After two installations as a full team we decided we had enough training and split up for two ambitious journeys. Six of us piled in the old, rickety rental van to drive all the way to the west coast and install a solar hub in Kyllini for the first time, while Alexandros and Erika flew to the island of Lesvos, close to Turkey, to provide two more charging stations in the Kara Tepe camp.
The Andravidas camp in Kyllini is like no other camp we have ever visited, and indeed, like no other camp in Greece. It’s neither due to the size of the population nor the distribution of the demographics, but rather the abandoned luxury resort that has been transformed into Greece’s best-rated refugee camp. What was once an area where tourists strolled to the pool bar or shacked up in an intimate villa is now home to around 150 refugees who have settled into the 30 houses. The visual difference is stark – an abandoned resort ground with almost every terrace covered with the weatherproof tarp that bears the prominent UNHCR logo. The novelty of location goes beyond the physical infrastructure. The “luxury” of being able to stay in actual buildings rather than tents, combined with the proximity to the beach and the peaceful atmosphere give Andravidas its unofficial name: the Paradise Camp.
Despite this nickname, when we arrived we came up against a locked entrance gate, which we later learned had been sealed by refugees as a protest against dire camp conditions that were mainly rooted in the camp’s remote location. Nevertheless, the hardships of being stuck in an underdeveloped camp for months with little end in sights did not sink the spirits of the residents. With such a small population, the community has grown to be very close-knit. As we scouted the camp for the ideal location for our Solar Hubs we picked up an entourage of residents who gathered eagerly to speak with us and find out what we were doing and how they could help. It was clear that many residents in Andravidas seem to have taken up leadership roles within the community to help govern the camp. They naturally helped facilitate conversations between our team, refugees and the volunteer language instructors. Although many of the children attend local schools, we hope to work closely with the volunteers providing classes in the camp to continue to grow our offline resources in a productive and impactful way.
We are especially grateful for the help in translation and installation provided by Heba and Ahmmad, a young couple who spoke impeccable English and ended each sentence with a smile. The two began dating at university in Damascus and 7 years later are approaching their one-year marriage anniversary. Ahmmad led the installation of the unit alongside our team and now is largely responsible for the most robust installation we have ever seen! Heba provided residents with a clear, concise explanation of what our project is and allowed for non-Anglophone residents to speak with us directly with questions and concerns. An English Literature student whose studies had been interrupted by the war, Heba was very excited to have access to many classic novels like King Lear and Taming of the Shrew. Throughout the day, the couple shared their story with us.
After having to leave Syria in her fourth year of university, Heba was determined to continue her education through the online learning platform Kiron. However, just a few days earlier her laptop screen had broken, leaving her unable to access any education materials. The installation completed and our team members exhausted from playing with kids, we were invited for tea on the couple’s veranda. Steaming mug in hand, Ahmmad revealed more details about his life as well. After serving in the Syrian army for the mandatory one and a half years, he attempted to leave – but was forced to stay. He received the contact number of a smuggler and spent his savings attempting to cross the border to Turkey, but was stopped and beaten by border guards four times before he was able to bribe one of the officers to look the other way. Heba was able to join him in Turkey just three days before visa restrictions were imposed. After 8 months in Turkey, the two arrived in Greece, constantly needing to bribe people to protect their identity. Both Heba and Ahmmad have been in Andravidas for 10 months, and while frustrated over the lack of freedom and resources, they are hopefully awaiting their visas to enter a country in the EU and begin their new lives.
Their stories were not the only ones of the day. An impression that stuck right alongside that of the optimistic couple was that of a 13-year old Syrian named Adam. He acted as translator between our team and his father’s friends in a detailed political conversation. After finding out some of us were American, they were quick to advise us against letting social divisions and hatred breed in our country. Adam gestured to one of the men beside him, saying, “I hope your country does not end up like ours; it can happen so quickly. You must stand together as one and be united.” After days of hearing about the robust lives so many of these people were forced to leave behind, the honesty of these words is hard to shake, and the empathetic insight echoes the openness and compassion that defines the community spirit at Andravidas.
Kicking off the day with a 5:30 am wakeup, Erika and Alex jetted off to Lesvos, just off the Turkish mainland. The trip was a monumental one – the first ever Elpis Solar Hub installed in a refugee camp was about 6 months ago, in Lesvos. The camp director was so thrilled with the unit that he immediately asked for 5 more units and for us to help him make the entire camp run on solar power! For the moment we settled for sending two new units. Given the remoteness of the location and the rest of the team back on the Greek mainland, they had to rely on volunteer groups on the island to take them to the camp and provide the cement and tools necessary for the installation. Walking into the camp we were faced with one of the most motivating scenes of the trip: the original Solar Hub in full use!
We managed to move the new unit thanks to the help of TruckShop, an organization that distributes clothes in the form of mobile closet on wheels. Units now delivered, we commenced the hunt for tools and cement. Needless to say, the situation was quite different from our usual where we have everything piled in the back of one car (and even then it can require some serious scavenger skills!). After searching for about three hours, we managed to get some tools from the NGO Samaritan’s Purse and a refugee who happened to be a translator in the camp. Of course locating cement was just as difficult, and we resorted to approaching the builders in the camp who were kind enough to offer us their spare cement. Despite the back-and-forth, things eventually started to come together, and it made us realize how fortunate we were to have so much support from so many compassionate people (and under normal circumstances, one very handy white van).
By the time we set up the units, we encountered the next ‘minor’ setback: the keys to the Hub compartment where the wires are attached had broken during the journey. Despite our best attempts to hammer them back into a functional shape, the sky was getting darker, our arms weaker, and the keys no less bent. After calling some local locksmiths, we succeeded in persuading one to come to the camp and help us break into and install a new lock system. In other words, we finally installed our new units! Even with a dark sky, people were already using the new units as we left. What could have been an unsuccessful day was saved by the amount of help and cooperation we got from the camp, the NGOs and the refugees!
We are very grateful for the assistance and support we have been fortunate to receive, from partnering NGOs, residents in the camps, and friends and family all over the world. If there is anything that today reinforced to us, its that we are only able to succeed when we partner with compassionate, worldly people - and fortunately we have found those people in spades! A tough day with our team spread across the country wound up one of our most successful and fulfilling: perseverance, patience, thankfulness, and positivity are key!
The Elpis Team