Activist Maz Saleem continues her frontline reporting from the refugee crisis with this insight into the Alexandreia Camp
Alexandreia is a city in the Imathia regional unit of Macedonia, Greece. This disused army base has been closed for twelve years and now has re-opened itself to help provide accommodation to the Syrian refugee families. You are greeted by the army at the gates when you arrive. The Greek police are now present at the gates and they decide who is allowed to enter the camp. They are very strict but get on well with John so we were okay to come in.
Although I do not favour the army and I have distrust for most governmental institutions I was very impressed with how the young Greek army have managed this particular camp. The soldiers seemed extremely compassionate towards the refugees and one even bought chocolates for the children. A young officer discreetly told me “we have to do national service for 9 months as it is obligatory”. He went on to tell me that “helping the refugees was by far the most enjoyable thing he had done so far”. This camp is for Syrian refugee families only; they will eventually have up to 800 refugees in this camp.
John Sloan, who runs Refugee Support, told me he arrived in Greece nine days ago “without a clue, I didn’t know what I was going to do”. On his first day he found Alexandreia Refugee Camp which is run by the Army and he told me of his experience:
“I went to the gate and they would not let me in but hey, I spent a lot of my life not being let into places. Luck always plays a big part in life and I was working on a plan how to get in when a Captain walked past and I blocked his way in, he spoke perfect English and more importantly he gave me 10 minutes of his time, and the rest as they say is history.”
John continued by telling me: “This is one of the refugee camps managed by the Greek military to accommodate a fraction of the 50,000 refugees stranded here now that the borders to the rest of Europe are closed. While many basic needs are being provided by the state, managed by the friendly and supportive members of the Greek helicopter battalion and with compassionate help of the local Greek community, they are struggling to provide fully for them given the burdens currently faced across the whole country.
“Our first project as Refugee Support is to improve the livelihoods of refugees in a camp that currently has about 650 Syrian refugees and is preparing to receive a total of 800. It has tents, portaloos, cold showers, medical care and a daily ration of uncooked food but there is much we can do to help improve conditions for the residents and ease the burden on the local Greek community. The large humanitarian agencies – UNHCR and MSF – have provided some support but their resources are stretched while they focus on the larger camps.
“We will eventually renovate the buildings with power and water supply, windows, decoration and essential repairs and fit the kitchen with gas rings, stock it with utensils and provide it with food and also fit the school room with chairs, desks and teaching supplies and stock the donation shop with essential supplies. All the residents have come from the trauma of war, loss and a dangerous journey. Most have exhausted all their resources. Some are still carrying injuries from the conflict. The camp is for Syrian family units so over half are children and some are elderly.
“Within one week of arriving, we have secured the support of the camp commander, the mayor, the local MP and members of the local community. We have already converted one of the rooms to a shop (using a local contractor) to provide essential supplies and stock it with essentials. We are in the process of employing local contractors to fit out a communal dining room, communal kitchen and school room.
“We are aiming for a fully collaborative co-operation between local volunteers, refugees, military commanders and Refugee Support. Listening to all parties, the priorities are to provide their children with education in core subjects, languages and Greek culture; and to enable residents to cook their own nutritious food.”
John took me around the Alexandria camp and as we walked around the camp you could see so many beautiful Syrian children running around and playing in the sunshine. I suddenly heard a sweet little voice shout “my friend, my friend”. Two young Syrian girls, Noor (aged 5) and Sidra (aged 7), asked “how are you?”. They smiled and laughed coyly together. I embraced them in my arms and they returned the love with cuddles and kisses. They held my hands as we walked through the camp.
I met one couple from Idlib province in Syria. The husband, Abdul, was a lawyer and his wife, Janaat, was a school teacher in Idlib. They both spoke very good English so they came around the camp with us to translate to the refugees our message of support and solidarity. Janaat explained to me:
“I want the best future for all the children here, I have two boys and two girls and I studied physics and got a first at university, so I became a physics teacher. I don’t want to be in this camp I want to go back to my country but it is not safe anymore, we all want to be treated with dignity and respect.”
An outbreak of measles was noticeable on some children in the camp. There is an urgent need for medical supplies in all camps. I have a medical list for the UK - as when I come back in May my priority will be to fundraise for medical supplies that will include mosquito repellent, calamine lotion, painkillers and head lice lotion. Seeing beautiful young faces ravaged by bites didn’t sit very well with me.
We headed back to the donation shop which John has managed to open within a week of being here. He told me that “the locals have been amazing, they have happily volunteered and donated clothes and toiletries. They have come in and cleaned the disused building for the donation shop. I have also managed to locally source someone to fit the metal based shelving within a week that I sourced online."
What a difference a week makes. The shop was stocked up with the help of two fantastic volunteers from Huddersfield, Naseem and Dee, who run the Take My Hand Foundation. They were such a joy to meet. They came with van loads of essentials including food, toiletries, lamps, cutlery and more. The list was endless.
We witnessed coach loads of refugee families arriving into the camp. These were the new arrivals from Idomeni and Polykastro - when they arrive they head to the registration tents and here the army oversees the registration process. They are then given registration cards for all their family members. The main family member will take these cards to the donation shop to receive a starter pack from Refugee Support. It consists of baby milk powder, nappies, wipes, a bucket to wash clothes in, toiletries, biscuits and anything else they made need. The Alexandreia camp has electricity to charge mobile phones, showers and the toilets are cleaned regularly.
Refugee Support is managed by unpaid volunteers John Sloan and Paul Hutchings who have run businesses and each spent about 6 months providing humanitarian relief in Calais. I have so much respect for these two inspiring individuals. They ensured my safety at all times whilst out here in the Republic of Macedonia.
Maz Saleem is the daughter of 82-year-old Mohammed Saleem, who was murdered in Birmingham just yards from his house by Ukrainian far-right terrorist Pavlo Lapshyn. Maz is an active campaigner against racism and Islamophobia in Britain.