Life under lockdown in a Greek refugee camp

“There’s nothing to do”, explains Nabil (not his real name). “We just wake up, eat and sleep”. Nabil, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee, has been living in the Nea Kavala camp in northern Greece, just next to the Macedonian border for almost one year. He’s here with his mother and younger brother, and the family hope to join his older brother who has settled in Dresden, Germany.

[All photographs in this article were taken before the Covid-19 pandemic]

Decorated containers at Nea Kavala © Carlos Gutiérrez

“There used to be language classes, activities for women and for children. Now, because the camp is in lockdown, nobody comes in.” The presence of medical staff has also significantly reduced, leaving just one doctor to treat over 2,000 refugees, and all meals must now be cooked by the refugees themselves in shared kitchens.

A refugee (not Nabil) prepares dinner in the camp © Carlos Gutiérrez

“One family tested positive for Covid-19 and have been separated into one room, but they still have to use the same kitchen and bathroom as us”, explains Nabil with frustration in his voice.

Bathrooms at Nea Kavala © Carlos Gutiérrez

Nabil and his family moved from the Moria camp in November last year, where they’d been for a few months. This is the same place that hit the headlines a month ago for a fire that ripped through the camp.

“We spent six months in the Moria camp where there are 25,000 people. Imagine, one bathroom for 200 people. It was very cold, so we would collect wood from the mountain forest nearby and burn it at night”. This is a big contrast to the Nea Kavala camp, which is on an old military airfield surrounded by flat, featureless crop fields.

The Nea Kavala camp © Sara Aminiyan
Tents and containers in Nea Kavala © Carlos Gutiérrez

There’s no shade from the sun and no shelter from the wind. There’s no electricity, and only families who have been living here for years are housed in the containers. Newer arrivals, just like Nabil and his family who arrived this year, are given tents.

“The tent is hot during the day, you feel yourself almost burning. At night, it’s very cold, especially now that winter is coming. I’m scared about how cold it’s going to be. We have nothing to keep ourselves warm. In the future, maybe they’ll give us blankets – I don’t know.”

A tent exposed to the elements © Carlos Gutiérrez

Nabil explains that the government gives each adult resident of the camp €100 a month to buy food. They can leave the camp to visit the supermarket, but mustn’t venture too far. “Sometimes you can escape to another road and you can get out. If they catch you they give you a fine. A few days ago, one of my friends got a fine for €150. He has two months to pay it. If not, it increases.”

The camp often floods © Carlos Gutiérrez

Nabil has been working since he left school at age 11 and moved to Lebanon where he trained as a carpenter. His father stayed behind in Damascus and worked as a taxi driver, but he can no longer work as petrol is too expensive, Nabil explains. “Damascus is a densely population city because it’s safe. There’s no war, no fighting. People flee other parts of Syria to sleep on the streets of Damascus – it’s too expensive to afford rent never mind food.”

Two friends sit together in Nea Kavala © Sara Aminiyan

Greece is the busiest gateway to Europe and sees the bulk of refugee arrivals. Since 2014, over 400,000 refugees have arrived in Greece by land and sea, making up around half of all refugees who arrive into Europe. Around 40% are men, 24% are women and 36% are children. So far this year, 12,842 refugees have arrived in Greece, most of whom come from Afghanistan, Syria, the D.R. of Congo, Iraq and Palestine. One in 200 die or go missing before arriving.

A child outside her temporary home © Carlos Gutiérrez
A young girl poses for the camera from her temporary home © Sara Aminiyan

The Nea Kavala camp is not the only place refugees have been housed. The most vulnerable families were, until recently, placed in hotels and flats in the town of Polykastro nearby, and it’s with these children that Carlos Gutiérrez created a photography project.

A disposable camera photograph taken by Polykastro’s refugee children

You may remember Carlos from an earlier article I wrote. He’s the photographer behind the disposable camera project with children in Sector 6 of Madrid’s shanty town, the Cañada Real. He then went to Greece and gave the children cameras to go home with and play with. Here are the results…

The children have captured positive moments with their friends and family, playing, eating, exploring and going to school. These photographs are a rare window into the optimism they see their situation with, but which sadly does not reflect the reality.

The families living in the town of Polykastro have since been ordered to return to the Nea Kavala camp. What they return to is danger, as Sara Aminiyan, an Open Cultural Center volunteer at the camp explains: “It’s so hard. Women and girls are afraid to go outside after around 7 pm, or go anywhere alone. They’re scared of men. We have to shine a light on this situation.”

Women build a mud stove © Carlos Gutiérrez
The stove is a place to come together © Carlos Gutiérrez
A resident of Nea Kavala sits outside her shelter © Carlos Gutiérrez
Life pre-lockdown in NK © Sara Aminiyan
Life pre-lockdown © Carlos Gutiérrez

Sometimes Nabil wonders if he made the right decision coming to Greece and if he should just return back to Lebanon. After all, he had a job, a home and a life there, but despite the trauma of living in refugee camps, especially during lockdown, Nabil believes it’s worth hanging in there and hopes to join his brother in Germany in time for Christmas.

“I’m waiting for my appointment to do my fingerprint. They told me my travel documents were invalid, so once I get my appointment, I then have to wait one or two more months, then hopefully I can go”.

Sunset over the camp © Sara Aminiyan

I ask Nabil what he’s hoping for when he finally makes it to Dresden. “I want to learn German, try sky-diving and do a degree in special effects and video animation”. He then brings the conversation closer to his current situation and says, “I just want the authorities to give the people our travel documents and just let us go, because nobody wants to stay here. We don’t need their help. The only thing we want is to leave this island.”

Thank you to ‘Nabil’ for speaking with me, for Sara Aminiyan for organising our interview and to both her and to Carlos Gutiérrez for their photographs and help in creating this article.

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