human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

In the Skaramagas refugee camp

Caritas Greece provides hope and dignity

If you google Skaramagas you will learn that it is a port town with large shipyards on the western side of Athens. However, since the beginning of 2016, Skaramagas also hosts a “temporary” refugee camp, a kind of waiting room where migrants coming mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are staying before being resettled elsewhere in Europe. In Skaramagas, they can also learn whether their request for relocation has been approved or rejected.

When visiting Skaramagas, the first thing that you notice is that nobody is stopping you at the entrance. It is also true that unofficial entrances are more popular than the official gates, depending on which part of the camp you wish to reach faster. Maybe 1000 people are living there, most probably many more. Fact is that it is very difficult to know exactly how many people are living in the camp. On the external wall of the containers, crosses of different colours indicate whether there is still any free room inside.

Most of the containers look the same, no matter if they are meant for living, sporting, school, playground, health care, worshiping or even working. Around the main square you can recognise the logos of different NGOs, UN agencies and the Red Cross. It is difficult to discern which ones are still active in the camp because most of the doors are well locked. The general environment looks rather quiet, you can hear and smell the sea despite it being well hidden behind the containers beyond. Among all these alike-looking containers, it is however very easy to recognise the red and blue Caritas ones with their open curtains and a welcoming small carpet at the entrance.

In the picture above, you can see Anna and her group of students. She is working for Caritas Hellas as a volunteering English teacher. When we arrive, Anna is teaching to a group of women. We meet all of them and the exchange of presentations is turned into a perfect moment to test their English skills and measure their progress, while possessive adjectives are listed on the whiteboard. It is in this joyful atmosphere that they start to share some things about their stories and we realise what a great job Caritas Greece is doing with them and how successful they are in creating safe spaces for women like this group to feel comfortable enough to talk about their journey.

In the blue container we find Katarina. She is a social worker and acts as a community facilitator in Caritas Greece. Katarina is having a cup of tea with Jihan, Ahlam, Kamal, Rania and Ahmad, all of them are between 21 and 27 years old. This week, the group will finish a professional training to become hairdressers. You can see real passion and excitement in their eyes. They haven’t missed one class in the last four months. Nothing has stopped them from coming, not even the regular traffic jams and strikes of public transports. It takes them one hour and a half to arrive to the camp the same for coming back. 3 hours in all. Might sound like a long time and yet it is something close to nothing when you’ve been walking for three months to reach Europe. All of them would like to go to Germany where members of their families are living. They wonder how their life will be there, although they have heard from their relatives living there that it will be fine.

Asylum procedures are long and often disappointing. It is therefore not surprising that people try to reach their final destination using alternative ways. Some residents have “vanished” from the camp. One just can hope that they are safe and have reached their destination. However the risk of ending up injured, in the traps of traffickers or even dead is high. Would not it be better to foresee safe and legal paths to Europe?

The story of Jihan, Ahlam, Kamal, Rania,  Ahmad and the women of the English class, is a concrete sign of hope and an important reminder of the role that Caritas has to continue to play in the life of people in similar situations.