Chefs, security guards, librarians, gardeners, interpreters, teachers, tailors, carpenters, bankers, barbers and builders are just some of the people you find at the One Happy Family (OHF) community centre. Everyone of them is also a refugee, but at OHF, this doesn’t define them.
At the centre, which is located on the outskirts of Mytilene, refugees run the show using their skills and knowledge to provide services to 800-1000 visitors every Monday to Friday. Many visitors make the hour’s walk from Moria five days a week to come to OHF, where they can escape the horrific conditions of the camp and have something that resembles a normal day.
I’ve been volunteering at the centre for over a month now and still can’t find the right words to describe it. So first I’ll take you on a small tour…
Welcome to OHF
As you walk into the main hall you’re met with the sight of a large room filled with people playing backgammon, chess and cards at long communal tables. To the left you see a small barber shop where Hamo and Davoud are neatly trimming beards to Adele songs while guys wait at the volunteer office to take out footballs, guitars and games. A small crowd waits for coffees and teas served by Mona while children run between their legs after Steve the cat (who may or may not be pregnant). Almost every inch of the walls are covered in drawings or posters informing visitors of carpentry workshops, English classes, school timetables and women’s football.
Walk outside and you can see a collection of smaller buildings overlooking a poignant view of the Aegean Sea with the faded outline of Turkey in the distance. A team of carpenters are soldering metal into energy efficient cookers while a Taekwondo class shouts in the sports hall next door. To the left, men compete for space to play volleyball, football and basketball simultaneously while ripped guys pump their guns in a small gym.
The gym’s boombox is blaring a German rap song that goes something like “tamam tamam// alcohol is haram haram.” This is already the second time you’ve heard this song on your tour of OHF and it won’t be the last. The tune (unfortunately the current favourite) is competing for your attention with 90s classic “boom boom boom boom” from the kitchen speaker. Chefs Fifi and Mohammad, are cutting vegetables at lightning speed to make sure lunch is ready for 1000 people at 2pm.
The energy of the place is overwhelming and its happiness is infectious – so much so you nearly forget that almost everyone you see is a refugee. A refugee who lives in Moria.
A bit of history
OHF was created in February 2017 by a Swiss organisation called swisscross.help. It started its life as swiss cross but then opened officially as One Happy Family in April the same year. From the very beginning, refugees played a central role in building and running the centre. They were asked what they wanted to create and put in the driving seat to make it happen. This is central to the ethos of OHF – to work with and not for refugees – as a way of giving them a sense of responsibility and dignity.
Over the past two years, the centre has grown massively, now hosting dozens of projects led in whole or part by 60 refugee ‘helpers’. These include, but are not limited to, a barber shop, a tailor, a garden, an adult school, a women’s space, a gym, a cafe, a kitchen, a carpentry workshop, a cyber cafe, a media studio and a shisha lounge. Helpers come from all over the world and from all walks of life. What they share are specific skills which, and this is the beautiful thing about OHF, are used, and not put to waste. There’s a long list of people who want to become helpers – anyone with skills can be one as long as there are positions available – and they receive a small salary for their work.
To make sure that everyone has equal access to goods and services, OHF has its own currency called the Swiss drachma. All visitors receive two drachmas a day at the bank which is run by Hassan from Iraq and Zahra from Afghanistan. Visitors can then spend it in the centre, for example on a cup of tea which costs one drachma or shisha which costs three. They can also save them up to get more expensive things like a haircut or toiletries from the shop. The system had to be introduced due to the increase in the number of people visiting OHF, which has more than doubled since 2017.
And it more or less works, although I’ve heard rumours of counterfeit drachmas circulating OHF!
Is it really one happy family?
I have to admit that before I came I was sceptical about whether One Happy Family would live up to its name. In Calais and Dunkirk I saw deep ethnic divisions between refugees. The camp I had volunteered at in Dunkirk was burnt to the ground one night after longstanding tensions erupted between the Afghan and Kurdish population. And last summer in Moria, hundreds of Kurds were driven out of the camp by Arab refugees over religious differences.
But it seems that, once people arrive at OHF, they leave any issues they might have at the gates.
The lack of fights is largely due to the effectiveness of OHF’s security team. Throughout the day, visitors, helpers and volunteers are kept safe under the watchful eyes of Abdul from Ghana, Pascal from Cameroon, Alem from Afghanistan, Ali from Syria, Didar from Afghanistan and Alina, the team’s only female member. They patrol the grounds wearing high-viz vests and walkie-talkies, manage the food and drachma queues and make sure all visitors leave the premises by 4pm.
I think its due to the inclusive ethos of OHF coupled with the vigilance of the security team that makes it a peaceful place. Here refugees are treated as valuable members of a community who can use their skills to educate and create. It’s a far cry from the oppressive and inhumane conditions in Moria camp where violence is a part of every day life.
What do I do?
There is a team of around 20 ‘international’ volunteers who take a back seat role in the daily running of OHF. Our tasks include working in the cafe or bank, teaching classes, serving food and washing up. But long-term volunteers are given more responsibility. I was asked to take on the role of adult school coordinator with Capucine, a volunteer from France. Together we try to bring some order to a place which is almost impossible to organise due to the nature of life on the island.
In the past month I’ve found myself doing things I never thought I would including writing exam questions, designing English syllabuses, teaching tenses and invigilating and marking exams. It was a very surreal experience to correct the grammar and spelling for the answer to “Where do you live?” which was often, “I am live in Moria.”
It’s at these times when it dawns on me how different my life is from the people I interact with every day. It must sound weird but sometimes I forget that most of the people I work with are living in Europe’s worst refugee camp. I think this is because OHF gives them the opportunity to forget this too and simply be a student, a teacher, a barber and so on – even if it is just between the hours of 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday.
In this way, OHF really is a haven in close proximity to hell. The place is bursting with energy and creativity – it’s an atmosphere I’ve never experienced before, and which, considering the dire situation on Lesvos, I never thought I would.