The Ritsona Kingdom flag has a simple design, but it’s deep with meaning. A blue band at the top represents Greek territory, while a thicker swath of red below represents Turkish territory. Two yellow lines separate and intersect them both, symbolizing those who died on dangerous journeys across the Aegean Sea, as well as those who survived and are still trying, desperately, to reach Europe.
Ritsona isn’t really a kingdom, or a country. It’s a refugee camp in Greece. And this unofficial flag, designed and created by refugee youth, is a perfect example of how young people at Ritsona are taking control of their own stories — and sharing them with the world.
In honor of International Youth Day on Aug. 12, a group of young refugees publicly launched the first two editions of Ritsona Kingdom Journal, a magazine in which they express themselves and share their perspectives through artwork, photography, short essays, poetry, and more. Naturally, the Ritsona Kingdom flag graces the cover of the first issue.
Now, through a “digital exhibit” of the magazine, people across the globe can learn more about Ritsona, hear from the youth who live there, and explore issues surrounding the refugee crisis that are both deeply personal and startlingly universal.
Ritsona Kingdom Journal was produced through Lighthouse Relief Hellas, a nonprofit providing support to especially vulnerable populations of refugees. The young people involved are part of the organization’s Youth Engagement Space (YES), a drop-in program that offers a safe place for people between the ages of 16 and 25 to attend skill-building workshops and start creative projects. What began as an art-focused initiative became a physical space where youth can connect with one another, talk if they want to talk, or just have a dedicated place in the camp to relax and tap into their creativity.
“The magazine is really representative of a day in our space.”
Under Lighthouse Relief’s guidance, the youth led every stage of the magazine’s development. They created the content, designed the magazine’s look and layout, and distributed it throughout the camp.
“We think the magazine is really representative of a day in our space,” said Daphne Morgen, manager of Lighthouse Relief’s Youth Engagement Space. “We have conversations from the best kind of sandwich to make to experimental cooking to feminism to a full-on political conversation.”
The magazine does include a diverse array of content, especially from young Syrian refugees. On one page you discover a painting of a mountains by 18-year-old Amina Rashid, from Aleppo, who likes to take photos and wants to study medicine. She’s lived at Ritsona for one year and six months. On another page, there’s a step-by-step recipe for the doughy dish “la comida” from 16-year-old Malak Othman, also from Aleppo. She’s lived at Ritsona with her family for six months, and spent an additional year elsewhere in Greece.
There’s also a strongly worded letter to world leaders and the United Nations from 15-year-old Hamza Almustafa, from Salamiyah. He’s been in Ritsona for four months and likes fishing. On another page, you’ll find 20-year-old Bassam Omar’s powerful poem “Color” asserting that whatever color you are, you’re needed to complete everyone else’s “drawing.” Bassam is from Qamishli. He created the Ritsona Kingdom flag, and calls himself the “King of Ritsona.”
The magazine, Morgen explained, is a way to invite others to be “a fly on the wall” in the YES space. Not only does it amplify the young refugees’ voices, but it inspires awareness, empathy, and — hopefully — action.
“We believe really strongly that if everyone were to get a sneak peek of day-to-day interactions with the youth, they would love them as much as we do.”
“We believe really strongly that if everyone were to get a sneak peek of day-to-day interactions with the youth, they would love them as much as we do,” she said.
The project came together organically at the start of the YES program. Lighthouse Relief encouraged the young refugees to put together the art pieces they created and showcase them, and they were keen to tell the world their opinions. The young men in particular — who often face increased stereotypes as well as heightened risk of exploitation, exposure to violence, and substance abuse — wanted to feel like they were being heard.
“There was a lot of artwork accumulating, there was a lot of creativity, a lot of willingness to write and engage in interesting conversations on various levels,” said Clara Marshall, an intern with the Youth Engagement Space who worked closely with the young people on the magazine.
