This is a departure from my usual posts but it involves travel and an issue very close to my heart. I recently spent a week volunteering with refugees in Greece at two different camps. This experience was powerful to say the least. The emotions that I have when reflecting on this volunteer experience are heavy. I hope to do justice to the people I met by sharing this experience.
How did I get involved?
As a Syrian-American, watching the events in Syria unfold over the past five years has been devastating. Witnessing my government’s inadequate reaction and many people’s lack of compassion to the refugees that have resulted from this war has made me feel depressed, angry, and so many other complicated emotions.
Years of writing to congress, donating money, or complaining to anyone who would listen had left me helpless, feeling like I had no power to fix anything. I began investigating ways to work with refugees and an opportunity came my way serendipitously through a local Miami acquaintance, Rebecca Johnson, who had volunteered with Lighthouse Relief Organization the end of 2015 then moved to Lesvos to serve as the medical volunteer coordinator. Of course I was one of her recruits, and I promptly recruited my father, a recently retired physician who speaks Arabic.
After several changes of location secondary to the volatile political climate and the recent European Union /Turkey deal, we ended spending time at two different camps both about 45 minutes north of Athens, near a city called Chalkida. We were planning to work with the Adventist Help Medical Bus that serves as a medical clinic for the camp.
This was my first foray into the world of humanitarian aid and likely not my last. I learned a great deal about the refugee crisis, the world of humanitarian aid, as well as about myself. I had many questions, as I’m sure others who are following this crisis do as well.
How many refugees are in Greece and where exactly do they live?
Currently there are over 50,000 refugees of mixed origin living in Greece in over thirty separate camps. Moria camp in Lesvos has been emptied but boats are still arriving on the shores, according to volunteers I met from Lighthouse Relief. The Pope was recently there. Idomeni is a non-official camp on the border of Macedonia which often makes the news. I hesitate to call it a camp since it is a big field where thousands of refugees are living, hoping the border will open. A similar situation is occurring at the port of Athens, Piraeus. Efforts are being made to transfer refugees to more long-term camps throughout Greece as the long, painful resettlement process takes place, but many refuse, thinking the border will still open.
Who Runs the Camps and What are They Like?
Ultimately the Greek government is responsible for all these people. The military oversees the camps. They organize the electricians who set up lights and outlets for plugging in various equipment. They handle the food delivery contracts, the water supply, and the maintenance of the chemical toilets and the showers for the camps. It is a huge undertaking for a country with one of the worst economies in Europe. The quality of services vary greatly from camp to camp. Some camps have local police and are run very strictly, almost like a prison. Some are extremely open, with mild police presence for safety and with volunteers and NGOs running the camp. The camp locations are often in suburbs and can range from a forest, to an abandoned hotel or a gas station. Some have running water that is potable and some rely on bottled water delivery that is rationed per family. Some sadly have no electricity, bathrooms, showers or a consistent water source. Some have decent food, some don’t. Some have beds, some sleep on gravel floors. Overall it’s quite obviously a horrendous situation.
What Did I Do?
The first camp I visited was called Oinofyta (the camps are usually named for the local town they are close to). There were forty tents that the air force had set up but no refugees had yet arrived from the port. We met the Air Force Colonel, Koriakis, who is in charge of this and one other camp, Ritsona. He is an uncommonly kind and caring man and I know he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. It was heartening to know that such a great man who honestly cared about the refugees had control here.
We arrived on a Monday to start our work on the medical bus. This bus had been in Lesvos and has a long history. It had gone to Germany to be repaired and by the time it arrived at Oinofyta, it was quite a disorganized mess. My father, Sherri and myself met Markus Alt, who is in charge of the bus and quickly went to work going through all the bags and boxes of medial supplies, equipment and medicines. Medicines are donated from NGOs all over Europe. Deciphering the German or Greek on the boxes was definitely a challenge.
