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Mimi, creating spaces of potential for refugees in Greece

Meet Mimi Hapig, co-founder of Soup & Socks and Habibi Works

Written by: Esther ten Zijthoff
Edited by: Olivia Ayes

Education. Empower. Encounter.

These three themes are the foundation for Habibi.Works, a FabLab (or Fabrication Laboratory) of freedom, where people are provided all the tools at their disposal to use their existing skills and develop new ones. It is a meeting place, a maker-space, and a thriving hub of potential. Located in the northern region of Greece, it aims to bring together the local refugee, local Greek and aid worker communities in order to transform untapped potential into action and creation.

Mimi Hapig is the co-founder of Soup and Socks and Habibi Works.

Soup and Socks

Habibi.Works, founded in 2016, is a project of Soup and Socks, a non-profit which began when a group of friends drove from Germany to Greece in the winter of 2015-16 with a van full of donations and kitchen equipment with the goal of providing hot meals to transient refugees on the streets of Athens. At the time – and still, today – the Greek capital was a pit stop for the hopeful, looking to move north and across the border along the so-called ‘Balkan route’.

“We were frustrated by the lack of solidarity and the lack of dignified practical solutions provided by European governments,” Mimi recounts. “So we decided to act ourselves.”

Mimi, with a background in international social work, had previously volunteered along the  so-called ‘Balkan route’, where she was shocked to see the violent responses to refugees arriving in Europe as part of a “push back” strategy enacted by local authorities (read coverage on the ongoing situation along the Balkan route by Medicins Sans Frontieres and Are You Syrious). The closure of the northern Greek border in early 2016 to prevent movement along the Balkan route eventually resulted in a humanitarian crisis along the Greece-FYROM border, leading to an informal camp which at its peak held an estimated 18,000 refugees.

The current Soup and Socks team (Mimi on the far left).

Upon arriving in Greece, she and her group of friends became painfully aware that short-term handouts were merely a temporary band-aid on a systemic wound. They realised that sustainable solutions were needed for a persistent and pervasive issue.

On the team’s second trip to Greece in March 2016, they moved further north to Katsikas, a village in the northern Greek region of Epirus with a population of under 5000, which in December 2016 became host to a Greek military-run refugee camp.

Katsikas refugee camp outside of Ioannina, Greece.

Katsikas refugee camp hosted 1200 people when it first opened. It was a grid of tents set up on a fenced off and isolated plot of land covered in rubble – an unforgiving terrain for shoes, feet, and children. Soup & Socks set up a community kitchen within the camp, with a vision of creating a community hub where volunteers, aid workers and the refugee population could make meals alongside each other – emphasising a shift from ‘cooking for’ to ‘cooking with’.

Even in the midst of tragic circumstances where people had been forced together into isolated camps in bare living conditions, food brought people together. In the warmth and vibrancy of a busy kitchen, individuals not only felt they were part of a productive process but were also recognised for their contribution: the chefs for each meal would always be thanked with a round of applause.

Six weeks after the community kitchen was established, the military authorities in charge of the camp closed it down. The reason given was that baseline hygienic standards were not being met – a bold claim in a camp where only 16 chemical toilets had been provided for a population of 1200.

Makers’ Space

When Mimi returned to Greece for a third time in August 2016, she did so on a one-way ticket. The group of friends quickly morphed into a non-profit organisation operating a multi-pronged project. With added support from civil society in Germany, the funding that trickled in enabled the team to grow and allowed for the creation of Habibi.Works within a converted warehouse next to Katsikas camp.

“People are the experts of their own lives. We don’t see people who fled their countries as helpless victims, but as talented and experienced men, women and children who can be an enrichment for our societies – if we provide the structures that allow them to integrate. This is what Habibi.Works aims to do.” – Habibi.Works

Habibi.Works is a makers’ space – a space of open workshops, including 11 different working areas, with the aim of creating a platform for education and empowerment for people living in refugee camps, experts from around the world, and members of the Greek community.

Inside the space, the label of ‘refugee’ becomes stripped away and replaced with ‘carpenter’, ‘chef’, ‘barber’, ‘engineer’, ‘tailor’. In circumstances that have reduced once self-sufficient people to passive ‘receivers’, it is a place to become active ‘creators’. The users of the space are referred to as ‘Makers’. Mimi puts it best:

“There is something beautiful about making something, rather than standing in line and receiving something – a feeling of achievement. You get to be the active decision marker. We don’t offer ready made solutions; we offer a space where people can pursue their own interests.”

The Habibi.Works space is impressive. As you drive up to the converted two-story warehouse, your eyes are captured by the murals that decorate its walls; murals that evoke beauty, heartbreak, and hope.

The colourful murals on the Habibi Works warehouse.

Outside, you find a community garden where vegetables are grown and chickens roam. The most recent addition has been a beehive which will be cultivated by the makers.

Inside, the space is divided into multiple working areas. A wood workshop has tools available for makers to create whatever they need – often, this is furniture to furnish the bare-boned temporary homes provided within the camp. A metal workshop, complete with a welding station, is host both to functional renovations and artistic creations; makers have even built gym equipment using this space. It also incorporates a bike fixing station, as bikes are a key form of transportation to and from the town, given the general lack of transportation in this rural area.

On the other side of the building is a sewing atelier, where people can adjust clothing donations, add their own touches, or create new designs of their own. Mimi proudly recounts getting to attend a wedding in Lebanon, wearing a dress made by maker who used the sewing atelier. In the spirit of fostering creativity, there is also a creative atelier and crafts space which can be stocked or arranged according to whatever is in demand at a given time.

