Solomon visited Ritsona, the largest refugee facility on the mainland, and documented life in the camp and the informal market that has developed over the years, meeting the economic and social needs of thousands of camp residents since 2016.
Greengrocer’s, barbershops, minimarkets, repair shops and bicycle shops − which supply the approximately 1,000 children who live in the camp, and make transportation to nearby towns easier for the adults; Pool halls, cafes, and nightclubs are only some of the shops in the marketplace which create an internal economy of the camp, with connections to both the local area’s shops and to Athens.
As they told us, although the money that shop owners and employees earn may not always be satisfactory, the market manages to meet another, sometimes more pressing, need of camp life: providing some kind of daily activity. Waiting and inactivity are the biggest challenges that residents have to deal with for the time they’re living at the facility − which can often be more than a year.
The pandemic, and the often disproportionately strict measures on the refugees, in comparison to the measures imposed on the general population, significantly affected the camp community, which was already isolated from the wider community, with the nearest town of Halkida, 10 kilometers away from the camp.
Since the beginning of this summer, a three-meter-high concrete wall has been erected around the perimeter of the facility. The wall is the first, and most symbolic, element of the impending installation of an integrated surveillance system, as planned by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, and funded by the European Union.
In a short time, security cameras and thermal imaging cameras, drones, gates and X-ray machines will be gradually installed in all state accommodation facilities on the mainland and on the Greek islands.
Residents of the camp and humanitarian organizations are concerned that the new conditions will only deepen the isolation of the Ritsona camp community from the local community, and will affect life within the facility.
Children living with their families in the Ritsona camp write slogans on the three-meter-high concrete wall that now surrounds the camp. May 2021.
During the construction of the new wall, damage was caused to houses occupied by refugee families. The day we meet the Afghan woman in the photo, it had been three weeks since part of the house where she lives with her two children became uninhabitable, due to damages caused during construction.
Despite the difficulty for camp residents to traveling to neighboring communities, the products supplied from the area don’t have difficulty reaching the Ritsona camp. Everything is available at the camp’s mini markets. Residents are worried that the new surveillance systems will make it harder for them to trade with the local market.
Ahmed Hyde, 28, from Palestine, runs a mobile phone accessories shop in the Ritsona market with his cousin. The day we met them, and while the hostilities between Hamas and Israel raged on, they had both been living in the camp for over a year. “I came here for my daughter, but are these conditions fit for a child to live in?” said Ahmed, his daughter at his feet as we spoke.
Makeshift shops sell bicycles and offer repair services. The technicians get spare parts and accessories from stores in the nearby city of Halkida.
Men chat in a bar offering hookah (water pipes) and hot tea. Owners of small shops in the market told Solomon that, above all, it’s important to have something to do during the day. Even if the money they earn is not significant.
Particularly popular with the younger ages is a small shop which offers PlayStation games, for €1 per hour.
Waiting and idleness characterize the daily life of the residents at Ritsona. Underground pool halls keep young men busy and are a source of income for shop owners.
At night, there is an unexpected liveliness in the market. Many people find it difficult to sleep, and look for something to do, because otherwise the night hours pass slowly. There’s even a nightclub with disco lights at the camp, where residents can listen to loud music.
Each community in the camp maintains its own place of worship. On Sundays, Africans gather in a specially-designed container and sing gospel.
March 2016. Men wrapped in blankets warm themselves around a barrel. A few months later, in November 2016, the first prefabricated houses that exist to date were installed.
March 2016. The UNHCR tents where the refugees lived during the first months of settlement in the abandoned military base of Ritsona.
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