A Year of Lagadikia

As we celebrate the one year anniversary of our free shop and community centre, we’d like to share some words and pictures of the projects we’ve built within this space.

In April 2018, thousands of refugees started arriving directly to mainland Greece by crossing the land border with Turkey along the Evros river. This was a new development the government and humanitarian actors in Northern Greece weren’t prepared for. Previously, refugees would arrive almost exclusively on the Aegean islands. As a consequence, there was very little infrastructure to register and accommodate spontaneous arrivals on the mainland.


When refugees arrive in Greece, they do not automatically get accommodation in a camp nor government assistance. They first have to formally register their intent to claim asylum – this procedure alone can already take months (and that is only the very first step in the actual asylum process, which can take years). Lagadikia quickly became one of the main reception sites for spontaneous arrivals. They were tolerated in the camp, but, for these reasons, didn’t receive financial or material support as long as they were “unregistered”.

IHA promptly started channeling resources to the thousands of “unregistered” refugees in Northern Greece, and in particular to Lagadikia. We started carrying out emergency distributions of tents, sleeping bags, hygiene articles and food from our van on a regular basis.

 
As a small grassroots-funded organisation, IHA is able to respond quickly and flexibly to new situations like this one. Our independence allows us to help people in need irrespective of their officially assigned status.
— Moritz Reitschuster, Operations Manager
 
 
 

After two months of distributions out of the van, when it became clear that the problem was not going away and the unregistered new arrivals piled up in communal areas and outside in tents, IHA looked for a more sustainable, dignified solution that could provide long-term support for these people who would wait for months before their official assistance. In a week, IHA asked around the village of Lagadikia, found a space available and signed the contract. It took only another week for the small volunteer team to set everything up clean and paint the shop, build the furniture, create the “free shop” system, inform the residents, and put everything in place.

 
The distributions at the camp took place under extremely harsh conditions. There wasn’t an official list of the new arrivals, the numbers would go up by hundreds every week. The conditions in which we had to distribute were unbearable for us and extremely humiliating for the community.
— Anita, Field Coordinator
People express a need for not only a more decent and organized way of giving out the products, and also a need for a safe space to go to at some point during the day.
— Gara, Volunteer
A team drove up to Lagadikia, to measure, clean and paint the rooms. Another team stayed back at the warehouse to get started constructing the furniture, while yet another team started gathering supplies for our shop. It was a long long week, but stepping in to our finished shop for the first time was incredible. Amazing what a dedicated team can pull off.
— Reini, Warehouse Manager
 
 
 

The fundamental idea behind the shop is to give the residents of the camp a more dignified way to get the items they need. To give them as much freedom of choice as possible despite their situation. The shop then becomes a safe space in isolated rural village they are, a place where they are recognised, a place feel welcome to hang out in as they wait for the bus. The shop begins to build community between the residents and the volunteer familiar faces.

 
On Monday, 28th of May, our first customers arrived and everything worked as planned. Finally, after two very difficult months, we were in a position to offer dignity along with our veggies and a sense of security besides that sticky rice, that no one particularly liked.
— Anita, Field Coordinator
Being in the shop for just a few hours reminds me that *how* we give out this charity is what’s important. And I do believe in how we are doing it. I believe in the shop idea; in the freedom of choice; in the dignity of walking into our pastel-colored space once a week for 15 minutes of normalcy, to choose a few products based on what you’d like to cook that week, to spend some time picking out the nicer vegetables like at a normal grocery store, to stock up on sanitary pads or soap or toothpaste or whatever else you are running low on, over being handed a standard aid pack.
— Giulia, Field Coordinator
 
 
 

The shop quickly became a point of reference for new arrivals to the camp. We provide them with shelter provisions such as sleeping bags, blankets, and tents, as well as food and hygiene welcome packages and then register them for our shop.

In October 2018, we had a big influx of spontaneous, unregistered arrivals, and as our warehouse emergency stock got smaller, the volunteers pushed a crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness about the situation and to collect funds to purchase tents and sleeping bags and secure funding to continue stocking the shop with basic necessities for the camp population until they got registered.

 
They arrive at the camp with nothing but their families and the clothes on their back. And they find that there’s no space. All iso boxes are full. Even the communal areas are also overcrowded with people. They have to sleep outside.

