Words and photos by Paul Alkazraji, Special to ASSIST News Service
THESSALONIKI, GREECE (ANS – October 13, 2016) — At a refugee camp in a former toilet paper factory in northern Greece, a team of volunteers from an Albanian church has been bringing a little happiness to those trapped in the difficult living conditions.
In the “Softex” camp on the industrial periphery of Thessaloniki, over a thousand mostly Syrians have been hastily accommodated after an informal camp at Idomeni, near the Macedonian border, was closed in May.
It is one of many where some 57,000 refugees are now held in official government camps throughout Greece, in a measure aimed at dealing with Europe’s huge migration crisis after border fences were hastily built and the Balkan migration route closed.
Teams from The Kennedy Foundation, the social projects arm of Korҫë Evangelical Church, Albania, have been making weekly runs here since the spring to bring children’s activities including face painting, action games and a bouncy castle. Under the umbrella of volunteering organization InterVolve, they also bag up and distribute fresh vegetables tent by tent up to 600 portions a day.
Many of those tents have been erected inside the “Softex” factory to provide additional shelter from the none-to-distant winter. In the gloomy darkness children push each other around in rickety prams [baby carriages] and play with broken bricks. There are makeshift street stalls, coffee shops and flat-bread bakers, and it has all the aromas both sweet and foul of a Damascus souk.
Though attempts have been made to improve the comfort of those stuck here in limbo, and NGOs and other inter-governmental agencies are present, there are reports that women and children have been afraid to leave their tents after dark for fear of sexual assault from other refugees.
“When we first came here, I saw they were living in bad conditions, and if you’d asked me to enter, I would not,” says Kennedy team member Klaus Kalemi. “But I did because I wanted to help. I feel terribly sorry for what has happened to them. They came from war and we should have better places for them. I think that all of them were hoping for a better future, because I saw the writing on the walls here everywhere.”
Klaus and others in the Albanian team communicate with the Arabic words they’ve learned, and face paint and manicure all those who come to them. “I saw that the children were smiling and happy and kept calling us ‘fri-ends’, even though I was here for the first time,” he says. “That was really touching. They knew the sign on my shirt. It has the word ‘hope’ written on it, and everyone who saw it knew the meaning.”
One small boy, Mohamed, from Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria, was very happy with his Spiderman face paint design. He was in the camp with his parents, two sisters and four brothers. “We came at night in a boat. It had a motor and there were no waves. In the morning we were in Greece. I did not see any fish,” he said.
Kennedy team leader Lysiena Topi says: “When I heard about the situation, I thought I had to do something. I loved these people when I first met them in Idomeni. You can see in their eyes that they just need some attention, to see that people love and care about them.”
“One of the most needed things in the camp is something for the children,” she says. “You can see them fighting because they don’t have anything to do. When we went in, at first the managers would say to us, ‘Okay you can try!’ But after we had finished the festivals, they would say, ‘You are an amazing team. We don’t know how you do it. These kids love you!’ We see the smiles in their eyes…”
For further information about the Kennedy Foundation’s work contact: Ian.email@example.com.
Photo captions: 1) Through the periphery fence at the “Softex” factory site with children playing. 2) The Kennedy Foundation team face painting refugee children at the “Softex” camp. 3) A refugee child comes to join in an action game organized by the team. 4) Entrance to interior of the “Softex” factory where refugees are housed in tents. 5) Paul Alkazraji.
About the writer: Paul Alkazraji serves with the church in Albania and is the author of two books about the country: “Christ and the Kalashnikov” and “The Silencer”. Paul’s blog and books: www.goodreads.com/author/show/5655990.Paul_Alkazraji and www.amazon.co.uk/Muthena-Paul-Alkazraji/e/B0034OJYLK/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0. Paul can be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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