A LEARNING EXPERIENCE AT KARA TEPE REFUGEE VILLAGE IN LESVOS, GREECE
Refugees flocked to the Greek island, which at some points is a swimmable 3km from Turkey, although at common transfer points the distance was closer to 10km. Families and individuals fled their home countries from the Middle-East and Northern Africa in search of safety and human rights.
At the time of this huge influx of refugees, the Kara Tepe site quickly transformed from an empty space into a tent city. Volunteers from around the world came to lend a helping hand under the supervision of NGO’s and Government organizations who began to co-ordinate the efforts.
As travelers, we’re all citizens of the same world – and while we’re on our own journeys, we can also make a difference for others. That’s the inspiration behind the Wear YourWorld bracelet created by Lokai and TripAdvisor. Each purchase benefits the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization providing urgently-needed support to refugee families and individuals across the globe.
Kara Tepe Refugee Village Today
Today Kara Tepe Resident Village paints a vastly different picture.
According to the IRC, 62,000+ refugees fleeing violence are stranded in Greece. Many of them are living at Kara Tepe, a formerly empty site on the island of Lesbos. Kara Tepe shelters the most vulnerable refugees, including women traveling alone with children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. As I entered through the entrance gates I was surprised to walk along a paved road, past container style homes. Several women sat outside their homes talking in a close circle drinking tea.
The infrastructure at Kara Tepe is phenomenal and has been hailed as a leading example for other sites housing refugees around the world. It is a less than ideal situation for any family or individual to be stuck in limbo, wanting to move on with their life. The organizations and volunteers at Kara Tepe do their best to make sure this time in limbo, which can often be over a year, is as positive as possible.
This begins with the most basic of human rights. Residents at Kara Tepe live in a small container style home. A family of five will share one room with bunk beds and a couch. Most of the homes are powered by solar.
Common toilets, showers, and drinking water are provided in several common areas. As I wandered through the facilities they seemed modern and clean.
Food is delivered to each home daily. Residents have their food and meals delivered by volunteers rather than having to collect it. This helps to avoid frustrating waits in line and gives residents a dignified way of doing something so simple as eating lunch without having to line up and collect it. Free tea and coffee are available all day in the communal Kara Tepe square area.
Sanitary and cleaning supplies are donated and distributed by a team of volunteers. From a small room in the middle of the village, residents can come and request items such as shampoo, soap, sanitary pads, toothpaste or a hairbrush.
Clothing is provided on a necessity basis. When winter came through it was made sure that each person in the village was given warm clothes.
Initiatives at Kara Tepe Refugee Village
- Having walked through the village and been shown how the fundamentals work, my interest was piqued by a few little anecdotes I was told.
- A vegetable garden was started by an NGO and the residents helped to maintain it. However, they couldn’t provide enough vegetables for the whole village so they decided to donate the vegetables to some of the local people of Lesvos who were in need.
- A number of residents of Kara Tepe volunteer throughout the village. From teaching English to helping with food distribution, the spirit of the refugees in the village was clear across the board.
- Community meetings involve the leader of the village, NGO representatives, Government representatives but also the refugees. By involving everyone in the decision-making processes, issues at the ground-level can be highlighted and solutions can be fast tracked. For example, the multi-purpose tap had only one height. Normally this would be fine. However multiple religions and cultures are present in the village. Muslims in the village were having to use the high taps to wash their feet before prayer. The same taps were also being used to wash dishes and clean foods. The suggestion was made to make a lower tap for cleaning feet so the higher tap can be kept clean for dishes, food, and hands.
- Swimming lessons are offered by volunteers in the summer for children and adults.
- English classes, a soccer pitch, playground, arts and crafts and other activities and lessons keep residents occupied, learning and advancing their skills.
- A women’s center and men’s center were open to give both genders a place to relax, talk about gender specific topics and to have a rest from the small confines of their home.
It’s no ordinary camp
The part about Kara Tepe that made the site feel like a village and not a camp was the fact that there are no restrictions on movement. Residents are free to head into the town. Often families will walk to the local market and buy some groceries on a small expedition.
I spoke to a number of families and individuals about their experience in Kara Tepe. They didn’t want to be there. That was the general consensus. They wanted to live somewhere free, peaceful and have a fresh start. However, most people who I spoke to made clear that despite their desire to leave as soon as possible, the conditions at Kara Tepe are safe, respectful and met their basic needs.
As I walked down the street with a translator and guide from the International Rescue Council, it was clear to see the mutual respect and appreciation for both the residents and the volunteers and workers. Children would come running to say hello to Aziz my translator and women and men would wave from seats beside the door of their home.
When I first found out I had the opportunity to visit Kara Tepe, I was expecting a refugee camp and was unsure about the conditions. When I left Kara Tepe, I was honored to have met people with unwavering courage and determination. I was honored to have been invited into homes, visiting several families who had strength beyond belief. I was immensely inspired by all of the hard work, selflessness, respect and drive from the workforce and volunteers who have turned Kara Tepe into the global standard for managing refugee sites. Ask someone at Kara Tepe though and they won’t tell you about their success last week they will only tell you about their new project or initiative, which they hope will bring improvements to the lives of people who have come so far in search of peace.
I was immensely inspired by all of the hard work, selflessness, respect and drive from the workforce and volunteers who have turned Kara Tepe into the global standard for managing refugee sites. Ask someone at Kara Tepe though and they won’t tell you about their success last week they will only tell you about their new project or initiative, which they hope will bring improvements to the lives of people who have come so far in search of peace.