It’s Sunday and I have been volunteering in Nea Kavala refugee camp in Northern Greece for one week. I am working in the Women’s Space with Hope, a young woman from London who has just graduated from Oxford. We are part of a group of ten volunteers from all over the world, working with ‘We Are Here’, an NGO, which runs education and recreation in the camp. Every morning we teach English in the Women’s Space. The afternoons we have activities like sewing, computers, or hair and beauty. Most afternoons the women and teenagers just come to chat and hang out. Sunday is music and dancing.
The Women’s Space is a wooden shed with chipboard tables and benches. A few benches have been turned into makeshift sofas adorned with blankets from the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency). The walls are decorated with children’s artwork and inspirational quotes in many different languages. One panel is covered in Welcomes. I make a note to myself to paint Cead Mile Failte before I leave. The money I am raising with my Go Fund Me page is being spent on improving the Women’s Space. We have already built new smooth tabletops (the old ones were made of chipboard and difficult to write/draw on). Next week we will fix the floor, which is old and wonky, and buy rugs for the winter to brighten up the place.
I’m teaching Level 1 English, which is a challenge because not only do most of my students have no English whatsoever, they also have no knowledge of our alphabet or numbers, so learning the ABCs, pronunciation, and numeracy are essential before we can really start learning the language. I’ve had an average of nine0 women in my class. They come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey and Kuwait. Most, but not all, are Muslim, speak Arabic and wear headscarves. None are veiled. Some are Christian. Some have had secondary, or third level education. Others had their education curtailed by conflict and war. F from Afghanistan speaks only Farsi and has never been to school. She covers her face with her scarf and mimes for me that the Taliban will not let girls go to school. She is so brave and diligent as every lesson is twice as hard for her. All the adult women are married and have several children, and we have bonded easily in the way of women and mothers everywhere.
Hope and I push back the tables and benches to make room for the dancing. We have lugged a portable speaker from the metal container, which houses all the ‘We Are Here’ stuff. There is a new, huge padlock on the Women’s Space door, as it was recently broken into. The padlock looks more secure than the door (or the walls of the shed for that matter).
The camp feels subdued today and we are not sure how many women will show up. A series of robberies by a gang of ‘Ali Babas’ has been causing a lot of problems. The Women’s Space sewing machines were all stolen along with other equipment from the NGOs in the camp. After an investigation, the thieves were arrested by the Greek police, which has given relief to some, but has also caused tensions in the camp. There was also a bit of argy-bargy last night at the Saturday music and dancing in the big communal tent. One man had an issue and tried to pick a fight. Others grabbed him and tried to throw him out, but he kept coming back. Everyone packed up early. I never felt in any danger, as it was clear that it just one drunk guy, and all the others were trying to subdue him. In fact, it was quite amusing as the German volunteers were a bit anxious while the Scots and Irish were unimpressed. As one UK volunteer commented: “I’ve seen a lot worse on a Saturday night back home!” (The next day he will come up to one of the volunteers and apologise for his behavior)
The first women arrive. Three adults, two teens, and four little girls. They are from Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. As I sit with them and wait for one of the teens to sort out the music, I am overwhelmed with a wave of anger. I remember a night back in 1991, when I stayed up following the start of Desert Storm – the US-led coalition against Iraq in Kuwait. The mothers sitting with me on this rickety bench had only just been born. I want to find the men who thought Desert Storm was such a great idea and give them a few slaps. I want to point at these women and children and scream: “You did this. Look at them! Look at what you did! Is this what you wanted?” I know without asking that this is not what these women wanted. They want to be back home, enjoying a Sunday with their families, getting ready for the week ahead, going shopping for curtains, or visiting family. I swallow my anger. It’s time to dance.
The music booms, a mix of hip hop and Arabic rhythms. A tiny woman from Kuwait jumps off the bench and removes her headscarf. Underneath her hair is in a bun pinned with a red flower. She shimmies and sways, and I get a round of applause when I join in. After the first song she lets her long hair down and whips it around as she dances. More women and girls arrive, from Pakistan, Syria and Turkey. Some are dressed in Western clothes and wear small crosses around their necks. Some are dressed in long traditional robes with elaborate headscarves. Z, our resident teenage DJ, mixes a playlist of JayLo, Shakira,Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish music, and hip hop. Despacito is a big hit. She is too cool in her trendy tracksuit, gleaming trainers, and matching headscarf. Her smile lights up the bare room. We dance for two hours. I teach them how to cha cha cha. They teach me Kurdish line dancing and some Zumba moves.
It is time to go. The wind is picking up outside. It’s been sunny and warm during the day, but can get quite cold at night – especially for those living in the two big communal tents. When the wind blows, the tents flap all night. There are 800 people here. Most live in metal containers that are arranged in a long alley on the abandoned airstrip that is Nea Kavala refugee camp. It takes ten minutes to walk its entire length.
We wave the women goodbye. Before she leaves, N from Iraq takes my hand “You come to visit me. Container C4. I will make you tea.”
To contribute to the Women’s Space in Nea Kavala go to: