Memories of a warmer time in Greece

By Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer

The sun is shining brightly as we pull in through the wire gates of the Schisto Emergency Reception Site for refugees located in Western Athens. I am dressed in a sky blue vest that proudly announces UNHCR in white letters. A group of women and children sitting on a cement wall outside the gates watch us suspiciously as we emerge with cameras, backpacks, and duly summoned discretion. But their inquisitive eyes and mouths soon give way to smiles of a warmth that rivals that of the Greek August heat.

Having recently become a national ambassador for USA for UNHCR, I was eager to understand the refugee “experience” through my own eyes and so this past July, I signed up for a mission trip to Greece.

On my trip, I was accompanied by two UNHCR associates and my dearest friend and photographer, Michael Avedon. Together we embarked on a journey through refugee camps, and along the way met the inspiring individuals that inhabit them. What we witnessed was a reality that is, to say the least, unimaginable for most.

We first make our way into the Schisto Refugee Camp, a converted Greek military establishment now housing close to 2,000 Afghan refugees: men, women, and children. We are joined by the director of the Schisto camp, a UNHCR-affiliated translator, and various military officers.

A young refugee girl welcomes us to the camp. 

On our left by the entrance is an open-air section with barbells and free weights: a gym where refugees are assisted by volunteer trainers. To its right, a makeshift area of prayer has been fashioned, delineated by ropes. A ways ahead is another covered area where young children sit cross-legged on rugs rolled out before a schoolteacher; they are all ears as the teacher goes through the Greek alphabet. The cheer and delight that is so distinctive to schoolchildren lingers in the air.

Suddenly from afar, a young girl comes running towards me at full speed. By sheer instinct, I kneel down to grab her as she catapults herself into my arms. I have made a new friend, who is now proudly flaunting her blue-painted fingernails. It is a joyous moment. Fleetingly, I forget where this child has come from.

I forget that during her brief time on Earth, she has endured hardships of a nature most of us, regardless of age, will never know. Her world has been upheaved and her home, quite literally, shattered.

After passing the gender-assigned military barracks where young single men and women sleep, we are ushered into one of the numerous tents where families reside in privacy. This family has been living in the Schisto camp for the last 6 months, a time period that pales in comparison to what we later discover is an average of 18 years for a refugee living in a camp. Both the husband and wife were university professors back in Afghanistan. As we begin conversing, everything about the situation feels natural, normal even, until my eyes have fully adjusted to the dark interior and the reality creeps in.

For this family, this is “home” now: an overhead tarp, a box of peaches and onions in the corner, piles of folded clothes lining the sides, and a hot plate. I think of family friends back home: husband and wife both university professors. Could I imagine them being demoted to similar conditions? Will these educated, gracious people ever return to their academic professions? I later learn that 30-40% of Syrian refugees have university degrees, while 79% have at least a secondary or high-school degree. To put this in context, 30% of Americans have university degrees, and 88% hold a high-school diploma. As USA for UNHCR has so truthfully taught me, they are, ‘people like us’.

We continue on through the corridors of the ex-military base’s infrastructure. In one room, schoolgirls aged 13-22 are partaking in a Greek language class led by a young man. The eldest of the girls is my age. We learn that these girls have just put on a performance illustrating their physical and emotional journeys as refugees.

Artistic expression is prevalent at this refugee camp. One man fashions sculptures from recycled materials: bottles, plastic bags, and cardboard. Throughout the camp walls are decorated with drawings, paintings, and stories written by the refugee children. After watching the interactions between teacher and pupils awhile, I am invited to speak with the girls directly. I ask them if they find the Greek language palatable. ‘Not as much as German!’ one of the younger ones speaks out. The teacher tells me that they are rigorously pursuing their German studies during their free time. Following in the tracks of the majority of Middle-Eastern refugees, their dreams are to move North.

Wi-Fi is one of the first things requested by Syrian refugees upon arrival to a camp. 

Outside the classrooms one family comprised of father, mother, and four children sit together. Their smiles and friendliness attract us. One of the younger boys’ eyes widen upon the sight of Michael’s camera. He requests we take pictures. Suddenly iPhones emerge to contribute to the photo logging. This certainly feels close to home! I think to myself.

We soon learn that they use social media often, and we exchange Instagram handles. To this day I can track the lives of these young people.

Wi-Fi is one of the absolute first things requested by refugees upon arrival to a camp, often before first aid, clothes, or food even. The need to communicate is, after all, our most distinct human attribute.

Under the trees, sheltered from the sun, people are mingling and more children are playing. Up until my trip to Greece this summer, the images that came to mind when I thought of “refugees” were those of dark figures emerging from pulverized cities and orange life-jacketed asylum seekers. This has changed. The gloom I had braced myself to witness among these victims of war and violence was nowhere to be seen. These people are joyous, dynamic, and most of all, grateful. They literally welcomed us with open arms. They are survivors and they are resilient. Their stories moved me deeply, and they have taught me what it really means to see, albeit briefly, through the eyes of another.

Emma Ferrer is a national ambassador of USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. She is the granddaughter of Audrey Hepburn, a model and recently completed her degree at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy.

All photo credits: Michael Avedon


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