We went to visit Pikpa on the 22nd January. Pikpa is a small camp on the island of Lesvos, with space for around 100 – 150 people. These spaces are reserved for the most vulnerable, and the residents are mostly families, with some single adult men who share dormitories, and some of the residents are disabled, ill, or the victims of shipwrecks. The Pikpa camp is a “self-organised, autonomous space and is built on the principle of solidarity”. It’s independence stands out in its uniqueness. It feels safe, happy and warm, and the refugees living there are treated as whole people. All of the basic needs are met, and more. People are cared for by the camp medical team and psychologist, and are offered a range of education and creative activities, including a music jam session and various language classes. Some the residents are teaching language to volunteers too, which is great to see.
During our visit, our aim was to bring our creative energy to the camp. This took the form of a range of activities, working with whoever wanted to join us each day. We began by recycling various found materials from the camp to make colourful mobiles to decorate the communal seating area. Some children and women helped us, and together we made a sparkly wall of jelly-fish like mobiles! Some of the materials were scraps from old life jackets, and from the metallic heat blankets, or from clothes donations which were broken or stained.
The decorating continued as we made birds out of plastic fish-bags from the kitchen with artist Claire, which we hung in the trees of the magical woodland area which surround the geodesic dome. We also made banners, one with the kindergarten children, and one which other children, where they practised their stitching and appliqué skills!
As well as this we did lots of drawing, stitching, and some painting too, with the help Suzan Partridge, an artist who we were fortunate enough to meet, and who introduced us to Pikpa.
Overall for me, the trip was a beautiful realisation of what a refugee camp could be like. I could not help to compare Pikpa to Dunkirk camp, where I worked in 2016. In comparison, Pikpa felt like a utopian dream. In particular, the feeling of safety in the camp struck me, and made me realise how oppressive and unsafe Dunkirk camp had felt – something that I had never realised that I felt when I was there. The difference is perhaps like going to the country side after being in a dangerous or unknown part of a city for a while – you a relieved to not have to worry about the many eyes on you, not knowing what is around each corner. People were relaxed in Pikpa, and so were able to rest and restore, to prepare themselves for what is next. It felt to be in many ways a healing place.
For me, the comparison between the two camps served to help me understand better my own previous experiences within a wider context. After working in Dunkirk, I have felt overwhelmed by the seeming impossibility of change, and the enormity of the challenge faced by refugees in Europe. I imagined Dunkirk to be one of the best camps in Europe – assuming that all others would be worse. In this way, I felt quite defeated by the experience, thinking that if we could not adequately help and protect the population of Dunkirk ‘La Liniere’ camp, what hope did the rest of Europe have? In many ways I have since felt that there is no point taking action to change the situation for refugees in Europe because the political system is so deeply violent, stagnant and flawed – whereas before I was motivated and active. As such, I was demotivated in part by my flawed understanding of the broader context, and due to the sinking mud and swamp like context that the politics of the Dunkirk / Calais / UK felt like to me.
Visiting Pikpa then, was an experience of optimism and of hope, and served in part to remind me that it can be done – that refugees can be treated with humanity, and that a holistic and humanising approach can succeed, can be effective and can be sustained. It is a model which is based on a network of strong, like-minded, dedicated individuals, and it reminded me of the importance of connectedness. Pikpa was inspiring, and we were fortunate to spend time there and to meet the dedicated volunteers who make it work. It is small but it is mighty.
The camp run by Lesvos Solidarity that is small, and different from others. This is what I am told. It is a visionary camp and a consequence of determined like-minded individuals making it happen.
It is for the most vulnerable, those referred on from other camps like Moria (which houses around 4000). Here they encourage creativity, they see the importance of making things, humanising by enriching lives through ways that are more than the every day tasks of survival.
