Behind the walls of Ritsona, Greece’s largest refugee camp
Introduction to the series
Through this four-part series, artists from Ritsona share their work from behind the camp walls. Their art not only elucidates the fabric of life inside camp, but also elevates the messages that forcibly-displaced people want to share, as well as their more trivial daily musings and passing thoughts.
Each part of the series provides a fragment of a broken migration system that has left thousands of people in limbo at Europe’s borders. The fragments do not seek to provide a complete and comprehensive picture of what it means to be an asylum seeker in Greece, but instead seek to give glimpses into the work and lives of the people behind Ritsona’s walls.
Introduction to Ritsona
Around 80 kilometres from Athens in an isolated industrial area lies Ritsona, Greece’s largest refugee camp. Its rural surroundings and rolling agricultural hills stand in sharp juxtaposition to the camp’s three-metre high grey walls and stark barbed wire top.
Behind the camp walls some 2,100 people reside (this figure is in constant flux), the majority of whom come from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. The camp is densely populated and most people live in overcrowded caravan-style ISOboxes or army-style barracks.
Around one-third of camp residents also have no access to food or cash assistance as a result of recent policy changes that restrict support to people who meet strict eligibility criteria.
Life in Ritsona is a waiting game. People typically spend about three years in camp while completing the Greek asylum procedure, a system that has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations for its out-of-control bureaucratic delays and unfair rulings. Some have been stuck in this system for upwards of seven years.
To fill their days, many residents find ways to pursue the interests that they used to enjoy back home.
Ritsona, like all communities, has its share of artists, poets, writers and musicians. Through this series, several have chosen to share their work with Streaming Museum in the hope of transcending the walls that keep them out of sight.
Part 1: Meet Abu-Youssef
Meet Abu-Youssef, an artist from Iraq. While working in Baghdad as a gemstone trader, he sometimes added gems to jewellery that he would craft on the side. Now in Ritsona, he uses scraps and materials he finds in camp to create sculptures which he embeds with carefully considered messages and emotions. He does this to “bring broken and dead items back to life.”
“Before coming to Greece I had only made art once, I made a bell for the birds I kept, which made a noise when they flew by."
In Ritsona, Abu-Youssef forages for scraps and discarded items to recycle into sculptures. He relies on the help of his friends to collect interesting items they find around camp.
“Through my art I want to share the message that we are human and I’m still alive. I made all these pieces while I’m still breathing, and I hope that my breathing doesn’t stop. I’m old, my hands don’t stop shaking and I can’t see well, but I’m still alive.”
He doesn’t have a favourite medium, “all that matters is that the materials are colourful and bright.”
“The wood was burnt, I found it in the rubbish, it was black. I have one friend who challenged me when he saw the piece, he challenged me to make it so that you can see and feel that it's beautiful and alive and colourful. You can see that some pieces of the wood are broken, but I cleaned it, I painted it, and now there is love in this piece. I made it alive, even though everything dies there is always some life. It is alive now.”
“You know there’s no watermelon in the winter, this is only a summer fruit, but my son loves watermelon, he wants watermelon in winter, so I made this for him. I made this from my heart.”
“The two balls represent Russia and the US. Russia starts the war in Ukraine, and the US straight away becomes involved. The book represents our thoughts, when war starts the schools close and everything stops, so war kills our thoughts and dreams. The arrow symbolises nuclear threat, and the flower [inside the book] shows that they’ve smothered hope. Their goal is their own interest, they’re clashing all the time and so blood runs. I get scared, and honestly I’m scared for more because I saw two wars in Iraq, one between Iraq and Iran, and a war between Iraq and the US. When war starts two sides are not talking. War is close again.”
“This is my favourite piece, I made it for my wife. When she’s sad her eyes look like this. I didn’t see her for four years, she’s in Thessaloniki. Women can keep sadness inside themselves, but sometimes it comes out through the eyes. If you focus on the picture you can see that she hides her eyes but you can tell that she’s sad. I wanted to add tears but I didn’t have the equipment.”
“This is a very sad story. I had a friend who loved a woman but her heart was like stone. Still, from the stone flowers grew. From that story came this idea. Her heart is the stone, and love started to come through the stone which symbolises hope. They didn’t get married but they have some type of relationship. They love each other, there is hope, she was very hard on him. The mind is not soft because you think so much, but at least love makes the heart soft.”
“I made this for my daughter, I want to show the world my love for her. I love her so much I want to protect her, that’s why she’s inside the bell. The chessboard, queen and king represent her family. Because she’s outside of Iraq I would like the chess pieces to protect her. There are so many meanings for this piece, but the main meaning is that I want my family to protect her.”
“The stone is a gift for myself. I was sitting with myself not so long ago, thinking that not everyone helps each other and it made my heart feel like stone. But when I see people supporting each other my heart comes alive. The stone is my heart when I’m sad, but I put the colour on to celebrate. All it takes is for someone to talk to you for you to feel like you’re being helped, help isn’t about material things.”
“This piece is about politics, it's about justice. Everywhere there is a scale of justice, but justice imprisoned me, justice killed all the souls inside me. This [the hand] is the ghost of justice, and the scales symbolise justice and balance. There is justice in the law but not everybody gets justice equally, that’s why justice kills us and cuts us. The law doesn’t apply to everyone, since I was born until now I didn’t see justice. Where is the justice?”
“I found the basket and had the idea to make it like a chicken, I made the legs and a beak and the feet. It was broken, there was nothing [attached to it]. But the problem is that nobody likes it. I like to look at it, I’m still working on it, but I’m waiting for some ideas to come to me, but for now at least I made it alive.”
This interview was translated from Arabic to English, but as Abu-Youssef explains "in Arabic when we talk about our feelings maybe you won’t understand, if we translate it to English maybe there’s no meaning.”
Follow Abu-Youssef on TikTok at @abwy4279
Seeking Asylum in Greece
The vast majority of people in Ritsona Camp entered Greece via Turkey, risking their lives on unseaworthy rubber dinghies in hope of reaching safety. Those who made it to the Aegean islands of Lesvos, Samos, Leros, Chios and Kos typically waited upwards of two years for the first stage of their asylum claim to be processed in notoriously inhumane refugee camps before being transferred to mainland camps such as Ritsona. The Aegean camps were grossly overpopulated and had limited access to water, electricity, and bathroom facilities. In summer the camps were overrun with rats, snakes, and scorpions, and in winter flooded with heavy rains. Newborn babies spent their first years living in camping tents.
In 2015 alone, 1.3 million refugees entered Europe, of whom 750,000 entered through the Aegean islands. By 2019, the camps remained vastly overpopulated, and in March 2020, the Greek government began extensively pushing asylum seekers back to Turkey. In practice, they intercepted groups of refugees on boats in the Aegean, pulling them back into Turkish waters. In accordance with international law pushbacks are illegal as all humans have the right to apply for asylum.
More than two years on and illegal pushbacks at Greece’s borders have only intensified. Very few people make it to Greece, and those who do make it are contained in prison-like facilities in new, EU-funded camps.
About Lighthouse Relief
This series is facilitated by Lighthouse Relief, a humanitarian organisation providing dignified assistance to asylum seekers and refugees in Greece.
To learn more, visit the Lighthouse Relief website and follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. To support their vital work, consider donating here.