The Elpida refugee camp is set up in an abandoned jeans factory on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Here, standards are higher than in other camps around Greece, though we must not forget that everything is relative and very much so. At the moment, there are about 170 residents, mostly Syrians and a few Kurdish families. However, the full capacity of the camp is estimated to be 600, that is when the building works will be completed. Every family has a room of their own, which means they do not have to share with some random others. There is a spacious playground with a basketball field, fig trees, an olive grove, a wood oven and an activities tent. A communal kitchen is being built, which will allow residents to cook their own meals as they please, rather than having to rely on catered food. Clothing distribution is organized in the form of a shop: everything has been sorted carefully in sizes and gender giving the shop a very tidy and colorful look, so residents can come during opening times and choose their clothes. Activities include English classes for residents, Arabic classes for volunteers and evening hikes to watch the sunset from the mountains around the city.
Yesterday I worked my first official shift at Elpida. I had only walked a few meters through the security gates when a little child jumped in my arms. I let him swing for a few minutes while he was playing with my sunglasses, trying them on and laughing about it. He refused to go back down until I just did it, in order to join the others for the shift meeting. We planned a little watermelon party in the playground, and promptly two teenage Kurdish girls took the lead on cutting the fruit into big bowls and providing music. In no time a line of children set down in front of the improvised watermelon kitchen, waiting for the party to start. A 10-year-old girl took my hand and after some time wandering around the yard, she took me to her family room. Her mom welcomed me with a good cup of strong Arabic coffee and showed me pictures of her life in Syria, pictures that could have been taken anywhere in a wealthy, western country. A nice house, holiday shots, a well-dressed woman with her hair down. At home, she said, she didn’t use to wear a hijab, but here – and in Idomeni, where she first stayed – there are many different communities and she feels more comfortable wearing it. Her daughter and some of her relatives are already living in Germany and she has big hopes that she will be able to join them soon.
The after party was all about picking up the trash that was left behind. Soon this became a competitive game for the few children helping me and the other volunteer in charge. Very easily we had started some sort of educational activity , where the kids understood how to divide organic waste from plastic. We walked around the yard, the kids singing an old Shakira song they had apparently heard in Softex camp, and looking for bits of plastic and watermelon. We decided to write a sign “Please do not throw trash on the ground” and we asked the kids to write it in Arabic. Upstairs in the recreational area, this inevitably turned into coloring and drawing, more than anything else. While doing this, one of the children kept telling me how Elpida was much better than Softex: there is no line for food, he can play outside and go to the mountains. He drew something for me and tried to write my name in Arabic. I won’t even pretend not to be in love with him already. Before I left he gave me a big hug and said “See you tomorrow”. Oh that hug… thousand times worthier that all my monthly London salaries put together.