Çağdaş Kaplan -Athens
Translated by Evrim Şaşmaz
Life in the Lavrio refugee camp near Athens, organised as a self-governing commune, offers a dignified and agentic alternative against the undignifying conditions imposed on refugees in government-controlled camps. Kurdish refugees in this camp cope with the pandemic through their own means based on the model of collective self-governance and mutual solidarity. It has been 12 full months that the refugees in Lavrio have managed to isolate the camp from the virus with this model.
In Greece, as the number of people infected by SARS-CoV-2 were escalating, the first lockdown was declared in March 23. After that 42-day lockdown, two more lockdowns have been declared in the country, with the last one still ongoing until 28 February.
Definitely overpopulated in extreme levels, the refugee camps constitute the most vulnerable spaces during the pandemic in Greece.
With more than 100 thousand asylum seekers being stuck in the country, the forced overpopulation in the camps is beyond the capacity limits, which makes it impossible to apply social distancing measures especially during the lockdown periods.
As the pandemic continues, the government takes only restrictive measures devoid of community support in the refugee camps. Although the only option given to refugees by the government has been ‘enclosure’, the refugees who have to go outside the camps for their needs have been faced with fines (150 Euro) heavily disproportional to their budgets.
In the Moria Camp of Lesvos, for instance, more than 12 thousand refugees have been forced to stay inside the camp despite its capacity limited to three thousand persons.
A thousand and 300 refugees had to use the same water tap and families of five to six members had to sleep in spaces of three metres sq even during the lockdown.
Thousands of refugees were left homeless after the fire that broke out on September in the camp.
The refugees had to spend more than a week in the streets. Hundreds of refugees have been tested Covid 19 positive and taken to Karatepe (also known as Moria2), which is the new tent camp. The situation has not been much different from Moria in other government-led refugee camps in the country.
A different example
While the situation is already in such a grave state, one camp copes with the pandemic in a different way. This camp is located in Lavrio, a seaside town with a population of 10 thousand, at 60 km away from Athens towards the Southeast.
This camp is outside the support scope of Red Cross, UN Migration Organisation and the government.
Despite the lack of support from Red Cross and UN Migration Organisation, the refugees in this camp are trying to cope with Covid 19 with their own unique management style and solidarity. And this camp has been successful in dealing with the pandemic for 12 months. People living in the camp have managed score zero SARS-CoV-2 positive cases until now.
The history of Lavrio camp
Located in the town centre and composed of two blocks surrounded by a garden, this space does not currently have the formal status of a refugee camp. However, everyone in Greece knows that this place is a refugee camp.
A complex of concrete buildings facing a courtyard, the Lavrio camp is believed to be the oldest modern site of its kind in Greece and it has been used by refugees since the Second World War.
The camp was built 60 years ago for the refugees from the Soviet Union during the cold war era. Afterwards, it became a safe space for refugees who were politically exiled from Turkey after the military coup in 12 September 1980.
During the early 90’s, with the armed conflicts escalating in Kurdish cities in Turkey, the camp became a safe stop for Kurdish families who were forced to leave Turkey. Tens of Kurdish intellectuals, writers, artists, politicians and journalists have found refuge here.
Since 2014, after ISIS began its attacks on Kurdish cities in Syria, the camp has become a temporary homeland for hundreds of Syrian Kurdish families who were trying to go to Western European countries.
The Red Cross continued its sanitary and health support to the camp until 2017. However, it withdrew from the camp during the Syriza government because of Turkey’s political pressure against Greece’s government.
The latest military campaign by Turkey against the PKK has been accompanied by an extensive crackdown on Kurdish opposition politicians, activists, intellectuals and journalists with several of them having sought refuge in the Lavrio camp. Turkey regards many of the residents of the Lavrio camp as terrorists – a charge denied by the camp residents as well as the local officials.
“Here we host people who have suffered, who have been forced to leave their country and want to make a fresh start,” says Dimitrios Loukas who is the mayor of Lavrio town, . “No terrorists live here. Turkey makes these claims to advance its agenda.”
A praxis of self-governance
Since the early 90’s the camp has been governed through the assemblies determined by the residing refugees. After the withdrawal of the Red Cross, the camp has been administrated through the model of self-governance.
Currently, the Lavrio camp is still run largely by Kurdish asylum-seekers from Syria and Turkey, and it operates a system of radical self-government that is influenced by the Kurdish freedom struggle in those countries.
When you enter to the camp from the yard, you feel that you are in a town of Kurdistan rather than in a coast town in Greece. That feeling is derived from shouts and talks in various dialects of Kurdish, the nationally coloured dresses that Kurdish women wear, the graffitis on the walls as well as the flags and the pennants of parties and organizations (YPG, PYD, HDP, PKK and many more) carrying out Kurdish struggle in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
The flags are put and the graffiti is made by the young residents of the camp. This is the Kurdish youth who had to leave their countries given the imprisonment sentences or threats they received based on their struggle for identity and freedom.
The families who came from Syria’s Kurdish region (Rojava) constitute sixty percent of the camp’s population. Many of them lost their spouses, siblings, and parents in ISIS attacks against Kurdish cities.
The system of governing – known as democratic self-government – gives men and women equal representation in decision-making bodies while encouraging political participation from the bottom up, through committees, sub-committees and an assembly.
Kurds are trying to implement the self-goverment model in many different places where they live. This model is currently being built in the Northern and Eastern regions of Syria, known as Rojava which is under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The self-governance of the Lavrio camp is also mostly inspired by Rojava.
The refugees residing in the camp sustain life governance by establishing assemblies for security, cleaning, health, women, youth, administration, and external relations.
“For 30 years, the camp has been trying to organise itself to meet its own needs and solve its own problems. After the Red Cross withdrew from the camp in 2017, the self-government model was felt more needed” says Selma Koç, the spokesperson of the women’s commission of the camp.
