Humanity should come first: stories from Greek refugees' camps and Milano-Opera jail

“Human Rights”: we talk about them all day, we protect our rights and claim other people to respect them, we sometimes give them for granted, though there are people who are still not considered or perceived as human beings, who are not seen as individuals, whose rights are stepped over every day and whose culture is not valued and looked at in the same way our own is.

And this is not about moralizing, this is about reality, this is about the stories of people, of refugee people, of convict people, of everyone we are very often not used and educated to look at as human, with needs, aspirations and abilities.

“Human Rights” is then the broad and in a way ambitious theme that inspired us in designing the events that our association will host this year, human rights in all their shapes and shades, starting from where humanity has been forgotten and perceived to got lost drowned in the sea or locked out of a prison cell. Refugee people. Convict people. They “told” their stories and got their voices heard both through our guests and their own words during our first event and collaboration on the 3rd and 4th October. “Immigrants from the Middle East: Why? Who? How? And then?” and “Portrait from prison”: how can we think about starting a conversation on the same level about so different topics? what do they have in common?


Where there is isolation we build connections: Lisa Campbell and Stories from Greece

The political and economic crisis in Greece worsen in 2015-2016 and strongly affected “displaced people” phenomenon to the extent that 2017 UNHCR’s report registered the biggest single increase in the number of refugees that had fled their country to escape conflicts, persecution and poverty, 25.4 million people compared to 22.5 million, out of 68.5 million displaced people in the world.

September 2015: Lisa Campbell, back then an American emergency services delivery expert with no clue about refugees or refugee camps, got closer to the Greek economic and political crisis and the disaster that was happening with the migration to Greece and dislocation in many other countries, especially African. She decided to go to Lesvos and help, in any way, in meeting boats approaching beaches and deliver medical care.

November 2015: it was early in the morning and seven boats already approached Lesvos’ shores, around 66 people on a boat, all families, were brought on the land and given first medical assistance.

May 2016: Lisa Campbell arrived in Oinofyta and helped rebuilding a community where refugees could exist instead of just live. She talked to people and starting from their desires, requests, needs and stories, she offered the instruments to create a community in which every individual could rebuild and find again her own identity, her own humanity, her own history and sight on the world. She not only endowed the camp of those services and spaces of which every individual should be provided and able to dispose of to satisfy a surviving need, but was able to gather and put in place the system of desires, rights, aspiration and humanity every individual possess and should be granted for.

Where resources are few we are creative

Kitchen, school, community garden, sewing centre, barber, beauty shop, workshop, teen centre, computer lab, gym, mosque, women’s space and more.

She did not do this alone, but provided the few means and resources at disposal and residents provided the labor according to their abilities and the jobs they used to do in their home countries. The motto was “give a hand up, not a hand out”. Starting from the skills refugees already possessed put at work, the community began to take shape, from a random amount of tends dispersed in the camp with few chemical toilets, to a space, or even better, a place where people were grant to carry on what they were as human being, disposing of the things and environments that made them comfortable, eating the food that was the expression of their own culture and common identity, and keeping serving the community through their own work. Engineers, farmers, freedom fighters, geologists, graphic designers, journalists, lawyers, mechanics, medical lab teachers, photographers, professors, shepherds, singers, sport trainers, tailor, universities students … and more.

Professions, skills, identities, answers to the question “Who are you? What do you do? What is your story?”.

Where voices go unheard we listen

So the stories, like the one of Mustafa, an Afghan 4 years old boy who arrived in the camp with his mother and sister and had an eye disease that would have brought him to lose the sight before being able to have surgery. Always happy, he was everyone’s favourite person in the camp and is now reunited with his father in Sweden, were his family received asylum and he received the needed medical care. Nesar, a medical lab technician who has to take all over again certifications to practise is job because they cannot be transferred once one migrates. He had to send his family to Germany where they finally reunited. Afshin is us, an Afghan 18 years hold boy who wanted to become a computer scientist and knew English, Spanish and learnt Urdu in the camp. His father was persecuted and targeted by Taleban because he taught girls science and they had to go back to Afghanistan for health reasons where now Afshin is afraid of leaving is house.

