Nea Kavala refugee camp is located near Polykastro, a small town 20 km away from the Macedonian border, and it is here that We Are Here started its activity, back in May 2016, just after the borders closed leaving many stranded in Greece. At Nea Kavala we worked alongside the people in the camp to establish a community and learning centre, with a range of educational, creative and social activities for adults and children.
Since that time, the population has changed, with the original camp residents being mostly eligible, after a long and arduous wait, for travel to other EU countries via the European relocation program. These days, the number of camp residents fluctuates between 700 and 1000 people. For these people, who all arrived after the EU-Turkey deal and who are not part of any relocation program but must apply for asylum in a county struggling to support itself, their change of a secure future is even more uncertain, and We Are Here continue to provide grassroots solidarity through education, recreation and creativity.
In such difficult and uncertain living conditions, and with oftentimes men dominating the communal areas, it is important that women have access to a space to relax and socialise away from chores, children, husbands and cramped family life.
The women’s space was requested by the women in the camp, and they have been vocal about the form they would like it to take and the activities they would like to see. Born from collaborative planning and built in July 2016, the space is a welcoming safe space where We Are Here facilitate women-only English language classes as well as a range of activities such as yoga, knitting, food-sharing, music, beauty sessions, art, dance…
Child-Friendly Space for pre-school children.
Four mornings a week, we provide a safe space for the smallest camp residents, who are too young to attend either the local Greek school or the Ministry of Education kindergarten. Our CFS welcomes children up until the age of three for 3 hours a day, to play, meet other children, explore and express themselves. This space is not only valued by the children, who enjoy the gentle rhythm, exploration and interaction of a space which is a constant in an uncertain environment, but also by the parents, who are able to have a break, get on with chores or attend English class. During the summer when the ministry kindergarten is closed, we also open the space up to children aged 4 and 5.
English language class for adults
Many people are very motivated to learn English, especially as they don’t know what their future holds or where it will take place. In a frustratingly stagnant environment, it is also a means of feeling a sense of progress in at least one small area of their life. Some of our students are pre-literate in their own language and are attending classes for the first time, learning to read and write and practice the language they need to communicate at the doctors or in the supermarket. Others are looking to continue studies started and worked hard for back home, and know that improving their English is often a key step to accessing further education or employment opportunities.
Four days a week, we offer four levels of English lessons for adults from pre-literacy to intermediate level in the main centre, and English lessons just for women in the Women’s Space. As well as this we run regular conversation classes at the centre and often put on ‘tea and talk’ events, as a chance for students of all levels to come together and have fun, build confidence and practice their English outside of lesson time.
Music, sports, creativity and recreation
With reports clearly showing the negative psychological impact that this lengthy period of enforced limbo is inflicting on people stuck in camps, it is important not to overlook the value of access to creativity, self expression and of learning a new skill. Of the in-the-moment activities that give people an opportunity to forget their problems for a while, and of social events which help more isolated people to connect and spend time with others.
We offer music lessons – typically guitar and keyboard – for those who are interested in learning while they are here. Our centre helps get people together to play sports such as football and basketball, organises regular social activities in the camp such as weekly film screenings, Fifa evenings and music and dancing nights, and helps to organise and fund community cultural celebrations which bring together different groups in the camp.
Alongside our two classrooms in camp, we have a social space which resident volunteers help us to run. Here, people can come and help themselves to tea, play board games or table tennis, go online on the computers, use the dictionaries and other reference books or simply hang out somewhere less confining than their living containers. We also use this space to hold community meetings and to host workshops.
We believe in the power of reading, and thanks to donations from many places, we have a collection of fiction and non-fiction books in different languages that we make available for people to borrow. We loan out our books from a ‘library corner’ in the free shop set up by another NGO in camp, and one of our team mans the space during market hours. For some, the books in our library gives access to a familiar and loved past time, and for others it is something new. Little ones can also come and look at children’s books while their parents are trying to pick out clothes for themselves and their family, and choose one to borrow for a bedtime story. . We also lend out English language graded readers to help support our students’ study.
Once a week we open up our social space, with table tennis, computer games and board games for the teens in the camp to come and play or just have a space to hang out together.
Children’s Weekend Activities
On Saturday’s and Sundays, when the schools are closed and most other organisations are offsite, we open up our Child Friendly Space to children of all ages to come and play. Our two rooms, which connect together, hold a reading corner, an arts and crafts area, a table with board games, a hideaway den, a kitchen play corner and a much-loved fancy dress box, as well as floor space for building blocks and train tracks. When the weather is good, the children can also use the sandpit run around with ball games outside. The first part of the music and dancing we put on every Saturday night in the big community tent in camp is also full of children’s songs and a time for them to burn up some energy, learn some silly dances and just be children.
Info board, outreach and connecting people
To compound the long waits and uncertain future, one major source of stress is lack of access to important and relevant information. Through the info board in our social space, and through direct outreach, we work to share make the information more easily available – whether it be the bus timetable, the services or events ran by other organisations working in the local area, the latest information about the asylum procedure, or information about education, training or job opportunities happening elsewhere in Greece