The weavers sit at the loom, scissors and tools waiting patiently, as they spell out the word "Welcome". One of a few English words they've learned, a meaningful symbol of their hopes and dreams as they weave their lives back together.
The women have come from different places and have different stories. They’ve met at the camp and they sit in a container, which has been brightly painted with flowers, and weave their fears and dreams. The items they make and sell online (mats, bags, wallets, pillowcases, etc) are in shades of grey and orange, because their basic materials are not various yarns and fabric but the grey blankets which are distributed by humanitarian organisations and life jackets from Lesvos. The items were left unusable but have now been cleaned and upcycled.
Since 2017, the organisation “Love Welcomes” has been training and employing refugee women as weavers in the camp. More than 80 women have learned the art of weaving, and their training and employment gives them self-worth and a new experience for many of them.
The weavers gather in the safe work area of their container and before getting to work, they drink Arabic coffee and steaming tea, and talk and joke in the local dialects of Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and Congo. A neighbouring container, a men's gym, moved to another location, in order to make the women feel more comfortable.
"I’m happy when I work because I feel useful and it gives me hope for life,” said Reem, 35, from Syria. When the women are not working on the looms, they don’t have any other activity to fill their time. Other organisations offer cosmetology or yoga classes in the camp, but only occasionally. Some women try to learn Greek online on their own but internet access is very limited.
The camp is in the middle of nowhere, on an abandoned Air Force base, next to an industrial zone. An hour away from Athens and 20 km from the nearest large city, although this camp has existed for five years, the refugees are isolated and trapped since there is no bus to connect them with the urban area and local population. They often have no other choice but to hitchhike on the highway, to get on passing intercity buses, endangering themselves to speeding cars and traffic.
It’s inevitable that in a camp of nearly 3,000 residents there are now about 80 makeshift shops such as mini markets, cafes, hairdressers, and nail salons as people are trying to exist.
Aristotelis Karamousoulakis, who worked as a psychologist at the camp for four years, comments, "Do you know how many talented people there are? One architect showed me photos of his designs, another made handcrafted doors that were masterpieces. The camps should not exist. They are dysfunctional and not at all efficient. People are just going to waste. However, training and gaining experience in the few programs like Love Welcomes contribute to social inclusion.”
Aleah, a 23-year-old woman, survived the war in Syria and managed to reach Greece with the dream of securing a safe home and education for her and her child. Three and a half years later, she feels marginalised and sad: “They won’t even let our children go to school with the other children,” she notes.
With the onset of the pandemic, even the smallest links connecting them to the outside world were destroyed. Because of the coronavirus, the local Municipality announced that refugee children will not be allowed to attend local primary schools. Teachers fighting for the constitutional right of children to education denounced the decision, while 4,000 citizens reacted by collecting signatures and calling for the decision to be overturned. Sadly refugee children have been excluded from attending school for a year now.
As lockdown restrictions increased, they have been stricter and lasted longer for refugees than for the rest of the population. This contributed to a "significant deterioration in the mental health of people in [Greek] camps," according to research carried out by the international organisation IRC.
"There has been a worrisome increase in the number of beneficiaries who reported psychotic symptoms, from one in seven (14%) to almost one in four (24%)… while self-inflicted injuries increased by 66%."
Unfortunately, the camp where we work is no exception. The “temporary hospitality shelters”, as they are officially called, resemble being exiled in an endless quarantine.
In spite of this, many refugees, such as 20-year-old Ernestine from Cameroon, are excited to work. "When I first came, I sat all day and cried because I had nothing to do. I will definitely continue to work for Love Welcomes for as long as I can. Only then will I rebuild my life and have a better future."
This content was paid for by Love Welcomes and created by Solomon Studio.