Frisco resident shares experience at Syrian refugee camp in Greece
More than eight years after the eruption of the Syrian Civil War, it’s clear the brutal conflict has sent ripples across the globe. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions in the country are still in need of humanitarian assistance and millions more have been forced to leave their homes in search of refuge.
Claudia Kreamelmeyer, a Frisco resident who recently spent a month working in a Syrian refugee camp in Greece, said it’s vital we remember those still struggling to find a safe home.
“These refugees arrive daily,” Kreamelmeyer said. “They come with nothing. They’re put on these rafts by smugglers, and when they arrive in Greece, they have nothing. They’re fleeing for their lives. … There’s a need to understand the culture and history of these refugees and how resilient and full of hope they are. They are amazing people, and it’s important to not forget them.”
There are currently more than 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. A little more than a thousand of them live in a small camp in southern mainland Greece called Ritsona, just a few miles west of the island of Euboea.
In January, Kreamelmeyer left the blustering winter weather in Summit County to spend a month working at the camp through a group called Cross-Cultural Solutions, an organization that helps facilitate volunteer activities around the world.
Kreamelmeyer, one of just six volunteers on-site, ran the clothes washing facility at the camp, helping to wash about 100 laundry loads a day as individuals showed up for their weekly appointments to utilize one of eight functional washing machines, and carry their clothes back to their camps to hang and dry.
Residents also need appointments to visit the camp’s distribution center to pick up water and other basic supplies, or to make their monthly visit to the camp’s modest garment shop to pick out a piece of donated clothing or, if they’re lucky, a new pair of socks and underwear.
Still, Kreamelmeyer said individuals living at Ritsona enjoyed considerably better conditions than in other camps in Greece or regions like Lebanon, where the refugee crisis has become more severe and hostile.
The refugees — largely Syrian, though others came from Cameroon, Somalia, Iraq and other areas — recently went from living in tents to small, metal Isoboxes. Women at the camp have their own trailer where they can knit welcome mats to sell through a company called Thistle Farms, often including remnants of their journeys such as fabric from the life jackets they wore on their way to Greece. Kids are given limited educational opportunities where they can learn English and Greek, and some individuals even take to entrepreneurship, attempting to set up small shops of their own inside the camp.
But for many, filling their days sitting around talking or playing chess, there’s still a desperate unease when wondering what will come next. Kreamelmeyer said many around the camp simply would search for ways to be useful, taking on chores or helping volunteers translate with the largely Arabic-speaking population. And issues like post-traumatic stress disorder are commonplace among individuals at the camp.
“Many of them would love to have more purpose each day,” Kreamelmeyer said. “There are times when the mood is very down. There’s not a bomb dropping overhead, the children are safe and nobody is being shot at. They’re grateful for that. But there’s also a sense of, ‘now what?’ I don’t know how they feel, if they think there’s a future or hope. But there’s certainly gratefulness and respect.”
Kreamelmeyer said that despite language barriers — communicating through body language, smiles and hugs — she feels she has a better understanding of what it means to be a refugee.
“They’re not leaving their homes because they want to or because it’s easy,” she said. “They’re leaving to try and save their lives. It’s war, poverty and persecution. With the abuse that’s happening to women, they want better lives for their daughters. The young men are fleeing ISIS, and fathers are trying to get their children somewhere safe. A lot of them are educated. I met engineers, doctors and lawyers trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. It meant so much to be with them. I have a bit of an understanding now, more than I did. It’s an unbelievable experience for sure.”
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