Language and education – GreeceThe role of youth and education in responding to the pandemic in Ritsona refugee camp
When it was first built, Ritsona refugee camp – located in mainland Greece, just north of Athens – was meant to house around 900 people. Today, it provides accommodation to more than 3,000 refugees who have been transferred here from the camps on the Greek islands. Most of them are considered vulnerable.
I am one of the new arrivals who left Moria camp on Lesvos, hoping that, here at Ritsona, we could find peace, dignity, education, health care and recreation: in short, the chance to lead a normal life and have all that a human being needs to do so. And, for a time, the situation did indeed improve for us, and we allowed ourselves to believe that we would regain some certainty and normality in our lives.
Unfortunately, very soon we found ourselves confronting a new problem: the COVID-19 pandemic. The official guidance on the most effective ways of protecting against infection is clear: ‘stay home, wear masks, keep a distance from others’. To do so, however, is almost impossible when you live in the midst of thousands of other people, crowded together in containers with eight or more people in each.
While throughout the world, the rule is to stay in isolation at home for a period of time, here the advice is just to stay in the camp. But in Ritsona, this does not make any sense. Here, people are physically close to each other every single moment. They have no information about what is going on in the world at large, nor about how they can protect themselves and their children from the disease. Unfortunately, the virus does not recognize any borders and treats everyone equally, even the refugees who face inequality in every other area of their lives.
For us, this camp is a communal home. While you have to stay at home, we have to live in the camp, where there is no guarantee of health or safety. We are in such close contact with each other that we could be considered links in a chain. If one of us gets the virus, in less than a week half of the camp will become ill. Hence, in the early days of the pandemic, some friends and I decided to organize an event with the residents of the camp to raise awareness and communicate information about the nature of the virus and its transmission.
As I had been a volunteer teacher in Moria for both children and adults, my experience there helped me to realize that change can be achieved in an educational space, where people come together to learn something new and better understand the realities of the world. We started with the youngest in the camp, making sure that they understood the instructions we had received from the camp’s doctor. I believe in the power of the young as they are generally better educated and able to learn faster than their parents. I was, therefore, convinced that they would readily appreciate the seriousness of the epidemic and explain it effectively to the adults in their family.
When I shared my idea with the community engagement team at the International Organization of Migration (IOM), they felt that an event of this sort would take a long time to prepare. Even so, I was convinced that it was worth trying and much better than doing nothing and passively accepting the approaching danger.
My first concern was to secure the engagement of the medical team. Fortunately, within half a day, I had also mobilized a number of young refugees from all parts of the camp. Using the information we had received from the medical team, we made a number of public health campaign posters. The next day, we put them up at several points in the camp. At the same time, each one of us had the duty of visiting people in the camp and sharing with our families and neighbours all the relevant information we had been given on COVID-19. These were the first tasks undertaken by our Corona Awareness Team, formed by a number of young residents of Ritsona.
When the number of infected people was first announced, everybody was scared. All offices and common spaces were closed down, but the large majority of the residents of the camp had little in the way of information – or, worse, had been exposed to harmful misinformation about the virus. The aid organizations, once active in the camp, kept their distance and avoided getting close to anyone. Gradually, panic spread among all residents, leading to a chaotic and explosive situation with fights among some of the infected residents. The medical personnel, feeling unsafe in their workspace, left the camp.
The situation became truly critical: we had no time to lose. We plucked up all our courage and took it upon ourselves to speak to the various communities, informing them about the measures they needed to take to protect themselves, their families and their neighbours. The first step we asked them to take was to stay as much as possible in their containers. At the same time, we organized competitions and activities that would highlight the epidemic, its effects on different age groups and the behaviours that would protect people from infection.
Realizing that more needed to be done, I decided to organize a refugee-led self-educational programme by soliciting the collaboration of other young refugee women who had had some teaching experience in their countries of origin. The programme started a few days later. It attracted lots of people, especially from the Syrian and Kurdish communities, who felt that their women and girls would be in a safe place, run by young women, with no men around. Our self-organized classrooms offered a good opportunity and an easy way for the Corona Awareness Team to disseminate concrete, accurate information for them to then share with the rest of the residents.
The team consisted of 17 young refugee girls who started an open and inclusive programme to enable residents to pursue some sustainable goals in the midst of the pandemic. Another objective behind this programme was to draw on the skills and abilities of girls, to help them access knowledge and develop confidence in themselves. We believed that this would contribute to a decrease in male violence and aggression toward women and girls.
Since then, the project has continued to evolve. As we have classes in the camp, there is still a programme of information-sharing between teachers and students, but we realized it was important to find sustainable ways to communicate to the wider community too. With this in mind, we launched a poster-making campaign, installing them in frames on walls and trees as a reminder. Another of our activities is having paintings in the containers: this is a good way to illustrate how to protect ourselves from COVID-19 while also giving some colour to the drab surroundings of the inhabitants of Ritsona.
In a camp, if you cannot find any opportunities to develop and enrich yourself, you need to make them. Similarly, if there is no suitable space available in which to act, you should create one and involve other people in doing so. And if you are not visible, you should put as much effort as you can into being seen, grabbing the attention of the world outside and attracting the lenses of cameras to where you live. Everyone has been affected by the pandemic – but everyone, too, has the possibility to take action to make themselves and their communities safer from its terrible effects.
Photo: A portrait of Parwana taken in Ritsona, Greece. Credit: Tom Alboth.