As a space for learning, Habibi.Works also incorporates a library, which now has more than 1,000 books. There is even a book-binding station, led by a volunteer who shares skills she learned in Germany. At the last London Design Biennale, Mimi presented notebooks that were created by makers at Habibi.Works.

One of the space’s most impressive features is the Media Lab, an IT centre equipped with desktop computers, laptops, a laser cutter, 3D printer and virtual reality equipment. In collaboration with Paz.AI the Media Lab also offers the opportunity to develop skills that will open doors in the future labour market by teaching coding.

The media lab at Habibi Works.

Why “Habibi. ” ?

In the predominantly Arabic-speaking community of Katsikas, the word “habibi” is an often-heard phrase. It means my friend, my love, my darling – a beautiful way of appreciating someone, but also used in lieu of someone’s name – used to refer, even, to strangers.

“Works…because it works!” Mimi jokes.

Making an impact

A tragic reality of the refugee crisis Mimi explains is the lack of education for all generations. Children on the Greek mainland slowly become integrated into local schooling, but under Greek law, education is compulsory only up to the age of 15. Those above this cut-off age, along with children living in the ‘hotspots’ on the Greek islands are completely left behind (read HRW’s coverage of the issue here). Part of Habibi.Works’ vision is to address this.

“We want a lost generation to become the generation of future workers, and prove everyone wrong.”

A key component of this is also mobilising the skills and knowledge the camp and local community already has. One story Mimi recalls is of a young Afghan man who was a physics teacher in his own country, who found his way to Katsikas after being stuck in several camps throughout his journey. He became involved in a science project geared at 15 to 18 year olds, and was able to share his expertise with another generation. “It was incredible to see him getting rid of his passive refugee label, no longer reduced, suddenly showing his knowledge and skills and teaching talented young people from all backgrounds,” Mimi describes.

The FabLab has become known throughout the region. The Epirus region hosts roughly 2000 people in camps and accommodation centres in the surrounding areas, and Oxfam has set up a bus shuttle system from these sites to Habibi.Works.

Habibi.Works also strives to involve Greek locals in their activities. Mimi admits they do not see as many Greeks involved as they would like, but explains that this is mainly because Habibi.Works is a foreign group catering to a foreign population. She adds that Greek people also have their own lives to contend with, with their own struggles. The team also knows, however, that the projects’ sustainability depends on Greek buy-in; they are getting there slowly and steadily. Mimi laments that they cannot offer sufficient financial incentives to get Greeks involved as staff in the space.

A rising challenge

Katsikas camp has witnessed many changes since it opened in 2016. The so-called ‘first generation’ of refugees were primarily those who were eligible for relocation to, or reunification with family in, other European countries. Many of these moved on in their journeys, to be replaced by a second generation of refugees with a more permanent outlook, given that the European relocation programme ended and the reunification process can drag on for years. The camp’s population has ebbed and flowed as people transition out and new arrivals are moved in; at one point, it was completely emptied out without warning, putting the entire Habibi.Works enterprise into question. The camp was reopened in 2017 to over 1,000 people.

The latest arrivals are mainly transfers from the islands. Reception and detention centres on the Greek islands are currently operating at double, sometimes triple capacity, and there has gradually been a slow trickle of movement – only of the most vulnerable cases – off the islands. Mimi describes how 400 particularly vulnerable cases – 100 of which were identified as cases of severe trauma – were dropped off at Katsikas camp and left there with no psycho-social support in place or adequate follow-up. The tragic result of such carelessness: in March 2018, Katsikas witnessed the first suicide in the history of the camp. It has not been the last.

Crucially, the increase in population has not been met with an substantial increase in support or resources available. At the time of this interview, the camp was expecting 500 more arrivals within the week. It is troubling to see the arrivals to the islands steadily increasing, knowing that the paths forward, if any, are limited.

Change Makers

The Habibi.Works space is an achievement in itself, and yet the lasting impact the space has on individuals is testament to the transformative power of treating someone as agent, not object.

“The project depends so much on trust. To bring out the best in people you have to assume the best in them, and treat them as their best self. It allows them to grow and become even better, when you see them at eye level. If you believe in people, they can prove amazing things.”

Mimi highlights the case of a young Syrian man who was struggling on a personal level, and had developed a negative reputation based on his tendencies to lash out. Since engaging with Habibi.Works, there has been a complete turnaround in his behaviour. He is now one of the most active makers in the space and runs his own workshops for others.

The value of this approach is one that the Habibi.Works team actively promotes in their on the ground work, but also as an advocacy platform. Through social media and various presentations about what they are doing, they aim to inform civil society about the ongoing situation. “The problem is not disappearing, but we are closing our eyes,” says Mimi. The advocacy mission is paramount.

“We want to inform people and raise awareness about the situation. We also highlight refugees’ talents and that they can be an enrichment to society, if we allow them to be.”

When it comes to the prejudices and fears that often inform the anti-immigration stance, the team knows minds don’t change easily. Instead of convincing with words, they encourage experiences. As Mimi points out, many cities with higher rates of immigrants have less prejudice and witness less opposition; being more removed from the issue usually translates to being more prejudiced. “Encounter is so important for our platform,” Mimi emphasises: “Education. Empowerment. Encounter.

Learn more at https://habibi.works/