It is not unusual for refugees to be depicted as passive objects that ought to either be sympathised with or derided. We often hear appeals about the disastrous and morally outrageous treatment that Refugees have to undergo once they finally make safe passage to Europe. And, undoubtedly, life in a refugee camp is often horrific. It wasn’t too long ago that residents of the “Jungle” of Calais were subjected to daily police abuse. One Ethiopian refugee told Human Rights Watch that it was “like living in hell.” More recently, the new global embarrassment has been the misery of those living in a former military camp located in the High Hills of Lesbos, Greece which has been dubbed “Moria Prison”. Most live in flimsy tents, doctors are inaccessible, smoke and smog fill the air, and women and minors are often very vulnerable.
But not all refugee camps are the same, in fact, over the course of a few decades, one of Greece’s refugee camps has become a beacon of self-activity, a place that organizes its day to day activities through a radically democratic culture. Lavrio refugee camp, while difficult and often painful, represents a renaissance of a sort, with a vibrant culture and an active political landscape. A peek into Lavrio camp will shatter the view that Refugees are only to be viewed as objects of sympathy. Indeed, like the residents at Moria, and like the residents of Calais, the inhabitants of Lavrio camp are active agents who, with creativity, tackle the obstacles placed in front of them with perseverance and pride. Here, it is our honour to introduce you to life in Lavrio.
Lavrio’s refugee camp was built 60 years ago near the Aegean Sea. Located in the southeastern part of Attica, and about 60KM away from Athens, it used to host refugees from the former USSR. For the past 35 years, however, it has been mainly inhabited by Turkish and Kurdish refugees who travelled to the camp after escaping repression in Turkey.
Up until now, refugees have mostly been from northern Kurdistan (South-east Turkey). The Kurdish population of Lavrio were later joined by a new wave of families from Rojava (Northern Syria) that were fleeing conflict in Syria. For these families, a second camp opened three years ago in the surroundings of Lavrio, better suited to host families with children.
Almost all of the refugees from Bakur made their way to Lavrio after fleeing prison sentences which awaited them. It is often the case that they escaped trials based on false pretences, and manufactured to target political and cultural dissidents. Lots of the inhabitants of the camp are young people.
The camp is self-organised. Most of the refugees are inspired by the democratic confederalism paradigm advocated by the KCK, which proposes a radically democratic system to manage the day to day life. The refugees try to apply democratic confederalism to life in the camp. Rooms are turned into communes, the smallest entities, and a committee is elected by the camp’s assembly to organise daily life.
The most difficult part of life in the camp is the daily fight against boredom and depression. Everyone had to leave everything behind, everyone is in transit to another country, but no one knows when they will find a way to reach it, especially now that border’s controls are tighter each day. For many, starting a project in Greece would mean normalising the wait, and no one is willing to do so. Refugees are dreaming to go back to a normal” life, studying, living, and for some of them continuing abroad to fight for the rights of Kurdish people and to share the Kurdish movement political paradigm (democratic confederalism).
Ismail is 32 years old. His father was a journalist and distributor of the Kurdish opposition newspaper Ozgur Gundem and several of his brothers and sisters joined the PKK. He and his parents were regularly jailed. In 2010, he had already received political asylum in Switzerland to escape a trial based on little to no evidence of wrong-doing. The trial was eventually cancelled.
In 2014, while leaving for his morning tour around the neighbourhood, his father was murdered by Islamic State agents, who later sent a video to Ismail claiming the murder and telling him he would be next on the list. The Turkish police did not want to do anything. Then in 2016 as the repression resumed in Bakur (Northern Kurdistan), Ismaïl’s passport was confiscated. His family begged him to flee so as not to return to prison. He had to leave behind his wife and 3 children. He has been waiting for several months now while trying to find a way to reach relatives in another European country.
Morning cigarette. For more than 30 years, Lavrio's camp has been home to Turkish and Kurdish political refugees. And for 4 years, families fleeing the war in Rojava have joined them. Hassan, a young teacher, literally left his class running from the police coming after him. Because he had participated in demonstrations and supported the development of the Kurdish language, he was facing several years in prison in Turkey.
Ozan used to work at the Cigerxwin Cultural Center in Diyarbakir before it was closed by the state in 2016’s wave of repression. Five months ago, he chose to leave the country.
Morning breakfast. Some rooms are dedicated to Turkish leftist organizations, but as they are mostly empty, they are also used for sympathizers of the Kurdish movement.
"I have been here for 5 months, and in Kurdistan, I was responsible for the BDP, pro-Kurdish party, in Bitlis." says Sedat. "It's difficult to manage the life of the camp, you have to manage arrivals and departures, the budget is difficult, but as a refugee, it's an important job. The inhabitants here choose their representatives and we manage as we can until we leave, then they do the elections again." HDP members like Sedat must go through a legal process for regularization that can take many months before leaving.
Diana (left) is from Rojava. She walked across the border between Turkey and Greece clandestinely. She has been in the camp for two years with her mother and sisters and wants to later join her father in Germany. She goes to school in Lavrio during the school year. Her friend Ruha has almost the same story.
On July 31, 2017, under pressure from the Turkish state, the Greek government decided to completely disengage from the camp and prevent any help from coming in. The Hellenic Red Cross, which has left the camp, has left behind a huge vacuum and no more official help arrives. The only help to the camp comes from activists, the church, and people who stand in solidarity with the camp's inhabitants.
For 4 days a week, cultural and political discussions are organised. The most difficult thing for refugees to do is to find something to distract them from their wait. The cultural and political discussions also help in the aforementioned daily fight against boredom and depression.
Sera and her mom, Felek, fled from Rojava after Sera’s father was killed by jihadists in Sere Kaniye. They’re hoping to reunite with relatives in a European country. Felekhas studied English for 4 years before the war started.
Every 2 or 3 days, people are making bread in the camp. For the rest of the time, they are buying it from local bakeries. Refugees feel that is important maintain a relationship with locals and participate in the local economy.
The cafeteria of the camp is an important place where people can meet, chat.
Celebrations or tributes are infused into the very rhythm of life in the camp. Here, a tribute to the victims of Roboski massacre is organized.
Each room is self-organized. Money is pooled to buy the food, each one at his turn has to cook, clean. A weekly meeting is organized in each room to share the chores, and discussions are made concerning potential improvement and the settlement of whatever misunderstandings arise over the course of communal life.
Murat was a teacher in primary school. He had to escape from a prison sentence for his political activities. Painting stones is a way to spend time.