My Syrian friends have been living in a refugee camp in Northern Greece for nine months now. Small green UN tents have become their homes. Their old homes, the ones they think about every day, are mostly blown to smithereens now.
In one tent, a man listens to music and sheds a tear. It sets his brother off and then my translator too. Soon there are no dry eyes and everyone is thinking about Syria and the war.
“Perhaps it’s God’s will” the man says. “What can we do? We will just have to go back and re-build it.”
But rebuilding it or even returning to it is inconceivable to most in the camp, whose only option now to is to wait out the lengthy relocation process that seems to take forever. It is the waiting, the not being able to move on with your life that affects people here the most.
The man is an artist. A huge painting of a Syrian sunset hangs behind him. In front, a small tree chopped from the field outside, is decorated with toys and coloured paper.
A few metres down another man is expanding his tent to include an area to entertain guests. In the other direction a man has created an “office” to learn english. He sits in front of a huge London themed canvas, typing on a laptop and warming his hands by a cheap heater. It’s freezing outside and much of the day is preoccupied with trying to stay warm.
This is home now.
For many of us, the more we hear about the plight of refugees on the news the more helpless we all feel – posting about it, debating it but still not feeling like we can make any real difference.
Before I left the camp in October I took a trip to a department store near the centre and in a panic, filled a trolley up to the brim with toys for the children. I didn’t know what else to do. A smile for a day is better than none at all I thought as I watched 10 year old Mohammed shaky, but excited on his new roller blades. It’s hard to make a difference. A real difference. For no toy or goodwill gesture could ever bring them what they really need – and that’s a future.
As I watch people washing their clothes in UN buckets and queuing at the outdoor toilets, it strikes me that life in the camp is like a trip to Glastonbury, but the trip is a permanent stay and there are no cool bands.I suddenly realise I’ve missed four calls from Aaref and his wife who have invited me and the film crew to their tent for lunch. When we get there they make us all a strong cup of coffee.
His wife has a ring on, which looks like a digital watch and she keeps clicking it. The numbers are going up and up. I ask her what it is.
“It’s a prayer ring,” she says. “With every click I say a prayer.”
“How many prayers this week?” I ask.
She shows me the front of the ring.
Nine thousand one hundred and twenty six.
Aaref tells me they’ve all been finger printed by the authorities and had their initial relocation interview but according to him the UN representative is full of empty promises. The graffiti on the wall mirrors his statement. In 20 days they’re supposed to leave. But everyone knows that will never happen.
A bowl of yogurt and cucumber gets pride of place in the middle of a cardboard box “table”. A heart made of oregano sits on top of it.
“Aaref made it,” his wife says. “He likes to be the artist. I’m the cook.”
We all laugh.
We laugh and I think about how much effort they’ve gone to to host us and make us dinner – Kabsa. A Syrian chicken and rice dish with peanuts. It’s delicious and after half a day of filming, I eat two plates.
Aaref keeps topping up my dish.
“We have an expression in Syria”, he says. “Eat as much as you love us.”
But I am stuffed.
As I’m eating I notice that two tents down a guy is putting gel in his friends hair and spraying it with hairspray. He is sat so still, so as to make sure not a hair falls out of place. His friend is concentrating hard as he holds the strands of hair and sprays.
Our translator Hadi rushes off to find out where they are going.
“They’re leaving today,” he comes back and says. “For Athens.”
Immediately I feel as if my heart has sunk to the camp floor and my eyes fill with tears. Because when your old life seems so far away – like it never existed, when you live in a cold tent and are down to your last few euros, it’s easy to feel as if you’re losing your dignity or self respect. Yet here these young men were.. wanting, trying, to look their very best.
And why? Not because, like every other man in Europe of the same age they are heading out for a night on the town, but because they are heading out in search of their future. Heading out into the cold dark night to the bus stop for Athens. Armed with just a ticket and a plastic bag full of their only belongings .
And after everything they’ve been through.. this was the moment they wanted to look and feel respectable for.
How much I look up to them for that, they will probably never know.
I rush to hug them.
They are so much skinnier than when I first met them during filming months ago. I’ve seen them laugh and cry.. sing with the most beautiful and hypnotising voices.
Such good looking young men. Such good looking young men, ruined by Europe
As they leave, a fight kicks off just in front of us in the camp. It’s apparently between two thieves.
“If you think that’s bad,” says Aaref’s wife. “Normally there are knives.”
We wait for the commotion to die down, before picking up our equipment and beginning the second half of the day’s work.
As I sit later and watch news updates about Aleppo on tv.. some people at the camp message to say they will demonstrate in the city centre. Their signs read: Russia destroyed us. Blood drips from the edges of the paper. A tent in the camp has been transformed into an artistic protest studio that churns out banners and placards. I suppose they too feel helpless when it comes to saving those left behind.
Before I leave for London, Mohammed’s father tells me wherever he ends up, he will come to visit me. I hope he does. His family, like Aaref’s and so many others, are still waiting for a relocation interview. 160,000 refugees were supposed to be rehomed in Europe by the end of 2017. But little more than 7,000 have been, so his chances don’t look great. Luckily a bunch of us have managed to find a place for him to stay that’s empty for xmas and his family won’t have to suffer the cold winter months.
I can’t give them new lives. None of us on our own have the power to do that. But we can demand it and we can support them… with solidarity, with charities, with finding shelter but mostly showing the same kindness to them which they have shown to me and letting them know that they have not been forgotten.
If 2016 has been the year in which I lost my faith in Europe, and for a moment my faith in humanity… it will also be the year in which I found it again.. in my Syrian friends who have welcomed me into their new “homes” and hearts, offering me everything when they had nothing. But also in those standing with them all across the globe – who everyday make the most crucial of decisions and choose love over fear.