The Oxfam camp

All camps are not as terrible as Softex, Thank God. I also visited a WHO camp that was fantastic in comparison- it was driven by the English Organisation Oxfam. It was in a small village in the mountains, a four-hour drive from Thessaloniki where my beautiful Syrian friend Faten lived. Here, 120 refugees are living in an old children’s home and there are warm showers, real beds, canteens where people can eat together, independent volunteers and a basketball court. At this camp international media were more than welcome. The meeting with Faten was amazing. We cried tears of joy when we hugged each other again after seven months of chatting daily. We have had time to deal with many issues during these months, I can promise you that. It was just as many tears when we said goodbye to each other after a whole day together. The next time we meet, I sincerely hope it will be in Germany. Her dad is waiting there for her for over a year and is longing to be reunited with all his children who have been stuck in limbo in Greece.

Faten with the study books Chloe and I sent to her for her brothers and sisters so that they can study. The Oxfam camp is world’s apart from camps such as Softex.


Hellhole conditions – ”…worse than Idomeni”

I am now back from Greece after a very intense trip with so many impressions and insights to share with you. I don’t know how I’m going to begin to describe it all. It was only a short trip with a lot of very positive news, but unfortunately there is also some desperately sad news to report.

I’m starting with the bad news, so that I can finish off with something more positive.I visited three of the many refugee camps which are controlled by the military around Thessaloniki. More than 16,000 – 20,00 people were displaced when the Idomeni camp by the border of Macedonia was closed down in May.

It was a shock to see how terribly miserable these new camps were. In one of them, the Softex camp, volunteers are forbidden to enter without a special permit, which, incidentally, is almost impossible to get. The Softex camp had had so much negative reporting in the media that they are they trying to keep outsiders out and have a strict ban on photography. Instead of trying to solve the problems inside the camp that is causing negative reporting, the strategy is to simply stop reporting from being possible. We managed to get into the camp through the back door and talk to one of the families who live there. I think it’s important to show some pictures that we managed to take, but the pictures, in the bright sunlight of Greece hardly show how hellish the conditions are there.

The families said the experience in these new camps is worse than Idomeni. After volunteering at Idomeni, I could hardly think how conditions could possibly be worse. The Softex Camp has more than 800 people and is clearly the worst we heard about. We sat and talked for a long time to one of the Syrian families inside one of the tents. Only a year ago they fled their homes, and started the dangerous journey via Turkey seeking safety in Europe. Unfortunately, they arrived at the Greece four days too late, after all the borders were closed and now they are stuck here indefinitely, like so many others.

Having spent four months in Idomeni, they were transported to this hellhole where they have lived the past five months – in a crowded tent with four children. Their youngest daughter Clara was born dramatically in the camp for three months ago and have had to start her life in these extremely squalid conditions.

The family owns only the clothes they have on their body and they gave nothing at all to change into. They wash their underwear and sit in the tent while the laundry dries outside in the cold. They are only just over 16 cold water showers in the camp, which means 50 people per shower. The tents do not have any mosquito nets which is a big problem, especially now that it’s getting more humid and the autumn weather means mosquitoes are thriving in puddles. They are also plagued with rats and snakes because of all the garbage. The day before the mother had found a snake in the tent while her small children were asleep. Many of the tents lack any type of floor, which of course means that it will be hopelessly muddy when it rains.


The food is scarce and consists of tin cans with the Greek military logo on the front. The family showed us one of these tins containing grey, flaccid vegetables and something that looked like processed meat. Only very rarely they could get fresh vegetables and fruit. No NGOs or other organisations are based there, some were allowed to visit some days during the week we were there.

Because of the conditions there is a heavy atmosphere of widespread desperation, and tension building up more and more and turning into riots in many of the camps. The Father, Hesso, told me that for a while it felt so unstable and threatening that he chose to sleep with his young family out on the street for two nights rather than to be there in the camp. Women are feeling increasingly vulnerable as well when it gets dark, as tension runs high. They and the children need to stay inside the tents at night and be protected. Ir is reported that pregnant women are giving birth early due to the extreme stress of living in these conditions. This is a military controlled camp in one of the EU member states. It is completely unacceptable and inhumane.

