Almost two months have passed since we came back from a five-day fieldwork in the refugee camp of Ritsona, Greece. On December 2016, the Italian architect Bonaventura V.M. contacted the LEAP looking for someone who could help him in testing the effectiveness of a tent he designed on possible social and psychological outcomes. This structure – the Maidan Tent- is conceived to recreate a common space in Ritsona: Maidan indeed in Arab means “square”, like the square of a village . I remember we were sitting in the warm atmosphere of a Milanese café hearing some illustrative stories about the life in the camps, like an upside down tale from faraway countries. At the end of this first meeting, a handful of us got the right inspiration and decided to dedicate time and care to carry out a research in the camp. However, a first obstacle presented with the disarming brutality of simplicity when we recognized our inability to formulate a valid research question for a context we could barely even imagine. As straightforward as the problem came the solution thanks to the LEAP’s decision to finance an exploratory trip on field: on the 9th of March, Graduate thesis delivered and minds clear, we left for Greece.
As you see, much time has passed since our departure and several times we were (kindly) requested to write down a blog article on our experience in Ritsona. Yes, I know that I could tell you that this delay was due to the fact that I graduated (Happy me!) and celebrated (of course), that professors overloaded us with work or that my cat died, but the truth is that I wasn’t able to find a good way to start and conclude. If you are a fun of Italo Calvino as I am and you ever read his “Lezioni Americane”, you may know how the beginning and the end are important when writing, because they show that the writer has complete control of the narrative matter. Unfortunately, in our case probably the opposite happened and the experience took over our minds and hearts. So, I ask forgiveness to Mr. Calvino and my cat as I will start this account with silence, without a word.
First, it was silence. When we arrived it was 8 a.m. of a cold rainy day and dirt roads were becoming sludgy. The camp was deserted under the pouring rain, no signs of light and life came from the ISOBOXES and improvised verandas circumscribing the small streets. This downtime while residents were sleeping gave us the opportunity to walk around and get to know the main features of Ritsona and its institutional functioning. Indeed, Ritsona, located in the woods around the city of Chalkida, is an open camp in the sense that people are free to come and go as they please: most of the refugees arrive here on suggestion of other previous residents. We came also to know that most of the camp population is composed by Syrian refugees, divided on their part in Arab Syrians, Kurdish Syrians and Syrian Gypsies. The daily life of the camp is mainly organized by several NGOs which work on field and have specialized on different activities. IOM is the NGO operating on behalf of the Ministry of Greece that gives support along the Asylum process and legal counseling. Later we would have discovered how well informed refugees are on the burocratic procedure and on their preferred final destination within Europe.There are also different medical NGOs providing first-aid interventions and others organizing activities for children and women in dedicated spaces, but there is a complete lack of activities targeting men adults. Interestingly, refugees unanimously appreciated the association “Cafè Rits” which organizes parties during religious holidays and occasional food delivery, giving them an alternative to the hated Greece military food catering.
Second, Ritsona made us think about food and its wastage. It may seem a dumb statement if you have a picture of starved refugees knocking on EU’s doors for food, but piles of food catering are wasted every day and most of the people buy food on their own in Athens, where they can go thanks to IOM shuttle connection. This evidence presented us with a double enigma: why were war refugees being so “picky ”about food? And, how did they buy the food in Athens? I had never deeply meditated on the emotional rather than energetic value of food. All the activities related to cooking, from the choice of what to eat to the way of seasoning your meal, are a humble but clear expression of a person’s free will and a way to recreate lost cultural origins. The people we met in those days may have lost their homes, families and jobs because of war, but they were still struggling to preserve their identity and autonomy through the small daily choices they had control on. In particular, food was an important part of this set of decisions, and I perceived that begging for EU food or buying their own food made a distinction between the ones who survived and the ones who lived: being choosy as a necessary condition to being alive, a meaningful to choose-or-not-to-choose. At this point many of my friends economists will be replicating that this arguments is a castle in the sky as making choices imply the possibility to make them that basically boils down to owning money. I know, economists are always concerned about money, but these good fellas may be pleased, as my castle was, when we discovered that the UNHCR funds a CTP in all Greek camps in order to ensure some money to the refugees. Each household monthly receives a 90 Euros benchmark amount and 50 Euros more per each member in the household. The program’s ambition is to bring back dignity and autonomy to the refugees and, for this reason, money usage is completely unrestricted.
However, during our first day in Ritsona, we did not only started to realize how fascinating and determinant are refugees’ consumption choices, but we also had a taste, in every sense, of their investments’ projects. Indeed, at the entrance of the camp there is a sort of “main road” with two falafel shops, a mini market and a barber shop, resembling a small economic cluster with its competition rules. It was surprising when we realized that these businesses were started and run by residents of the camp. Didal, the first to launch the falafel business, is a smiling man who, after offering us an exceptional falafel, calmly told us: “If I work, I am happy!”.
It was the first time I heard the word “happiness” in the camp. Refugees are not blatantly sad people, worrying about their troubles all day. Somewhere beyond their eyes you may feel the silent pain and the tragedy of war, but what they dress skin-deep is unconcealed apathy, boredom and frustration. A day in the camp seems to last for years, while most of your life stands by waiting for acceptance in the EU. Refugees are free to move within Greek borders, but where could they go? They are free to work, but who may ever hire them? They are free to love, study, live but what if they do not know what is going to happen in the next days? This condition of constant uncertainty paralyzes people intentions and depresses even more the spirits. For this reason, they tend to sleep until late in the morning, killing time smoking tobacco and playing videogames on mobile phones. Women often remain isolated in their ISOBOXES, men walk around as sleep-walkers, and kids are the only ones who keep time with their laughs and sparkling life.
Third, Ritsona speaks about war and loss. As I anticipated, people tend to hide their sorrow, but when you enter inside their ISOBOXES, sitting on the carpets and sharing a hot tea with them, they let you enter in their stories. In this way, we met Amer, a Palestinian guy who had been a refugee for all his harsh life, firstly escaping from Palestina to Syria with his parents, and then from Syria to Greece. He graduated in English literature in Syria but his first dream used to be becoming a doctor in order to save his father’s life: “ My parents died in Syria, you see, why do I have to become a doctor now?”, he asked through his dark and slanting eyes we could barely sustain. Another afternoon, we spent some time with a family coming from the unlucky city of Raqqa. In their ISOBOX war was still with them, looming over the children’s games, a filth of collapse and abandonment, in the imperceptible touch of a man on his temple to the question “Why do you smoke so much?”
For sake of symmetry, I would be very tempted to start this paragraph with a “Fourth hope and peace arrived”, but I would lie when attempting to establish a temporal order to the bad we saw and the good we received. As always, these elements came together in a flow of emotions, faces and experiences difficult to disentangle. So, we did see hope, but it came together with sorrow and pain, concealed but never defeated, and for this even more special. It was there, in the family of Didal, running a business and investing energy and smiles for the peoples who came by. The boys of Ritsona showed us the will to move on, their touching way to behave normally, hanging out together and wittily strutting around with us, organizing football matches and giving them funny nicknames (“Long live the king of Ritsona!”). And we did see future in the hands of the children as nothing, not even war, was bigger than them.
Lastly, after we have passed through confusion, understanding, hope and sorrow, it came silence, again. We came up with a research question, we discussed it with the LEAP members, we edited a video, but an article was impossible to think. It is difficult to write when you think that the most proper way to tell something should be silence. Maybe, what I wrote until here is nothing more than air, a whisper that adds less to what the internet and newspapers can teach us about the Syrian crisis and the camps. So, I leave conclusions to journalists and political scientists and I let this breeze of words end as it started, without a word.