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Life on the Airstrip: The Refugees of Polykastro Camp

“The system is completely set-up to be as dehumanizing as possible.” These are the words of Jay, a volunteer from England. His organization is one of the few left in the town of Polykastro, Greece, offering services to families living in three refugee camps in the area. Jay is taking me to Polykastro camp, a 15-minute drive from town. On the way, he briefs me on the context and shares his perspective on the conditions of life for the residents of three refugee camps in the area.

Polykastro camp is on an old airfield surrounded by fencing. The container homes line both sides of the airstrip. This is where 550 families live. The setting is isolated and feels undignified. At the entrance to the camp, the Greek police keep guard in an existing building.

I cannot get out of the car. We are not allowed to visit the camp. The camp police station is empty for the moment, however, so I have a few minutes to look around. Fifty yards ahead of me I see a colorful entrance to a Child-Friendly Space set-up in an old airplane hangar. To my left, an organization called A Drop in the Ocean is providing vegetables out of their makeshift, blue painted, wooden structure.

There are a few containers with large NGO logos, and next to them a couple of small food businesses set-up by the camp residents. Outside the camp, down the road, there is a football pitch where adult men gather on Saturdays and play a game—the highlight of the week.

The scenery that surrounds Polykastro camp, Greece. Photo: Sara-Christine Dallain/iACT

To get to town, residents must walk. Jay tells me, on any given day you’ll see mothers with young children pushing their buggies, walking the narrow road with no sidewalk. “It’s only a matter of time until there is an accident,” he says. His organization offers transportation and a small bike-share program to access town as well as language classes, arts, crafts, and sport. With two cars, Jay and his colleagues take trips to and from town, sometimes taking up to 5 or 6 trips and never turning away anybody who needs a ride. It’s an essential service Jay says, “but it’s not sustainable.”

According to Jay, on March 31, 2019, this camp will cease to exist. Families will lose their airfield accommodations. Families deemed “vulnerable” will be placed in apartments in town. Others will be expected to find their own accommodations with the cash assistance they receive. However, three months following March 31st, that cash assistance they depend on will also be taken away. “They are all vulnerable in my opinion,” says Jay with frustration, because the refugees of the camps in this area do not receive Greek language classes, they are not taught how to navigate the labor market, and Greece is struggling economically. “There are no jobs for locals. How are they supposed to find a job in this environment, in the middle of nowhere, and without the language skills?” he questions.

As we’re about to leave the camp a resident asks if he can ride with us to town so he can find a pharmacy. On the drive back, I try to imagine what it would feel like to live on an isolated old airstrip in a foreign country and to have so little control over my life — and I cannot.

My time in Greece, and my short visit to Polykastro, leave me reflecting on the same question I have when working with refugee communities in Chad, Cameroon, and Tanzania: How is it that in 2019 our humanitarian response, services, and care are not more dignifying and empowering of the men, women, and children who flee war and violence? And, as I do following every iACT trip, I travel back home feeling even more compelled and steadfast in sharing and expanding our iACT programs and refugee-led model.


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