IN PHOTOS: Everyday resilience in a Lesvos refugee camp

While conditions at refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesvos are dire, it hasn't stopped residents finding ways to live through the constant state of emergency.

IN PHOTOS: Everyday resilience in a Lesvos refugee camp
A resident makes his own fishing rod at the Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos. Photo: Nanna Vedel-Hertz

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

The new Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos currently houses around 7,800 refugees, according to numbers from the UNHCR. Situated next to a smaller, older shelter of the same name, the new camp was created as a replacement for the infamous Moria camp, which was destroyed in a fire in early September. At the time Moria housed around 12,600 people, while it was in fact only built for 2,700.

Moria was infamous for its bad conditions, and the new camp does not seem to be an improvement. It was described by the UNHCR as an “emergency site” and the organisation has called for immediate action as the living conditions in the camp are in urgent need of improvement, especially with the weather getting colder.

While the conditions on Lesvos have been protested by many organisations as inhumane, it has not stopped the new residents from adapting and finding ways to live through the constant state of emergency.

READ ALSO: 'We help prepare migrants for the job market – and prepare Greek employers for diversity'

One of the areas where the new camp has received heavy criticism is in regards to food. The residents in Kara Tepe are provided with two meals every day; however, according to several residents in the camp the quality of the food is so low that only one of the meals is actually edible.

In response, some refugee volunteers have taken matters into their own hands. Every morning around 9am they start baking bread for their fellow residents in the camp. They continue their work until 3pm, resulting in up to 400 pieces of bread a day, which are then distributed in the camp.

An Afghan man sits next to the oven where he and his wife bake bread for the residents of the Kara Tepe camp. 

Others catch their food themselves. This man has made his own fishing pole and is catching dinner for himself, his wife and his daughter.

The Kara Tepe camp is situated next to the ocean and exposed to wind and rain. Consequently, the camp has been flooded on several occasions.

The camp consists of tents that are not insulated, have no heating and offer little protection against winter weather. The residents already reported in early November that it is impossible to sleep at night because they are too cold. 

The Kara Tepe camp has no showers so the residents either have to wash in the sea, or walk approximately 4km to an NGO that provides showers just outside the old camp.

Here a father waits in line to take a shower with his young son. 

There are several NGOs on the island that provide refugees with basic things such as warm clothes, sanitary products and shoes.

READ ALSO: Adapting to address changing refugee needs in Athens

However, as Greece entered its second lockdown due to Covid-19 on November 7th, people were no longer allowed to leave the camp and were therefore not able to get what they needed to cover their most basic needs. The lockdown was originally set to end on November 30th, but has been extended until January 7th.

Many of the families from the camp usually spend a majority of their day outside of the camp, walking around the area or spending time at the local supermarket parking lot.

Since Greece has been in lockdown it has been next to impossible for the residents to leave the camp and many of them have now been stuck inside for close to a month.

READ ALSO: How a Cyprus charity realigned its services to face the pandemic

A mother breastfeeding her child in the middle of a parking lot.

While there are currently no organised activities for the kids to spend their time and no formal schools, the parents do their best to entertain the kids and keep them busy and happy.

READ ALSO: 'I feel liberated': How young migrants in France produced their own movie

Fatima lovingly holds her five-year-old son Mohammed. Mohammed is suffering from severe mental issues and has talked about suicide on several occasions. Fatima says that he will be fine one second, then crying and impossible to comfort the next. She is extremely worried for Mohammed and his future. Yet even though she has tried to get help on the island, she has not received any.

Unfortunately, Mohammed’s case is not the only one; Medecins Sans Frontieres have reported that there is currently a mental health crisis among child refugees on Lesvos.

READ ALSO: 'Let children be children': Supporting young refugees' mental health in Wales

A group of young men practice martial arts in the setting sun. The boys pictured are predominantly from Afghanistan. Most of them live in the Kara Tepe camp.

There are not a lot of ways for the people on Lesvos to spend their time, but the possibility of doing sport, whether it is yoga or martial arts, gives them something to focus on.

The sports practices are organised by the NGO Yoga & Sport for Refugees, which was founded on Lesvos in 2017. The NGO also organises swimming, running and team sports.

READ ALSO: Why women in Danish asylum centres are taking up football

The activities are especially important seeing that there is currently no formal schooling provided for anyone in the camp.

The Instagram account Now You See Me Moria, which publishes photos taken by camp residents, has furthermore reported how attempts at arranging non-formal educational activities in the camp have been shut down by the police. However, they also report that new ways are continually being found to continue teaching and learning, even in small spaces.

Megin is 11 years old and lives in the Kara Tepe camp with her parents. Both are sick, so Megin is currently caring for the family. Back home Megin went to school, but when her father had to go underground because he was threatened by certain groups, Megin dropped out of school and started selling yoghurt to provide for her family.

Yet Megin holds on to her dream: one day starting school again.

You might expect that living every day in a state of emergency would force you to give up all hope, but the people on Lesvos prove otherwise. They have somehow found ways to adapt and to hold on to their hopes for a better future.

Nanna Vedel-Hertz is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Denmark. 

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How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.


Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.