The people here are welcoming, they are open to us being here. It is a special place, it is full of colour, warmth. It is perhaps a veneer that covers the reality of loss, destruction and horrifying experience. It seems that it is a veneer that penetrates, protects and wraps fragile beings. It feels like what is inside is regarded as precious, people cared for and about. Recognising that creativity is a way to be within a community, to make a community together, to make a place meaningful and beautiful even if this is a stopping off point.
I have heard stories from the residents of who they are, skilled, intelligent, strong families. A master Afghan tailor brought me the clothes he had made, a tunic with seams and fine pattern cutting covered in embroidery. A Kurdish national basketball player, helping to reach up and hang the latterns we had made despite a back operation on his slipped discs that day. He told us laughing of how he and friends had swam over to Turkey, a crazy swim back because they like swimming, they were arrested by the authorities and amazingly sent back to Lesvos again rather than being held captive in Turkey. Another Kurdish man showed me the tents he makes, photos on his phone of huge constructions of sweeping shapes, awnings and interlocking domes. I asked him how they made these vast fabric pavilions and he showed me a small shop with a single sewing machine.
And the volunteers. The girl in the kindergarten is political activist from Turkey who was imprisoned with her family, now living in Germany. There is a man from Ireland, a photographer from Norway, a lady from Scotland. A Greek man here, one of the founding members of the organisation, told me how for 2 years he was on the beach rescuing people from the sea, looking out for the boats as tiny specks on the horizon and alerting the life guards. In the last 4 months around 4500 people have arrived, a vast increasing wave of people that goes on. On the north of the island are banks of life jackets, thousands upon thousands discarded and washed up on the land. We have the remnants of these to make our artwork, a bag of orange scraps that powerfully sits next to us with the aura of what has taken place.
You can see Turkey on the horizon, It is close. In the day a misty horizon of land and at night twinkling lights. It is only 10km from here and further north must be more like 4km. Such a narrow channel of sea which is the continental borderline of Europe into Turkish Asia.
This is what the news said today: Syrian regime routinely bombs civilians in Eastern Ghouta.
Each moment of course you ask yourself what can I do, how can I help, what is it that will make a difference through coming? I am not sure how to answer any of the questions. I hope I can bring something to them and take something back that is their voice.
Lesvos is a temporary place of arriving and passing through. It is at once peaceful and disrupted, a mix of normality and uncertainty. The coast of Turkey is a line on the horizon. It lies across the sea edge like a shawl, a wrapping of another coast and reminder of what might and is happening elsewhere. You can’t help constantly thinking about who is coming, trying to come. And those we are meeting without knowing or asking, you wonder about their journey.
This island place is like a precipice, a borderland, a place of betweenness. It is a place of local permanence with Greek lives firmly rooted over generations, living and working as they always have. Lesvos with its geographical proximity to Turkey has historically played out the tensions and conflicts of clashing continents and political disruption. Maybe the island DNA is a stoicism to invasion, to people movement. Greece as a nation is polarised through its economy and struggles of particular recent events and its responsibilities morally and economically to the EU. It has borne the brunt of this migration despite its own economic difficulties. Without understanding the complex wider issues of funding for this crisis, it is clear that in Lesvos with its camps they have a challenge that is hard to appreciate in its vastness.
Paintings, so many paintings of trees, flowers, liberty. I am reminded in fact of the statue in the harbour of liberty holding her torch a rather strange but maybe appropriate anomaly.
It is chaotic, children and adults all together in the kitchen, crowding round, or shyly starting to paint by encouraging each other. I come back with a bundle of images a mix of nothing and everything.
We made lantern hangings outside in the morning. We dipped into the compelling bag of life jackets scraps and cut up strips of golden foil survival blankets. We worried whether this was ok? Might it appear insensitive? But here it is fine. Making seemed a way to engage respectfully and joining in their own way seemed right. Three women started to crochet, from Afghanistan and Iraq?, they made flowers, gloves, scarves. They made a flower for me to hang round my neck. They taught me to crochet too. Another day later we helped in the kindergarten Aisha appeared, a 3 year old with attitude in an extraordinary crocheted stripey blue, red and yellow dress and matching hat, covered with little bobbles. The most amazing outfit you can imagine. The following day her mother came to find me for more wool, she had already made another dress in 3 days, dark green and ivory stripes with buttons down the front. We couldn’t match the last shoulder panels with the same wool, but thanks to the inventiveness of her mother it will be the better for the difference.
