The Story of Khora: The Power of Social Movements in Helping Refugees and Asylum Seekers
When we come together, everything is possible by Nidzara Ahmetasevic
Liska Bernet came to the Balkans from Switzerland in 2015 to help refugees to become part of a new volunteer movement. In this interview, she reflects on her early days on the Balkan route and talks about the rebirth of volunteer movements in Europe, why we have to be political when talking about migration, and the role we all should play if we want to change the society we live in. “Be political and be active,” is what Liska is saying.
Liska, like many young Europeans, came to the Balkans – first to Serbia and then to Greece, – when refugees from Syria started arriving on a daily basis by boats. She wanted to help in any possible way. After spending over a year as a volunteer on this route, she discovered that the experience transformed her into a completely different person.
Before coming to the Balkans, Liska had lived a comfortable life in rich Switzerland, studying towards her masters degree and just being young in Europe. She learned in the media about the refugees who were coming to Europe and decided to try to help, but also wanted to witness this historical moment.
Joining refugees in Serbia
She went to Preševo in Serbia. “It was very intense. There was a border crossing point and everyday there were people that were standing in a line, waiting to get registration papers. Back then, everything was moving quite quickly. People were not standing in the lines for more than a day or two. Sometimes even less. Everything I saw there obviously made a big impression on me. Just to see what was happening shocked me: there was a lot of police violence against refugees, there was a taxi driver mafia in Serbia… Things I had never before been exposed to.” These images shocked many people around the world.
Before coming to the Balkans, Liska had some experience working with migrants in London, but in very different circumstances. But what she witnessed in Serbia left her breathless. “The numbers of people on the road and how they were treated, but also how everything was quite organised and at the same time, very chaotic. Nobody really knew what was gonna happen. I was aware that there was no strategy for this, no structures and nobody knew what to do. It was shortly before October 2015,” she recalls.
Liska, like many at that time, arrived as an independent volunteer; she was not associated with any of the organisations in the field. She was drawn to the route after hearing about what was is happening through social networks.. “And I basically just went there, to Preševo. I knew some people who had been there before and had some contacts, so I just went there and asked where the others were. And from there on, we started organising amongst ourselves.”
The birth of a social movement
From that moment on, she became part of a movement that was reborn. Volunteers from all over the world, mostly Europe, were coming to fill the gaps where governments and big NGOs and IGOs were not able or willing to act. Grassroots groups, with no firm structures, relying on horizontal decision making processes took over, saving thousands of lives.
Most of these groups relied on other individuals for financing, reaching them through crowdfunding, friends and family. “You organise yourself and try to act. That is how all this works.” Liska explains that this is the way that the movement works. It involves tens of thousands of people from all around the world.
“After Preševo, I went back home looking for job. But after one week, I realised that I cannot do that. It became colder in the Balkans and situation was horrible. Through people I met in Preševo who had now moved further down to Lesvos, I heard about the dreadful situation, especially about camp Moria, and decided to go there and help.”
She did not expect what she found at Lesvos. “It was a completely different situation from Preševo. People were arriving by boat and they had to register. But, by that time, it was already taking much longer. At times, people were there for up to 4 to 5 days. In Preševo everything had moved quite quickly. Also, the weather started changing, it was raining and it got colder.” Being in the field, she noticed first-hand how big organisations and the government started dividing people, often creating situations that were on the edge of conflict.
Life in the camps
“From the beginning, you could see huge discrimination against Afghans. Most of the Syrians were allowed in the camp and it got full very quickly. At first, there was around 600 people there. Soon, there were people everywhere, even on the hills, probably around 3000 people. It was mainly Afghans who were outside the camp. There was nothing for them, no tents, no toilets… just nothing. And they were there for days. Sometimes just waiting to know if they could register.”
I was there together with a few other volunteers. There were not many of us, we did not have a lot of money and we could not do much. We needed support. We started creating facebook groups and targeting other volunteer groups to come and do something together with us. Some people had contact with people or groups who had money. A girl from Holland who used to work in the festival infrastructure business, had quite a few connections. Her contacts helped us to get festival infrastructure for free. But, it was winter and we did not end up using it. But we got lots of tents and other things that we otherwise would not have been able to afford. Through people bringing things that we needed, we slowly began to build an informal camp, using social media to mobilise other volunteers.”
