By Iris Samuels | 7/11/16

Art scene: A term evoking the gallery-lined streets of lower Manhattan, or the resplendent museums of Paris.

Then there is Ritsona, a refugee camp an hour north of Athens. Worlds apart, its scene is vibrant, nonetheless.

Home to 600 migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, Ritsona at first seems a bustling summer camp. Children run barefoot while cicadas hum in surrounding pines.


The camp is operated by non-governmental organizations, such as the Swedish organization I AM YOU. It is staffed by young volunteers in hipster garb who greet residents with a laid back “Ahlan” and join them for afternoon tea.

After trekking hundreds of miles from war-ravaged homes, Ritsona’s residents hope for a brighter future. But waiting out the months-long asylum process amid the sea of tents leaves little to do but nap or sit idle.

Ismail Noh, a former Iraqi economics student, at first appears as languid as the rest, sitting under a canopy in a polo and jeans, staring at his smartphone. It is both entertainment and the only connection with friends back home. Though his English is excellent, he speaks little.

In truth, Ismail has become one of Ritsona’s artists. His younger sister, Seve, points to a small painted shed and explains in broken sentences that its design is the work of her brother. Ismail nods shyly.

The shed’s wall shows a man walking grimly against a full moon, depicting the treacherous journey these refugees endured from Iraq to Turkey and, finally, Greece. Ismail has already painted two murals on the camp’s concrete structures.

Mural painted by Ismail Noh in Ristona Refugee Camp. (Iris Samuels)

Mural painted by Ismail Noh in Ristona Refugee Camp. (Iris Samuels)

Seve runs into her tent and returns with a stack of three paintings. Ismail looks at his creations with a sad smile. The paints and canvases, he says, were given to him by volunteers.

One depicts an exotic bird. Another the silhouette of a man carrying a sack and holding the hand of a child, against a setting sun. The art of escape.

Seve admires her brother's paintings. (Iris Samuels)

Seve admires her brother’s paintings. (Iris Samuels)

A few yards away, along a path hugging the camp’s perimeter, three men sit in a circle in the shade of pine trees.

Adnan, a refugee from Iraq, holds an oud, a guitar-like instrument. He strums while Dilgin, a Syrian, sings. They smile, welcoming company. As music fills the air, their bodies relax.

(Video of music)

Before leaving home, Adnan was a professional musician. Dilgin, who fled from the Syrian city of Aleppo earlier this year, used to make a living singing and drawing.

Dilgin reluctantly agrees to show his artwork. One drawing depicts a lone child at the entrance to his tent, tears on his face. The subject, Dilgin says, is a boy from the camp.

Dilgin displays his drawing of a child in the camp. (Iris Samuels)

Dilgin displays his drawing of a child in the camp. (Iris Samuels)

Another depicts a smiling girl. These are the only two drawings he’s completed since arriving in Greece in March.


Dilgin displays a drawing of a girl. (Iris Samuels)

Dilgin displays a portrait of a girl. (Iris Samuels)

In a crumbling structure nearby, another of Ismail’s murals comes into view: a world map, overshadowed by a vast eye shedding a tear.  A watchful, pleading eye, demanding attention.