I think of how trees writhe, shake and bend during a storm.
Even ice on the trees forces the branches to bend down
and bow to the earth, but rarely do they break.
As the thaw comes, gradually their resilience
makes them spring back.
t’s a tiny place, but it can host a thousand friends,” residents of Ritsona’s refugee camp would often say to invite me into their small iso boxes, wheel-less caravans. “Don’t be shy, just grab a seat,” they’d tell me, inviting guests into rooms with no seats. Their new homes, ‘caravanes’ as they call them, has provided a ‘home’ for their resilience for many months now. “Come join us at the ‘caravane’ later, ok?” Guests are promised many cups of tea and many more untold stories. Describing their new homes, some joke saying “well, it is better than the tent we were at before!” Others say “It is nothing compared to the house we built back home.” No matter how they see their new homes, they have no other choice but to live in them, no other choice but to still resist, to still wait while somehow keep on going. If resilience had a definition, it might be a four-scene story from this refugee camp.
One iso box sits on the corner of Ritsona’s refugee camp, close enough to belong to the camp, and far enough to be on its own in the world. A caravan with nothing but green meadows in sight, meadows as empty and unpromising as what lies ahead for the family of five living within its plastic walls.
Two bunk beds occupy the most space inside the caravan. The rest of the space is divided between two tables, a small kitchenette and a space in between for the family to sit down and share a meal. The tidy bunk beds might be taken straight out of a home magazine. One of two beds has a perfectly positioned teddy bear in the middle, hinting who it belongs to: Muhammad, the family’s youngest and cutest son. The overall interior design of the ‘caravane’ is very minimalistic, possibly because of the lack or resources, but probably because of the mom’s tidiness.
Inside the caravan, three families lounge. An iPad balances on the edge of the window, playing a Syrian drama. The family’s younger teenage boy, Yazan, recites one of the scenes. His father smiles while rolling his cigarette. The Syrian drama they are watching is called “Maraya,” Arabic for mirrors. “Our favorite series,” the father, Abo Yazan, says. “It accurately reflects how the social life was back home in Syria.” When the episodes is over, they relocate their lounge area to a wooden bench by the caravan. At least five cups of tea sit on the table, and a newspaper with the title, Without a home, centers the table.
In another caravan, a couple of boxes away from the first one, Abou Loreen gets home late at night. “I was helping install a light for our neighbor, but it took me too long,” he explains to his wife. Abou Loreen, father of Loreen, was an electrician back home so he volunteers to install electrical equipment for other residents at the camp.
After washing his face and freshening up, he sits down, lights up a cigarette and points at his children one by one, sharing the stories behind their names.
Loreen is the oldest one. “In Kurdish, Loreen means gently shaking a baby’s crib to sleep.” He then points to Helen. “Helen means a bird’s nest. The same name in Kurdish is Indyhan.” Indyhan translates to “we have arrived.” He then points to Najbeer. “Najbeer means the unforgettable. Our parents have told us not to name her that,” he says looking at his wife, “but she was born in the hardest and most unforgettable of times. A child or refugee.”
The names summarise the chapters of the family’s life beginning with the good times of starting a family during a time as gentle as shaking a child’s crib to sleep, and continuing to unforgettable times. Ironically, Najbeer, the “we have arrived” child is the middle one, not the youngest.
“If we were to have another baby, we will call him Baybrs,” he says. “Baybrs means the man who stands in the face of all hardships.”
“Najbeer means the unforgettable. Our parents have told us not to name her that, but she was born in the hardest and most unforgettable of times. A child or refugee.”
A little boy, Baker, opens the door first, then his sister, Sandy, jumps right out. Baker has a smile that suggests that he is having the time of his life. He might be the closest human character to Tom Sawyer, with his plastic lollipop sticking out of the left corner of his mouth. He wears his rain boots all day long, even on the sunniest day, preparing for the worst of times. He’s seen it all. A broken bicycle is parked by his. “No good,” he says. The limestone on the camp’s ground is more than enough to destroy the tires, let alone his tiny feet.
Sandy shouts “Come on in!” Their iso box is more of a studio. Home for their five-member family alongside their dad’s many art pieces. Within their small community of a couple caravans, their father is called Picasso. His best friend and neighbor introduces himself as Picasso’s personal assistant. He never studied PR and knows little about the arts, but he and Picasso make a great team. They complete each other’s sentences and smile bitterly every time they mention anything from the past.
They bring out some of Picasso’s paintings one by one. Picasso picks up the piece he placed in the center. The piece is a black and white, simple and clean painting of two hands chained by cuffs. “I painted the inside of the hands using the ashes of my cigarette.” He then continues, “I am chained. As refugees, our lives have become almost nonexistent, extremely hard. We are trapped, living within fences.”
