We continue to the last leg of our trip – for now, at least, and head southwards with our map of camps and visit the camps of Larissa, Agias Andreas and Petra.
Larissa – 24 April 2016
This camp is a few kilometres west of the city of Larissa, which is slap bang in the middle of Greece, and almost hidden in a small rocky valley that only suddenly becomes visible as you turn a bend in the road. The site overlooks the surrounding area of what is quite beautiful, flat, green farmland. Our greeting here was exceptional welcoming. The army captain in charge was keen to speak with us, describing the situation there and giving us his list of needs. He made the point that the Army was carrying out a peacekeeping mission and that peacekeeping should never be confidential. More generally the other soldiers were friendly and cooperative, especially with the refugees, whose welfare they seemed to genuinely care for.
There are 850 people currently at Larissa. 15% are Syrian, 80% are Afghan and 5% are Iraqi. This camp was one of the few official camps where nationalities were so mixed. The people sleep in canvas military tents on the gravel. There are chemical toilets and cold showers. There is a large tent made available for children but it currently lacks any toys or equipment. The kids here seem very bored and unfortunately one source of entertainment for them at Larissa are snakes – the captain told us how he found a group of kids playing with one! Mosquitos are also a problem. Although the atmosphere was calm when we visited we have heard of some tense moments at Larissa. Residents protested with vigour amongst following a visit by UNHCR.
Food is provided by the Air Force through a private catering company (the first time we have seen the Army and Air Force working in the same camp). There is wifi available for the refugees here and some refugees spend all night in sleeping bags hooked up to the charging port where the signal is strongest. Doctors of the World and the Greek health service give medical care to the residents. The local volunteers from Larissa seemed experienced and organised. They operate out of a pre-existing social supermarket that supports local Greek families.
We were given the following list of current needs:
- Toys and stationary for kids – ESPECIALLY NOTEBOOKS.
- Projector, TVs, DVDs
- Manually charged/windup torches
- Sun cream
- Condoms and contraceptive pills
- Solar chargers for phones
- Sanitary towels
- Baby wipes
- Kitchen utensils…(pots, pans, et cetera)
- Nappies/diapers No 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5
- Face cream
- Flip flops (summer shoes)
- Nappy cream
- Talcum powder
- Washing detergent
- Insect repellent
- Electric kettles (for hot water for the baby milk)
Please send all supplies to Manolaki 9-11, T.K. 41222 Koinoniko Pantopoleio, Larisas
There are volunteers working here and the camp seemed quite open, so as long as people are respectful, it should be possible to help out here.
Larissa suffers mainly from its geographical position – it’s right in the middle of Greece and far from both Thessaloniki and Athens, which means it’s overlooked by independents, small NGOs and larger organisations. This is a shame as there is a big population of refugees here who need facilities. We were also impressed with the attitude of the army here and it was a prime example of how, in a hierarchical organisation such as the military, it is the commanding officer who sets the tone of the whole camp. In contrast to military camps like Cherso and Nea Kavala, Larissa was very open to the idea of outside help.
Agias Andreas – 25 April 2016
Set a few hundred meters back from a main road in a quite suburb of Athens, this site is almost completely forested and therefore well shaded. The entrance is also difficult to find. The police and army officers here didn’t allow us access to the camp beyond the administration office and they insisted we needed permission from the Ministry of Immigration to go any further. However, they did speak with us for a while and gave some us some basic information.
There are about 200 Syrian and Iraqi people here sleeping in military, canvas tents. They have access to hot showers and wifi. Food is provided by a catering company and paid for by the army. The UN have visited but there were no other NGOs active. There are no organised volunteer organisations serving this camp, but some people have made irregular donations at the gate which the army commander said anyone is welcome to do. The key needs he mentioned were baby strollers, translators and a medical team, although he again stressed the need for permission from the Ministry for personnel to work in this camp.
This camp is quite typical of those in the Athens area – they all need permission from the Ministry to access the site. This creates difficulty as quite often there are needs that are not being met and lengthy bureaucracy means that refugees don’t get what is on offer from volunteers and larger aid agencies alike.
Petra – 24 April 2016
This camp is located in the mountains to the north of the town of Petra in a disused psychiatric hospital with a stunning view of Mount Olympus. When we visited, the camp had only been open for five days so was very new. It was opened by the Greek government in collaboration with an organisation called CYCI and is home to around 1,000 Iraqi Yazidis, most of whom have been recently moved from Idomeni. We were granted entry by the police at the gate but the army commander in charge of the camp was keen to get rid of us and we were not able to stay as long as we would have liked. He told us first of all that we had to speak with volunteers and then when some arrived, he told us we needed permission from the municipality in Katerini.
Facilities here are very basic, supposedly since the camp is so new. The people here sleep in canvas tents on the ground, which is unfortunate since there are many large hospital buildings on the site. Food is provided by the army through a private catering company. There are chemical toilets and cold showers. There is no wifi currently available. There is just one military medic here and we didn’t see any of the big NGOs operating here although the UNHCR had apparently visited. The only organisation we did see was CYCI, a Canadian Jewish/Christian organisation with the stated aim of supporting the Yazidi community. They have been paying for a lot of the transportation of people to this site. Although the people we spoke to from CYCI were friendly, there is quite a lot of controversy attached to this NGO due to its operations in Iraq.
A key concern for this camp is its isolated location. The only access for the people to nearest large town of Katerini is a twice daily bus service. Tickets for which must be paid for out of one’s own pocket. It is vital that services at Petra camp are developed quickly since the people here are pretty dependent on it for all their needs. One medic for 1,000 people is not enough and more medical teams are needed. Wifi is critical for access to the outside world and for making asylum applications.
We contacted CYCI on numerous occasions after our visit for a current list of needs and an address to send items to, but as yet we have heard nothing back from them on this front. This is slightly concerning as they are based in Polykastro (at least when we were there) and there is a big lack of facilities at Petra camp and this scarcity is exacerbated by the fact that Katerini, the nearest big town, is a fair distance away. We hope to go back in the coming weeks to see how the camp and its population of Yazidis are doing and offer further assistance.
So that’s it for now … there are still more camps to visit and with the new transfer date of 30 May for Idomeni to be emptied by, no doubt more sites will spring up in the coming weeks. We will be back on the mainland in the coming weeks visiting more of the camps around Athens. Until then, please keep supporting Greece and the camps all over the country – both need as much help as possible.