abdul is riding the wheelchair provided by PIKPA down to the beach for the Masavee family’s first-ever experience of swimming in an ocean. This scene looks so joyous that one may forget the hardships they’ve endured as a family.

 

"The scene looks so joyous that one may forget the hardships they’ve endured as a family."

 

Around 7am is the usual time for the first boats of the day coming from Turkey to appear on the horizon.

Hege Bjornebye and Katrine Vatne, both from Norway, are already at the scene on Limantziki beach, waving some discarded orange lifejackets to give the boats a point of reference for landing. “This is apparently illegal” says Hege, with a hint of irony in her voice, referring to the Greek law forbidding any assistance to crossing refugees, even if it’s just in the form of navigational aid.

The three boats come in swiftly one after the other. As usual, children are passed over to be taken ashore first, then it becomes rather unscripted and everyone scrambles out. 
 

Refugee
Image: A refugee collapses at the Moria Registration Centre, weakened by the journey in 34C heat
 

For a moment, the scene on the beach is one of jubilation and relief. Hassat Abdul Haman, a 22-year-old Syrian, has dropped to his knees and is thanking God for his safe passage. He and his group have travelled from Syria through Kurdistan and Turkey to here. Both his father and brother have been killed in the war in Syria. Then the tears come. 

The refugees will now have to walk two-and-a-half miles to the first rallying point, where water, food and clothes are distributed. Hopefully, but not always, buses will take them from there to Oxi.

Before these buses everyone—men, women, children, the disabled and the injured—would have had to walk 25 miles to Moria to be registered and then to Mytilini port for the passage to mainland Greece.

 

"Of the 430,000 men, women and children who have crossed the Mediterranean waters to mainland Europe so far this year, 2,748 have drowned or gone missing."

 

Tragically, not all of the boats make it to shore. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that of the 430,000 men, women and children who have crossed the Mediterranean waters to mainland Europe so far this year, 2,748 have drowned or gone missing. Bearing witness to this loss of life is Saint Panteleimos Cemetery, set on the hillside above the port of Mytilini. Here, the bodies washed ashore on Lesbos are buried.

“One of the worst projects is the graves,” explains Efi Latsoudi. “We want to bury people with a bit of dignity. Because of the financial situation here in Greece, the refugees have to dig the graves themselves for those who have drowned.”
 

grave stones
Image: Graves of refugees who perished at sea. Many of them are marked agnostos, Greek for “unknown"
 

Back at PIKPA, there’s a happier atmosphere in the air. Children are playing freely on swings and merry-go-rounds in the camp grounds while the adults take on the care and duty of keeping PIKPA spotless before cooking the evening meal. Three-year-old Norsarine Masavee, rummaging among the donated children’s toys, has discovered a music box. As she opens it, it’s the melody of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—of all tunes—that can be heard.

As the sound of this optimistic hymn—which is now the official anthem of the EU—drifts across the camp, Joel Johannson quietly articulates the universal sentiments of those who are bearing witness to this almost-biblical exodus of refugees: “We are all actually in this together.”
 

Editor's note: First published in November 2015, the camp is now under threat of closure. If you wish to show your support you can sign this petition.

PIKPA Lesvos has this to say:

"PIKPA camp, which hosts vulnerable refugees, is under threat of closure. It has been one of the best examples of solidarity in action. The threat of closure is both an attack on solidarity groups and part of the EU/Turkey plan of detention, deprivation of liberty & deportation."

 

Read the full article in the December issue of Reader's Digest

You can donate to the Refugee Council, who work directly with refugees to help them rebuild their lives, here

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