Marshall explained that while having a journalist visit the camp with a camera can be useful and insightful, it can’t beat an outlet where these young refugees can tell their own stories and control their own narratives.
“It was their own idea, which is very much what we try to foster in this space — sort of ideas and projects that come from them, rather than from us,” she said. “And it’s evolved from there — anything that anybody wants to write. There’s no censorship. We try and encourage them to produce, but we don’t set editorial guidelines very strictly.”
While it’s difficult to collect population data at some refugee camps due to the constant flow of people, there are approximately 750 residents at Ritsona. According to the most recent census, from March 2017, the youth population is approximately 120 — today, it’s probably closer to 20 percent of the camp overall. Over the winter and until very recently, a lot of the residents lived in tents. Now, large shipping containers called isoboxes are often used as places of residence.
Ritsona residents stay at the camp anywhere from six months to more than a year as they wait for asylum in Europe. Sometimes, they stay much longer. That’s why Lighthouse Relief created spaces like the Youth Engagement Space, as well as female-friendly spaces and child-friendly spaces. The organization wants to facilitate community building.
“Having something meaningful to do during that time … is something we recognize is really important to help foster the strength and resilience that already strongly exists in these communities,” says Lighthouse Relief Communications Officer Aanjalie Collure.
Various pieces in Ritsona Kingdom Journal speak to the larger political and legal contexts surrounding the refugee crisis in Europe. That mirrors the youth at the camp, who are very vocal about their experiences at Ritsona itself, Greece, and their journey getting there from their country of origin.
“We see that in their work, [and] we also see that in their political engagement outside of camp,” Collure said. “A number of youth go to attend protests in Athens at the embassies, and are very politically engaged and informed, and want to comment on these broader issues. And in order to give them a platform to go do that effectively, we were fully supportive of sharing this as widely as we could.”
At Ritsona camp, the effects of the magazine have extended beyond the youth population. When Lighthouse Relief hosted a launch party for the first edition of Ritsona Kingdom Journal in April, it set up an exhibition showcasing the young people’s best work. Both residents and aid workers from other organizations came by to look at the large printouts of the magazine and take in the young people’s bold thoughts and ideas.
“I think that’s just a testament to the incredible vibrancy of the community itself.”
The very existence of the journal showed potential — that any resident had the power to tell their own stories. And for the youth, it also allowed their families to see how much they had to offer.
“It was really quite spectacular to take a look at all these very vibrant, colorful pieces of work in the camp,” Collure said. “It often caught many people off guard to see such color and vibrancy in this space, and I think that’s just a testament to the incredible vibrancy of the community itself.”
Once the young refugees realized how successful the exhibition was and how many people really engaged with it, they swiftly got to work on the second issue.
Lighthouse Relief timed the digital campaign with International Youth Day because of this year’s theme: “Youth Building Peace.” Collure said displaced youth are often left out of that conversation, despite how much they can contribute.
She cited a recent report from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that found that young refugees are eager for a platform to share their voices, but they felt they lack a real connection to decision makers and links to the rest of the world for that to really be possible.
“Launching on this day and tying it to this moment, we’re hoping, will provide an opportunity to really amplify their voices,” Collure said.
The young refugees at Ritsona are already hard at work on their third edition of the magazine, which they hope to wrap up by the end of this month. The current goal is to launch an issue every other month. Lighthouse Relief is also working to support the youth in launching their own Instagram, Twitter, and other social media accounts to share different points of view at any time.
Ultimately, the goal of the digital campaign around the magazine is to encourage more mindful participation and engagement with refugees, and broader decision-making about the asylum process and issues that affect young people in the thick of the crisis.
“Our main call-to-action with this, for the broader global community, is just to share the publication with their family, friends, networks, and help us get it as wide as possible,” Collure said. “We’d love if one of the leaders that some of these letters are addressed to actually see it. And we can’t do that on our own.”
You can view the full Ritsona Kingdom Journal digital exhibit here.