While many jetted off on holiday this summer, Tiff Griffin’s journey took him into the refugee camps of southern Greece and to the activist enclaves of Athens.
As a volunteer, he witnessed the effects of the migration crisis first-hand and learned valuable life lessons about what humanity can achieve when there is a will to help – and its limitations when that’s absent.
Having worked with migrant communities in the west of Scotland for nine years, and as a trained English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) tutor, he was well qualified to offer help and expertise.
Carrying only hand luggage and his trusty ukulele, Tiff was pleasantly surprised as he stepped into the refugee camp in Sounio, near the Temple of Poseidon from which, according to Greek mythology, Aegeus threw himself into the ocean believing his son to have been vanquished at the hands of the Minotaur.
While he hadn’t anticipated anarchy, Tiff also didn’t expect the quiet order he witnessed around camp. However, the more time he spent among the people there – and especially the children he was teaching English – the more he realised that their trauma took a different form than many would imagine.
Tiff was perplexed at what he found: “The camp didn’t immediately scream ‘crisis’ but the more contact I had with the kids the more I could see how wild they’d become. Shouting made no impression and it was very obvious that they were in charge. It was like Lord of the Flies.”
Tiff quickly began to pick up on the cause of this wild behaviour and traced it back to the adults, many of whom weren’t getting out of bed until late in the day. An eerie depression hung over nearly all the parents in camp.
“By the time the kids got to school, they had all been wandering around the camp wild for three hours beforehand. The cultural norms had been completely shredded, totally broken. In hot countries, people don’t lie in bed when it’s 32 degrees outside, it’s not normal.
“There were no real answers to any of my questions because the lines of communication were so poor, no professional or volunteer translators had been brought in. It’s likely a large proportion of people there were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“Many looked to have conditions you would associate with civil war – large scale depression, not knowing their fate, worry about their families back home, some had lost children and some had capsized – how would that make anyone feel? There were large-scale emotional issues everywhere.”
Due to the condition of their parents, many children had started to live by their wits and fights broke out often, and could escalate quickly. Tiff noticed that kids would pick up the first weapon they could find as a means to end the conflict as swiftly as possible. The camp was also dirty, something which is uncommon in Islamic culture.
He said: “I heard the phrase ‘We don’t want to live like this’ a lot. People were in a state of total dis-empowerment. The food they were eating was provided by the Greek Navy which is emergency basic rations and has very little nutritional value, it’s basically designed to keep you alive until proper food gets through.
“These people have been eating that twice a day for eight months. They weren’t allowed to make their own food because of risk of fire. The volunteers had to eat the same food. I was depressed after eating it for only four days!”
He then travelled to the Exarchia area of Athens and worked with an anarchist group who had decided to take the matter of helping refugees into their own hands. The group was sheltering families in squats, the site of which was an old hotel.
Tiff said: “The minute I walked through the door I could see that everything was different here. There were adults around, children were mixing with the adults and there was a refugee working the reception desk. The anarchists had reconnected the utilities semi-legally. I immediately noticed that it was cleaner than the camp, people were smiling and seemed not as crushed emotionally. Families would be sitting eating together and talking to each other.
“We ate our dinner on the roof of the hotel and for the first time I saw volunteers and refugees sitting round a pot of food preparing it together. Just the fact that the refugees were doing something that was for the refugees, they were delivering help to themselves, and I had been yet to see that since I had arrived in Greece. People ate together, which is symbolically important. It was a dramatically happier and healthier environment.”
Tiff found the children a lot easier to handle as a consequence of them being in a more settled community. Refugees who arrived were encouraged to take over as much of the running of the hotel as possible. Each had responsibility for a portion of the cleaning rota, kitchen rota, security rota.
He said: “People were involved. It started to be more like a block of flats than a place to house refugees, they behaved like it was their own space and in turn they treated it with respect. I could see more cultural norms there than I could in the camp. People had started to act like a community again.”
Having now returned to Scotland his job helping and teaching migrant communities, Tiff reflected on what his journey taught him about the crisis and about human beings more generally.
He said: “People need to realise that refugees know what’s written about them in the media, it goes viral and it gets shared. They’re aware of the stereotypes. A community kitchen had been put together in the Khora Community Centre in Athens and it’s somewhere refugees could come and feed others in the local community who were experiencing hardship.
“They knew this was a great way to win the hearts and minds of people who might have read things about them which are untrue. They got in first and it didn’t leave this social vacuum we see elsewhere. People with nothing had given them half and they wanted to thank them. There was something undeniable beautiful about it.”