Making theatre in one of the largest refugee camps in Greece
The ‘We Are Here!’ project started out small. A group of friends met while volunteering and decided to set up an educational project within one of the ‘relocation’ camps in Greece. The Nea Kavala camp in the North has now grown to become one of the largest refugee camps across Greece, and the project created by a small group of friends is now supported inside the camp by both UNHCR and the military.
Eliza Winnert, the co-founder and coordinator of the We Are Here (WAH)! Community Centre, said the aim of the centre is “to provide a space where refugee adults and children can feel a sense of routine, safety and validation, and are able to learn and engage in activities, attend courses and workshops.”
Manar Taljo is a Syrian-Spanish actress who has performed children’s theatre at the camp for the past year and she told The Point Magazine about her experience as part of a small troupe, Paramythádes.
“It was one of my acting teachers who asked me if I wanted to go to Greece to work in a camp with the Syrian refugees. She told me because I speak some Arabic and she knew that my father was from Syria.”
“My father came from Syria when he was 21 years old. At first, he was doubtful about the project, but later, when I explained what we did there, he was so grateful and proud of us.”
“Many of these people have been through extremely traumatic experiences and, having made the difficult decision to risk their lives for the chance of safety in Europe, they are now faced with a lengthy wait – potentially over a year - in anonymous, degrading conditions."
– Eliza Winnert
Bringing beauty to ugly places
In a few months, they created a small troupe of producers, musicians, drama writers, and six actors, all of whom created three shows for young children.
“We met a man who was hijacked by Daesh (ISIS) for six months and at the end of his ordeal, he asked them: ‘Why didn't you kill me?’ and they told him: ‘Because now you can go and explain how bad we are...’ We have also met teenagers from Syria, Palentina and Iraq, who are now alone in the camps.”
“Theatre also helps to build self-confidence and connection to others, and is a way for children to reclaim some of their childhood,” Winnert said.
“When Paramythádes came to volunteer with our project in the Nea Kavala camp, we saw some really wonderful things happening, both with adults and with children. A new energy came, both for those who were actively involved in rehearsing, writing, and performing, and those watching the performances. It was saying, ‘Beautiful things can enter these ugly places too.’”
The Nea Kavala camp is near Idomeni, and is currently ‘home’ to an estimated 1000 refugees, from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Kuwait, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria, Congo and Mali, among others. Approximately 25% of the population are children who, along with their families, are living in extremely close quarters in containers along the runway of an old airfield, with nothing to do while hoping and waiting out the long months for their asylum paperwork to be processed.
“The camp looks sad, austere, poor, and un-human. There is a lot of garbage on the floor. No one seems to care about hygiene measures. There are lines and lines of white tents without any soul there.”
In 2016, in an attempt to stop the flow of migration, politicians established the deportation deal with Turkey, from where most Europe-bound migrants departed. The deportation deal saw fences built throughout the Balkans, trapping about 50,000 people in Greece. The vast majority of those were still on Greek territory when the borders shut in March 2016, and have since been stranded in over fifty camps around the country.
“Many of these people have been through extremely traumatic experiences and, having made the difficult decision to risk their lives for the chance of safety in Europe, they are now faced with a lengthy wait – potentially over a year - in anonymous, degrading conditions,” Winnert said.
Expansion of the program
We are Here! established lessons in English, Math, Arabic, Science and Art for the children, and European language lessons for adults, as well as creative classes for children. Following the peace and anti-Islamophobia rally after the recent August 2017 terrorist attacks in Barcelona, they have also held peace protests at the We Are Here Community Centre.
In 2016, the European Union and UNICEF launched the #EmergencyLessons campaign to highlight the importance of education for children affected by emergencies. Nearly one in four of the world’s school-aged children – 462 million – now live in 35 countries affected by crises, including an estimated 75 million children who are in desperate need of educational support.
“Here in Europe, we tend to take school for granted and forget what a vital part of life it is for children, especially when everything else around them is collapsing,” said EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides in a statement.
“Whilst most people were happy to see something finally happening in the camp, others were dismayed to see us building somewhere to run non-formal education with the children, as they realised that they were not going to be moving on soon. This was a really difficult conversation we had to have many times,” Winnert explained.
Most observers acknowledge the general situation is dire – and has the potential to turn into a long-term tragedy. But there are small signs of hope.
Earlier this year, Taljo said they went back to the camp and created a new theatre play with the refugees and the Greeks who live in the town near the camp to integrate people.
“The camp has changed a lot in the past year. A lot of the Syrian refugees we met the year before have been resettled in Germany and Sweden.”
“We did our ‘Orquestra de desastre’ (Orchestra of the Disaster) and there were a lot of children who had never heard of this kind of music before. They were so excited and hyperactive but so attentive. For me, it was one of the most emotional moments there.”
The camps are gradually being refurbished, often thanks to volunteer groups. The Greek government stated it will attempt to place all refugee children in some kind of education. UNHCR hopes to move 10,000 people out of the camps and into private accommodation. Small private projects are also helping to integrate refugees into local households and communities, and NGOs like We are Here! are helping to provide education and keep up morale.
Winnert said she now “regularly receives messages and photos from those people who have finally made their way through the painfully slow system. They are now in Sweden, Germany, Spain, Romania, France… One key person is Ahmed, a community volunteer and very talented actor who was very involved with both We Are Here and Paramythádes. He was relocated to Spain a couple of months ago and he has already had his first casting!”
The ‘We Are Here!’ project is supported by UNHCR and the military in the Nea Kavala camp in Greece.