A Small Tent, A Hard Floor, Food Lines for Refugees: 6 Degrees of Separation Part 4: the Camps

Feb 23, 2017

A tent at a refugee camp is home, but waits for tents, blankets, food were all normal as people fled Syria and got to their temporary new 'homes'.
Credit Anjali Alwis/WAER News

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough


Nasreen was so excited that her journey was finally over! She remembers thinking it was the end of their troubles – they would soon be in Germany and reunited with her husband.

Anjali Alwis is a Syracuse University graduate who spent two weeks working in a refuge camp in Thessaloniki, Greece. She went on a medical mission with SAMS, the Syrian American Medical Society, and was able to interview camp residents, volunteers, and doctors while there. She put together this six-part piece which details the arduous and challenging journey that refugees have to face in their search for safety. 

They rented a hotel room for the night and the next day boarded a train to Thessaloniki, Greece. From there, they used their last 100 euros to hail a cab to take them to the camp as it was a long drive and they were weary. But halfway through the journey the police pulled them over and told them that refugees cannot take a cab into the camps. So they walked. Two hours in the rain.

They finally reached the camp. There were tents being handed out but they were not one of the lucky families. They slept together, cuddled tight for warmth. Nasreen remembers waking up the next morning covered in dew.

“The NGOs had arrived and gave us a big tent with blankets and every couple days they brought food. We were so humiliated. Every day we would tell ourselves the border will open tomorrow. We spent five months worth of tomorrows. We are still waiting” – Nasreen.

When people first reached Greece, they were taken to informal camps – like Eko and Idomeni.

People fleeing Syria could take along precious little of their belongings. Personal memories were often among the few things carried to the camps.
Credit Anjali Alwis/WAER News

Many volunteers flocked to Greece when they learned that camps were being set up for refugees. Madi Williamson, who spent 11 weeks in Greece, remembers her first encounter with Idomeni as being heartbreaking. She said that the conditions were incredibly grim; people were pitching small camping tents in the mud, the rain and wind was awful, sanitation was terrible, medical clinics were being run out of vans… It improved drastically with the help of volunteers and the Greek government.

Like many others who landed on the shores of Greece, Abdulazez had a hard couple weeks moving in to the informal camps. He remembers it raining non-stop when he first arrived. All of his clothing and belongings were soaked – he was trying to protect his hard drive and other important electronic equipment.

Abdulazez recalls waiting in a two hour line that night for a blanket – people were fighting and yelling. He finally got his blanket and was so hungry at that point, he then waited in another long line for soup. He had never in his life had to wait in line for food. He said that it was in that moment he realized he had nothing.

As more and more refugees moved in, the government began moving people from these large informal camps to a more settled formal camp. Dr. Afsana Safam or Affy for short, witnessed this transition firsthand during her work as medical coordinator in early May. Affy noted that in the informal camps people seemed to still hold on to hope that they would be leaving soon, but once everyone shifted to the formal, military run camps, people seemed to realize that they could be hear for a while.

Affy recalls that people told her that they wanted to return to Syria – they would rather be killed in a bomb blast than die a slow death in Europe.

Ghalia is a Kurd from Aleppo and has 9 children. One son is in Germany, another was murdered fifteen years ago, another is in prison in Syria and the rest of her children are with her. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and is also with her in the camp.

Ghalia describes her day to day life in the camp: they wake up around 8/8:30, once the sun is beating down on them it wakes them up. Then her husband brings the breakfast and she sits outside and has a cup of coffee. They clean up the tent and get some water. The kids wake up. They do laundry – they laundry is by hand so it must be soaked first and then washed. Then the sun will have moved out of the way a little so then they bathe the kids. We cook. Around sunset time, all the mosquitos come out so we come inside the tent otherwise they will get bit by the mosquitos. The next day is the same thing. Every day is the same. There is no place to go so it is all the same, every day is the same.

She said that they don’t want material things. All they want is to eat and drink and not be dependent on anyone else.

Ghalia’s brother has been missing in Syria and she hopes to hear any news about him. She asked that it be directly translated that she has already lost her son and this brother was her son’s friend. Her heart is so torn about her son, it is enough. One son is enough. She wishes she could find her brother.