Street paper delegates “overwhelmed” and “humbled” at Athens refugee camp

INSP street papers often work with the most vulnerable groups in their communities. Visiting Eleonas Refugee Camp in Athens this week was an opportunity for delegates to reach out and gain a better understanding of the crisis affecting Greece.

Delegates at Eleonas Refugee Camp. Photo by Alison Gilchrist

Matt Shaw, Editor in Chief of Speak Up Mag in Charlotte, North Carolina,  was incredibly moved by the experience.

“That was a really humbling experience for me,” he said. “Just from the humanitarian angle I have seen people who have suffered a lot.”

Eleonas Refugee Camp is located in the west of Athens, where the #INSP2016 Global Street Paper Summit is taking place. It provides shelter for 2,300 refugees. On Wednesday, 15 June, delegates were taken to a section of the camp run by the Municipality of Athens where vulnerable refugees are housed. Those that are single parent families, older people or ill people can find a place to stay.

Unlike most refugee camps, refugees are free to come and go as they pleased and the camp was distinctly quiet. Editor of Denver Voice in Colorado, Sarah Harvey, was surprised by this.

“All of our illegal immigrants are in detention centres not refugee camps,” she said. “Whilst this situation may seem terrible, it’s nice to see that they can come and go as they please and that they are not locked behind bars.”

Refugees clothes hang out to dry in the hot afternoon sun at Eleonas Refugee Camp. Photo by Alison Gilchrist

Many delegates took the opportunity to compare Greece’s reaction to the refugee crisis with the approach taken in their own countries.

National Marketing and Partnerships Manager at The Big Issue Australia Emma O’Halloran said: “I guess how we treat asylum seekers is very like a prison and I had expected to see that. The freedom that they do have is still completely different to what I had expected.

“We are used to seeing images of jail-like conditions, like on Manus Island [an Australian immigration detention facility]. It shows that you can have different approaches and responses,” she added.

States Operation Manager at The Big Issue Australia Gemma Pidutti said: “I think I just found the whole thing very overwhelming. For Australians you can’t comprehend how big the crisis is here.”

INSP delegates were invited to the camp by the Vice Mayor of Athens for Migrants and Refugees Lefteris Papagiannakis. He valued the importance of delegates visiting the camp.

Delegates at Eleonas Refugee Camp ask Vice Mayor of Athens for Migrants and Refugees questions about the conditions of the camp. Photo by Alison Gilchrist

“The basic purpose for this activity is to publicise the issue and to show the world and our partners that we are doing things,” he said.

“Things can go well or go better, but we need support, we need solidarity. We need a more open policy.”

This section of the camp has been described by many as a safe haven for refugees. Around 45 refugee camps have sprung up across Greece as it tries to deal with the crisis, yet Eleonas doesn’t resemble a sprawling tent city. Each unit is evenly spread out, and cooled down in the summer heat with air conditioning. There is even free wifi in the camp.

Delegates were suspicious at being shown the best of a bad situation but Papagiannakis confirmed that this was not the case.

“This is a very good case, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have bad things,” he said. “For example we have children running around here and it is not very safe. I’m not going to make it pretty.”

L’Itinéraire Editor in Chief, Josée Panet-Raymond, valued the chance to see the refugee camp.

“I was writing the article in my mind as we were walking, it is what the INSP is all about,” she said.

“It is about creating awareness, and sharing with people from all over the place. It was really eye-opening for us. When you see it, you are better qualified to talk about it.”

A section of Eleonas Refugee Camp provides shelter for vulnerable people, including those with disabilities. Photo by Alison Gilchrist

As delegates walked toward the exit of the camp, they passed a large tent, with a reception. A few refugees gathered, interested to know what was going on. One man started talking to the group:

“I’m from Afghanistan, I came with my family,” he said.

“They are really small, I have four babies.” He points out his temporary home, a unit made of corrugated iron. This unit sleeps his whole family.