The Camp that was Ritsona

It has been more than two months since I finished volunteering and the place and its people remain in my thoughts, both waking and sleeping.  I must confess I have had a lot of doubt on the best way to put my thoughts down, since so many of them are impressions and stories that have no ending as of yet, and, in fact, are likely to never be known. There are many more stories to which I will likely never know the ending and thus can only hope that they end well. In fact you could almost say that every person I met during my time at the Ritsona camp is currently a story without an end.  To narrate my experiences on a daily basis loses continuity, to narrate in a free form stream of consciousness clarifies nothing. I will start, therefore with the basics, an introduction to the camp that is Ritsona.

camp at sunset
Ritsona in the late afternoon

The first thing that everyone wants to know about a refugee camp was “what was it like”?  After coming from the tarmac expanses of Piraeus, it looked a bit like a pastoral holiday camp. As one of my roommates said. “You know, it’s crazy. I have actually paid money to have a holiday in a place like this.” Yes, I think I have too. Large prospector tents with mats and blankets, showers with running water and chemical toilets. It felt like a few not-quite-back-to-nature upscale campsites that I have been to. I suppose the main difference is that when you are on a camping trip you go home after a few days – less if you aren’t having fun anymore. You can take your weekend’s worth of laundry and toss it in the washing machine, have your hot shower and say, “I love camping! The best part is coming home and feeling all nice and clean again.”

But I digress. Back to the practical and logistical description of the camp that is Ritsona. Established on the 13th of March, the camp was not yet 20 days old during my time there. Built on an old airforce base in a wooded area, the central location, mostly likely once the runway, was comprised of 144 tents, set up in rows around two main intersecting “boulevards”. Several of the  residents had set up shaded “porches” using branches and leafy boughs. On the periphery, a dirt road, there were several outbuildings in various states of disrepair. Upon arriving there was the “distribution” building where the army delivered food and water for the residents. An efficient team of young refugees was responsible for sorting it out by tent and sending it out with volunteers to be delivered.

The food, catered by the Greek army, was horrible in a way that only institutionalized food can be. Mostly vegetarian, always carb-heavy. In the week that I was there no fresh vegetables ever darkened the doorstep of the distribution centre at meal times. To give an example of three day’s worth of lunches (the main meal of the day); Day 1, Mashed potatoes and tomato sauce, a dry bun, an orange. Day 2, Pasta with tomato sauce, a dry bun, an orange. Day 3, Fried potatoes, a dry bun, an orange.  Most of the refugees would supplement their diet with Hubeiza, a wild green found in the neighbouring fields. I was invited to have some more than once, and even though it was cooked in a most basic way (no one really had spices or cooking oil) it was fresh and delicious. I will never again weed my garden without cooking some. Drinking water was brought in mid-morning and each resident alotted 1.5 litres per day. While this was fine in the cooler days of spring, it is increasingly problematic as the heat of summer sets in, or if the truck can’t make it some days.

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Picking hubeiza

The distribution building had several loading docks and was also set to become a warehouse once the necessary repairs could be made to secure it properly since it also was lacking doors and windows- they were just holes in the concrete. It also functioned as the clothes “store” but the clothes were just a huge mountain, you had to actually walk over them to look through them. I say “store” in quotes because fortunately the whole camp ran on a no money policy. Unlike some refugee camps in the middle east, most every thing refugees needed was available. No need to pay for food, water, clothing, toiletries, diapers, flashlights and other basic necessities. Sometimes, in the case of underwear and bras, it took a few days until the volunteer shoppers found a place selling the right sizes at the right prices, but most things were there. Other things like coffee and tea, the “little luxuries” in life that no one needs for survival but are essential for an overall feeling of wellbeing, were not available when I was there (although there was a tea stall at certain times of the day) but now are.

Laundry strung between the tents


The next outbuilding, known as “the Villa”, consisted of about 10 rooms that were inhabited by people who considered themselves either lucky or unlucky enough to be there. The building after that, the one next to the Red Cross tent, could only tenuously still be called a building. Most of the internal and several of the external walls were non-existent and it was filled with rubble. Many of these old cinderblocks went towards people’s fire pits and “furniture”.  Plans were afoot to turn this building into the “restaurant” or the “kitchen” depending on who you asked. Likely both a community kitchen for residents to reserve a time and cook something and for NGOs to prepare food for distribution, and humorously named “Café Rits”. A definite improvement!