His private assistant’s sense of humor is then put to use. He tells a joke to prevent Picasso from getting emotional. He laughs and sits down on the side of the bed, possibly because his old age prevents him from sitting on the floor, but probably because he feels so at home at Picasso’s caravan that he sits on the bed while Picasso sits on the floor.
Picasso then plays a video on his phone of their journey on the boats. “Those who made that journey on the boats with their kids in their hands felt as if they were sacrificing their kids before themselves to the sea. We did that too, on the hope that our children get to a better future,” he explains as the video plays. Sandy sits on one of the two bunkbeds unbothered, talking to her Teddy bear. In next shot in the video, her tiny face appears barely sticking out from her orange life jacket. She smiles as the wind blows into her her blunt bangs.
Picasso does quite a few things during his time in the camp. He is a painter and a cook. “The best falafel you can ever try,” his neighbor shouts, explaining how fluffy the texture of Picasso’s falafel is. He is also preparing to start volunteering for the Red Cross as an art teacher in the camp. Additionally, he holds a discussion hour regularly after the prayer time where he tries to address what the community is going through.
“People here are very stressed, so I try to address that, I try to calm people down by saying that this is only temporary and teach them patience,” he says. Do you think it’s a sin to tell others to practice a virtue that you yourself don’t?”
“I am chained. As refugees, our lives have become almost nonexistent, extremely hard. We are trapped, living within fences.”
Picasso of the refugees
He interrupts our interview twice, once to deliver the discussion session after the Friday prayer and another to help his neighbor prepare his Falafel. “On Fridays, we go to the Friday prayer and have Falafel after,” his neighbor laughs, summing up their Friday routines.
Looking back at the camp around sunset, a few residents line-up by the warehouse to get their food for the night and the following morning. The mornings are too cold for people to line up outside, so they collect their breakfast at night. A couple of kids swing in the playground by the warehouse, singing songs about refuge and the dream of Germany, ‘Germanya’ as they call it. The sun sets slowly as the camp turns dismal. The white iso boxes start darkening, and camp starts shrinking into a small pitch-black pool of misery. The sound of the singing of the kids fade away, and the last sounds that can be heard are the rolling gate of the warehouse and the sound of steps on limestone as the final residents enter their iso boxes.
The pitch black scenery is home for the people who have fled their real homes with nothing but backpacks on their shoulders — most of which were swallowed by the sea, along with other family members. “Backpacks and children, the sea loves them both,” Ferhad jokes. He is among the last people in the line at the warehouse. He heads from the warehouse to his caravan carrying four bags of water, fruits and food.
Ferhad is with his uncle in the camp; his mother and sister are still back in Iraqi Kurdistan. His dad had passed away a few months back due a liver cancer. They and their neighbors started the application at the United Nations during the same time. The family was hoping that their dad’s illness might expedite the process of their refuge. Their neighbors were granted asylum, but due to a mistake in their application, they are still waiting.
“It’s all good,” he says. “One has to resist the hard times, but more importantly, they should be hopeful. I never lost hope and I always hope for the best.”
Ferhad explains how he mentally take care of himself in times of pain. He dreams of better days all day. He imagines them and then locks his mind within their reality. He has a hopeful mentality that he explains unhesitatingly.. It is a process he has developed, practiced and is now an expert in. “Better days come to those who are patient during the hardest of times.”
Between the previous four scenes, people go on in their lives doing daily chores.
The barber plays his instrument and sings outside his small barber shop. A few kids gather around him. He stops when the call to prayer starts. Some men start heading to the mosque. On the other side of the camp, three guys lounge outside their caravan speaking different languages, representing their exile journeys over the years. They speak Arabic, for their years in Syria. Kurdish for those years they spent in Iraq, Turkish for the time in Turkey and now a couple of Greek words here and there.
Perhaps resilience is replaying the same episode from ‘Maraya’ over and over again
Perhaps resilience is seeking refuge in drawing
Perhaps it is developing a positive ideology at 17 years that is powerful enough to sail your ship through whatever waves your refugee journey might bring
Perhaps resilience is the Kurdish newspaper with the title “no home”
Perhaps it is the private assistant’s effortless sense of humor
Or the persistence in Farhad’s voice that nothing but the best is soon coming
Perhaps resilience is the woman who just learned that she is pregnant and is determined to yet bring another child to the world — a world that might one day be better
Perhaps life is stronger than war
And perhaps life will one day be easier on those resilient souls.
Ritsona Refugee Camp was set up in March 2016 by NGOs in a remote forest in Chalkida, Greece — about two hours away from Athens. The camp is currently occupied by approximately 700 residents. Until last December, the residents lived in tents which have now been replaced by iso boxes.
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