When the refugee problem comes to our minds, we think about war, about violation of human rights, families torn apart, orphans, misery, hunger ...
When we think about refugee camps, we might think about Calais – ‘The Jungle’ as was. Other camps receive less press.
Following an inspirational talk to our club by Gillie Stenvers about the terrible conditions in the Katsikás camp on the Macedonian border, I decided to go and see the situation for myself.
At the beginning of October, I arrived in Ioannina, a Greek town close to the Macedonian and Albanian borders where several refugee camps where located. I was immediately informed that the Katsikás camp was considered a high-risk camp. In their struggle for better conditions, i.e. a proper roof over their heads instead of just tents, the refugees had damaged a considerable part of the camp, destroying the tents and making a stand against those in charge of the camp.
The army stopped the fighting and those responsible were taken away with their families to a different place, which did have a proper roof. Winter is coming and the tents are not suitable for the low temperatures that will bring.
I arrived after the fight but the camp couldn’t hide what had just happened – the chaos with tents destroyed, mattresses, blankets all over ... It looked as if a typhoon had blown across the camp.
But life continues, as it must. Military trucks were coming and going bringing meals and water, volunteers were coming and going doing their tasks, Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani men walking around. The government sent workers to clean up the damage and, in two days, the only reminder of the struggle that had taken place was the empty zone in the middle of the camp, reminding me of New York’s ground zero.
I can’t say how a normal day was in Katsikás before that, but for a place with hundreds of people living in tents next to each other, it seemed deadly quiet.
Yes, winter had arrived, it was cold and the rain never stopped.
I was with the NGO Lighthouse Relief and I helped in the FFS (Female-Friendly Space) and MBA (Mother and Baby Area). The women and children I met, regardless of their nationality, shared a history of fear and sorrow that is unimaginable. That is one of the main reasons people like me volunteer – we feel the need to do something about it as ending war is not in our hands but humanitarian work is.
Knowing the time I was giving was so little (just my holidays), I had a greater gift. I’m a Rotarian and it means I’m one member of a big ‘family’ with over one million Rotarians all over the world. We share an important mission and it makes no difference where or whom we help. If my club, miles away in Estoi supported this cause, then so did Ioannina Rotary Club whom I made contact with after arrival.
After Katsikás, I moved to a more unusual camp housing the Yazidi. My friend Gillie Stenvers, my inspiration to go and help, was working in this camp. The Yazidi are persecuted for having a different religion, and this camp was an example of how a community can stay strong together despite the horrors of war. I saw one woman with half her face marked by a huge scar from her ear to her lips. She was beautiful anyway!
We all know that horror prevails over nice memories. But the memory I choose to bring back with me is one that makes me smile. Whilst Gillie taught her ‘creative English’ adult class, I was left with the responsibility of entertaining a group of children under school-age so their mothers could attend the lessons.
‘Gillie’s Fantastic School’, named by the Yazidi themselves, was in the middle of a corridor. Because it was pouring with rain outside, all the kids were running around the corridor and ‘stealing’ their mothers’ school materials. Their loud voices drowned out any other conversation. These children didn’t speak English, but I needed to do something – so I sat on a chair in the middle of the corridor to form a barrier and sat two of the youngest ones on my lap and started singing in Portuguese. As one, they immediately became quiet.
All those beautiful big eyes stared at me, entranced by words they didn’t understand and a melody they could feel. I stopped and they screamed. I didn’t need to understand the language to know they wanted me to continue.
After a while they were singing ‘la-la’ with me. We must have sung over a hundred times! When Gillie’s class finished, she thanked me and the mothers came over and kissed me. Together with those children’s smiles, this was the highest recognition I could bring home!
By Maria José Pires
Maria José Pires is the Deputy Director of the Algarve Oncology Association. She became a member of Rotary Club Estoi Palace International in July 2016.