These are some of the stories and some of the people living in the community centre Lisa opened after Oinofyta camp was closed in November 2017, to be then reopend in March 2018 due to the 20.000 people in detention in the island.

From the report about the treatment of refugees in Greece, terrifying truths come out: people treated in the middle of hallways in public hospitals; psychiatric hospitals managed under the Ministry of Justice rather than the Ministry of Health sticking patients stripped of their belongings in tiny cells for days; people requiring asylum having to wait to obtain it two or more years in a camp, without any psychiatric care, already traumatized people being re-traumatized and re-traumatized and their rights being violated every day.

From their stories we learnt we should educate ourselves to get to know who these people are and look at them as human beings whose voice needs to be heard and to use our voice to bring these stories to everyone’s awareness.

Exactly from the stories and the eyes and words of people telling them, the action of our association is inspired and motivated and again around stories was also built the event we had the honour to take part in thanks to the “Creative reading and writing lab of the Opera prison” at Egea bookshop right the day after having “met” the resident of Oinofyta camp.

Where there is apathy we create support system: “Portrait from prison” and Stories from Opera

At the Egea bookshop an atmosphere of exceptionality was perceived, both by auditors and protagonists. The protagonists were former convict people or currently convict people who received the gift, as they stated, of being there, reading their poetries or letting someone else doing it, because of the excess of emotion for the unique opportunity they were given. Some of them for the first time after 5 or 7 years, others after several decades, had the chance to experiment again the 6pm traffic on their way to the bookshop (as they surprisingly pointed out), accompanied by volunteers and workers from Opera, some others to be reunited to wife and daughter outside the prison borders, or to enjoy one of the first moments as an “anew free man”.

And immediately the ones receiving a gift became us, the “spectators” of this powerful project called “Portrait from prison”, a stage on which the faces and the identities of those people were freed, ripped from behind the bars and mixed with the indistinguishable identities of the already “free” people. The chance to build a connection, a meeting of glances, the sharing of a perspective on the feelings and emotions that qualify every human being as such but that amplifies through the words and the experiences of people whose freedom and rights have been restricted because of their debt with justice but whose humanity was not locked out the doors of the prison.

The prison of Opera creative lab offers and benefits at the same time of this opportunity: it gathers convict people and free volunteers in a comfortable environment, where anyone can be heard or can decide just to listen, where the potentiality of emotions and the power of communication go beyond any expectation and make possible to turn participants into writers, their life experiences into poetry, and the emotional desert and apathy of a place like a prison into the fertile ground for creativity, art and sharing.

Thanks to Silvana Ceruti and Alberto Figliolia, poets and coordinators of the laboratory, Margerita Lazzati, photographer and Gerardo Mastrullo, editor, the faces and the pieces of art produced by convicts participating for years at the lab have taken shapes, into pictures and exhibitions, into anthologies and public readings.

Some of them talk about love, some of them talk about isolation, some others about cats, some about objects of their daily life in the prison, some others about their families and the sense of responsibility towards their pain. All of them read one of their piece of art, incapable of hiding both the surprise they caught themselves in when realizing to be able to give voices and words and rimes to their thoughts through poetry, and the sense of gratitude towards those who made this possible, listening to their stories, receiving them as a gift and giving them the opportunity to be heard.

Where we see dehumanisation we practise humanity

These two unique experiences brought us to realize how much some figures are misperceived to the extent that one forgets that despite their own life has limited their freedom and the protection of their rights has been made needed, they are still endowed of humanity, individuality and identity that need to be preserved and to which is necessary to give voice to and, more importantly, to pay attention to. This is the reason why projects like Lisa Campbell’s or Opera prison laboratory prove their power and strength in building a bridge and a dialogue window between interpreter and auditors, between deprived and supporters.

So we have the responsibility to use our voice to let their voices being heard, to let each story to be known and any misperception and detachment to be flatten as much as possible, up to being removed. At the question “How do we do it? How do we act?” we have to answer “Do your part”, in any way, but do it, and “remember that the words human and humanity should come first”.

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