In May and June this year we embarked on a 5 week tour of Greece, playing over 30 concerts in some of the many refugee camps and communities on the islands and mainland. The tour started in the North of the country where singer and oud player Julia Katarina and cellist Floriane Darard were introduced by double bass player Lucile Belliveau and exchanged ideas, Julia wrote down some Arabic songs for Floriane and they generally built up a rapport. Julia then flew to Mytilene where she was joined by folk singer and guitarist Liz Meadows and they made contact with the local camp. The next day, after rehearsing their program of Arabic and English songs, they gave a lunchtime concert at Pikpa camp for vulnerable families. One of the mothers played a handmade tabla and sang traditional Syrian songs and she joined in on some of the other songs they played and people sang along. Another of the mothers had a good voice so they all had a jamming session after the concert.
After a shared lunch Julia noticed one of the mothers was very emotional and tearful and asked her what was going on. She was missing her children, who had already made the journey to Germany soon after war broke out in Syria in 2011 and she was on her way to join them, not having seen them for 4 years, when the Balkan route was closed and she was stranded here on the island, unable to go forward or back. This was a story that would become very familiar, as different versions of it were told by the families she encountered around the country, most of whom have been separated from loved ones for some months or years. The difference with this woman’s story is that she has and autistic 3 year-old who she fears is in constant danger of running out into the road or into the sea, as the camp is quite open. This causes her constant stress and worry, on top of that which a mother naturally feels for her children, especially when they are far from her protection. She was clearly suffering from severe exhaustion and was, at that moment finding it difficult to cope. Talking about it with someone new and attentive and exchanging hugs seemed to help calm her.
The lovely people working at Pikpa put them in touch with people working at the other 3 camps on the island and later that day they passed by Kara Tepe camp, up the east coast, where around 900 people are living, mainly Syrian families. They were told to come back a few days later when the man in charge would be back from Athens. Luckily Julia got in touch with someone working there for MSF through a mutual friend in Palestine, and he arranged for them to visit earlier and arranged a concert. The duo then ventured up to the north of the island to sing at Mantamados camp for unaccompanied minors. It accommodates around 70 teenage boys of mixed Afghan, Pakistani and Syrian origin, who had been there about 3 or 4 months and were waiting, like everyone else, to go to Athens and continue their journeys to other host countries. The difference with these people is that, due to their age they have to wait for places in safe houses to become available, or new ones to open and apparently the Syrian boys had been due to travel that day but the arrangements had been postponed.
So it was very good timing as the concert lifted their spirits and alleviated their disappointment somewhat. Their gloom was replaced by beaming smiles when they heard familiar songs in their own language sung by Julia, while accompanying herself on the oud and being accompanied on the guitar by Liz, who then sang upbeat guitar songs which they could clap along to, with semi improvised oud accompaniment. They were invited to stay for dinner, which gave them a chance to talk to some of the boys who eagerly asked when they would come back. They did return a few days later, after their first concert at Kara Tepe, in which they played to a noisy concrete amphitheatre full of Palestinians and Syrians. They were received very warmly and it was decided that another concert should be arranged, this time with amplification. Meanwhile Julia worked with one of the mothers, accompanying her singing on the oud, while her son recorded videos.
On Sunday the 28th of May they travelled up to Skala Sikamineas, a tiny fishing port in the north of the island where there is an evacuated camp, now used to house volunteers. Liz drove the car she’d hired at Mytilene port when she arrived from Athens a week earlier and they stopped off to visit the boys’ camp on the way. They discovered that the Syrian lads had gone down into the town for the day so it was decided they should return the next day and play another concert for them. When they arrived at the beautiful harbour, they decided to go dine out and coincidentally witness the first landing in about a month of an inflatable rubber boat holding around 50 refugees. The Greek coastguard intercepted the efforts of the rescue workers, whom Julia and Liz had seen rushing past them, putting on lifejackets, and held the boat out in the bay for over an hour waiting for the police and army to arrive, while aid workers and volunteers gathered on the quay, equipped with dry clothing, food, water and medical supplies.
This impressive crew didn’t get a look in once the military arrived, however, and the exhausted, frightened families – mainly of Afghan and Pakistani origin – we forced to disembark with only a square foot of space each to stand in while the crowd, including doctors, were ordered to stand back and not allowed to approach. There had been infants and young children on board, who were not allowed to go to the toilet or be checked by the doctors as the whole group were forcibly marched up the hill out to the village, followed closely by the crowd of support workers, to where police transport was waiting. They were presumably then taken to the already overcrowded Moria Camp, a former military prison containing around 3000 people mainly of Afghan, Pakistani and Syian origin, but also some people from north, west and east Africa. There are almost daily riots in the camp, as people from so many different cultures, speaking so many languages are forced to live at very close quarters in extremely harsh conditions for months on end with inadequate supplies and facilities.
Julia and Liz visited Moria camp twice, the first time to perform an impromptu concert at the end of an English class given by volunteers outside the razor wire fence, the second time inside the camp in the kindergarten, by invitation of Save the Children. The first was somewhat nerve-wracking as they didn’t know what to expect, having heard only horror stories, and had to walk past a bus load of armed police, although they were paid very little attention. The class was mostly made up of Afghan women and children sitting in an olive grove on the eastern side of the camp in the afternoon sun and they seemed to enjoy the concert even though they didn’t understand the music. Afterwards the children drew pictures and some of the girls played the guitar and two West African girls, one with a sweet little baby boy on her back danced to one of Liz’s lively songs.
The second visit, organised by Praksis and Save the Children, was quite a different experience.
Initially stopped at the gate they were then escorted from the main entrance between long rows of nylon tents pitched against the inside fence on bare tarmac, past registration offices housed in containers. There are three layers of razor wire fencing around this part of the camp, although not all the way round, and there are some barred enclosures, outside which a group of people were gathered communicating with uniformed officers on the other side. People sitting in their tents in 40c heat looked out at them as they passed by, until they reached the Kindergarten run by Save the Children, where they would be performing. The animators managed to arrange most of the children in orderly lines sitting on a tarpaulin in a semi-shaded area of the enclosure, while some of the bigger ones sat on the railings.
The children were excited and a challenge to keep quiet. They seemed to enjoy the music and some of them sang the songs they knew, others enthusiastically clapped along with the happy ones. They listened for about an hour, as did the animators and support worker, as well as some adults outside the fence. After the concert the children were allowed to try and play the instruments. They arranged themselves or were arranged in a kind of queuing system, some of them coming back for a another go, some preferred one instrument over the other, some played together, others were more territorial, but they each had their special individual way of experimenting with the instrument and the different sounds they were able to make.