Before driving to Diavata camp, we had to pick up our interpreter. Being all-smiles Syrian, he was first compelled to cook up huge plates of falafel, mutabbel and hummus, and feed us until we could take no more.
Then we drove out to the camp.
Diavata is hidden away in the warehouse suburbs of industrial Thessaloniki. No one could come across these people if they didn’t know they were here – it’s a long way from the polished waterfront and expensive international chain coffee. Weatherbeaten old gypsies are on their haunches outside, selling vegetables and huge watermelons laid out on tarpaulins.
The camp itself is made up of about 150 ‘Iso Boxes’. These are self-contained temporary homes funded by the EU and set up by a German organisation. They have a toilet, solar water heating, a fridge, a simple oven and hob, as well as an air-conditioning unit and wi-fi.
The two living rooms are simple, with a scattering of personal touches according to the resident – a puppet hanging from a hook, a motto in Arabic calligraphy. The lino floor is covered with blankets and there are two thin mattresses for sleeping. We’re offered sweet black tea.
150 Iso Boxes aren’t enough, of course. Families are living in the empty, unused schools, in the abandoned health clinic, under UN sheets strung up as shelters – and these are the lucky ones. Around the perimeter of the official camp are dozens more tents, tied down with guy ropes, cardboard filling in the gaps. Every afternoon this week, it’s rained something tropical.
The ‘streets’ between the Iso Boxes are full of children, running around, play-fighting with old tent poles, a couple scoot along on bikes, another nibbles at a slice of watermelon bigger than her head.
We’re joined by a Kurdish man to interpret those languages for us; people here are eager to help, eager to use their skills, eager to work.
Our job is to find out where the young children are living, so we can share that information with a charity arriving next week. One of the questions we ask is: ‘Does the mother or child need anything in particular?’ The question is always met with a hopeless shrug – Where do I begin?
Powdered milk, of course; nappies, of course; clothes, of course. One baby needs an operation to enlarge his urethra because he can’t pee. His mother asks if we might be able to help her get a pram for when she takes him to the hospital. We’ll do our best, but prams are expensive. Then she asks if perhaps we could bring him a teddy – he doesn’t have any toys and it might comfort him during the operation.
As if by magic, a charity arrives from the US with (almost) enough teddy bears for everyone.
Two men cook for their family on an open fire, turning pieces of chicken between two grills. The charred smoke of barbeque is enticing, and they offer us dinner, but we have a list to compile.
We pass two ‘shops’: half an Iso Box full of biscuits, tins of food, and some fresh vegetables. A man buys a tray of 30 eggs, passed down to him from one of the ‘caravan’ windows. A boy peers over the sill, chewing on the washing line that hangs over the side.
Some of the Iso Boxes are decorated more ambitiously. A few have built outdoor ‘gardens’, with a planting box, a bench made of scrap wood or a rough brick grill. One has what appears to be a discotheque extension, complete with alternating fairy lights. Many of the Iso Boxes, however, are missing the glass from their windows.
As the sun sets in the vista below us, an incongruous German Shepherd dog plays in the dust, scrunching up a plastic water bottle in its jaws. We stop and chat to his university-age master, translated by a young wannabe computer hacker. The dog-lover says he’s got his passport and his papers and should be leaving to join his brother-in-law in Germany sometime in the next few days. ‘Congratulations,’ I say, before I’m cut off. ‘No, no – not me,’ he says – ‘the dog.’
A few cats prowl around the camp. And the mosquitoes are omnipresent.
Back at our ‘home hut’, we compare notes with the other team. They had spoken to two families whose children had cancer. Another child we met had a problem with his legs and couldn’t walk. The boss of the camp refused entry for an Italian physiotherapist who had been working with the young boy. Even when the physio tried to meet his patient outside the camp, the police told him never to come back.
I wonder whether we’ll be allowed to return to give these babies their milk and nappies. It’s then that we find out that the charity for whom we’ve spent the last few hours compiling this list ‘wants to promote breast-feeding’. They won’t donate powdered milk. We look at each other helplessly.
‘Does the mother or child need anything in particular?’ Everybody asked for milk.
We’re offered dinner. The mother apologises profusely as myriad dishes appear from the corridor-kitchen as if on a conveyor belt – yoghurt, cucumber, pepper and tomato salad, scrambled eggs, bread rolls, paté and cheese, spicy olives and coffee. Translation: ‘If only I were in Syria, there would be meat, potatoes, chicken…’
Astonished that she could be ashamed by such a spread, I remarked that we would never forget such a wonderful meal and that her generosity was proof that no matter what you lose in life, you can never lose your humanity.
At this point, she broke down in tears. Translation: ‘It’s no problem if you lose your money, your house, your car, but when you lose your family members, your uncle, your brother…’
A teddy bear doesn’t seem quite enough.