The Father Hesso asked me, ”I don’t know how long we will stand living like this. We are not animals, we are people too. Our children feel really bad.”

I just didn’t know what to say. I felt deeply ashamed that this is allowed to take place in one of our EU countries.




Kids art class at Kalachori camp

I visited Jonny who is helping at one of the new camps – a daily art class for kids at the Kalachori camp.

Their drawings show their experiences. A young mother I spoke to drew her journey over the mountains in Syria, and how they came to the border of Turkey. You can see the barbed wire, and the security guard in the tower with his gun pointed at them. She was happy to show them to me and explain the journey that was behind her.

Another drawing showed the boat ride over to Greece from Turkey. Some people fell in the water. Two of them didn’t make it. You can see that the kids are sitting in the middle of the boat while the adults are sitting around on the edges, trying to protect them. On the beach there arfe volunteers waiting for the boat.

Another child drew the camp in Idomeni where he lived with his family lived for the first four months in Greece. Despite all their tough experiences the kids were really happy top paint and draw together and talk about everything that had happened.

Notes from an airport


”We are not terrorists” Graffiti left at the old camp at Idomeni that has now been cleared of almost any traces of the 20,000 refugees that were there.


Now I’m sitting at Munich airport on the way to Northern Greece for a short four-day volunteering trip. Among other things, I am going to see the family Abdi and give an kiss from all of you who have helped to little baby Joanna, which I am looking forward to immensely.

I am also going to drive out west to see my dear 17-year-old pen pal, Faten, who is stuck in one of the the refugee camps. It’s going to be great and probably very emotional to see her again. We’ve been chatting with each other almost every day now for the last six months. It feels like we know each other well, despite the fact that we have only met face to face once in the port of Athens, when I arrived from Lesbos with the night ferry.
My friend Jonny is already in Greece to volunteer for a a longer period of time, and we will follow up on some other projects that our little group ‘Share the magic’ is working with right now. Jonny went back to Idomeni last night. It feels scary to see how empty the place is and that almost all traces of the camp are gone.  There were more than 20 000 desperate people camping there on the muddy fields and between the train tracks. They have all been moved onto other camps now.
As usual, I will write about my experiences here in the group of you who are interested to come with me 🙂

Now I’m going to boarding my plane


New talent from Syria at Garbergs ad agency, Stockholm

Now I have to tell a good story.

Six months ago, 24-Year-old Najeb Albakar started to work as an intern with me as an image retouch artist. I sent out a request here on Facebook if anyone could imagine having him stay as a house guest during his internship when he was living in Hanover in Skåne. Very quickly I got reply from three wonderful people; Ka Widebeck and her husband Pelle, and Tulle Durling. They said that he was welcome to stay with them at home in their respective houses.
Already after only a week working with me, he got the chance to go to a meeting at the advertising agency Garbergs to see their Creative Director Petter Ödeen, thanks to Karin Roberts. The idea was that he might be able to continue his internship with them, after that he had been with me at my firm Mirage. Petter quickly realized what talent had walked through the door that day and nabbed him directly from me!

After the first paid month as an intern, Najeb got an extended five-month probationary period, and last week he signed a contract for a year as studio assistant at Garbergs- one of Sweden’s largest and most prestigious advertising agencies. I must say that it is quite a remarkable achievement! Najeb escaped the Syrian war only two years ago, and came to Sweden and a completely new country and culture. He has only been studying Swedish at SFI (Svenska för Invandare/ Swedish for Immigrants) for eight months, but he is already almost fluent in Swedish. Above all, he’s flying into one of the toughest competitive industries, and lands a very attractive job based on his own ability.

Najeb – I am very proud of you and your amazing accomplishment! Mabrouk Habibi and good luck – you will sail through this with flying colours! Congratulations also to Garbergs for building this fantastic team. Hold onto him tight now, it may happen that some competitors may open their eyes to him. A big giant thanks also to Ka & Pelle and Tulle for opening up your home. I get really warm in my heart when I think that there are people in this world as generous and kind as you.
This is surely what integration means – that it is up to us citizens to help newcomers to our country start the lives they choose – in the best possible way.


