I arrived in Doliana, a small village on the border between Albania and Greece, in September 2016. The village was once a thriving town of 3000 people and a local hub, but over the last four decades work has become harder and harder to find in the region and a steady stream of villagers has been leaving for Australia, Germany and Athens. Today, only a few hundred people still live in Doliana full time. When I arrived, these remaining few had recently been joined by 150 new residents, refugees from Afghanistan and Syria who had been moved north to the mountain town from the crowded reception camps that dot the islands and coastline of Greece. An abandoned music conservatory on the outskirts of the village had been reopened to house them and renamed Doliana Camp.
Most of the families living in Doliana camp had arrived in February or March 2016. After that, they waited. When I came to the community in September most of them were still facing months of not knowing where their final destination would be and while many hoped to join relatives in Germany, the lack of answers as time dragged on was causing profound demoralisation. Six months after they were relocated to the camp, no effective educational or recreational services had been established by the Greek government or any NGOs, which only deepened the tedium of daily life. So, in a joint effort between adults living in the camp and my small group of volunteers, we created an educational project that could provide the camp’s children with two to three hours of daily learning, play and distraction.
Our project provided some structure for the children where before there had been none, but nonetheless, life in the camp was dominated by the interminable wait for responses of any kind from various European migration agencies. This, and the many traumatic experiences that had led people to leave their homes as refugees in the first place, had a deep impact on the camp community.
In addition to the lack of psychosocial and recreational services, the physical conditions of the camp were a constant problem for residents. The Pindus mountain range where the northernmost refugee camps were set up is a cold, remote and inhospitable region of Greece. Despite the tough conditions, residents waited months for broken windows to be repaired, communal toilets and showers to be cleaned, doors put up to create private living spaces and central heating to be installed. When medical issues arose they were often slow to be resolved, and the volunteers found they had to provide transportation to help camp residents get to hospital appointments or the pharmacy in the next town.
The people in charge of the camp’s everyday functioning were, nominally, the Greek armed forces. While it might be understandable that a lack of funding and equipment could stop them from being able to adequately furnish the space, attend to the building and respond to medical problems, the soldiers stationed at Doliana also took a lax attitude to more easily addressed issues of crime, even serious violence, when they arose. Neither was the police force helpful when ethnic and sectarian divisions flared up, as they often did, and people felt they had neither safety nor comfort in the home the government had chosen for them.
Just before Christmas, the Greek government had finally succeeded in organising a few hours of formal school attendance each day for children living in the camp. The lessons provided were taught in Greek and since there was no provision of translators, this left both the children and teachers to muddle on as best they could. The teachers we met who participated in the project were open-minded and hard-working, but they had no practical experience or training in dealing with traumatised children before being they were thrown into taking on a large group of these children for hours every day.
Meanwhile, the adults and teenagers in the camp still had no access to anything that might prepare them to join the workforce or for life elsewhere. People with valuable skills are still in Doliana, without work, and have been without work of any kind for months on end, relying solely on NGOs and volunteers to provide clothes, food, daycare and medical care.
The Greek government has not closed its borders or denied refugees the right to stay in the country, but it is still ill-equipped to deal with the ongoing crisis. I wish I could say that life in Doliana camp is worse than in most places, that the emptiness and waiting, the cold, damp conditions, lack of sanitatary facilities or even simple purpose, is unique to the village. Unfortunately this is not the case. Doliana is far from the most dismal place to be for migrants in Greece, where others still live in tent towns and squats as the snow falls around them. But what all of these people have in common is the dehumanising conditions in which they are forced to exist in. Without access to the basic services, certainties and dignity they should be entitled to, they are forced to suffer in agonising limbo.
About the author:
Edmund Walton has worked for NGOs in Palestine and Greece. He is currently studying for a Masters in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Leiden.
Edmund Walton is a co-founder of Doliana Solidarity Project, a project which aims to provide refugees and asylum seekers in Doliana, a small camp in the Eprius region with no preexisting educational infrastructure and inadequate social services, with education and consistent community support. The project is funded entirely by individual donations. If you'd like to support their work, please complete their volunteer application or visit their donate page.