REFUGEE SUPPORT EUROPE:
Wall Paint on Poster Paper, 100 cm x 289 cm (3.28 ft x 9.48 ft), May 25-June 7, 2017
Collaborative art project completed by residents and volunteers at LM Village. Based on Arabic design and community preference. Head designer: Abigail Briggs. Head assistant: Heather Ford.
FILIPPIADO to KYLLINI
In 2017, Abigail volunteered with an innovative NGO in two refugee camps in Greece. The first camp reused an abandoned military base near Filippiada, an isolated town with few resources and miles of small mountains and sheep in every direction. Enclosed by barbed wire and removed from civilization, the camp is home mainly to Afghan and Syrian refugees, but also Turkish and Kurdish refugees.
The second camp took place at an abandoned beach resort near Kyllini, Greece, still miles away from civilization and dependent on imported potable water. This camp was home mainly to vulnerable Syrian families and women, but is better known from This American Life as "LM Village."
Abigail volunteered with an innovative organization called Refugee Support Europe, an NGO that strives to bring normalcy and dignity to chaos through organizing distribution of clothes and food via point system "shops." These shops are both respectful of cultural customs, as well as contributors to local Greek economy through partnerships with local Greek farmers, providing refugee families with fresh veggies. While volunteering, Abigail pioneered two different dignifying collaborative projects, one in Filippiada, the other at LM Village.
LM VILLAGE PROJECT
The first camp reused an abandoned military base near Filippiada, an isolated town with few resources and miles of small mountains and sheep in every direction. Enclosed by barbed wire and removed from civilization, the camp is home mainly to Afghan and Syrian refugees, but also Turkish and Kurdish refugees.
There will never be words that can describe the strange reality of no clear good authority. Refugee camps are complex environments full of competing NGOs (non-governmental organizations) with conflicting values, and inconsistent or sporadic authorities such as the UNHCR, local government, or military authorities put in charge. When I first arrived, the medics and military had just left, and the only consistent presence was several old Greek women sitting at a booth near the entrance. I could not believe it, these elderly women who did not seem to care at all what went on inside the camp, the “authority.” It was the strangest reality, and I began to understand I was in a breeding ground for corruption, miscommunication, and abuse.
I could go into detail about the corruption, I could share about sexual exploitation, neglect, burning, or stealing, but there was also such beauty and light in that camp. One day our organization gave out chickens to each family, another day we had a huge water fight with water guns and hoses, another day we painted walls with Arabic designs, and another day we participated in yoga in the women’s partitioned space. That’s the part I want to focus on, and the part of greatest impact. For where there is the greatest darkness, any light will demand attention and redeem with the greatest power.
The organization I volunteered with is an innovative and incredible NGO named Refugee Support Europe, whose work focuses on bringing normalcy to refugee camps by distributing food and clothes through a zero-point shop system. Using international short term volunteers, it partnered with local Greek farmers to bring fresh produce and was as flexible as it could be, but with a clear code of conduct that was difficult to navigate. It also cleaned and organized clothes into gender and age based shops, a clear change for the camp: before, people simply fought over massive piles of trash bags full of donations.
At the first camp, I found myself in charge of a community art project that would spiral into something beautiful, gaining attention from my NGO’s CEO, and creating a new way of impact that seemed to stretch beyond the pangs of short term volunteers simply maintaining the machine.
For amidst the degrading environment of an abandoned military camp, enclosed by barbed wire and instilled with great power distance, as the only building onsite, our distribution center, required refugees to walk up a ramp and through barred doors, I was able to witness families come together and paint patterns around the shop doors, freshen the walls with white, and smile with the great act of color and ownership. I saw this project impact a teenage boy who had been walking around the camp with earphones every day for months, a young girl who had just arrived that day, and several families who could now hold a small amount of trust and ownership with this sterile building in its foreign and authoritative ways. In addition, I saw the many mothers who had voted on different patterns look proudly at the results, a part of the process. An artist myself, there was something profoundly humbling in allowing these families paint my stenciled work that was strewn from haphazard cardboard and broken measuring tools. It briefly quieted the incessant voice of Western authority and brought together Syrians, Afghans, and Kurds in the name of cultured ownership of space. Soon, my organization asked me to transfer to another camp and implement similar methods. The email read, “When you figure out how to get there, email me directions for future volunteers,” and so I went. Thus unfolded the project that would deeply change my perspective of arts as related to communities.