Continuing along the periphery was a large “square” (formerly a landing pad for helicopters) which contained the shower and clothes washing area, where water was brought in by truck once a day and deposited in a cistern on the roof of the building. If you were lucky, there would be enough to last the day, if not, it would run out by late afternoon. There were also around 40 chemical toilets, the kind you see at music festivals or construction sites, apparently in varying states of (un)cleanliness. As well, in the square, was the container, from which basic necessities were distributed. Residents could check off what they needed in terms of toiletries and other necessities on a form, give it in, and then come between 11 and 1 the next day to find everything packed in a bag according to their tent number. In the late afternoons, after the heat of the day, the square was also where the men held impromptu soccer games.

picnic grounds
The picnic grounds

Beyond that, there were the picnic fields, set amongst giant cedar trees and future home to the women’s tent and expanded red cross tents, and there was the main tent, a huge tent used for school, meetings, social gathering, hair cuts and anything else. There were apparently more than 700 people in camp when I was there, but it didn’t feel that big, once you started to know tent placements and family groupings it somehow felt much smaller.

According to the number crunchers at the UNHCR, the breakdown of the camp by nationality is 72% Syrian, 18% Iraqi, and 10% other, but this only tells half the story, if that. Firstly, of the 10% of “others” I would be hard pressed to think of anyone who wasn’t Afghan. I felt bad that I couldn’t communicate with them at all, and that there seemed to be very few in-camp translators available.  Whenever a farsi/dari translator would come to the Red Cross, it was a big event and everyone would try to spread the word around.

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English class in the main tent

Of the Syrians and Iraqis, a large portion were Kurdish. Everyone has heard of the Kurds, but until I starting looking into their culture more closely, I had no idea what a huge ethnic group they actually are. In the middle east, they are the fourth largest ethnic group after Arabs, Persians and Turks, with a population of around 30 million. Described as some as “the largest ethnic group without a state,” Kurds are actively oppressed in most of their home countries on all parts of the spectrum from bureaucratic pettiness to outright genocide. Children are prevented from being registered with Kurdish names, business names are not allowed to contain Kurdish letters, Kurds are often denied citizenship, are often forcibly re-settled to non-Kurdish parts of a country, or are just flat out killed. Interestingly enough the worst offender in human rights violations towards its Kurdish population is Turkey, the country that the EU claims is a safe place to which to return refugees, Kurdish or otherwise.

One group that is increasingly in the news is the Yazidis, who are ethnically Kurdish but form a distinct religious/cultural group. Primarily from northern Iraq, they generally do not self-identify as Kurds, but have their own unique culture and traditions based around their religion. Yazidism is also one of the world’s oldest religions; their calendar can be traced back 6756 years, making their religion 990 years older than Judaism. They are monotheistic, believing in a God who created the world and lets it be run by seven angels, the most important of which is Melek Taus, the peacock angel. Melek Taus is believed to have once fallen from God’s favour before he repented and quenched the fires of hell with his tears. Melek Taus’ fall from grace is often likened to the story of Satan by the Yazidi’s enemies, who claim that they are Satan-worshippers.

Yezidi temple on the highest peak of the Sinjar mountains. Nothing to do with Ritsona, but it was too beautiful not to include.


I met an older woman with two small children in the open area one day in the late afternoon as everyone was coming out to socialize. After exchanging the usual pleasantries about the children, I asked where she was from. She told me that she was from Sinjar and as she said it, tears started to silently roll down her face. I would probably also cry if I was from Sinjar. Seven members of her immediate family had perished there since 2014, including both parents of the children she was with, who were her grandchildren. One does not wish to bandy about the term “genocide” lightly, but since mid 2014, the Yazidis have been targeted by the IS in its attempt to purge Iraq and surrounding countries of non-Islamic influences. At one point in 2014, more than 40, 000 Yazidis were in hiding on Mt. Sinjar after the city had fallen,  and were being effectively held under seige. Death awaited them if they came out, dehydration if they did not. Yazidi girls and women are also actively hunted down and traded as sexual slaves, with an estimated three to five thousand currently in captivity. The IS promotes the idea that there is no sin in raping an unbeliever and is even using this as a recruitment incentive.

No small wonder that Yazidis are extremely aware of any nuances in their social situation and even mildly paranoid.

