Thematic Collecting

@ Manchester Museum



Collecting Life: a Refugee’s Life Jacket from Lesvos IV – a Visit to Pikpa Camp

Continuing the series of blog posts telling the story of my visit to the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum…

Entrance to Pikpa with sign made of life jackets
Entrance to Pikpa refugee camp with sign saying ‘Safe Passage’ made of life jackets

After my visit to Kara Tepe, I visited a camp for vulnerable refugees at Pikpa with Dr Yulie Tzirou of the University of the Aegean. The first thing you see on arrival is a line of life jackets tied to the gate bearing  letters that say ‘Safe Passage’ and  this is also stamped on the bags made from recycled materials at Mosaik. Fortunately, on this occasion I was allowed to take photos and I interviewed some of the staff working there and saw the chalets where the refugees live. I asked Yulie for permission to take the photos you see in this blog and no photos or films were taken showing refugees out of respect for their dignity. Pikpa is much smaller than Kara Tepe, and Yulie  referred to it several times  as a community.

Accommodation made from recycled boats at Pikpa
Accommodation made from recycled boats at Pikpa

Refugees could come and go as they wished, there was a kitchen, communal cooking and eating facilities and heated accommodation, some of it made from recycled boats abandoned on the Lesvos coast. The refugees had a garden and they composted waste material from the kitchens. I interviewed Yulie and a volunteer called Imelda who organises classes for the children. Imelda told me how important it was that the children should have order and stability in their lives after everything that they had gone through. There was a happy and welcoming atmosphere in the camp.

Inside a refugee family's chalet
Inside a refugee family’s chalet at Pikpa

I came away from Pikpa full of the greatest admiration for the humanitarian work undertaken by the volunteers. Whilst there is an agreement with Turkey to patrol the borders more closely and a reciprocal scheme to take refugees from camps in Turkey in return for taking refugees from Lesvos, refugees are still arriving on the island, albeit in much smaller numbers than last year. The new arrivals need help and support. Time will tell whether the agreement continues to hold but if it breaks down the island may face the large numbers of refugees making the crossing from Turkey as happened in 2015.


Refugee exhibition in Mytilene (courtesy of Dr Kostas Arvenitis, University of Manchester)
Refugee exhibition in Mytilene (courtesy of Dr Kostas Arvenitis, University of Manchester)

Now that the life jacket is in the Museum  we are making plans to put it on display together with bags made from recycled life jackets. The Museum hopes to be able to host a temporary exhibition about the refugee crisis in Lesvos during Refugee Week 2017 (19th to 25th June). Students from the  University of Manchester’s Art Gallery and Museum Studies (AGMS) course will work on the exhibition, which is inspired by an exhibition about the refugee crisis shown in Mytilene and Athens. At the time of writing it is also hoped to work on this project with students from the University of the Aegean.

Looking across to Turkey from Lesvos
Looking across to Turkey from Lesvos

In this modest way we hope to engage our visitors about the collecting life project theme of migration. Through it we will tell visitors about the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis and hopefully generate interest and support for the work of the volunteers and organisations trying to help refugees. Director of the Manchester Museum, Nick Merriman, wrote in January’s  Museum’s Journal that the Brexit vote had revealed ‘a vein of intolerance and xenophobia that we hoped had been consigned to the past’. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote it is now important more than ever that we do not lose sight of the  values of compassion, tolerance and mutual respect that are enshrined within our museums and art galleries. If the collecting life project  also gives a boost to acquiring contemporary and topical objects for museum collections, then so much the better.

This collecting life visit would not have been possible without the help and support of a number of individuals and institutions: the Mayor of Municipality of Mytilene, Mr Gallinos, and his Senior Advisor, Mr Andriotis; Dr Evi Sampanikou, Dr Yulie Tzirou, Dr Katarina Nikolarea and Prof Dmitri Papageorgiou at the University of the Aegean; Martina at Mosaik; and last but not least Dr Areti Damala at the University of Strathclyde who very kindly facilitated the initial contact with staff at the University of the Aegean. To all of the above and all the other Greek people and refugees I met on my visit to Lesvos, I’d like to express my sincerest thanks and those of the Manchester Museum.

Read about the installation of the refugee’s life jacket in the following blog post:




Collecting Life: a Refugee’s Life Jacket from Lesvos III – Mixed Fortunes near Mytilene

Continuing the blog posts telling the story of my visit to the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum…

The writer at Mosaik with bags made from recycled life jackets
The writer at Mosaik with bags made from recycled life jackets

After visiting the workshop at Mosaik in Mytilene where life jackets are recycled and made into bags, I went to the refugee camp at Kara Tepe. This turned out to be a frustrating experience because although I had an official permit, I was not allowed to visit the camp.  I learnt later that there had been some sort of disturbance and that I’d arrived at a difficult time.

Katerina Elarinea with Finding Families

Katerina Nikolarea and the  Restoring Family Links initiative

I withdrew and sought the help of my new friends at the University of the Aegean, especially Katarina Nikolarea, who volunteers for the Mytilene branch of the Hellenic Red Cross. She very kindly arranged for me to visit Kara Tepe the following day. I also  interviewed Katarina and she told me how the ordinary people of Lesvos had responded generously and spontaneously in the early days of the crisis by giving the refugees clothes and shoes, and food and water. Prices were discounted in shops to help refugees. This story often doesn’t get told. The help given by ordinary Greek people on the island is even more laudable given the economic problems that Greece  has experienced in recent years.

Katarina told me about how her local branch of Hellenic Red Cross was helping  refugees to keep in touch with one another. The Restoring Family Links initiative helps refugees to find and contact family members and loved ones. I learnt that families and friends are often split up by the people traffickers in order to cram as many people into the boats as possible. Refugees sometimes have no idea whether their nearest and dearest have even survived the crossing so this is a really important thing to do.

Patrol vessel in Mytilene harbour
Patrol vessel in Mytilene harbour

At the height of the crisis last year (2015) up to 6,000 refugees were arriving on the beaches of Lesvos every day,  and this on an island with a Greek population of only 87,000. Refugees were sleeping rough on the streets and the island’s authorities were largely left to cope on their own to begin with. Since the signing of an agreement with Turkey earlier in 2016 the numbers of refugees have fallen dramatically but there are still camps with people either waiting for their papers to travel to countries in mainland Europe or to be returned to Turkey. They have the right of appeal and relatively few have returned to Turkey. Vessels from Frontex patrol the straits between Lesvos and Turkey.

The following day I succeeded in visiting the camp at Kara Tepe but sadly I was not allowed to take photographs nor film any interviews. I took some toys to give to the children in the camp. A guide showed me round. It was well-managed, tidy and comfortable, with a range of facilities for the guests as she called them and everyone seemed content in the circumstances. In the middle of the camp there is a monument built by the refugees using recycled material from boats they’d used to cross to Lesvos. My guide was not at liberty to answer questions that were considered sensitive, such as how many guests there  were at Kara Tepe. I certainly wanted to respect the dignity of the refugees but I feel that we lost an opportunity to do some good in raising the profile of the refugees as part of the collecting life project at Manchester Museum.  I was very grateful for the opportunity to see Kara Tepe and I naturally respect the wishes of the authorities in protecting the dignity of the people staying there but it means I was unable to make any visual record of my visit.

All was not lost, however, because later in the afternoon I visited a camp run by volunteers for vulnerable refugees at Pikpa. Again my visit there came about because of the good will of staff the University of the Aegean, to whom I am very grateful.

This, the third instalment of the series of blog posts about my visit to Lesvos in December 2016, will be continued tomorrow with an account of a visit to the refugee camp at Pikpa.

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