United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres speaks with children at the Kara Tepe camp on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos during a visit last October.
At Kara Tepe on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos, what was once a driving school a few kilometers outside the capital, Mytilene, has been transformed into a small village of 665 refugees, with 184 houses over an area of 2.2 hectares. The man in charge of this community is Stavros Myrogiannis, who started working as a volunteer at the refugee processing center as soon as it was opened in April last year by Lesvos Mayor Spyros Galinos.
The former head of a search and rescue team at the Greek Civil Protection Authority and a longtime volunteer – from helping feed poor local families to using his diving skills to clean the seabed – Myrogiannis is a respected citizen to whom Galinos entrusted the running of the Kara Tepe camp. He spends 14 hours a day there, seven days a week, and now, when he speaks, a few phrases of Farsi (that he’s picked up over time) and English will inevitably slip into the conversation, which is usually focused on helping the refugee families at the camp.
Myrogiannis is not the only one learning new things here, because he has organized lessons in English, French and German, activities for children and teenagers, and holds screenings of films in different languages, including Arabic and Farsi.
Lifeguard Hellas, meanwhile, has sent certified lifeguards to help the refugees learn how to swim.
“These people, young and old alike, need to learn that the sea unites people, that it does not just symbolize their journey with people smugglers and drownings,” says Myrogiannis.
The daily program of events at Kara Tepe also includes painting, soccer, theater, gardening, exercise time, music, arts and crafts, and even yoga.
Kara Tepe is home to families and vulnerable refugees and migrants, such as those with disabilities. Its population of 335 Syrians, 135 Iraqis, 136 Afghans, 17 Palestinians, 16 Iranians, eight Congolese, eight Pakistanis, four Nepalese and one Eritrean is separated into neighborhoods.
“Here we have hierarchy, not anarchy. We have neighborhoods so that people don’t get into fights over religious or other differences. We are part of a system. The center is open and hosts people, but within the context of a specific process,” says Myrogiannis.
He explains that the municipal authority is responsible for the maintenance and supervision of the camp as part of an effort to take some of the pressure off the island’s main processing center, or hot spot, at Moria. He also says that there are 16 “serious and certified” nongovernmental organizations operating at Kara Tepe, with a staff of around 25 in total every day.
“Food is delivered to people’s doors and organized on a week-by-week basis. We’re not here to sell drama,” says Myrogiannis, explaining that at other centers, migrants and refugees often have to wait for hours under the scorching sun to get their food handout. Here, even clothes are distributed by appointment.
From 2015 to the present, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees trying to reach Western Europe have passed through the Kara Tepe camp. The difference with before the European Union signed a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants in exchange for economic and political favors is that now they stay at the camp much longer and capacity is reduced.
“Before the deal, we’d have hundreds of people coming in for about a week and the center could host up to 3,000 people in that time frame. But things have changed now and we can’t ignore that, so we have built and are still building facilities so that we can have up to 1,700 people staying here for a much longer period.”