New ‘temporary’ law in Sweden

It is a very sad day for Sweden.

Today Sweden passed a ‘temporary’ law restricting who can get stay in Sweden. The law is retroactive and reduces the possibility of obtaining a residence permit in Sweden for asylum seekers. It shall apply from 20 July 2016 and the next three years. One of the changes is that all those who are granted any form of asylum will only be given temporary residence permit. It downgrades people into a new sub-status. A person is deemed to be a refugee used to receive a residence permit for three years.

The deemed “subsidiary protection” (fleeing wars and conflict) now receive a residence permit for 13 months.13 months. In that time they need to get a permanent job or prove they can support themselves (money in the bank). In addition, people in Sweden will not be reunited with relatives, even children. So if a father has gone ahead in a rubber boat to find safety for his family in EU, he cannot bring his child here in a safe manner any longer. The new law creates a subsidiary protection status – and this in itself could be against international law. The law can be said to be retroactive and affects those in Sweden who have not yet received an asylum decision.

This law has real effects on children from today. It is retroactive. There are very good reasons that all the aid organisations, Amnesty, Doctors without borders, Red Cross, Save the Children, and the Swedish Church are against this law, that goes directly against human rights conventions and all child protection conventions.

I can’t understand that it is actually the Sweden of all countries who have been through these disgusting laws that severely goes against the humanism which we have been long fought for and been proud of.

Now it’s gone in the grave and we are no better than all the other countries who hide behind Fortress Europe’s high walls. We’re abandoning people in distress, breaking up families and hoping that the problem will just go away, or in some cases, trying to pay ourselves out of the problem. As long as it’s not in our back yard! It’s crazy and I’m feeling so incredibly sad and powerless right now.

I haven’t really had a chance to understand what this really mean for tens of thousands of families who have been torn apart because of war and conflict and persecution, and who will not be able to be reunited for a very, very, very long time- so long as this “temporary law” exists.

I have a knot in my stomach when I see my friends in front of me, those who are on the run and who are stuck in Greece, and knowing that yet another glimmer of hope has been put out for them. For the people like the 17-year-old Faten and her younger siblings, who so desperately are longing for their Dad. He was compelled to leave his family during the war in order to get to Europe and seek asylum- in the hope of finding a safe place for them. It was their only hope to give the kids a secure future. He slipped through the wall before it closed. Now the family is stuck in two different countries, desperate, and I wonder when they’ll get to see each other again. He hasn’t even got to see his youngest daughter, the day she was born, after he had fled Aleppo. Sweden has just done this to families like this, who may never get to meet again – or not for many, many years.

What if it had been our own family, our children who were torn away from their parents when they needed them the most, when everything else in your life has been torn apart by war, bombs, trauma, and death? How would we make it?

I’m ashamed of Sweden right now. Our government will do anything to keep the right-wing extremists out of power. How sad. Even where there is not outright prejudice, there is so much ignorance about refugees and asylum seekers.- and so much ignorance about the rest of the world. Even that carelessness dehumanises people who are in pain and who are seeking safety.

The myth that immigration is expensive is just that – a myth. Without immigration Sweden would be a much poorer country. Of course immigration has to be carefully planned and considered- but this law- it is neither of those things:

  1. Families will be split. Some groups will not be reunited with their families at all. At least not as long as this law applies.
  2. More fleeing across the Mediterranean. A great risk is that the families who are still in the war in Syria and neighbouring countries will now embark on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean instead of trying to get reunited through a relative. More families and more children, in more boats.
  3. Integration hampered. Temporary residence permits create an enormous insecurity, and security is fundamental to achieving a successful integration. It is pure torture for people fleeing the horrors of war to be told they might be sent back to face war and persecution. This only increases the need for specialised care and decreases the chances of them finding work in such a short time span. Its simply inhumane.
  4. Waste of talent. Employment is now important than the degree of protection. It is extremely problematic that employment will be more significant for a permanent residence than the degree of protection. Its also a complete waste of talent – we’d rather have a doctor washing dishes to keep their permit within the short time frame rather focussing on taking a fast track to begin working as a doctor in Sweden.

– Joanna