It was a pleasure to return to Thermopyles after my initial scout, this time for four days of shooting.
In 2016, when there was a mad rush to the northern border as it was closing, Giorgos Palamiotis, a journalist, managed to set up the Thermopyles camp in 48 hours, with the approval of the prefecture of Central Greece.
Aris, co-adminstrator with Giorgo of the camp gave us an interview. Aris thought he had seen in a lot in his life, but he admitted he learned a lot more being at Thermopyles: primarily that the refugees are people just like us who since leaving their homes are carrying their own painful stories. He also told us how the local community embraced the refugees the first six months, before the international aid came in.
Aris is grateful to be able to help in what he considers a historical moment and takes pleasure in the thought that some day one of the children might return to visit and think of him and the others working there. He especially remembers Patata, who always asked for potato chips, who became the camp mascot and has sent him a photo and voice message from Finland, s’agapo poli, I love you. He will also never forget when one family, mourning a death back home, invited him to take part in their memorial.
Natasha, a civil engineer who was out of work because of the Greek financial crisis, was asked to supervise the restoration of the two abandoned buildings and decided to stay there after she finished her job. Among her many tasks is to ensure the children make it on to the buses that take them to school. On their first day of school she followed them into class to help them overcome their fears.
It is the humanity that these people show in their daily work that impressed me the most, that even when they yell, as Greeks do often, they do it with love.The refugees we talked with had only good words to say about them.
Kosta Bakoyanni, the head of the region of central Greece in our interview with him explained that Greeks are familiar with immigration as nearly every family has members abroad or their grandparents were refugees themselves.
In the sulfur hot springs that are near by, children were having fun jumping and playing in the water. The locals believe that it’s only safe to stay in for 15 minutes, either because of the chemicals, or the heat. When the kids stay in longer, out of concern, the adults yell at them to get out, but the children don’t leave, as they don’t understand the language and the source of the concern.
Happy Caravan, an NGO from Holland founded by a Syrian who left early in the war and now is a Dutch citizen, has turned the old restaurant into school giving English lessons to 25 scarfed woman who pride themselves for being able to use English in the local market. They also teach men and children.
The most striking moment was meeting Hiyam, who greeted us with a beautifully decorated cake that she had amazingly made in her room. She had been a baker, pastry chef and hairdresser in Iraq when a missile hit her home and killed her husband, brother and parents. Though she was willing to share her story with us, it was very hard emotionally on her and her 17 year-old son Laeth to revisit the past. Hearing her story and seeing their pictures of charred bodies brought home to me the magnitude of pain these people carry.
As moving as our first day’s shoot was at Tavros, it was just a foreshadowing of the amazing time we spent in Thermopyles, our first camp visit. Thermopyles is outside the city of Lamia, several hours north of Athens. It was well known as a hot spring resort, but had fallen into disrepair several years back and had been shut down. When the crisis hit, the borders were closed and it was clear that many refugees would be staying in Greece for longer periods. Journalist Yiorgos Palamiotis proposed that it be turned into a camp and within 48 hours, Yiorgos Bakoyiannis, head of the local prefecture had approved it and refugees were headed there. Here is a clip from our interview with Mr. Bakoyannis where he describes the local response to the influx of refugees.
I have visited refugee camps in many countries and this is the first one I would ever have wanted to stay in. The natural setting is stunning, under an almost mystical mountain. It’s very easy to imagine the Spartans there in their immortal battle against the forces of Xerxes. The camp itself is filled with pine trees and it’s green and cool, a healing environment. Beyond that there are no fences anywhere! Here, Aris Sohos, co-administrator of the camp, tells how it is different from other camps.
Our time at Thermopyles brought home for me yet again a basic rule of documentary filmmaking and journalism in general: Don’t rush and don’t push too hard. Take your time to get to know people and to let them find their comfort with you. No matter how ambitious your schedule or how pressed for time you might be, just to rush in with your cameras and start shooting will only alienate people. Fortunately, Zaphiri had been to the camp on a scouting trip and spent time to get to know most of the staff, so there was already trust there. As the days went on, more and more refugees came up to us to tell their stories.
Here are short clips from two of our people, Saddam and Omar, both from Syria.
The last morning we were in Thermopyles, I managed to spend an hour alone, as the camp was sleeping. With so much time on their hands and no work outside their contributions to keeping the camp clean and to cooking and cleaning their own rooms, the refugees tend to stay up late and sleep late. At the entrance to the camp is an abandoned and derelict gas station and snack bar.
