Images: Claire Eggers
“Why are you trying to make this place nice?” residents would ask British artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos when she began working with them to create a colourful, social space at Eleonas refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens. “There was a paradox in asking people to take ownership over a space they didn’t want to be, a place they were stuck.”
Eleonas was the first camp on mainland Greece, and when it opened hurriedly in August 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, conditions were poor and infrastructure was basic: with no places to shelter from the burning summer sun, residents often fainted waiting in lines for food distribution.
Navine and collaborator Matthieu linked up with Project Elea, who arrived soon after the camp opened to provide education, culture and community-building. They share the same philosophy of self-determination: empowering refugees to actively participate in all areas of life - both inside and outside the camp.
They run experimental art/architecture studio and urban and social laboratory Kassandras and launched the Backgammon Project in January 2017. It’s a series of participatory workshops through which residents explore their needs and eventually built and painted the camp’s first sheltered, community space. But this was just the beginning: the ongoing project continues to provide camp residents with the tools and support to construct their own future.
“Kassandras’ architectural practice is the same if we’re working in a refugee camp or anywhere else, it’s just a basic reflex that users must be part of the process,” Matthieu explains. “When we design, we are always faced with the same questions: what to build, how to build and what for? We began a very organic process that allowed the people who will use the space to take those decisions. The structures weren’t just delivered, they appeared here slowly through a very public building process within the camp. The collective participation explains why the space has been used and maintained so well.”
Completed in May, the first phase created a collection of tables, benches and a workshop space, a human-sized Backgammon board-come-performance stage, solar-powered lighting, giant painted plant pots and an enormous mural representing the journey of loved-ones across borders, through the visual metaphor of Backgammon.
Throughout the course of 24 hours, residents constantly come and go: the bike workshop gets under way, people arrive to eat and socialise and young people take part in Elea’s classes and after-school homework clubs. Once night falls, elders arrive to smoke Shisha and talk politics. It also hosts shows, performances and parties for the Islamic festival of Eid and other religious ceremonies.
Inspired by this example, a group of Afghan families came together independently to create the serene ’Green Street’: concreting the path between the rows of containers, making matching plant pots and shoe racks to hang outside each house and creating a garden and sheltered seating area at the far end of the row.
Camp residents didn’t want the project to end so Navine and Matthieu are helping to keep it evolving. Through opening doors to the Kassandras workshop, they are continuing to share skills and equipment to enable refugees to create the structures they need themselves. Matthieu hopes to overcome the bureaucracy to create a fully-equipped workshop within the camp itself and form the most accomplished builders into a working crew to take on paid commissions.
Biba, from Guinea in West Africa, takes an active role in the project and is eager to see it develop. “When I arrived in early 2016, the situation here was very tough,” he explains. “Working together was a great experience and has created a proper public space: you come to have your coffee, chat to people and the kids have space to do work. There’s no space or quiet in the containers, we need some more private spaces. So it’s really important to know that we can go to the Kassandras workshop whenever we need to build something.”