Liska remembers that, at the very begging, no big international organisations were present at the informal camp. “They only had a symbolic presence, two people from UNHCR who worked from 9 to 5, or even less. Save the Children had two people working 3 hours a day. Their response was completely terrible. And us volunteers built this camp that ended up being a space for about 800 people, supported only by many different groups and individuals who came together. One of the groups had a kitchen team that brought food and staff, another had a medical team and so on. All were volunteers. And it functioned like that until the European Union in Turkey dealt with the situation and it changed completely. For instance, the Greek authorities turned against us and against volunteers in general. They just did not want us there.”
Over a period of time, the people who supported this informal camp had to fight with the authorities in order to be able to provide basic services to people in need. The authorities did everything they could to stop us from working, including cutting off the water to the camp for over a week while between 600 – 700 people were living there. The MSF, as one of the few big organisations who helped, came with water tanks. But, Liska remembers, there was no water in the toilets and people could not wash their hands. After the water crisis, the authorities came up with a plan to register all the volunteers, which in practice, was never implemented. The authorities started building a fence around the camp. For volunteers and residents it was the end, it was a sign that it was time to close down. The fence was built in a way to prevent anybody from leaving, or entering, with no control checkpoints.
Being a young European who believed that freedom exists in this part of the world, Liska was in shock. “It was unbelievable. And it is still like that until today. I just cannot comprehend what is going on in Europe. It goes against the human rights that we have so many conventions that we signed as countries, and no one cares. I cannot believe that states can do things like that without consequences.”
Unfortunately, these things that are hard to believable are happening today. Recently, a study was published, arguing that over 70 percent of young people in Europe welcomes refugees and migrants. But the picture coming from all over the European Union and its neighboring countries does not show this welcome.
The need for political activism
“As volunteers, there is limit in terms of what we can do. But, we can try to tell others about what is going on. This is one of the most important things we can do, because many people have no clue. I also think that the media have a huge role to play. If no-one knows what is happening, then nobody will try to change anything. As volunteers, can try to help people, like by forming solidarity movements, but we need to acknowledge that the change that is needed is political. I always tell people that it is very important that you get active politically, because maybe that way you can change something.”
After Lesvos, Liska continued working in the field with other people. The next step was Athens, where back in March 2016, thousands of people were arriving. Many were roughening it up and sleeping in the streets or in the port that turned into a big open camp. “When all the borders started to close, more and more people decided to remain at the mainland. Again, a group of us came to Athens at the beginning of March. Back then, the Exarcheia squat situation was starting to happen. With the help of local solidarity movements, people were living in informal shelters, empty houses… etc. Our plan was to build a centre where people could have a stable place to come to, have some food, a place where you could maybe just hug somebody, use the internet, get information and help. We did not know exactly what we were gonna do, but wanted to create a nice place where there were people could come to help out. We started looking for a building. It took us a long time to find one that suited. In the meantime we were working in Pireous where, at some point, up to 6000 people were living. We provided people with food, about 1000 meals a day. At the same, we were helping to renovate shelters in Exarcheia. That is how we found the building where Khora is today, and we started renovating it.”
The birth of Khora
In order to secure a safe and permanent place, Liska, together with a few others, did something that was not very popular in Exarchiea at the time – they rented a building, and soon turned it into a community centre. Khora is open not only for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, but everybody who needs it. Today, more and more Greek people are coming, especially the elderly, looking not only for food (and they can get two meals a day), but also a respite from loneliness in a city with a difficult economic situation.
“It is hard to say how many people were involved in the creation of Khora. There were so many different people at different times. On paper, five of us are registered as founders. But, in reality, this is not how it works. We all do everything together. We still manage to keep going without accepting funding from big NGOs or governmental organisations, relying mostly on individuals and groups. Many people are involved in different ways. There is one group who cycle from London to Athens over a period of 2 months doing fundraising for Khora. We built a dentistry with a donation from a small team from Sweden who fundraised for that. Then a team from Spain came and said, ‘You need chars for the school,’ and they fundraised money for that… We keep receiving messages from groups around Europe who fundraise for us. And it is a good thing, because Khora now belongs to many people since many people built it.”
