Barcelona seems far removed from the refugee crisis, but for Javi, a teacher and journalist by training who hails from the land of Barça, Gaudi and tapas, there is nothing else that feels closer to home. “There was never any question that I would go to Greece to work with asylum seekers,” he says from Ritsona, a refugee camp in the country. “It was just natural.”
It’s not hard to see why. In 2013, Javi left Spain for the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan where he learned Arabic, taught Spanish and interned with Spanish organisations. He also spent three months in the West Bank teaching French at a refugee camp.
So in March 2015, when he saw there was a need for Arabic speakers in Greece, he knew exactly where he should go: to Lesvos, where asylum seekers were arriving in boats. There, he connected with Lighthouse Relief, where he started translating for volunteers and doctors, and distributing clothes and basic necessities. Being able to act as a bridge for people who had just undergone a harrowing journey to Europe was important.
“They had just risked their lives, but the people providing assistance were unable to communicate with them,” Javi said. “For their first contact with Europe to be me through my Arabic, that was something special.”
When Moria turned into a detention camp upon the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, Lighthouse Relief discontinued its operations there, leading Javi to continue his work with the organisation near the Macedonian border at Idomeni.
"In Idomeni, the conditions for refugees were the worst I had ever seen. I have been to Zaatari and other camps in Jordan and the West Bank, where conditions are very bad. But Idomeni was a completely different story: thousands of families sleeping in the mud in very small tents.
“Here in Ritsona with Lighthouse Relief, everything is different again because it’s another stage of this crisis in Greece.”
Through his skills in building community relations, he helped Lighthouse Relief gain insight into the needs of the children and identify ways to design and run what is called the Child Friendly Space: a place where children learn and engage in activities, which works as a tool for identifying child protection cases. There, staff can come into contact with the children and their parents, and identify, refer, follow up on cases, and evaluate the response to their vulnerabilities and any risks they might face.
“I’m very happy with the feedback from the community. The kids line up half an hour before we start with the activities at the Child Friendly Space and tell me they’re excited and want to learn.”
From Barcelona to Moria to Idomeni and now Ritsona, Javi is now taking on a new role: as field coordinator for Lighthouse Relief in Ritsona camp.
In that post, Javi knows many residents among the camp’s population. He always asks for feedback and listens to suggestions from parents and children. “This is how I learn about the residents’ needs. I try to be very involved with the parents, which is extremely important, because we follow up with every single case at the CFS,” he adds.
He credits the team of the Female Friendly Space for their efforts in supporting the women in the camp. Lighthouse Relief's long-term volunteers, he says, are able to learn about the community through their work with them. "It is good to hear from the women who come that they feel safe and comfortable inside the space, where they can relax and share their concerns with other women from the community", he adds.
The Lighthouse Relief Sexual and Reproductive Health Clinic (SRH) is also opening this week and will cover maternal and newborn health as well as sexual health. It will be a space for private, confidential discussions on health and protection concerns. “The SRH Clinic is another safe space where we aim to protect the most vulnerable residents”, Javi says.
Javi believes that Lighthouse Relief’s wider goal is to empower residents to get more involved with its services. “In the future, with some structural and financial support from Lighthouse Relief, the residents can manage the space on a daily basis. We are just an actor. It’s all about empowering the residents. After all, they are engineers, architects and teachers.”
It is clear to Javi that residents can feel tense when months go by without any information about seeking asylum in Europe. Recently, pre-registration has started, which has eased some of their worries, but the sense of uncertainty remains.
“In the end, life in a refugee camp is difficult,” Javi says, “We do whatever we can do to support the residents while they are going through this tough period of waiting.”