You’d be forgiven for not telling the scale of Vathy Refugee Camp just by looking at it. Rising out of the almost-idyllic port town, with its houses nestled on the sharply ascending slopes where in the afternoon light the sun is reflected off the bay’s blue waters and warms the pastel-coloured walls, you’d be forgiven.
But a visitor to the island, you’ve read Al Jazeera and The New York Times. You know that hidden amongst the olive groves of that mountain is a guarded prison.
By chance or part-planned encounter, you find yourself invited to tea by a group of young Palestinians. They’re eager to offer the hospitality of chai just as much as they’re eager for you witness the shocking conditions therein.
So at the appointed time you take a small path off the main road and veer down into a gully that ascends again sharply into groves made muddy by the trespass of hundreds of footsteps. Incessant rain pounding the island over the last week makes things hard going - but this is the road home. You’re outside the perimeter of the main camp, that which you couldn’t see well from afar, but clustered here under the somewhat sheltering trees is a whole village.
Or rather, a whole town. This makeshift town - this camp - rivals the established town of Vathy against which it leans. Four thousand five hundred people live here, inflating the local Greek population of just six thousand souls.
But the road through this town isn’t lined with pavement, bin or bench. There’s neither guttering nor telephone pole, just the slick-grey floor of leaf, branch and earth.
The path makes its way by dint of footprint further in. Shelters emerge through the trees, solid looking boxes draped in conspicuous tarpaulin branded-blue with UNHCR’s logos. These makeshift shelters stand infrequent, then closer and closer, until the woodland corridors between them could take on the names of streets.
You’re guided past a clearing where a dying fire stands smoking and a couple of men stand smoking by that too; past a ditch filled with the rubbish of cartons, glass, plastic and metal. With no adequate waste disposal provided for this town-sized population, by common consent, those living nearby have chosen this place to put their rubbish, in a bid to keep the surrounding area cleaner.
You’re shown to one shelter and leaving your shoes outside step inside onto sacking that makes for a carpet. Inside, found-furniture makes the living quarter passable. A rusty metal bed-frame lies in one corner, a couple of chairs and a shelf holding some pans, a tin of cacao, some glassware and clothes.
You try and join a small circle of young men seated on the floor, but are directed to the comfort of the bed. Immediately, you’re given a packaged croissant and carton of juice. These are the daily breakfast rations given to those living in the camp. You accept awkwardly, knowing that the rules of hospitality are more important than the fact you’ve just enjoyed a hot breakfast.
Taking in the structure from the inside, it’s an impressive accomplishment. Like the groves by which its surrounded, the shelter is formed of four stout trunk, cut from nearby trees. On these are placed beams that make the flat roof, bound together with bent metal nails. A translucent sacking, hardly waterproof, covers the top. On one side, a window is propped open, itself professionally made with latch and hinged timber.
In broken Arabic you ask if the shelter was here before, or if the current residents made it. The owner, who speaks more English than the few Arabic words you speak, replies that he did it himself, over 5 months ago when he first arrived.
Three of the men - including the most confident English speaker - get up and go outside, returning to fuss over the glassware, arguing over its cleanliness. They leave for a while and you stay with two of your hosts. Communication is slow, through an app that does little to foster fluent conversation. You’re asked if Bosnia is safe, shown videos of young Palestinians shot near Gaza’s fence by Israeli military, asked for your Facebook details.
The others come back and sit down, revealing a hidden electric cable running around the skirting of the hut. They laugh and hide it again saying, ‘If police see, big problem’. It’s a line run off from one of the containers. It provides just enough to heat an ‘illegal’ appliance. The other ‘illegality’ is the fire outside. There are few options to cook here, and the consequences are abuse, intimidation and destruction by police.
Tea is made. Direct in the kettle with added wild rosemary. It’s a warm, sweet drink, handed round in pristine glasses.
At times, you’re lost as the conversation in Arabic leaves you behind amid the laughter of people who share an identity and history of which you are not a part. You’re asked if you’ve been to Gaza, you say no; you’re told there’s no violence in England and try and fail to nuance this view.
There is a short conversation recognisable through Arabic around whether to make more tea and taking the moment, you prepare to leave, turning down the protestations around staying for food.
And perhaps you leave, thankful not to be have been spotted by police, knowing the consequence for ‘trespassing’ on public land is probably a trip to the police station. You meet the main road, leaving the olive groves and shame of global indifference behind.
Based on accounts of the conditions in Vathy Camp, Samos.