The two most crucial places here on the island of Leros for the duration of my time here both start with the letter “H”. The “Hub” and the “Hotspot” will be two names that surface frequently in any blog posts that I produce in the coming weeks. The Hub is the building that the organization/non-profit that I’m working for operates out of. This is where people, refugees and volunteers, gather for classes and activities. It’s the center for just about everything we do. It has multiple classrooms, a garden, a yard, and a kitchen. The Hotspot? Well…
When the Syrian refugee crisis first started, I think things here on the island of Leros were more dire than they are now. The videos that I saw on the internet that made my heart stir were of people desperately making their way across dangerous waters in little boats in hopes of finding safety in Europe. This particular time is mostly over. Boats still arrive, there are still smugglers and people still pay extraordinary amounts of money to get to this island, but there aren’t boats arriving daily. The refugee camp still exists, but it’s a little different now.
The camp is referred to as “the Hotspot.” Why is it called this? I’ll have to get back to you on that, no one seems to know exactly why this wording is used. Somehow, however, it differs from an actual refugee camp. It’s something put into place by the Greek government after pressure from the European Union. Greece has suffered an extensive amount of the strain brought on by the large flow of migrants to the EU due to it’s proximity to Turkey and the fact that small boats can make their way from Turkey to Greek islands with relative ease.
The Hotspot is horrible. It’s illegal for me to take pictures of it, which should emphasize how despicable it is. There’s a great article about it written here, and although you may not feel inclined to click this link, I’d encourage you to, because it accurately describes the place where people I interact with daily spend the bulk of their time: A Badly Run Prison.
It’s a place I have to visit almost everyday. I drive our van up to the gates, park, and wait for the residents to come out and climb in so I can take them to the Hub. It’s a prison. The entire outside of the camp is surrounded by a fence with coils of barbed wire on top, and the inside is divided into sections, also separated with barbed wire, keeping certain nationalities apart. I’m told that the barbed wire and fencing is protection for the residents, rather than a cage to hold them in. That being said, residents are allowed to come and go as they please. They are, after all, on an island, and are unlikely to make it anywhere too distant. Not to mention if they were caught trying to escape, they would jeopardize their chances for asylum. They’re safe here, for now. It’s temporary, but when it rains, they have a roof over their head, and when they’re hungry, they have food. It’s just that the spaces that protect them from the rain are tiny and the food that they are served is…terrible.
The above photos shows how cramped this living situation is. The small living structures are referred to as “containers”, which is short for “people containers.” If you take a second to think about these two words together, it should make you a little uneasy. Some of the residents that I teach and interact with each day say that they share their tiny containers with up to ten other people. Their beds are slammed up against each other and there isn’t any breathing room. From what I can see through the fence, there isn’t anything home-y about the Hotspot. The containers are drab, there is no vegetation to speak of, and everything is close together, making the living situation nearly impossible for generating anything resembling hope. Food is served out of a container in the front of the camp. The residents line up for their food after announcements are made over the loud speaker system.
To add salt to the wound, the land that the Hotspot sits on are the remnants of an old asylum where mentally ill people were sent throughout much of the 1900’s. This haunting place was once referred to as “Europe’s dirty secret”, because the patients were treated so poorly. Now, the structure that once housed these abused people, overlooks the small structures that the refugees wait in. It’s not lost on me that an old asylum overlooks a group of people who are looking for asylum. How…ironic?
The Hotspot is containers and barbed wire. It’s a holding area and it’s a temporarily safe place. It’s a place where hope likely expires, but also lingers in the air just long enough with every new batch of refugees who arrive. I’ve heard time and time again that the Leros Hotspot is the Ritz compared to many other camps and hotspots throughout Greece.
The Hub exists as a place of refuge from the otherwise distressing aspects of life on Leros in the Hotspot. I look at the Hub like a place to stave off boredom. Residents can learn a new language, come to computer or cooking classes, or get involved in soccer, basketball, or fitness courses. There’s always something going on and there is often something new happening too, being run by new volunteers. Even if it isn’t particularly special, like just another regular day in English class, it’s still something to shake up the monotony of the nothing that is the Hotspot. And hey, if a refugee picks up a little English or French while they’re waiting to hear if they’ll be moving on to Athens in the coming weeks, this could be something beneficial to them not just in the future but, really, right away.