They present themselves to the formal organisations in the camp to ask for help. And that’s when they are met with the reality that it will be months before they can access any of the services they should be entitled to (cash assistance, accommodation, food). They are told about the free shop that some volunteer organisation runs outside the camp – they’ll give you food, blankets, a tent.

And that’s how they arrive at the shop. Scared, confused, incredulous that this is how Europe is receiving them. Resigned to living outside with their kids for months, hopeful still for a blanket, maybe a tent, but used to hearing no. They know we are their last resource.
— Giulia, Field Coordinator
 
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Since the end of the summer, we started teaching English every afternoon after shop hours. With a limited space, we had to move furniture around twice a day to fit the desks and chairs in our waiting area, and to set up a child friendly space for our students’ kids in the back of the shop. The volunteer team was forced to be creative over and over, as we expanded our services in the limited store-front. We built desks that fit just right in the room during shop hours, made curtains to cover the shop shelves during class, cut out foam matts to make the floor warmer for the kids, and found storage solutions for everything.

The Child Friendly Space is a solution for parents who want to attend our English lessons but have a small child that cannot be left alone. It is also a way of giving the children of Lagadikia camp a safe space to play, get creative and interact with other children. For children in such unstable and difficult living situations, who have gone through a traumatic journey and experiences back home, the security and stability of a play-space like this makes a big difference. Lydia volunteered with us for seven months and developed the space from scratch. Knowing that volunteers come and go, she created guidelines, trainings and safeguarding policies for the volunteers who worked in the space. The CFS developed its own routines, songs and little rituals so the kids knew what to expect every time they walked through the door of the shop.

 
We try and help the children build a sense of belonging to the space, as opposed to a sense of belonging to a volunteer.
— Lydia, Volunteer and Child Friendly Space Founder
 

Having the centre open every afternoon after shop hours gave people the opportunity for people to break-away from the tedium of everyday life in the camp, provide a sense of structure and build friendships within the classroom. The lessons and the CFS became the building block for the Lagadikia Community Centre upon which we started growing, at the request of the community, adding a social football tournament at a local pitch on Saturdays and weekly Fundays with music, silly games, poetry readings, painting and crafting.

 
Teaching in this context can be challenging, but these challenges are easily overcome thanks to the positive nature of having students who come with a real passion and desire to learn and improve upon their English skills, every day. The unrelenting enthusiasm and unquestionable banter of the students, in spite of everything, is what drove and inspired us to commit our time and energy to this project.
— Ben, Volunteer and English Teacher
 
 
 

In January we rented the small store space next door and expanded our community and recreational services even more, doubling class hours, and keeping the community centre open before class for people to come play board games, use sewing machines, go on the computers, or practice english. The extra room and the added hours of open community space also allowed us to start an extra beginner English class only for women, taught by one of the residents who is a higher level student. It also gave us more flexibility to bring in outside teams to run workshops like a first aid training by Hellenic Rescue Team, legal info clinics by Mobile Info Team, a talk on human trafficking in migration by A21, and a music workshop with recycled materials by the Repsych Project. We also connected students with activities in Thessaloniki, like a three month long performance arts workshop run by Refugee Trauma Initiative and a young mens’ resiliency group at Elpida Home.

 
 

Moving forward with the community centre, we are really trying to focus now on long term effects and facilitating the integration of the residents into their host communities in Greece. We want to provide trainings, Greek language lessons and employability skills to help the population as much as possible to plan their futures here in Greece. Additionally, we will expand the psychosocial activities we offer in an effort to reach all target groups within the camp. Our latest addition, the Women’s Space, has already been a huge success and following further community outreach we will continue to add to our programme of activities. We will rent an additional, larger space next to our current one to facilitate this expansion. We have already started renovations of our existing space in order to make better use of it, involving the community in the designs to develop their ownership and pride in the centre. One of the greatest hopes of working in the Macedonia region at this time, is collaboration between the grassroots organisations. On many levels from planning of integration concepts and resource sharing for educational activities to focus groups and discussions.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the Lagadikia project, which I am honoured to be a part of and I have high hopes for its future development!
— Imogen, current Field Coordinator
Moritz Reitschuster