No one could have predicted how in such a short time the people in Oinofyta refugee camp would lead its transformation from empty sparse walls to more joyful spaces, and reconnect with themselves and each other. Colour now dances along the walls and down the corridors. Pattern and art envelop this once bleak factory.
Like other camps scattered across mainland Greece, Oinofyta is on an abandoned industrial estate. It’s a lonely, cold collection of tents and buildings. Refugees try to pick up what’s left of their lives while suspended in a political system that’s slow-moving and uncertain.
Home to 700 hundred people, including over 200 children, fleeing persecution and violence, people here are Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi, Kurdish and Iranian. Since Macedonia’s border crackdown preventing passage further into Europe, the camp’s residents are stuck with no home or way back. Dangerous pathways lie ahead.
Even for those granted asylum, Greece’s failing economy and high unemployment rate mean they subsist in camps unable to find work and earn money. With winter arriving and no end to the waiting, life in the camps gets harder. Dreams of reaching a safe haven and rebuilding their lives are on hold.
The weight of this situation looms large as we arrive in Oinofyta as part of the People of the Earth social action programme. Set up to respond to the refugee crisis in a human way, it aims to create networks of friendship and local support across borders and within our own communities.
Doubts swirl in my head as we arrive: how can we as ordinary people make a difference in such a complex crisis? What would be meaningful to people’s lives here?
With these questions, we meet with the camp director and residents. The director – a compassionate, driven woman – shares her vision for Oinofyta as a welcoming place. Somewhere that feels like home offering people rest and respite.
The main challenge now is supporting refugees’ wellbeing with the immediacies of food, medical attention and shelter mostly met. Working closely with the residents, a plan soon emerges to ‘beautify’ the camp using colour and creativity to bring new life to this place. But, I wonder, is this really the best use of precious time and resources?
To our surprise, painting quickly brings people together to share memories, create friendships and revive hope. Children tumble amongst the adults vying to add their handprints to the murals. The sheer fun of being together and the chance for some self-expression cuts through cultural and generational divides.
The project snowballs with such an intense energy and sense of purpose that the value of the work is undeniable. We are scratching the surface of a deep and largely unmet need. Transforming the space is bringing deeper changes.
Displacement runs beyond the physical. It touches every aspect of peoples’ lives. As they flee across borders leaving homes and lives behind, their worlds rupture and unravel.
In Oinofyta, finding something simple and real to make a practical contribution towards a better situation was a relief. Yet, this only begins to touch on refugees’ longer-term needs and opens a world of possibilities for those looking to connect.
Now back in London, inspired by the courage and resilience of those we met and by the welcome they gave us, our group faces the challenge of applying these lessons in our own communities. To create the conditions for a place we can all call home.