I was given a hat, a beautiful white crocheted hat made specially, it has a blue frill and bow, made by the flower mother who is no more than a girl.
The children joined us hanging the lanterns. The men helped us to hang the hoops. They would not join in another way. But it was here that words came out of making, stumbled conversations in Farsi, Pashdu, Dari, Arabic, Greek. English and French. It is then you hear other stories, small fragments of each person. Watching each other make and sharing our skills we learn even more from each other, of expertise and particular ways of doing and seeing.
One young Afghani woman showed me pictures of her brother’s work, an artist. She made pleated fabric flowers, she cut the fabric strips with textured sides and she sewed. I asked her on another occasion what she had done over the weekend. She said slept, she could not get up. Over the weekend a huge bomb in Kabul had killed 150 people narrowly missing her sister.
I do not know what has happened to these women I do not ask, but they give their time to make. As I get to know them they tell me more, where stitching and making together genuinely does make a community of sharing and mutuality. There is much laughing and smiling and critique. When I sit and sew I become approachable, people come to me and sit and talk. Yesterday M came with his 2 nephews and niece, small children who were visiting from Athens before their new life with leave to remain in Germany. They had arrived on Lesvos together sister and family and brother and mother, but only the sister’s family has made a successful application, brother and mother refused twice. The elderly mother is broken.
The boys sew, they are good, determined and assertive, knowing what they want to do. I have given a sketch book and crayons to 2 men. C had filled the sketch book the next day, complex and detailed drawings of arches of light, which he describes as hope, patterns of interconnecting faces looking east and west and in front where one line is angled to become part of another. He said it was Salome. Everyone gathers round to look, they didn’t know C could draw so well. I have given another book to another man from Guinea. We made textile hangings with their drawings, which are full of symbolism, messages, patterns, references to the circumstances they are in and the hope they want retain. As they are doing these drawings we have been asked to decorate the bathroom wall. We have one colour of paint so we each draw a tree on each section, to be scaled up later.
The wall hangings are beautiful, they have become a combined effort, many participate coming for a few moments to cut a shape, stitch a piece on, or comment.
We also make bags, jewellery, birds for the trees, paper kites, wind socks. The high level of skills of the residents emerges, tent makers, tailors, basket-ball players, poets, artists. There are intellectuals, academics, shop-keepers, a pastor, whole families of 3 or 4 generations.
I went to the centre in Mytilene called Mosaik. It operates as a place where refugees can find support with a creative recycling art workshop in the basement run by an amazing lady with boundless energy. Here we stitch with a small group in this tiny room, 5 men Kurdish and Afghani men are there. They come everyday for at least 2 or 3 hours, a place of a sanctuary and creative resilience. One man said he had never sewed and laughing, suggesting this is woman’s work. He stitched a tree from Moria, we laughed again and said it looked like a dead tree. The he put yellow flowers on it. G said these men are expert, skilled in taking up any creative activity that she shows them and passing it on to others in the camp as teachers.
3 women from Cameroon came too, their first visit, apparently rarely women come, so this was good. There is a women centre in Mytilene run by a Swiss organisation, but this is closed temporarily.
There is much good will, but of course it is a covering for the suffering. The good will is genuine, sometimes angry and fiercely felt by us all. I see volunteers in town and camp residents with blank drawn faces and know that our camp has made a place to feel and be human.
I return different. Creativity as resilience, does work. Making as a way of meeting does work too. Seeking beauty as part of being human does not negate the trauma but it mediates a glimmer of hope. I will go back as often as I am able. I have returned with new friends, new understanding, new frustrations. Textiles does have a unifying soft power, which also acts a carrier and code for these stories.