Ritsona to Chalkida: 18 Kilometres and a World Away

By Ann Esswein

It takes Ahmed three hours to travel from Athens back to his temporary home: a remote site next to the village of Ritsona.  

70 kilometres separate Ritsona from Greece’s bustling capital city. For most, this is a negligible distance. With a car, the road can be covered in 50 minutes. But for refugees living at Ritsona Camp, any journey outside the gates of the camp requires patience and creativity.  

Ahmed with a young customer at Supermarket Abuhamse. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Ahmed with a young customer at Supermarket Abuhamse. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

As he walks through the gate and the dirt driveway at Ritsona Camp’s entrance, Ahmed’s friends are already awaiting his return. He is tired after a long journey, having walked for 30 minutes from the nearest bus station under the noon sun. On his back, he carries a package of supplies: shampoo, cigarettes, oil, meadow grass for chicken, gas cookers, nuts, and food that tastes a little bit like home. Carefully, he arranges these treasures from Athens on the plastic table prominently displaying the wares of “Supermarket Abuhamse.”

Since March of 2016, when the Syrian man arrived at camp, he has procured items from Athens to sell in camp, until he proudly gave his initiative its name, now well-known amongst camp residents.   

For the community at the camp, food distribution provides limited options, and the surrounding area of Ritsona has few markets that they can frequent to pick their own products. At Supermarket Abuhamse, Ahmed doesn’t just sell groceries. In a small, but meaningful way, his market provides a sense of independence -- a way to determine the course of their daily lives. 

The Doors Are Open, But It Feels Like a Cage

Ritsona is located 18 km away from the nearest town, Chalkida. This distance brings frustrating limitations to the camp residents of Ritsona. Ritsona was previously a military air base. Today, taxis are a rarity in the remote area, and none of the municipal buses stop at the site. There are buses organized by the International Organization for Migration, which can take residents to Athens or Chalkida . Buses to Athens leave on Monday and Friday, and buses to Chalkida leave Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Otherwise, only a few of the residents can afford to rent a car for a respite from a camp that seems hidden from Greek daily life.

For two young Kurds who lived at the camp, Alan and Shervan, mobility is a basic need limited by the situation in Ritsona.

“Its true that the doors are open but it still feels like a cage” says Alan, who now lives in Athens. While in Ritsona, he had been to town a couple of times to go out, enjoy food, go to the supermarket and buy supplies - things he would normally do back home. However, here in Greece, these rare visits to town cost him around 30 EUR round trip, an expensive but invaluable trip.

Alan at the entrance of Ritsona camp, and the long road to Chalkida. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Alan at the entrance of Ritsona camp, and the long road to Chalkida. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

“There are a lot of things I miss here” Shervan reflected, having only been out of the camp three times, by hitch-hiking. 

Shervan echoed a common sentiment amongst the community, saying “I would feel better if the camp was located by a town or city." 

Searching for Normality Outside of Ritsona

Besides primary needs (food, shelter, water and sanitation) the secondary needs of the residents become more pressing the longer they stay in camp. Volunteer organizations such as Lighthouse Relief are trying to fill that vacuum with daily activities, such as body movement classes in the Female Friendly Space, and sessions in the Child Friendly Space for residents under 6 years of age. Organizations are also helping to prepare the community for the next step of their journey; there are English and German classes. After being stranded in Greece for many months the need for normality becomes vital. But normality lies outside, in the distant town.

“The camp feels like just another prison” former camp resident Sulaymaan says in his new apartment in the centre of Chalkida. Privacy is what he needed most after over four months in Ritsona, he explains sitting in his living room with baby-blue colored walls.

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

“Here I can decide whenever I would like to eat, cook, have a shower or just be by myself”. 

After looking for a private apartment for more than two months, he finally managed to leave the camp. Since then, he spends his days strolling around the town, meeting friends, sitting in cafes and writing applications while learning English. After nine months in Greece, a sense of normality has finally resumed. He feels free now, he says with a warm smile.

Sulaymaan playing pool in Chalkida with his friend. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Sulaymaan playing pool in Chalkida with his friend. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Sulaymaan is a rare representation of refugees in Chalkida, a town of 60,000 inhabitants that draws tourists to its waterside promenade. 

“Its seems like the Greek government wanted to situate the problem outside,” Sulaymaan says, “people just pass Greece, but the locals fear that we are harming the economy”. 

Present Yet Invisible to the Chalkida Community

Local taxi driver Sakis Stamelos says the locals in Chalkida are somewhat skeptical about the refugees. 

“People would associate the refugees with illnesses and criminality, just because they they are invisible for most of Chalkida’s locals and they can’t get to know them better.” 

“What matters is not the distance but the conditions,” Sakis points out. Because he has driven residents back and forth, he has visited the camp three times. 

“Only dust and tents” he reported to his friends and colleagues, “not what one expects.” 

“You really have to go there to understand it,” he says, referencing a segregation that goes beyond the physical distance.

At Gold Bar in Central Chalkida, a lively crowd of all ages relaxes and sips cappuccinos and espressos. At this social hotspot, the patrons all know each other. When he’s not greeting people and shaking hands, owner Akis Koutsevlis watches over the activity from behind the bar. So far, Koutsevlis has seen volunteers resting in his cafe, but no refugees. 

“I don’t understand why the camp is so far away” Koutsevlis stresses.

“The camp should be close to the city”, Koutsevlis says, adding that he would love to have more contact with refugees. 

In Chalkida, as passers-by stroll on the waterfront promenade, milling in and out of coffee shops and restaurants, Supermarket Abuhamse and the refugee issues feel so present yet still so distant.