I’m sitting in the reception, a small brightly coloured room at the entrance of Pikpa. To my right is a pile of drums taking a break from their usual residence in evening drumming circles, landscaping sketches are taped to the walls behind me telling stories of beautiful things to come. This room is the hub of where all the meetings are held and changes take place, it’s where I come to work. Outside the window I can hear haphazard guitar strumming, children laughing and parents cooking dinner in the communal dining room. This is a community with heart, a place that is constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of an unpredictable future of the island.
It’s not all boat rescues filling up my days in Greece. I am based in a community known as Pikpa – the community of all together. Here we only take the most vulnerable of refugees, those who are ill or in especially difficult situations. An ongoing community that has been growing and evolving for three years now, it is a bit of an oasis amongst the chaos of the other camps. This sanctuary is a self proclaimed ‘self-organised, autonomous space run by volunteers and is built on the principle of solidarity’. You can feel it from the moment you arrive that Pikpa is bursting with love, compassion and a strong sense of community. It’s all too easy to fall madly in love with this place.
This morning I arrived downstairs refreshed, a rare night spent curled up in bed rather than ushering in rubber boats, an unusual luxury. The meeting starts at 10.30, but people trickle in slowly. I enjoy a moment of sunshine and a coffee as volunteers find a comfortable spot on one of the sofas, fashioned from the insides of life jackets and the outsides of boats. During the meeting introductions are made, the daily jobs and needs are outlined, and teams for the day are recruited. The aim of Pikpa is to fill gaps and needs around the place, operating in a fluid & flexible way to ensure that whatever is most needed in that moment is what gets done. They work intuitively – exactly how I like to, perhaps this is why I fit so well.
Before we part ways, some out to sort donations, others to plant trees and move tents, we all gathered to learn some new language skills. Arabic is a beautiful and complex language spoken by so many of our arriving refugees, even knowing one or two words can make a difference. The richness and poetic beauty is apparent and this lesson is enhanced by some of the resident children joining in and suggesting their favourite words for us to learn. The flexibility of this community allows all kinds of projects to blossom, ranging from language classes and yoga through to music, dance and art projects unfolding across the common area.
Although I thrive in emergency situations and am at my best with pumping adrenaline, a day off to connect with the residents and become better acquainted with the property is a welcome retreat for me today. These are the days with no boats, in some ways they are more significant than the hectic beach mornings. These are the days where I am working with a group of like minded people to create something sustainable. A project that is not just an immediate reaction to the crisis of today, but a long term plan to create refuge for whoever needs it and to respond to whatever needs might arise in the future. It feels good to be a part of something like this.
I spend my morning as some kind of human climbing frame, cuddled up with a team of kids and colouring books. We exchange languages, I stumble over the foreign sounds of Arabic and they laugh, then impress me with their English. My job for the morning is to look after the communal dining room, making sure the space is safe and clean and that the tea and coffee flows. Most of this job is spent interacting with the people here, and it’s a great inspiration for me to come up with some fun art projects I can do with the children later in the week. It’s hard to imagine the hell these kids have been through, they are just so damn happy. A small boy takes up residence on my knee whilst his older sister shows me how to write her name in Arabic, these kids all have stories that could break your heart, but we protect them here – no faces, no stories and no photos get published online.
Energised from playing and heart thoroughly warmed from the kids, I ventured out in the late afternoon to pack food. From here we cook and distribute food to Moria – the much bigger refugee camp on the island. Today 900 portions of lentils and rice were cooked and packaged into foil trays down a small production line, packed into a van and sent off into the darkness to help fill the stomachs of thousands of hungry refugees camping out at Moria and on the hillside surrounding it. The numbers we produce vary by day, but the positive atmosphere and team work in our make-shift production line is unwavering.
When people see media reports of the situation on Lesvos it is focused so heavily on the drama, the drownings and deaths, hypothermic babies being hauled out of semi-sunken boats. Yes of course this is the reality here, it is horrifying, but there is so much more to life on the island too. Pikpa, and Lesvos in general, feels like a completely unique sub-culture. A place with volunteers from all across the globe working together to create a sustainable system to help those most in need. It feels important to share that there is so much more to life here than emergency rescue. In our down time, even the most experienced lifeguards, doctors and translators all give their time to sort donations, re-pitch blown down tents and work on registration lines for newly arriving refugees.
It’s hard to know what the future will bring with so much instability in the local economy and very real threats of Greece being suspended from the Schengen zone, everybody has their theories on what might happen, none are good. Amidst the uncertainty and difficult times, it is also incredible be be a part of something so positive and to experience so many wonderful people coming together to create a space like this.