VOLUNTEERING IN A REFUGEE CAMP, GREECE
There are not as many refugees coming to Europe as there were compared to two years ago. However, the Syrian war is far from ending, there are still people fleeing the country and those who left earlier are still unable to come back. The refugee camps are therefore still full of people and the help of volunteers is still needed. Interested in volunteering in a refugee camp? Read on!
I chose to volunteer with the NGO RefugeeSupport, that currently operates in three different refugee camps through Greece. They will always allocate you into one of them as needed. The NGO is fully run by self-supported volunteers. If you decide to volunteer for Refugeesupport, you’ll have to finance the entire cost of transport, accommodation and food by yourself. This surprised almost everyone I talked to back home and the common reaction was that they would expect at least the food and accommodation to be covered. There are two different kinds of volunteering. If you volunteer for a business that uses your free work to generate profit, as a receptionist in a hostel for instance, the business usually covers your life expenses. But if you decide to volunteer for a charity, it’s most likely they can’t provide any of this. Some NGOs are fortunate enough to have facilities that can serve as a free accommodation for volunteers, but you will have to cover your own food and transport in most cases. Donors donate money to charities in good faith that 100% of their donation will go to the people they are donating for, not to be spent on dinners and hotel rooms of volunteers. I managed to push the overall cost to almost nothing as I hitchhiked all the way to Greece (You can read about that in my previous article.) and I had free Couchsurfing accommodation throughout my entire stay.
I was assigned to a smaller camp located on the southwest coast of Greece called LM Village. Volunteers usually stay in Kyllini, a nearby village. The hotel room over here is about €25 a night. No volunteers stay in the camp overnight.
There are about 250 people living in the camp. More 50% of them are kids. LM Village is a former holiday complex now turned into a refugee camp. The residents therefore don’t live in those metal shipping containers as usual but have the luxury of real brick houses. However, there are often two families, each counting 5 to 7 family members, sharing one bedroom house.
The first thing that surprised me after my arrival was how ordinary the camp actually looks. A nice family neighborhood, streets full of playing kids… only when you take a closer look, you’ll realize that the neat looking fences in front the houses are actually just some random sticks found on the beach and that the inviting chilling area for friends are just some old matrasses and pieces of wood put together. The residents of the camp are really doing their best to make this place feel at least a bit like home. No wonder, some of them have been already waiting here for over five years. Refugees always need to apply for the asylum in the first country they enter the European Union. For most of them this country is Greece. The process is very slow and often takes several years to complete. To be given the asylum the refugee needs to prove to be really fleeing a war affected area. Economic migrants, only coming to Europe seeking a better life, are being sent back. The current state of the Greek economy is not very good and there is not enough work even for the locals, let alone the refugees. To secure their living the family needs to move to a country offering vacancies, usually going for states with more welcoming immigration policy like Germany or the one of the Skandinavian countries. In many cases, that’s also where some of their relatives or friends already live. In the new country, they have to apply for asylum one more time which can again take few years to proceed. Through this whole time, the refugee is not allowed to work or run a business… there is not much left for them to do. In the past some of the men got hired by local farmers to work on the field. After a month of tough manure labor the farmers didn’t pay them at all. It’s important to realize that majority of those refugees are very civilized and well educated people. There are doctors, teachers, scientists, lawyers, owners of various companies … living in the camp. Succesful people that all of sudden, have been turned into citizens of a lower category with limited rights, having way too much free time to think about everything the war caused them to lose.
The main focus of RefugeeSupport is the distribution of fresh food. The organization has developed a great way how to distribute free food among the refugees with dignity and avoid the degrading queuing. Once a week, each family is given a pack of fake money according to the number of their household members. They can then come to the free shop run by the Refugeesupport and “buy” anything they need. This way, apart from receiving free food, the refugees are given little feeling of normality. The free shop offers basic foods necessary for cooking like milk, rice or oil and a wide selection of fruits and vegetables.
My work as a volunteer was primarily to take care of this “shop”: Every day shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables, restoring the stock, keeping the shelves full and serving the customers throughout the day. The job was physically more demanding than I expected, lots off carrying of heavy boxes from one place to another, but the camp residents were willing to help any time. Every morning, on our arrival, there would always be few older kids running up to help us carry the fresh food all the way to the shop. In addition to food, Refugeesupport also distributes toiletries, bedding, clothing or cleaning tools and detergents.
Even though the amount of free food the refugees get is just enough for themselves, they really loved to share it back with us. Every day, there would be someone coming to the shop bringing us homemade cookies, cakes or even fried fish caught at the see only few hours ago. Over all, there was strong feeling of gratitude and respect showed towards us.
Another big part of the work in the refugee camp are the kid’s activities in the afternoon. The kids don’t go to school and during their years spent in the camp, moving from one place to another they are losing some of the most important years of their life so crucial for their later development. Volunteers therefore daily organize activities like games, competitions, or various crafts while trying to provide a very informal way of education in fields like English language, Math’s or Geography. Many of the kids can already speak English very well. For me personally, those afternoons spent playing with kids were the most favorite parts of my day. I really enjoyed watching them progress day by day while discovering their hidden talents and secret desires and even after a long day full of hard work, I was always leaving the camp full energy that working with those kids gave to me.
It was four of us in our beautifully international volunteer team. Besides me, there was Yana from Hong Kong, Paula from Spain and Sue from the UK. Sue was a little 70-year-old lady with a massive heart, big smile and outstanding amount of energy. After retirement, Sue decided to dedicate the free time to something meaningful and became a volunteer helping people in need. She’s been on and off volunteering for Refugeesupport for the past three years. Residents of the camp loved her and she’s been a huge inspiration for everyone around her including me. It was wonderful to see how helpful and active one can still be at the age of seventy. “When I won’t be needed here anymore I would like to go to Brazil to help the orphan kids.” She told me when I asked her what were her plans for the future.