Shortly after I left the camp a Yazidi man was accused of stealing another man’s mobile phone. A stolen mobile phone is a loss for most of us, but for a refugee it can be a real tragedy. It is your everything. A connection to all the people you know or once knew, their phone numbers, contacts that you might need when you get where you are going, pictures of loved ones lost, of your house and life as it once was. If you have an iPhone, it is also your only way to check e-mail and read the news if you are lucky enough to have an internet connection. The accusations spread and became unpleasant enough that eventually one of the volunteers found the entire family by the side of the road on the way out of camp, 15 km from the nearest town, with no money and no clear idea of where they would go other than the fact that they were scared enough to believe that anywhere else would be safer than here.

It has taken me many months to write this first post, since it is possible to write ad infinitum in an attempt to convey every aspect of  what it is really like in a refugee camp. August 3rd, however, is an important date for Yazidis as it commemorates the massacre in 2014, a massacre that passed un-noticed by most of the western world, myself included, as we went about our summer holidays and life as usual. The knowledge that this was an important day for my Yazidi friends has spurred me on to actually publish this post today. I confess it is now past midnight, but at least when some of you read this in the coming days, I will have raised at least some awareness of their continuing plight.

A camp like this is “fine” when you are there for a few days, or when you are a healthy adult in your prime. Most people tend to have the ability to evaluate a situation based on how it would work for them, and if they are reasonable young and relatively healthy, they think “that doesn’t sound so bad”. But let’s get our minds around the fact that not everyone is there for a few days and not everyone is healthy. A camp like this is not is not “fine” for elderly diabetic people who find their diet lacking in every department except starch. It is challenging for people who are in wheelchairs (of which there are two or three) because the ground is uneven, and it is especially challenging for the parents of adults with disabilities who require adult diapers and help going to the toilet, because it is really impossible to fit two people into a porta-potty. Likewise, it is not “fine” when you are about to have your 5th cesarian section, nor is it “fine” when a new mother returns from the hospital with a week-old baby to a tent in which you can only stand up in the very middle and otherwise spend most of your time squatting and sitting on the floor. Ouch.

kids with garbage
Picking up litter in the square. Notice the man in the wheelchair in the background.


Because of this, one of the initiatives that I am involved in is the rental of an apartment for new moms to live in with their families after they have given birth. Approximately one tenth of the female population is pregnant, and it impossible to imagine that they would go to the hospital to give birth and come back to a tent with their 3-day-old baby.  We called it CRIBS International, standing for Care for Refugee’s Interim Baby Shelter, and we aim to provide a basic apartment in which a woman can recover and the family can spend time getting to know it’s newest member.

“What do refugees do all day?” is another popular question.The answer, of course, depends on whether you are a man or a woman. If you are a man, the answer is “not much”. Meeting friends, socializing in front of the tent, playing soccer (football) in the afternoon and lighting a fire in the evening. To this you can surely add obsessing about your family’s future and asking every volunteer that you meet if by chance the Macedonian border is open yet. If something is going on that needs manpower, that is your lucky day! Never have I seen such enthusiasm for building furniture out of old pallets as when we were furnishing the mom and baby space. Anyone not building was on hand for advice. It was always a running joke every time we needed a translator to accompany us into town, we would ask if they were busy and they would just laugh. Of course they weren’t busy, what could they possibly be doing?

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Building furniture out of old pallets.

On the other hand, if you are a woman, and especially if you are a mother, you are very busy. All of those modern conveniences like washing machines and vaccuums no longer exist and you have to wash the entire family’s laundry by hand and sweep off the blankets lining the tent floor. It is amazing how dirty kids can get when they play outside all day, mucking around in the dirt and ashes from fires. Let’s also not forget that everyone eats sitting on the floor of a tent, pretty much in the same place where they sleep. I have seen some pretty ingenious homemade brooms made from cedar boughs, but it is still a big clean up after every meal if you don’t want to end up sitting on the food the rest of the day. While we are on the subject of cleaning up, all the kids also need to be bathed (the average number of kids per family was 4 or 5), and I have to say that the standards of cleanliness were extremely high. Most grubby kids were freshly grubby kids, they would be bathed once a day and let loose to have the cycle repeat itself.

There is no electricity at camp except in the central tent and admin tent, but plans are in place to get the rest of the camp connected. When the channel for the electricity was dug it must have disturbed a nest of snakes, and there was one night of complete and utter panic as snakes swarmed through the camp. Unsurprisingly, with so many people living in such close proximity, it was also only a matter of time before rodents became a problem as well. Things had started to get a little sloppy in terms of garbage making it into the garbage bags rather than just being thrown into the trails between the tents, and a big campaign was mounted to raise awareness — more garbage is more food for rats to eat, and more rats will attract more snakes. No one likes snakes, even if they aren’t venomous, and within a few days the place was sparkling clean. There were also two adopted dogs who were quickly growing plump on army catering — about the only residents who were.

