After checking out the small camps in Central Greece (see previous blog posts for needs and volunteering), we began to drive north in the mountains, the temperature plummeting as we did so. In spite of our handy map of camps, we managed to get lost on the country roads more than a few times. We came across two very different camps, both of which had only been open a few weeks and both with very different needs …
Veria (10 April 2016)
The first thing you can say about Veria is, wow, what a location! It’s set in spectacular almost Alpine scenery next to a stunning freshwater lake. This also means that the climate is colder and wetter and we had to wrap up warm to take a tour of the camp. When we arrived, the army were at the gate and were very friendly with us. They just asked us a few questions, we showed our photo ID and we were allowed in.
One of the accommodation block at Veria
People here are staying in sturdy buildings with one family to a room with bunk beds in each. The conditions are basic and people are overcrowded, but much better than staying in tents like so many of the camps we have seen. We were invited into one room by a Syrian family who were frustrated at the lack of wifi. To claim asylum in Greece, people have to start the process by making a skype call to the asylum centre, which is impossible without internet connection. The family had relatives in Germany and wanted more information about the reunification process. They had come from Idomeni and liked Veria, but they weren’t too keen on the army food, which is supplied three times a day. They were particularly grateful for the large amounts of outside space for children to play in, far away from traffic.
Sam sitting inside one of the rooms at Veria currently housing a friendly Syrian family
After saying our goodbyes to the friendly Syrian family, we went to find the volunteer group that the residents had told us about. We were introduced to the incredibly cheery Vicky who gave us more information about the site. It has now been open for around 12 days and there are no NGOs on site, just a hardworking group of local Greek volunteers from surrounding villages. There are currently around 400 people in Veria, all Syrian aside from one Iraqi family. 160 of the residents are aged 15 or under. The mood was described as cheerful and calm and indeed, despite the grim weather on the day that we visited, people seemed friendly, curious and generally upbeat. The volunteers had already set up a distribution system, which is targeted, aimed at meeting each family’s needs. There is a doctor on site from 7 am until 2 pm. We were shown lots of outbuildings which could easily be used for storage space for needed items. There were many chemical toilets and shower facilities as well.
Large play area and toilets next to the beautiful lake – although everything looks gloomy in this weather!
Even though Veria has only been open for refugees for just shy of two weeks, the local volunteers already have a Facebook page. It’s in Greek, but you can translate it and there are English speaking locals who can answer any queries. For updated list of needs going forward, please refer to the Facebook page.
Here is a list of what Veria currently needs in terms of supplies:
- Cooking pots
- Frying pans
- Shoes for men, women and children, especially for the summer
- Baby strollers/prams
- Shampoo and combs against lice
- Pillow cases
- Plastic tubs to wash clothes
- Clothes pegs
- Cotton buds
- 1 small refrigerator and a bigger one for medicines
If you can help with any of the above supplies, please send them to:
Stratopedo Armatolou Kokkinou
59132 Agia Varvara, Veria
Local volunteers here were open to the idea of volunteers coming here to help but stressed that they don’t want the following (we quote) “To get involved with political parties, organisations or individuals who want to profit from the situation of the refugees or who want to use them for their own goals.”
Everyone else is welcome, but please contact People of Veria in Solidarity through their Facebook page.
Tech specialists! Please come and sort the wifi out ! The residents cannot access asylum services without it!
We both felt that the camp might benefit from a permanent medical team based here, so if that’s something groups can supply, then please contact the team. The volunteers here were also talking about opening kitchens here so residents could cook for themselves. If this is something you have expertise in/could donate equipment for, then please contact them!
There is also a young baby at the camp in need of open heart surgery. If anyone knows of a Greek heart surgeon who would be willing to operate on the baby, please contact us and let’s get things moving.
We were both really impressed by the site itself and the local volunteer group, who in spite of the camp only having been open for under a fortnight have some really nice ideas and are pressing for lots of support at local government level and also in the local community. Medical teams, skilled volunteers and people with expertise in kitchens could especially do lots of good work here. Veria isn’t so close to any big population centres as other camps, so we are worried it might get a little overlooked which would be a shame as there is great potential here, especially for volunteers to come and support a really great team of local people who have the refugees’ best interests at heart. It’s also a really beautiful place to work🙂
Alexandreia (10/11 April 2016)
Alexandreia is a new camp which has been open for less than a fortnight, pretty close to Thessaloniki. The army are present here but are incredibly friendly and seem to really support the refugees and the camp in general. We had no problems getting inside and we did not have to show our passports. As the army were here, we did not take pictures as we didn’t want to jeopordise a good relationship between volunteers and the military.
The camp is situated on a main road and is large with many large semi-derelict buildings inside which could easily be renovated into some great facilities. It looks a little rough and ready at the moment but there is a lot of outside space for play/socialising and has a lot of potential to be a really pleasant place to be for refugees and their families.
We were quickly introduced to the marvellous John Sloan, who has previously worked for the UNHCR and was with Care for Calais for six months and is overseeing the camp currently. He has a lot of experience and also a lot of plans for Alexandreia.
John told us that the camp has a capacity of 800 and when we visited there were 620 residents, 54 % of whom were children, many of whom are very young. All residents are Syrian. All residents are currently staying in canvas tents. Some of the tents have flooring but not all, which needs to be fixed as there is a bit of a snake problem. There are 30 chemical toilets which are being cleaned twice a day and washing facilities – currently cold water only but hot water should be being put in within the next week.
The food is provided by the army three times a day and includes fresh fruit.
There is no shade in the camp which will begin to be a problem in the coming months as the weather gets warmer, but the team are waiting for permission from the army to put up some structures to create shade.
John has lots of plans for Alexandreia – they want to clean up one of the buildings to use as a warehouse and want to renovate another to turn into a school and kitchen/restaurant area. They had opened a ‘shop’ on the day of our visit and there was a long line of people asking for items from footballs to nappies.
The army currently provide medics but no doctors, so volunteers are having to pay for taxi rides for sick people to the nearest hospital which is 35 kilometres away. There are also several cases of measles here and MSF are hopefully going to provide a vaccination program soon.
John stressed that as the camp has only been open for around 11 days it’s not possible at this time to give a list of needed items until the site is a little more organised. Please go to the Alexandreia Facebook page to keep updated on current supply needs.
The camp needs wifi, although permission may be needed from the army as Alexandreia is an old military site.
One definite need is a dedicated, long term medical team here, including a paediatric doctor. Paying for cabs for sick people is not sustainable.
John and the team will also need volunteers in the coming weeks and months. They would like it if people could commit for at least two weeks. As they will be doing renovation and building work, carpenters would be particularly useful. They would also like volunteers to entertain children and teachers to educate as well. People with experience of working with children with special needs would be particularly welcomed.
One of the biggest things that Alexandria needs right now is money to get all these exciting projects rolling. John has set up a crowdfunder so please donate generously here.
Alexandreia camp is in good, experienced hands with John and the team. The army are also being incredibly helpful. One officer we met who took us on a tour of the camp was very kind and genuinely cared about the welfare of the residents. We both thought that Alexandreia has the potential to be one of the best camps in Greece, based on what we have seen so far. Please support the crowdfunder as your donations will not be wasted when such an experienced team in charge. Skilled volunteers will also be able to get a lto done here as it’s very organised. Please be aware that to operate here you will need to have good relations with the army – please stay away if that’s something difficult for you as John and his team have worked incredibly hard to set up a good relationship and a lot of damage will be done if that is jeopordised.