A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


April 6, 2016

The Warehouse of Souls

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Written by: Politis

By Nicholas Piston*

It was somewhat poetic taking the ferry across the Aegean in the cover of night.  I made my way to the outdoor deck, my preferred place to sit whenever taking a ferry in Greece, and stared out to Piraeus, gazing silently at the gates I volunteered briefly at while in Athens (which will have a separate post dedicated to it).  Here was a new tent town in its infancy, filled with refugees struggling to make sense of where to go and what to do after making their ferry trip across the Aegean.  The border between Greece and the [Former Yugoslav] Republic of Macedonia was at that time letting only hundreds of people cross a day while thousands flocked to the border town of Eidomeni.  Information was scarce.  As I sat there, staring, I knew that next time I would see images of gates E1 and E2, the number of tents would have at least tripled.  I thought about the juxtaposition of our journeys across the Aegean; I was in a modernized ship that had a fast food restaurant and cafes, warm places to sleep, Wi-Fi, and would be kept dry.  Refugees on the other hand were setting off on overcrowded dinghies, unaware whether the lifejackets that they were wearing were real or fake, and fighting off hypothermia just long enough to know that they made it to Greece.  Stories flooded in of refugees being segregated from the general passenger population and not allowed to sleep or buy food while taking a ferry to mainland.  I spent hours at sea talking to a British volunteer I met on Facebook named A., discussing what we expected to encounter in our separate journeys, discussing world events, our likes and dislikes, never once questioning whether we were in peril.

I arrived in Mytilini not knowing exactly where and how I would be volunteering.  I had contacted a few organizations that were still accepting volunteers and was ready to find something that would be the right fit.  Immediately off the boat I took a taxi to the town of Neapoli, which is near the airport, and visited the camp that would soon be the first and only camp that I would stay at.

Pikpa, or the “Village of All Together”, is a camp on the island like no other.  Besides what you can read on their website, it was striking to see how many smiles will greet a person as they enter the camp.  This is a place where vulnerable refugees can receive the care they would otherwise not receive in the main camps like Moria.  This is a camp that is not driven on notions of white, western savior-ism but rather a place of community building and shared responsibility.  This is not a camp of food or clothing lines but a camp where we all cook for each other and work together towards similar goals.  We create bonds with victims of violence and who have witnessed their family members drown.  We create an environment of normality versus imprisonment.  The camp is multinational and eclectic; volunteers from all over the world work together with our residents from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq,Kurdistan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Syria.

Volunteering here involves a high degree of self-motivation.  As I’ve told many new volunteers: If you see a project, do a project.  Language lessons, the community garden, arts and crafts, building shelves and storage; these are all things done by the camp’s volunteers and residents.  The kitchen of the camp was also incredibly active on the island.  On any given day, the kitchen of the camp would cook and package up to about 1200 individual meals to be sent to the overcrowded and struggling camps of the island.  There are no shifts here.  Volunteers come and go as they please.  Many, including myself, come early and stay late.

Pikpa is the perfect camp for me.

I started my volunteering at Pikpa in the communal kitchen and the main kitchen.  I was staying on campus in one of the tents set up that used to house residents.  Typically my days consisted of waking up at 7am, cleaning the percolators and making coffee and tea, and cleaning the communal kitchen throughout the day.  I got myself involved in various organizational tasks and disassembling used lifejackets from sea rescues in preparation to be made into bags that the camp sells to raise money.  At 4:30pm we would start packing the food that would be transported to other camps.  These tasks were done alongside the residents, like C. from Kurdistan, who primarily worked in the main kitchen.

I made certain boundaries for myself philosophically very easily and quickly.  Every now and then I would be approached by journalists from some group from around the world asking for an interview from volunteers.  If it involved using my name and face, I declined.  I told them that this isn’t about me, my name isn’t important.  I am one of many that have come in solidarity with people risking their lives everyday.  I risk nothing by doing this.  They risk everything.  Concentrate on the refugees and the camps and tell these stories.  I am not in this for personal satisfaction or glory.  Taking photographs are also something I am hesitant to do.  I feel that there are enough people taking photographs of beach rescues, crying women and children, and refugees protesting for better treatment and open borders.  These things to me are well documented.  When people come to Pikpa and take out their cameras, it makes me feel almost like we are a sideshow and denigrates the whole idea of the community we try to maintain.  It’s as if someone came to your house and started taking pictures of your children and life.  Any photograph I do take is something personal to me and personal to the people in it and is not something I wish to use as a fundraising tool or post on Facebook to share.

One thing that loomed very heavy on the camp, and the entire island, was the negotiations between the EU and Turkey on how to handle this humanitarian crisis (also to be the subject of another post).  The talks went on but no one really knew for sure what it would look like.  All we could do is speculate.  Each day, boats came ashore, volunteers went to work, and all the mechanisms that were built by organizations went through their daily motions.

Sunday, March 20th, was different…

* Nicholas Piston is a Greek-American humanitarian aid volunteer working in a refugee camp on Mytilini. He crowd-funded his trip to Greece from the US and is keeping a blog of his experiences here. Mr. Piston did a BA in International Relations at the American College of Thessaloniki in 2002-06 and then moved back to his native Philadelphia in the US. Nicholas is on Facebook.


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