People who are involved in the everyday running of Khora are people who hold different political views. “Some are anti-state and anti-establishment, others are not. But, we definitely agree on the role of the European Union and UNHCR and those types of organisations – what they do is not what they are supposed to do, and they are just trying to shift the responsibility to someone else. What they are doing is absolutely terrible. By taking money from organisations like this, you say that what they are doing is ok, and we do not want that. We do not want anything in that line,” Liska firmly concludes.
Today Khora has a warehouse, storage room, a shop where people can choose what they want without paying, a space for maintenance and renovation and staff in the building as well as in nearby squatter camps. Khora has a language school, computers, music classes, a small cafe where tea is offered all day and food is served two times a day and a space for children. Refugees, locals and volunteers from all around the world are working together, doing everything – from offering legal help, to cooking and cleaning.
“We wanted a place where everybody comes and works together. That is the best way because then you give people the possibility of doing something for themselves. But also, you involve the local community who have a chance to interact with all these new comers. The goal is that locals and asylum seekers run the building, while those of us from Europe help them in getting money, because we have more access to that. It would not be a community centre if you have some Western volunteers doing things. Like, if I give food to you. That is not building a sense of community. Khora is a place where different communities come together and build the centre for themselves.” Many things could be improved upon in the everyday work of the centre, but it is only one year since it came into being and the movement around it is still growing.
Liska has since left Khora, but continues to support it from a distance. Back home, she is finding different ways to try to influence decision makers and support others who are working in the field. In the meantime, the situation with refugees around Europe has changed completely. “Back then, when I first arrived, it was just people passing through the Balkans on their way toward the north of Europe. Today, we have tens of thousands of people stuck in places that they do not want to be. In a way, now it is a lot sadder for me to see what is happening because people have started losing hope. People keep saying they want to move on with their life, they want their children to go to school, to have jobs… But it is like life has stopped for them and there is no end in sight. It’s like, when you know ‘Ok, it will be two months or five months, or whatever time it will take, and then I can continue living.’ But now, people are stuck and they just have to live in these terrible conditions. And that scares them.”
Like many who have experience in the field, Liska is not able to see the end of this crisis. “I think that what is gonna happen is that we will have a situation like in Lebanon. More camps will be built everywhere, and people will just be shoved off and pushed into these camps, and in years to come, no-one will care anymore. I hope that this is not the case, but with political developments in Europe right now, I do not see any other outcome. Also, if people continue going illegally to other countries, it will be even harder for them.”
Liska, like many others doing this work, has changed over the course of the last two years. She says that she learned a lot. “I mainly learned not to trust authorities any more, at all. And I come from Switzerland, a well-functioning country. Before, I had huge trust in the political system and the state. Now, I have none of this trust left in me. Especially after what I have seen. I also do not trust in the UN and other organisations that are meant to deal with these issues. They have created a catastrophe. Over the last two years or so, I learned that we need to do things ourselves and that we can do a lot in this way. Like, two years ago, who would have thought that a bunch of young people who had no clue of anything, would be able to help to so many people? But we knew that we just have to try. And, it worked.”
Liska talks about how the experience has changed her. “It made me appreciate more what I have. A lot more. I also learned to have lower standards. Because after you see, everyday, how thousands of people are forced to live and that they still have a smile on their face, and they are so friendly and welcoming, you learn a lot. On the other hand, this experience has also made me more pessimistic and questioning after seeing the failure of state structures in dealing with all this.”
Liska hopes that a culture of volunteering will help build a better Europe, as a place for all. Khora, together with other initiatives born out of grassroots mobilization, constitute an important start in thinking about how to build spaces for different communities to come together and to understand each other. “To understand that we can build our lives next to each other, even when we come from such different backgrounds. Many people together, communities together, we can definitely do something, and fuck off to all those who believe it is not possible,” Liska concludes.