Lesbos, Greece – The Greek island of Lesbos has become synonymous with the story of Europe’s refugee crisis.
Its largest camp, Moria, continues to make headlines as residents lament inadequate facilities for its population, which at around 8,000 is well above its official capacity of 3,000.
Twenty minutes’ drive from Moria and 10 minutes from island’s largest city of Mytilene is Pikpa, a camp run by Lesvos (Lesbos) Solidarity, a group started by residents in response to the increasing number of refugees arriving on the island.
The camp is described by the group as “open”, a statement against the detention of migrants and refugees in Greece, which was protocol when Pikpa began.
The site is on the grounds of a former children’s summer camp.
“We started in 2012. Back then, we didn’t have mass arrivals like 2015. There was no Moria at that point and everyone was detained in the police station. We wanted a place that would be open, out of detention and decent. We also wanted the society to participate in the support of the refugees so they are aware of the problems and they are more positive towards them,” says Elfi Latsoudi, a founding member of Pikpa.
“It’s still here six years later because of the big need for shelters for refugees.”
It was great, it was the best place for me, it was the most peaceful place I found.
While they have increased the camp’s potential capacity, Lesvos Solidarity are currently unable to accept many more residents.
“Now we have about 100 people, that is because there are many complicated issues about the status of the camp … The Prefect [of the Region of the North Aegean] has said that they don’t want more refugees to come here. We had 380 people that arrived in May [after a fight in Moria].
“They were very well accommodated when they came to Pikpa but we had reactions from some hotel owners. It was very political because they started to say that this place is not safe for the neighbourhood, which was not the case. We didn’t have any incidents all these years.”
The camp provides for the most vulnerable cases, including families with children, pregnant women, refugees with disabilities and those who suffer from serious medical conditions.
It is made up of a series of wooden huts and a small garden fragrant with lavender and rosemary bushes.
There is a large woodland area and a white dome where activities such as yoga take place.
Knut Bry, a Norwegian photographer and film director, can often be found volunteering in the camp’s kitchen.
As he debates whether he has peeled enough cloves of garlic for the meal, he gestures to the surroundings of the camp: “There is something here,” he says about the atmosphere.
Bry has also helped to produce a book of photos detailing life in the camp.
Another volunteer, Thomas, has been volunteering for a month.
“I’d heard about Pikpa and it sounded like a great organisation to work with because they are independent but they are also professional and organised. They are really on the front line of things because they are so close to the Turkish border so I thought it was a great place to volunteer … I wanted to work in a place where they focussed on integration between the refugees in the local population,” he says. “It’s definitely the best that I’ve seen around.”
Shoeb, who is 22 and from Pakistan, spent nearly a year in Pikpa but has now moved out to live in Mytilene.
“It was great, it was the best place for me, it was the most peaceful place I found,” he says. “When I arrived, Moria was OK, it wasn’t so difficult at that time, three years ago, then it got worse when they closed the borders.”
He now works on a project run by Lesvos Solidarity, turning life jackets used by refugees who have crossed the Aegean into bags, which are sold by the organisation to support their projects.
This summer, Pikpa faced closure after responding to an emergency situation in Moria and taking in around 350 people from the camp following a fight.
The Hygiene Service visited during this time and declared the camp closed. Pikpa says that they have resolved all of the issues raised in the report.
“The ministry of migration says the place is needed, but we are in the middle of this, it’s a difficult thing. Our perception is that we have to respond to the needs. The context now is more complicated because the society is changing. There is a lot of political discourse against refugees because of Moria and the situation they see there; they reproduce this fear of refugees being on the island,” says Latsoudi.
‘We have to be very careful also with the locals and to try to make clear that having good conditions are not a reason people are coming: They have reasons to come and also it is an obligation to protect these people.”
Down the road in Moria, where children as young as 10 are reported to be suicidal, Luca Fontana, the field manager for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), tells Al Jazeera they are overloaded.
“I’ve been working in refugee camps in Central African Republic and in the Democratic Republic of Congo but I’ve never seen the level of suffering that we are witnessing here on a daily basis. All the hope has been taken away.”
He explains that nearby camps such as Pikpa are able to maintain good conditions because they usually operate at capacity, whereas Moria is drastically over.
“Moria is the worst place I’ve ever seen,” he says.
“Pikpa is needed,” says Latsoudi. “This place became a symbol of solidarity. Moria used to be a military camp. This was a camp for children … so it’s a different concept. Also, personally, I don’t believe that we can concentrate refugees in big numbers.”
She adds that since they are funded by private donations they can remain financially independent from local, national and international authorities.
“Pikpa covers needs that not many places can cover because we are not depending on European money, we are not depending on state money so we can be quite flexible and react when it’s needed.”
Kostas is also a member of Lesvos Solidarity and runs English and Greek classes at a project called Mosaik in Mytilene.
He notes the visible differences between Pikpa and the other camps on the island.
“It’s the only really open camp, even from outside,” he says, “it’s the only normal place right now.”