Greek Mainland SOS Trip Report: Cherso and Nea Kavala

Somewhat nervous after our encounters at Giannitsa with very unfriendly army officers, we continued our trip visiting camps across the Greek mainland to check our the large army camps of Nea Kavala and Cherso. We did not take pictures of either of these camps as they are official military bases and it’s against the law to do so. For an updated map of camps, please go to this link.

Cherso (15 April 2016)

Cherso is a camp run by the army about 15km north west of the town of Kilkis.  The area is flat farmland and was quite windy and dusty when were there. The officers we meet were not keen to let us walk around the camp without official permission from the municipality and/or Hellenic Army, but were happy to chat with us about the situation here and ways to improve things.
The army told us there were nearly 4,000 guests at Cherso and about 90% are Syrian and 10% are Iraqi. There were 20-30 pregnant women (which seemed like very low estimate to us) and about 40% of the overall population are children. The people are sleeping in military style canvas tents, most of which actually had timber floors installed by the Green Helmets organisation. Food is distributed by the army but provided through an outside catering company. There are an insufficient number of chemical toilets and showers for the amount of people living there. There is a rudimentary kids tent and a playground (climbing frame/swings etc) was under construction when we visited.  Medical care is provided by a military doctor and the Red Cross. The UNHCR and EASO have both made visits to offer legal advice and process asylum claims. Save the Children were also apparently active.
An experienced team of local volunteers is active in the camp doing targeted distributions to each tent. They have a warehouse in Kilkis which is full and so they are not currently accepting donations. We spoke to a volunteer called Stefanos, who was incredibly helpful and gave us lots of information about the site. Residents seemed to respect him a lot and their conversations with the army were also friendly and calm. The Kilkis volunteers operate through the following two Facebook pages, so please contact them for volunteering opportunities and how you can donate aid in the future to Cherso.

The army officers here were apologetic about not being able to let us in but were very helpful. They told us that we needed to contact the Hellenic Army stating the name of our organisation and what we wished to do in the camp. They were keen to stress that the army was just overseeing the camp and coordinating projects and aid organisations here. We feel that with the proper accreditation there is a lot of scope to run projects inside of Cherso with full support from the army as the attitudes of the commander and other officers was very open and they were keen to hear our ideas on ways to improve the camp.

Nea Kavala (15 April 2016)

Nea Kavala camp is situated an old old airstrip and hosts around 3,500 people. It is located a few kilometres east of the town of Polykastro. The surrounding area is flat, green (almost prairie like) and very windy when we were there – we both thought we might blow away! Although the police and army at the gate were friendly enough, we were not granted access to the camp. We managed to have a quick chat with the police officer here who provided us with the information for this post. He seemed keen to stress to us that Nea Kavala was perfectly run and did not need any help. The attitude of officers here was different than Cherso – where officers seemed keen to support outside efforts, with coordination – and the army seemed to want to control things a lot more at Nea Karvala.

The people here stay in a mixture of army and UN tents with no flooring

They use chemical toilets and cold showers. There have been problems with insects, snakes and scorpions. Food is provided by the army through a private catering company, although for those with cash there is a LIDL supermarket a 15 minute walk away. Current NGOs present include Drop in the Ocean, the German Red Cross, UNHCR and Metadrasi. Some Save the Children staff we met were working on starting a kids and breast feeding programme. When we approached members of several NGOs working here, they told us to speak to volunteers (meaning Drop in the Ocean) for information as they were unsure of current needs. The Drops are a great organisation who we worked alongside in Lesvos and are looking for volunteers. They are a great option to donate or get involved with if you are looking for a small, but respected outfit to join in Greece.

A note on the military …

Throughout this trip we have been granted varying degrees of access to the camps. In some cases we have been allowed to walk around freely and even take photos. Sometimes we couldn’t even get past the gate. The mood of the military and police officers we met has ranged from hospitable and friendly, to indifferent to actively hostile. Some have been very keen to work with us from the outset, others insist we much gain permission from the General staff of the army or the local municipality. Overall, the army have generally been positive and helpful though – they are doing a very tough job and many of the officers told us that they worked for days on end putting up thousands of tents to construct the new camps with only a few hours’ notice.
There does, however, seem to be little rhyme or reason behind how we are greeted other then the mood and working attitude of the commanding officer. We have noticed that in the first days of a camp’s inception the military is generally more hostile to outside volunteers but as the enormity of the task they have been charged with becomes clear, any outside help quickly becomes very welcome. On several occasions, police have recognised us from previous visits to other camps and granted us access on this basis. ID is needed at most camps, though one of our team did manage to access an army camp with no ID whatsoever. But they got lucky. A card from your organisation is also necessary at many places – the army and police, particularly in northern Greece, are very wary of independent volunteers, seeing them as agent provocateurs, rather than agents of aid. The size of the camp seems to make a difference as well – the larger the population, the less likely it is that access will be granted without official permission.
Please be respectful towards the army, even if they are not necessarily behaving respectfully towards you. The actions of a few volunteers and activists in northern Greece has had profoundly negative impact on some officers’ attitudes towards volunteering. This has had the knock on effect of the prohibition of independent volunteers from many camps, which means the refugees’ needs are not being met. Try and look at the bigger, long term picture – having a row with the army may jeopordise future teams’ efforts in improving people’s lives, so choose your words and actions carefully. Of course, if the army behave violently or aggressively, this is another matter and should be reported, but in many cases when entry is denied to volunteers, they are just doing their job.
That’s all for now … more trip reports coming soon! Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about any of the camps we have visited. And please help if you can!

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