The Filippiada refugee camp is a few minutes outside of Filippiada, a town in north west Greece. From its road entrance, a cabin and a single slat car barrier left from when the Greek military occupied the site can be seen, and there is no sign of the vibrant community within. Behind this front-piece, you find cabins housing Oxfam, the UN, Doctors Without Borders and a classroom belonging to the school where I worked. You gradually pass a playground, two large tents and the containers where the kitchens and washing machines were located, until you reach the main residential area of the camp. With your back to what I have just described, and your eye following a slight incline, you will see a grid like network of 67 white containers, each around 1.5 x 3 metres. These were inhabited by around three hundred refugees from Afghanistan, Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
Photograph by Emily Weatherby
Whilst working as a teacher at the camp, I became interested in these living spaces, particularly in how residents extended, decorated, adapted their containers – why did they do it? Which residents within the container made them? And most importantly, how did it make them feel – did it make the camp feel more like home? Over the course of a few weeks, I interviewed twenty different families and individuals, some with large, established extensions or gardens, some with no additions or decoration at all, asking them these questions. This article presents three trends within the container practices: families with extensions, young male decorators and those who did not extend or decorate at all.
Families were responsible for the majority of the extensions within the camp, with nine of the thirteen containers I interviewed extended on. Their additions generally took a similar form, a rectangular structure of the same height as the container, secured with metal poles and covered with tents and tarpaulin – colourful scarves covering the door. Other types included tents alone, either as a roof, leaving open space underneath, or secured onto other containers, creating an interior. When speaking to the families, the first reason given for extending was often practical, a central reason being the need for space; one mother of three told me that ‘there is not enough space for us here so we have to extend it to make more room’. This extra space was not only for people, but also for tasks, namely the preparation of food; most kept a kettle and other equipment there, but three also had stoves, meaning all their meals could be made at their containers rather than in the communal kitchens. For all families, the containers were described as a source of positivity, greater than normally associated with functionality. The son of a family with one of the largest extensions told me that when they arrived in the camp with only the container to live in, his mother cried. After one month, they started to add their extension and his mother began to feel much better. She beamed at me whilst her son told this story.
This example begins to illustrate how, for the families, the practical became the personal: recognising and responding to their needs allowed them to feel a more established sense of home. Demonstrations of this twofold outcome were the gardens that some residents planted outside their containers, which provided both ingredients for cooking and space for cultivating a productive hobby. For two of the garden owners I spoke to, this hobby was one carried from home. A son from a family who kept chickens told me, ‘in Afghanistan, we also had chickens with eggs, my mother likes having chickens a lot, caring for them’. Having a garden allowed a sense of continuity and an important link to their home countries as well as serving a practical purpose.
Photograph by Emily Weatherby
Whilst extensions and gardens were the outward manifestations of container adaptations, interior decoration was also practiced to various degrees. Families with babies often had teddy bears perched on the walls and those with children or teenagers generally had less decoration. Where decoration was present it often celebrated nationality (in the form of a flag) or religion (a sheet of paper with ‘I love Allah’ written on). However, the most prominent examples of interior decoration were carried out in three containers lived in by young men. Two were inhabited by men living alone, each had created a cohesive decorative scheme for their container – they could make their decorations at an NGO-run centre for refugees to develop and practice skills. One had made blinds and a door-covering in a dark purple matching the colour of the rug provided with the container, assimilating the standardized objects into a thoughtful room design. The other man’s decoration was more elaborate: black, white and red rugs covered the floor, scarves hung on the walls and, most innovative of all, brightly coloured open umbrellas were attached to the ceiling at jaunty angles.
Neither of these men said they had many guests, the decoration was there for themselves. Whilst for the first man putting effort into his space was important, the second man told me that interior design was his passion, ‘everyone has their ideas’, he said, ‘everyone has their interests, decor is mine’. A container occupied by four men provided a different example of this decorative impulse: their emphasis was not on aesthetics but on shared memories and a sense of fun. Their additions were centred on one wall, where they stuck their national (Afghan) flag and photographs of themselves together in Samos, the island where they had met and travelled from. They were undoubtedly the most positive when discussing their container, the photographs of themselves on the beach, positioned creatively on the wall, both expressed and reinforced feelings of togetherness and positivity. Unlike the two single men, they told me that they liked to have decoration for when people came to the container. Whilst families extended in part due to practicality, the decorations of these three containers were described by residents as being purely for personal fulfilment.
The creative will of these particular men were, however, not reflective of all the single men I spoke to. 1 As well as being examples of the most decorated, containers lived in by men were also instances of the least. Many only had the furniture provided by the camp: they praised the existing facilities and the provision of the living space but said they had no desire to decorate or extend. One male resident told me that the way men were housed in the camp – placed together in groups whose configuration changed when residents left or arrived – made decorating or adapting the container unappealing, because, in his experience, they were often collections of very different people with disparate life experiences, religious beliefs and ideas, making it easier to leave the space blank. The container lived in by the four men with their photographs from Samos, was an exception to this – their shared experience and friendship marking out their case. Another reason for many men’s lack of decoration was their hope of leaving the camp; a resident told me, ‘the single men have less decorated containers, they are hoping to leave, not to stay long. They don’t want it to feel permanent’. This view was also shared by some families (those without extensions), for them, as for the men, to invest time in the adaptation of the container was to accept their life in the camp: rather than the positive act other families and individuals described it as, home-making strategies were a move away from a dream.
There were, therefore, many different motivations within the camp as to why containers were adapted and how those changes were used and responded to. An overarching influence on whether additions or decorations were made at all was the time the resident(s) had spent in the camp: in general, the longer the stay the more the camp appeared to be accepted as a home to be made their own. Perhaps the most significant strand running through all these conversations was the importance of family, wherever they were in the world.
1 The men referred to themselves as single but not in the sense that it might be interpreted as, they often had a wife and children in another country.
My huge thanks to Nima, Anwar, Jaza and Masouma, who gave up their time to translate for me and without whom these conversations would not have been possible.
This article was first published in SEE:ONE, The Courtauldian’s printed publication. You can find the full first issue of SEE here: https://issuu.com/thecourtauldian.