One of the final adventures we experienced at the end of our mission in Athens Greece was a visit to the Oinofyta Refugee Camp. It is situated about 60 km north of Athens in a barren industrial area. The accommodation for the 400 or more refugees consists of a disused industrial warehouse in which permanent, separate rooms, one per family, have been constructed.
Under the same roof there was also a large shared kitchen, storerooms full of donated clothing, a laundry room and a new sewing room. Outside of the main building there is a school, workshop and communal areas.
We were first shown the store rooms. Mountains of unsorted clothing was in one room while in the main one were rows of steel racks laden with baskets, clearly labelled, containing shoes and clothing that had been careful sorted. Upon asking what they needed, the answer was immediate, new underwear, all sizes for boys and girls, men and women.
The site was managed by one Lisa Campbell and her organisation DoYourPart.org. One of the first requests she made once the rooms had been constructed was for paint, even before doors! Paint meant that families could decorate and personalise their domain which raised morale and spirits. Doors for each family ‘pod’ came soon after.
Most of the refugees in Oinofyta are from Afghanistan. We were delighted that a young girl, aged 10, who had learnt English in just one year of living at the camp, was willing to chat with us. She spoke of leaving home, of frightening experiences, especially at the camp in Lesvos that was destroyed by fire, and her hopes and dreams. Denmark was her destination of choice where her parents had family.
The sewing room was impressive. New machines had been provided by LDS Charities and canvas bags, manufactured from material recycled from the original tents they lived in, were sold to camp visitors like us. Not cheap, 25€ each, but each one unique and hand made.
Our next stop, one which really excited us, was the school. The woman who started it was one of many who, with no preconceived idea of what she could do to help, simply took a leap of faith by getting on a plane bound for Greece and putting her life’s experience, talents and skills to work. She had been a chemical engineer but also a teacher. She commandeered some run down buildings, brightened them up, equipped them with the essentials and started the school. Over two years the number of buildings expanded, one being a tin hut with the bright painted signage ‘library’. This immediately sparked interest in my wife who before retirement was a rep selling books to schools. We still had a large stock of samples back home and with old contacts who could supply more, was sure she could fill the empty shelves.
At the time of writing this the influx of refugees into Greece had largely stopped. Those moving on had also slowed to a trickle. Camps like Oinofyta were becoming more like villages, permanent settlements. The Greek government is also beginning to integrate refugee children into Greek schools. How this whole chapter in European and Middle East history will end is uncertain but one thing it did demonstrate is that there will always be people like Lisa Campbell and hundreds of others who will respond with compassion when the need arises.