“These committees are determined on a voluntary basis. Individuals propose and serve on the committees they want to participate in on a voluntary basis according to their interests or expertise. These committees carry out supervision and coordination tasks related to their own fields. All committees appoint two spokespersons, one man and one woman. All of the spokespersons form the camp management council. There is also a popular assembly, of which everyone in the entire camp population is a member. Here, too, people can present their suggestions, opinions and criticisms to the management.”
Taking part in the committees is voluntary. But everyone has responsibilities in line with the decisions taken. So what happens if there are disagreements? “Consensus is the first option in decision-making processes in assemblies and committees” says Selma Koç. “If the council has not reached a consensus in a decision, another meeting is held and the parties present their opinions, defend them and try to reach to a consensus. If there is no solution in this meeting, then voting is applied.”
Based on its capacity, the camp is open to all refugees who apply to the administrative assembly and to the Cultural Centre of Kurdistan in Athens, with a priority to refugee families who had to flee from their land around the region of Syria’s Rojava or Kurdish cities because of ISIS’ attacks.
The only income that the residing refugees have is the refugee monetary aid (150 Euro) by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) and the limited pocket money sent by those who stayed behind.
Coping with Covid-19
With the pandemic of Covid-19 escalating in Greece, the camp administration called everyone residing in the camp for a meeting and they discussed how they can realise a collective strategy to cope with the pandemic.
Since the pandemic struck, the camp has engaged its approximately 450 residents in a range of efforts – from controlling the gates during lockdowns to stitching masks and constantly disinfecting shared spaces, carrying out body temperature checks and making their own bakery. To date, it has not recorded a single SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Lavrio Health Centre is the only official institution operating under the Ministry of Health in the city. To confirm this issue, we called the Health Centre officials and asked “if there were any patients from the camp who applied to the health centre with Covid 19 symptoms”. However, the Health Centre officials stated that they are not authorised to answer this question. The reason for this, they said, was that “the camp does not have a status”.
“After the first Covid 19 meeting, the health assembly has been enlarged, the duties for the security assembly have been rearranged for regulating the entrance to and the exit from the camp” says Jiyan Topkan Polat who is originally from the town of Batman in Turkey and currently a camp resident and a member of the health committee.
“The external relations assembly strengthened their communication with groups and individuals who were engaged in humanitarian solidarity with the camp, and the administrative assembly started a process of reorganisation for the space as well as a general process of control. Everyone, including children, joined in the efforts of coping with the pandemic. There is no case of Covid-19 in the camp because all individuals performed their duties as part of a collective process.”
First, to ease social distancing in the life spaces, the administrative assembly reorganised 55 rooms in two blocks in a way that each room will host eight persons.
Afterwards, they built the toilets and showers together with the residents who had construction work skills.
As a result, each floor has now access to 9 showers. Furthermore, they also did two additional showers in the container-rooms which were used to host guests before the pandemic and are currently used as extra space for residents.
The health protocol
A health protocol had been implemented in the camp when the first quarantine was announced in Greece. This protocol was created with the joint efforts of the camp management, volunteer doctors and solidarity groups.
To fulfill this health protocol which also included supplying medicine, food, and hygiene products, the assemblies of administration and external relations launched communication with persons and organisations that have been in humanitarian solidarity with the camp -such as Rise up for Rojava and Antarsya Convoy Solidarity, Rise up for Rojava, Antarsya and The Kurdish Crescent-.
The Convoy Solidarity has been in solidarity with the camp more than five years and it encompasses 12 different organisations including associations, worker unions and work councils. Jacques Leleu from the Convoy has actively participated in this solidarity during the pandemic. Jacques defines himself as a syndicalist and an internationalist.
Jacques states that the convoy could not make it to the camp because of the closed borders and that is why they provided monetary aid for the residing refugees’ shopping needs such as hygiene products. Jacques elaborates on how they supported the camp to prepare for the quarantine:
“With this cash aid, tens of litres of bleach, gloves, masks and hydro-alcoholic gel and spray have been bought. We also bought thermometers. A decision to disinfect the shared spaces several times in a day was taken. Each room of eight persons acquired a disinfection equipment. Two pulmonology specialists were consulted for the required protocols. Based on these protocols, it was decided to restrict the entry to and from from the camp, to determine a group of 4-5 persons who would go to do shopping and to measure fever for each person who entered or left the camp.”
The camp’s assembly of health begun to work based on these protocols. Accordingly, they decided to disinfect the rooms three times in a day. The shared spaces, in turn, were cleaned three times in a week.
As the masks brought from outside were insufficient during the quarantine, the camp residents have started to make their own masks with the cloth they bought themselves and the sewing machines that were brought by the solidarity groups. Saliha Halil, a refugee from Afrin in Syria, produced hundreds of masks by her own means. Her spouse, Hanan Muhammed fought against ISIS together with YPG and afterwards, he joined Kurdish Security Forces of Afrin. Hanan lost his life in 20 February 2018, when Turkey-backed jihadist FSA attacked Kurdish forces. After losing her husband, Saliha first came to Turkey and then fled to Greece with her four children who are between the ages of 10 and 18.
Saliha learned how to use a sewing machine in Syria. This is how she joined the collective coping with the pandemic: sewing masks in the camp.
Saliha further explains:
“Everyone joined the process of coping with the virus. Together with some of my women companions, we sew hundreds of masks with the two sewing machines we had in our room. I am very happy that I could contribute for the health of our children and our own health. As the women of this camp, we are ready to sew masks again if we run out of masks in the camp,”.
TOMORROW: During the pandemic a creative solution: the oven, the relations of the camp residents’s with the Lavrio people, the teachings of the Lavrio practice and the future of the camp …