Victoria White reports from Skaramagas refugee camp, west of Athens, home to 2,800 refugees who fled fighting in Syria but now fear that their hopes of starting life afresh in the West will never be realised
Seven-year-old Nour has a T-shirt which says “I love shopping”, but there are no shops here in Skaramagas refugee camp west of Athens, where she lives. She is one of the 600 children now living in this brand new camp of mobile homes. Many of the 2,800 now living here came from the evacuated E3 terminal building in the port of Piraeus.
They were promised a brave new world in the best camp in Greece and indeed, there is a sorry collection of tents outside the gate, full of people hoping to get into the mobile homes when Skaramagas is finally expanded to accommodate 3,500.
And yes, it must feel great to step into one of those two-roomed white plastic air-conditioned tubs after living in a tent for several months. But Skaramagas is in some ways even more depressing than the pitched camps.
It’s an old shipping port in the middle of nowhere surrounded by barbed wire fences. There isn’t a blade of grass. There’s a series of creepy industrial buildings overlooking the lines of fridge-like mobile homes, and though it’s on the sea, the huge ships and industrial plants which dominate the scene make the water look uninviting.
Thirty-something Rafa, from Idlib in Syria, which has just been savagely bombed by forces loyal to Assad, says Skaramagas is “worse” than Piraeus. Greek volunteers fought for this accommodation but there is no proper community area and people shelter from the heat in their individual “fridges”.
The mobiles have a permanent look and the fear lingers that the refugees will be stuck here for a long time. Rafa is here with her husband Abdullah, 46, and their four children, Mustafa, 17, Mutea, 14, seven-year-old Nour and Jean-Anne, who is six. This is at least a camp you can leave and Abdullah has secured a job in a sweet factory at €20 a day which involves a four-hour commute each way.
“We want to work,” he keeps saying.
The family would love to come to Ireland and shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them that Irish families have offered to open their homes to Syrians with the same grace that they have opened their mobile home to me.
There is no move on their relocation application because — they believe — there were already six of them and they put their application in with another family of three making a large group which is at the bottom of the list.
Abdullah shakes his head in despair. Getting as far as this fridge in this industrial port cost him €15,000 and he thinks it was all a mistake.
But at least they’re together. Twenty-something Syrian Nour is here with twin girls of 18 months, a six-year-old boy, and a teenaged brother but her husband is in Germany and due to an official mix-up about his marriage status she could be looking at two years in her fridge. She doesn’t know.
“No-one knows the process,” says a Greek volunteer, Bilena. She has arrived to help refugees make applications online only to be told by a refugee that the application process had changed that day. “There is no information, no-one has internet…” Meanwhile, between the fridges, there are signs of life which refuse to be extinguished. There is tinned food for sale under a couple of make-shift awnings. Under a canopy of UNHCR survival sacks there’s a cafe on the seafront run by a couple of gorgeous Iraqis.
I took out my bulging wallet to buy chips but they absolutely refused to take any money. Suitably humbled, I sat on a plastic stool eating my chips and looking out to sea and could almost imagine I was on my holidays in Mykonos.
Ahmed, 33, and a carpenter from Deralzour, Syria, who supported the Free Syrian Army and fled first the Assad regime and then Isis, who caught up with him in Raqqa, has made a shaded verandah out of UNHCR sacks, with patio furniture made from pallets. As we sit drinking tea he has everyone laughing when he describes being made to drive the refugee boat from Istanbul to Lesbos although he had never even driven a bus and he can’t swim. It was so foggy that he couldn’t see the shore and he landed by accident: “I dead and then I alive again.”
His mother-in-law smiles along but then she turns serious and it is explained to me that her husband only lasted 20 days in Turkey before he died of a heart attack.
“She’s so in love with him,” they explain. “She says she’d rather die in Syria with him than be here without him.”
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