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Growing up in a Greek refugee camp

Sofia Kleftaki at the Schisto refugee camp near Athens
June 23, 2024

How do children learn about the concept of home when their lives are in limbo? DW traveled to the Schisto refugee camp outside Athens to find out what it's like to grow up there.

Schisto refugee camp near Athens: Ayham Albahsh, 11, has been living here for seven months with his younger sister Lin, 8, and his parents
Ayham Albahsh, 11, has been living at the Schisto refugee camp for seven months with his younger sister Lin, 8, and his parentsImage: Sofia Kleftaki/DW

The Schisto refugee camp is located in a barren landscape on the outskirts of Athens, around half an hour's drive from the city center.

By early morning, temperatures are already over 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). Despite the dry heat, a barefoot boy of around 5 runs across the dusty gravel to watch a group of firefighters carry out a safety drill.

Schisto is currently home to 193 such children under the age of 17. Most of them are from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. There are no longer any unaccompanied minors here. In the past, there was a so-called "safe zone" for these children in Greek refugee camps. But now minors without their parents are housed in their own camps to accommodate their specific needs.

'We were on the road for three days'

Eleven-year-old Ayham Albahsh has been living with his 8-year-old sister Lin and their parents in Schisto for seven months. Today, he's sitting with an interpreter and members of the camp's team in the office for social integration. Colorful pictures and handicrafts adorn the walls, and a mobile with the word "happiness" hangs from the ceiling.

Ayham and Lin with a translator and a member of staff
To communicate with staff, Ayham and Lin meet with a translatorImage: Sofia Kleftaki/DW

Ayham's family initially fled from Syria to Turkey , where they lived in Mersin on the Mediterranean coast for eight years. In November 2023, the parents and their children arrived on the Greek island of Kos, and a month later in Schisto.

"We were on the road for three days, I remember that," said Ayham, though he can recall no other details about the escape to Greece.

Waiting for asylum

"What we experienced in Turkey was terrible," said his mother Alaa Alhatab, 34. "It's terrible when your children come home from school and tell you that they have been subjected to violence. It's not a safe country."

Alaa Alhatab with her children Lin and Ayham on an outing in central Athens
Alaa Alhatab, seen here with her children Lin and Ayham on an outing in central Athens, said she feel safe in GreeceImage: Sofia Kleftaki/DW

She feels safe in Greece and said the Schisto staff treat her family well. But they can't do much to help. The family's application for asylum has been rejected twice. Alhatab said for now they can only wait, but she doesn't want to return to Syria under any circumstances.

"I want the best for my children. Hope is the only thing at the moment," she said.

The children in Schisto know from their parents that Greece is meant to be a stopover before moving on to countries like Canada, Britain or Germany. But they don't know how long they will stay.

Daily questions about finding a new home

Each family in Schisto lives in its own modular container with two separate bedrooms that have single and bunk beds, along with a bathroom and a kitchen that includes a stove and refrigerator. Hot water is provided by solar panels and electric boilers. The containers also all have air conditioning. In addition to the single-family units, there is a special building for people with disabilities, which has a ramp.

"Don't close your eyes for anybody," reads one child's message on the turquoise wall of a   school building covered with scribbled graffiti
'Don't close your eyes for anybody,' reads one child's message on the school building at the Schisto refugee campImage: Sofia Kleftaki/DW

Because the children are on summer vacation from school, they spend most of their days in the air-conditioned containers. Only in the evenings, when the heat slowly becomes more bearable, can they meet outside on the playground and small soccer pitch.

Excursions to events outside the camp are a big highlight for Ayham and Lin. Alaa Alhatab accompanied her two children on a trip to Refugee Week in the center of Athens. Together with other children, the siblings painted a house out of cardboard for an interactive workshop on the symbolism of the terms "house" and "home."

"The most difficult thing for me is the almost daily questioning from my children about when we will finally move into our own house," said Alhatab.

Preparing for life outside the camp

Most of the children go to Greek schools and can already communicate in the language, and many also speak English. Some choose not to attend, however.

"We cannot and do not want to force these children and their parents to do so," said Thomas Papakonstantinou, the director of the Schisto camp since 2020.

Thomas Papakonstantinou (front left) and his team look after the children and their families in the Schisto refugee camp
Thomas Papakonstantinou (front left) and his team look after the children and their families in the Schisto refugee campImage: Sofia Kleftaki/DW

He aims to not only provide accommodation and medical care for the refugees, but to constantly improve life in the camp. Papakonstantinou and his staff attach particular importance to providing the children with different information and insights outside of Schisto, regularly organizing excursions to sporting and cultural events.

Most recently, Ayham and Lin attended the UEFA Conference League final and the the Olympic flame ceremony in the historic Panathenaic Stadium ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Ayham takes a volleyball out of his container and talks excitedly about his visit to the UEFA football game. Twelve children from Schisto — including Ayham and his sister Lin — were allowed to accompany the players from the Greek team Olympiakos onto the pitch. Thirteen-year-old Hussein was even allowed to hand over the ball.

"The children didn't want to take their shirts off for a week after the game," said a member of the Schisto staff.

"I was allowed to accompany the player who scored the goal!" Ayham says proudly.

But he wants to be a doctor or a pilot, not a footballer, when he grows up. While Lin loves the sport just as much as her brother, her dream is to become a pediatrician.

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a blonde woman with a light blue blouse
Sofia Kleftaki Author and reporter, mainly for DW Greek