Back home, many people I talked to about my plans were concerned about my safety in the refugee camp, regarding the Muslim men, in particular. And despite being so open to foreign cultures, even I myself wasn’t sure what to expect and was actually a bit scared about the way, the local men are going to behave towards me. Later on I was really ashamed to be falling for prejudice so easily as on my first day in the camp I found out the men didn’t really care about me at all. The married one wouldn’t even look at me and there would be really nice invitation for coffee from the single one every so often. No one was ever shouting at me while I was walking around the camp, had any sleazy remarks or have done anything that would make me feel uncomfortable. Walking down the streets of Prague I often feel much more like a piece of meat than I have ever felt spending my time in a refugee camp full of Muslim men. On the contrary, everyone was incredibly nice to me, welcoming me in the camp and wishing me a nice stay. What so many people back in my country fear so much is so unreal, it’s even a bigger lie than I thought.
But there’s no wonder as even people living in a town nearby had very twisted idea about the way the life in the camp actually is. A waiter serving me a tea was terrified when I told her I work in the nearby refugee camp. According to her, the camp was really dangerous, dirty, there were cockroaches crawling around and dead dogs lying everywhere. The refugees have apparently, no respect for anything they get and don’t even clean their houses. She also heard that one refugee killed another in the camp just few weeks ago … none of it was true at all.
Although I was really interested in the stories of the people living in the camp, it didn’t feel appropriate to question them and to make them relive probably the most painful events of their entire life. We just talked about everyday thinks and their plans for the future, but some of the things they said really touched me anyway. When I asked Ahmed, a former construction engineer with a perfect English, which country in Europe would he like to go to, he said: “That’s not important to me at all, anywhere I can find a job so I take care of myself finally. If you have no friends or family waiting for you everywhere is the same.”
To give you an idea of the hell some of those refugees went through before they ended up in the camp, there is a story of Mohamed Nabeel, that was published on the Refugeesupport.eu.
“I grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, which was bombed. Missiles and mortar killed my friends and burnt my home.
I never wanted to leave Syria, but I had no choice. I was arrested and tortured by the Regime for six months. It felt like 60 years. They hung me for three hour each day in a 1 x1 metre cell. I shared a cell with two other men; we had to sleep standing up because there wasn’t enough space. I thought I was dead. They accused me of being a rebel, but I had never fought in my life.
My shoulders cracked. I can’t even carry my child. When you enter interrogation, you are totally naked. People are dying and screaming in front of you. They hit me with electricity cables. But the most difficult part is the hanging. I was blindfolded and often lost consciousness.
When I finally came out of prison, I went home. But what I saw was incomprehensible. At each side of my town, militia were fighting each other with missiles. My wife was shot. Food was not available, and used as a weapon of war. My wife – Rania – was pregnant, but we lost our baby.
I had no choice but to leave. I carried my son the best I could, and my wife – who could barely walk because the bullet was still in her knee. We walked to Turkey, and eventually arrived in Greece. They call it ‘The Journey of Death.’
We had reached safety, but we were unprepared for what was to come.
After walking for two days, we were given a tent filled with rain. I had to use my only clothes to mop up the dirt. My son cried because it was so cold. Rats played inside the tent. My child didn’t understand why we had to leave. He developed a serious fever, but there was no ambulance and I had no money to transport him to the hospital. I walked for miles, and carried him on my cracked shoulders. Would we have been better off in Syria?
My family now live in a container in a field. I am an engineer, and my wife is a successful wedding photographer, but we are not allowed to work. I don’t want to live on handouts, but we have no choice. We are at the mercy of government policies, and must wait until December 2019 for our next interview to claim asylum.
I feel so much shame, that I can’t provide for my wife and son. I am humiliated. We are stuck; a number in a system.
Even if I get residency in Greece, I have no passport, so I can’t visit my sister in Turkey or mother who is still trapped in Syria. There is also no work here. I don’t want anything from this life, I am not asking for money, housing or clothes. All I want is to secure a dignified life for my wife and son. I want to sweat, and work for their future. We are strong, we have survived pain only Syrians can understand. But, I need a new kind of strength: hope.
I miss my family. I haven’t seen them in three years. My brother is still imprisoned by the Regime, I pray he is alive. Why is it my sin, that I was born in Syria? Born as a Palestinian with no rights, no identity?
In the name of my family, I appeal to anyone who will listen. Is it not our right to sleep on a bed? Buy our own food? Protect our children from falling bullets?
Who knows. I sit in my container, waiting…and waiting. Trapped. Helpless.”
Since the beginning of the war I have read many refugee stories. Although each story is unique, they are all very similar after all. Most refugees have experienced torture, imprisonment, saw their hometown including their own house demolished or burnt down, many have lost their friends or relatives … then on their way to Europe they really had to challenge themselves, both mentally and physically. During their stay in the refugee camp, they usually describe enormous frustration and humiliation of the inability to take care of themselves and their family. Then there are also stories of those who didn’t survive the journey at all.
Working with refugees was a wonderful experience. I was looking forward to every new day, and after my two weeks I was actually really sorry to be leaving. I would have chosen to come at least for a month if I could decide again. If you also wish to volunteer in a refugee camp, just register at refugeesupport.eu. They will get back to you within few days. To see what RefugeeSupport does you can also follow them on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
Even though volunteers are important, the donations really power everything the organization does. If you feel for those living in the camp and would like to contribute financially you can do so through this page. Big thanks to anyone donating, any little amount will help!