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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

Creating Normalcy In Crisis

The creation of communal areas and safe spaces is crucial to alleviate psychological trauma induced by war, persecution, and forced migration. For people who have been displaced, these areas play a particularly important role for cultural exchange and creativity.


Walking into Ritsona Refugee Camp, I'm not sure what I was expecting, perhaps threatening undertones reminiscent of ‘The Jungle’, menacing policemen peacocking with guns, crying men and women defending their right to exist. Although refugee camps are a far cry from being remotely adequate, the media often profer a misleading impression to show refugees as violent and dangerous. Here, I am struck by how incredibly resilient the human spirit is. How even in the very worst of times, we are able to create a small world within which normalcy lives.

What the media don't show you is how incredibly resilient the human spirit is. How even in the very worst of times, we are able to create a small world within which normalcy lives.

A small world in which children laugh and play, people sit and chat whilst having a smoke as they discuss the particulars of the day outside their makeshift shops and restaurants. Most afternoons, I walk past a circle of women huddled together deep in conversation, while their children run around the trees playing. In another part of the camp, women from Cameroon and the Congo are braiding each other’s hair and laughing.


Braids, Banter and Break-dancing


I spend the latter half of my second day having my hair pulled and contorted into multiple braids by two young girls while I sit and watch some teenagers partake in a break-dancing competition. The hairdressing is a serious operation. An hour and four hairstyles later, I have half the head of hair I arrived with but twenty magnificent plaits.


The end of the breakdancing session is swiftly followed by hoards of young boys attempting, and failing, to do backflips, while their younger counterparts climb over the support beams and hang off the metal bars like tiny ninjas. One of my little friends runs over holding out his hands signalling that it is time to hand clap. Despite not having sang the song for over 20 years, I am suddenly able to conjure “Miss Mary Mack” out of thin air.


“Shlonak”( ايش لونك) I say to one of the young guys outside the Youth Engagement Space, which literally means “What's your colour”. He laughs and asks me how I know that phrase and do I know the origins. I tell him I don’t. He explains that during a serious epidemic of what he thinks was cholera, people turned different colours depending on the severity of their symptoms. Eventually people would start asking what their colour was to see how close to death they were. Not sure of its historical accuracy but an interesting theory all the same.


Two 16-year-old boys overhear our conversation and start chatting to me. One of them is from the now shattered Aleppo, and the other, from Damascus. The younger of the two, winks at his friend and says that he’ll bring me back to Damascus for a visit one day after I tell him that I heard it is beautiful. I am struck in that instance about how like my brother or any of his friends were at their age. Just two young lads, chancing their arm, and having a laugh. Except, they’re not. One of them is here with his sister and has left his entire family behind. The other is here alone, one of the 3,150 registered unaccompanied minors in Greece. More than 2,300 unaccompanied minors are living in detention, camps or even on the streets. The boys have been at the camp for just under a year, waiting.


Many of the boys and young men who are alone here fled Syria to avoid being recruited for the war. The camp residents are predominantly Syrian, including those from The North Eastern Kurdish part of Syria. The rest of the residents have come from Iraq, Kurdistan, Palestine and a small minority from African nations like Cameroon, Nigeria and the Congo.


Baba's


Each day, we spend our lunchbreaks gorging on (the best) falafels, hummus and ‘satsua’, a type of Kurdish quesadilla at a restaurant run by ‘Baba’, as he’s fondly known by some of the staff and volunteers on site. It’s hard to imagine how the restaurant - which is a hut held up in part by a tree - makes any money. They only charge a Euro per falafel sandwich (if they even charge us) and continue to pile excess falafels and chips in front of us for as long as we are sat down, which is then followed by copious amounts of chai...or more food.

They have adopted two kittens, one ginger tabby and another mottled, smaller kitten. Their mother is also a regular customer, preferring to occupy an entire seat as she sprawls herself across the cushions. Residents pop in and out all day to have chai, falafel and whatever concoction of food Baba has made to feed all those who stop by. Outside Baba’s is a cigarette stall run by a few young men and just beside it is a juice and coffee bar, where you can buy huge glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice for a Euro.


Maidan's


Places like Baba’s are crucial to the community in that they provide a space where people can sit and chat, away from the confines of their living quarters. A lack of common spaces and creative outlets at refugee camps can create isolation and acute loneliness. The presence of shops, restaurants and coffee stands gives many residents a sense of purpose and an outlet. The creation of communal areas (or public ‘maidans’) and safe spaces is crucial to alleviate psychological trauma induced by war, persecution, and forced migration. For people who have been displaced, these areas play a particularly important role for cultural exchange and creativity.


In this vein, on the other side of the camp, ‘Maidan Tent’, are busy creating a communal area under a large inflatable tent where residents are gathering for the day. This task is proving difficult as the children have decided that it’s a bouncy castle and are very busy either jumping on or sliding down the edge of the tent. On one of our trips, we meet a rather irate architect who tells us that the children have also been slowly removing the screws that hold the tent up. It is still standing but remains to be seen if nimble fingers cause any further damage to the façade! For children, child-friendly spaces are a haven amidst constant upheaval, and the novelty of a purpose-built communal ‘maidan’ alleviates boredom, even if it only serves as a bouncy castle for a little while.



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