Built in the early sixties, it took me back to my first trip to Greece with my family, when I was 9 years old. How alien and wonderful Greece and Europe was to me then, how many times I’ve visited it since and the people I’ve known. Standing under that timeless mountain, breathing the gentle pines, thinking of the ancient Greeks, and how time moves on, reflecting on the loss the refugees have suffered in our time, I was very much in the present moment while feeling history rolling out before me. I felt my small but true place in this human unfolding.
For me this journey began back in February of 2017, when I was down in LA with my wife, visiting my in-laws. Bill and I have known each other for a very long time, since long before either of us had our now-fully-grown children. When I pass through LA, it’s a normal part of the routine to see if Bill is around, and maybe take a bike ride or grab a coffee together. We’re both a whole lot older than we were all those years ago, and there’s always plenty to reflect on.
During our February visit, our talk turned to the refugee situation in Greece, which I’d been following pretty closely for some time. Both of us have a long-standing interest in Greek affairs. Bill’s is proprietary; his last name betrays his Greek parentage. Mine is less direct but strong, nevertheless. I lived in Greece for quite a while many years ago and embarked upon a lifelong exploration of Greek culture, music, poetry – you name it. I’d also reported from Greece during the tumultuous period when the first socialist government, PASOK, took the reins of power.
I mentioned to Bill that I had been mulling over the idea of volunteering with one of the NGOs working with refugees in Greece. It was at this point that Bill mentioned his idea for this film. He sketched out the details and I immediately saw in it another way to engage with the same people I’d been thinking about. Bill mentioned somebody named Zaphiri and said a third collaborator might seal the deal. There was some discussion of my utterly insufficient Arabic and my better-than-average knowledge of Greece and the Middle East and then I stared out at the Pacific for a moment and said absolutely, yes, I’m in.
That began two months of prep work that, compared to my normal life in Portland, already represented a frenzy of activity. Zaphiri started providing updates, articles and other documentation – often in Greek – one or two times a day. I engaged nearly all my Arabic-speaking friends in a communal attempt to dredge my Arabic out of the ditch of oblivion into which it had fallen over more than 30 years. It really did seem like things had reached a fever-pitch, but, in fact, I had no idea. For all intents and purposes, I was still in the slow lane.
The fast lane came when I landed in Greece. Almost instantly we entered a maelstrom of activity, running out the door on 3 minutes notice for an unexpected shooting opportunity, bouncing around Greece between locations, going to sleep just before dawn and getting up just after – it’s been about as different from my life in Portland as one could conceive of. A week in, it’s already been a great learning experience, and one of the things it’s taught me is just how quiet my life back home had become. There’s a lot going on in the big world we live in, and a lot that can be done about it, if we’re willing to push ourselves. That’s one of the many things I’ve always admired about Bill – he lives that life. Now, after this first exhausting week, I’m thinking that working with Bill and Zaphiri, and getting to know the refugees – most of whom have endured unbelievable hardship just to try to find some peace, some quiet and some safety – will be a way for me to pay back the debt of the many years of peace and safety I’ve been blessed with while I brought up my children in our happy home in quiet Portland when so much of the world outside isn’t like that.
Tavros is a working-class neighborhood of Athens that is home to many immigrants from different countries for the past twenty years. It was a natural choice for a school immersion program for refugee children living in the nearby Eleona camp. The program runs every afternoon after the Greek students finish their school day. Refugee children are bussed in from the camp to spend a year learning the Greek language to prepare them for mainstream schooling next year. For many of these children, it is their first school experience and love and hugs are the largest component of the program for these often traumatized children.
The principal is the wonderful Dimitris Fileles, who has been at Tavro for thirty years, most of them as a teacher. We interviewed him as well as a parent volunteer, Geli Vlahopoulou, who had been one of his students years ago. She told us of the efforts the local community has undertaken to make the children feel welcome. We spent time in several classrooms, as well as filming interviews with two teachers, the warm and remarkable Vanessa Livani and Adriana Gkota. We also watched Teti Nikopoulou, a dancer, lead the students in gymnastics.
A week before our shoot, Mr. Fileles sent permission forms home with the students and we filmed those students whose parents returned signed forms. Because we did’t want to take them from their classes, we did not interview any of the students. We are looking forward to our next shoot, when we will talk with refugees, as well as the Greeks who are working with them
We were moved by the special comfort given to all the children by the entire staff of the school.
We prepped today for our first day of shooting tomorrow, which will be in Athens. We met with Katerina Poutou, a woman who founded the NGO Arsis that does excellent work with refugees and has a passionate and very capable young staff. We hope to film some of their projects http://www.arsis.gr. Once you arrive on the page, click for an English version of their site. (more…)