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Playing with a tire swing. Every night the tire would be untied from the swing and played with around the camp, every morning a patient volunteer would tie it back on.

To continue with processing as a refugee, you need a Skype appointment with the Greek Asylum service regarding your application. I, personally, never talk to people on Skype using my 3G because it is simply too expensive. I have a decent paying job. Now, imagine you have no job, are down to your last 50 euros and the only place to recharge your phone credit is 15 km away. Actually, don’t bother imagining that, because there isn’t even much point in calling, even if you can afford the 3G. There is a schedule of the days of the week with one hour slots of appointments in different languages. Despite having more than 50,000 Syrian refugees currently in Greece who all need to call this number, there are only a few hours in the week in which they can do so. And needless to say, no one ever gets through, which explains why there are only 80 asylum claims processed per day. An equal amount of time is scheduled for Amharic and Albanian as Arabic, which means in the time that it might take before you get through, you could probably become fluent in one of these other languages and improve your chances.

Fortunately the powers that be realized that the system of Skype registration had a few logistical weaknesses and eventually people began coming to camps to start the registration process there (it only took 4 months). There are three options for refugees currently in Greece; 1) They can apply for asylum in Greece and stay, braving Europe’s worst economy. 2) They can apply for surprise re-location in Europe. This could be great if you got Germany (every one’s first choice) or a country that has programmes in place for welcoming foreigners and teaching them the language. On the other hand, you may end up in Poland or Lithuania or a country you have never heard of, where they have low levels of immigration and few services in place for integration. And 3) Family relocation, the option that everyone wants, because when you are starting out anew, wouldn’t you want a bit of family around? Unfortunately, this option uses the word “family” in a very nuclear way. As in, imagine a stereotypical nuclear family, the mother, the father and the kids. That’s it, that’s all. Adults are not admissible for family relocation with anyone other than spouses or children. Children who are over 18 are technically not admissible for re-location with their parents, neither is your elderly mother or your adult sibling. This goes against the middle-eastern extended family concept, and many refugees simply can not believe that they will not be re-united with their brothers or cousins, since this kind of family re-unification makes sense on so many levels. Some exceptions can be made for elderly parents or adult children with disabilities, but in general most hopes for family relocation are quickly dashed.

football team
The Ritsona football team(s)


Much has changed since I have left. The distribution building has been spiffied up and now is a functional and organized warehouse. The Red Cross has expanded and moved to a more spacious field on the other side of camp and will be open longer hours than previously. Plans are afoot to put in a large community garden, and I am sure that the fresh veggies it provides will be a welcome relief. Football jerseys have been donated and organized teams formed. The mom and baby space has expanded and developed interesting and helpful programmes. On the down side, Hepatitis has reared its ugly head, unsurprisingly, given the sanitary conditions. When I was there it did strike me that the conditions were pretty much textbook for hepatitis, but apparently the idea of vaccinating people never really took off. There are only so many hours in the day in which to get things done, and I suppose that given the choice between keeping the two-hour lunch break vs vaccinating to prevent a hepatitis outbreak, the lunch break clearly seemed like the better choice to whoever was making the important decisions.

When I left I was filled with mixed feelings. On the one hand, devastated to be going, knowing that there was still so much to be done, and knowing that, unlike my European colleagues,  I was unlikely to be able to volunteer again since I only get a chance to come to this part of the world but once a year. At the same time optimistic, thinking  of how, in that year, the whole camp was likely return to the abandoned state out of which it suddenly rose as the refugees moved on to integrate themselves into European society. How naive I was. The average amount of time that refugees stay in camps is, worldwide, 17 years. Almost a generation. Can “developed” western nations improve on that average? One can always hope, but given the current state of heel-dragging and petty bickering by every government and governmental office concerned with the European refugee crisis at the moment, I am already planning a return trip or two.

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Camp in the morning

The UNHCR doc on Ritsona for those people who like their pie charts.

This American Life does a radio piece on the situation of refugees in Greece, including some people from Ritsona.

An interview with a humanitarian aid expert who thinks outside the box

The horrible situation of Yazidi girls and women

Interesting video on the now non-existent camps in Eko and Idomeni

And of course,

CRIBS International, the charity that I am involved in with other volunteers

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