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We Are Still here but what have we been up to ?

In Nea Kavala, having had our space taken away from us has definitely been an endurance test for the project, particularly during darker days and freezing temperatures.

After the fire, a meeting was held with the regulars from the women’s space and an agreement made to reduce women’s activities to just the afternoon so that the space could be used in the mornings for children’s lessons. We are also thankful to other organisations at Nea Kavala who have helped us over this time so we can continue operating with some other activities. The Red Cross and Save the children have each been giving us the use of one of their tents in the afternoons so that we can keep some of our adult classes running.

The children adapted quickly, as they have had to again and again since they had to leave their homes. However, as the end of the year drew nearer and the weather deteriorated, the ‘classroom’ was much quieter. With colder mornings, the sun later to rise and, thankfully, a warm container but far from ideal ‘get up and go routine’, it has often been difficult to encourage people to come out without having a decent space to offer them, as the women’s space had still been badly in need of winterising. Without the community centre, previously a natural gathering point, we have been less visible for people on a daily basis within the camp over the past few weeks, which has been frustrating both for us and for the people stuck there.

We have had to remain very adaptive as always and try to engage people in different ways. We also embraced the Christmas period as a time to relax parts of the routine and run other activities. Some of our team were home to rest up and see family and recharge batteries for the New Year. Others of us stayed to spend it here, and we brought some Christmas spirit to the camp and shared the festival with them. Our long-term volunteers were also joined for two weeks by a sports group from the states and we were very grateful for their energy and team spirit at a time when our energy levels were low!

On the weekend following the fire, SatARTday was a nostalgiac and creative party, with, music, facepainting, food and drink, a slideshow of photos remembering activities done at the centre and a post-it poster for memories. A time to be silly with the children and reassure them that we weren’t going anywhere. The teenagers from the drama group also worked hard to put together a theatre piece about what the centre had meant to them, performed inside the old rainbow fence. There was something therapeutic about these days for both volunteers and those in the camp, especially those who have a strong connection to the centre. A way of saying goodbye and rebuilding community resolve to create something afresh.

We also worked on and delivered container to container our first edition of ‘Nea Kavala News’, with some centre rebuild updates, pictures, brain teasers and a recipe in English, Arabic and Kurdish. We kept it simple for the first copy but it is something we would like to grow if we find it is popular.

Other SatARTdays in December also had a festive theme – from making antlers and playing ‘pin the nose on the reindeer’ to helping make decorations for the Red Cross Christmas tree.
We held a community Christmas lunchtime party, sharing food, drink and music in the women’s space area with men, women and children from the camp, and the following day on Christmas eve we held a party just for women in the women’s space.

On Christmas day ‘Santa’ visited the camp and, assisted by music, three ‘sleighs’ and many, many excited little helpers, a sack of goodies were delivered to each living container, with festive activity books, colouring pens and stickers, small backpacks, cuddly toys, bubbles, sweets and an Arabic – English dictionary. This was a really beautiful day of laughter from children and adults and, for us as volunteers, it was really special being able to share a tradition from our homes.

As well as preparing and running these activities and distributions, and keeping the educational routine up as best as we could, behind the scenes many emails, plans and sketches went backwards and forwards to donors, to the ministry and to other groups to make preparations for the rebuild, for which we finally organised permission at the end of December.

We have so, so many people to whom we owe thanks for the fact we are able to bring our centre back – so thank you! We received many donations via our crowdfunding page and offers of material donations to help us start again.

We owe a particularly massive thank you to The Timber Project, a small grassroots group from Scotland who have been volunteering in Greece doing great building projects, including the ‘market place’ distribution centre for Nea Kavala, and who so kindly offered to do the rebuild of our centre. They began last week. We will be posting some updates from them here but you can follow more closely here:www.facebook.com/thetimberproject.org

We also owe a huge thank you to Help Refugees, who are doing incredible work across Greece facilitating and funding grassroots projects, and who have offered to fund the material for the two insulated classrooms.

And we owe thanks to LDS Charities who have offered to fund the extra material needed to make a library/ study room adjacent to the classrooms, to make it easier to give access to reading and study resources.

All this extra help means we have more of our crowdfunding rebuild pot money to spend on materials and resources for inside the space and for upcoming distributions of educational material. It has also enabled us to buy the materials needed to winterise the women’s space and help with the cost of improving other spaces in the camp for winter.

Timber project have been courageously building during a bitter cold snap in Northern Greece, with the extreme temperature drop, havoc-wreaking wind, ice and snow making international news and making life extremely miserable for refugees across Greece. It has also made refugees and groups on the ground alike extremely angry. There had been so few preparations for a winter we all knew was coming, and many people – including the young, elderly, sick and pregnant – have suffered unnecessarily. Thankfully in Nea Kavala people are now all in small living containers and have access to fuel heaters, but this is not the case for many others in other camps.

When the really cold period hit last week, we were forced to massively reduce our activities inside the camp. Instead English reading photocopies were distributed to containers as a way to encourage interest for a reading club, and hours were spent making flashcards ready for upcoming English classes, and making preparations for a new library. The cold weather and our small-scale lending to people attending our classes has really highlighted how much difference a good book can make for many people stuck in containers on days with little else to brighten it, and so we have been stepping up our efforts to replace our books and set up a system for a lend-out library.

The library books were our biggest loss in the fire, as they were either special graded readers, difficult to obtain at an affordable price, or books in Arabic which had been sent from all over the world. The library was built with time, love, money and effort and it is being rebuilt with the same.

And in the other part of our project, our mobile project for the Yazidi community has adapted with another move, and become more of a fixed project, at least for the time being.

During November and December conditions in Serres camp deteriorated to levels beyond degrading for the yazidis who live there, and who we have continued to work with via a mobile team which visited twice a week to provide educational and recreational activities for the children and lessons for adults. These were grinding to a halt due to the terrible conditions and low morale of the people in the camp, who faced freezing temperatures in old army tents that flooded each time it rained.

Finally, in December they were evacuated from the tents and moved to hotel rooms while the building works were completed to install living containers in the camp.

As a team we made the decision for some of us to follow them and to set up in the town, making the most of the fact there would be an opportunity to create a teaching space to provide daily English lessons. So we have rented the use of a restaurant during the day, which we transform each morning into a ‘pop-up learning cafe’, where people can come for a set class or for a space to study.
This week was the first proper week of classes. We have a schedule of regular classes and things are going well – word is spreading and people are getting used to the rhythm. It is great to see people walking purposefully towards the cafe, with a notebook tucked under their arm.

We are also working on providing resources so that each hotel can run activities amongst themselves, for example so those with more proficient English can help others to learn and practice. We are putting together little learning packs for the children, as the flipside of this massive improvement in living conditions has been that their entry into the Greek school system has been delayed yet again by another two months. These children have been months and months now without any stable education.

New Year’s resolutions for the We Are Here facebook page : to make more regular posts to better update you all about the situation on the ground, the work we are doing and where your money is being spent. We hope you will also share some of these posts – both ours and from other groups on the ground. This crisis, and Europe’s appallingly slow and begrudging response, must not fall into the background and it must not become normalised.