Our first stop in Greece was Thessaloniki. The warm and embracing culture of the Greek people was tangible. It felt great to have arrived after our journey of nearly 8,000 miles by that point. We parked up overlooking the sea, sharing the carpark with fishermen, spectacular sunsets and new vanlife friends from France who had recently adopted a tiny puppy from a refugee camp down the coast.
We started our search for potential collaborators via existing contacts and social media; soon a meeting was arranged with SoulFood Kitchen at their temporary host residence's kitchen in Oikopolis in central Thessaloniki. We were delighted to have such a warm welcome from the collective and before long we were getting involved where we could; peeling hundreds of carrots for the daily Soul Food distributions and another day preparing food for a BBQ at the Oikopolis allotment on reclaimed army barracks.
For Oikopolis ecology and humanitarian issues go hand in hand; they have been at the forefront of supporting displaced communities since significant numbers of people started arriving in Greece.
Everyone embraced the 'recipes of HOPE' idea and many conversations started with food. We learned about Greek Mountain tea, how to cut a tomato and the essential ingredients for a Greek Salad. We talked about life in Pakistan with some of the guys who had previously been in the refugee camps on the Greek Islands, learning about food culture in their hometown of Gujranwala where the president would arrive by private helicopter to eat the chicken skewers. One guy we met described how he was arrested and handcuffed in Turkey the same day as the India / Pakistan Cricket Match, but they were allowed to watch it on a small screen until they were given their phones back in the camp.
Out and about in the van we discovered a city with an incredible history. At the archeological museum we learned about food culture in Ancient Greece. And by chance when we pulled into an old station carpark, we discovered that 50,000 people from the Jewish community in Thessaloniki had been forcefully transported on cattle trains to their deaths in Auschwitz - Birkenau. There are incredible historical buildings throughout the city - they are currently building a metro and there are so many archeological remains underground it is also going to be part museum.
Wandering around Thessaloniki we were able to observe people who had seemingly arrived in Greece, displaced from their own countries of origin. A family of eight huddled in one doorway with what must have been all their worldly possessions in a few large bags, being moved on by the police, despite an obviously sick child being held in a mother's arms. An argument broke out, and it did not seem like this was a unique episode. In another building stairwell we came across a beautiful woman wearing a hijab and missing her two front teeth, bravely and courageously bringing up her 2 year old daughter from a cardboard box.
As we travelled down the coast driving past the incredible Mount Olympus, it became clear from the people we spoke to that displaced communities have become a part of life throughout Greece, particularly noticeable by the spaces such as campsites and empty buildings that were being used to house people. By chance we drove through a camp one evening near Thermopylae - it appeared to be an old hotel housing about 300 people - where the van was soon surrounded by about fifty excited children. After having a game of football, we were invited into the building for Kurdish tea, but within minutes were bundled out by security.
Our next stop was Athens, an incredible city and the "birthplace of democracy", an ancient city whose reputation precedes it, notably Exarcheia which is famous as a home for Greek anarchists. After a few days getting our bearings and valuable advice from Christos Christidis, Penny Travlou and Georgios, we approached Communitism with the intention to support their international exhibition which was a culmination of three years creating a community run sociocultural centre, repurposing an abandoned cultural heritage building in Metaxourghio.
It was here that we were invited to participate in Refashion for a post-capitalist world. Artist Maria Juliana Byck refashioned discarded business suits inside out and upside down, a collaborative project to highlight the work of Creative Reuse and Zoristirio who run the Communitism Freeshop for displaced and homeless people in Athens. This journey has been as much about pushing at our own boundaries as about discovering the stories of others: this evening exceeded all expectations!
Spending time in this community reaffirmed what we had been starting to discuss between ourselves. We *think* there were people with refugee status at Communitism but that was not how they identified themselves and that is the point. People do not naturally introduce themselves as their temporary legal definition. They could also be described as displaced people, travellers, nomads, or equally artists, musicians, poets, photographers. All are human beings with their own stories and perspectives. We met an ex policeman from the Greek Islands now running his own boat trips, Achilleas from Lesvos, a tourist guide before he had been made redundant since the refugee crisis. As we discovered more about the economic crisis that has hit Greece in recent years and the incredible fact that each baby is born owing 40,000 euros to offset the debt incurred by Greece, there were many questions to be asked. We realised this story is as much about existing residents as new arrivals. Every family deserves a chance to fulfil their dreams.
While in Athens we were able to visit and volunteer where possible with a number of projects supporting displaced communities. Sparky and Felix cooked salad, rice and vegetable curry with the team at Khora, a welcoming community in the heart of Athens and were able to get involved in a ping-pong tournament and skating workshop run by the I went for a coffee at the Hope Cafe which was so busy with families eating together and receiving aid for specific things they needed to get on with their lives.