Meanwhile the military had set up 50 tents. Electricians started work to bring electricity to the camp and to the bus. We were told 400 refugees were arriving sometime from somewhere. The Colonel in charge literally doesn’t have more information than this. After we worked to ensure this bus was stocked, organized and ready, we didn’t have much else to do at Oinofyta, as no refugees had yet arrived.
We visited another camp ten minutes away called Ritsona. This camp was about three weeks old and had approximately 900 residents, mostly Syrian but some Iraqi and Afghani. My father was a big hit there so we walked around speaking to residents about their lives at the camp. We tried to figure out what we could do to make their lives a little better and we heard many stories in the process . It’s amazing how much they just needed to talk to someone. This was perhaps the most valuable service we offered ; simply providing company and a sympathetic ear. There is a paucity of Arabic speakers among the volunteers.
We received many requests for entertainment, specifically games and musical instruments. The residents have basic needs meto but they are bored, scared, and anxious to have their lives back, which I completely understand. I found myself wondering what the hell I would do in this situation!
We also asked the volunteers from the various NGOs (non- government organization) that ran the camp what they needed. They have limitations on how to spend their organization’s money but we didn’t. A Canadian volunteer was working with some refugee handymen to build things in the camp to make it nicer. He gave me a wish list of tools and supplies. Another volunteer requested cups and sugar for tea. After making a few inquiries in town and running around filling up the tiny car as much as possible, we returned to the camp with guitars, drums, violins, backgammon sets, toys, tools, sugar, cups and other items.
This is essentially what we did all week and how we used the money we had raised. The small Greek town, Chalkida, had not seen the massive amount of spending we did in a long time, if ever. I doubt the tiny music store ever sold six guitars, and five other instruments in two days. We literally emptied shelves and bought every last one of certain items. The checkout people went a little crazy seeing multiple overflowing shopping carts! We would buy every battery and every nail in the tiny hardware store, or every single set of cards and backgammon boards at the game store. I like to think that between us and all the other volunteers living in Chalkida that the local economy got a little boost. After seeing how wonderful and generous the Greek people are, I was happy to do whatever I could to help their economy.
On our 3rd day, we learned that 36 Afghani refugees had been transferred from the port the previous evening. We were aghast because there were no blankets, no bedding and nobody to greet them. We arrived in the morning to meet them and to distribute the care packages we had put together.
The next day a Swedish NGO called I AM YOU brought blankets and sleeping bags. The day after, running water for washing clothes and another source for drinking was established as well as ten showers. We literally hugged the Colonel because this is all considered rapidly fast progress in Greece! We made more trips to the store Jumbo, which is like Walmart, and purchased toys, games, chairs, personal care items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, sunblock. body wipes, laundry detergent, buckets, solar lights, etc for each tent. Once again we emptied shelves and made checkout personnel crazy. Every day we were expecting up to 400 refugees to arrive but none did in our time there. It was actually nice because we got to know the small group well and were able to do more for them and spoil them a bit. However, we had everything ready for all those people and kind of wanted to see our efforts through.
The medical needs were few. A sprained wrist, nasal congestion, a cough. We found ourselves doing many other tasks. Other than the Colonel and the medical staff, there was nobody running the camp. No NGO had swooped in. The three of us found ourselves essentially running the camp, confused and inexperienced but willing to help. Nobody placed us in charge. We were just there.
I had fun with the kids of all ages I taught them “Duck, Duck, Goose”, how to play Connect Four, Jenga and Memory. I even found some Rubix Cubes and introduced these to the teenage kids.
Among this small group of Afghanis, the teenage boys were unbelievably kind, respectful and helpful. The little children were loving and trusting. The adults were dignified, intelligent people, many spoke some degree of English. I can’t image what their lives were like in Afghanistan in order to force them into this undignified horrible situation, relying on someone like me just to help them obtain basic things, like a deck of cards or sunscreen. I truly enjoyed getting to know them and I dreaded the day that I would have to say good-bye.
We tried to be everything to everybody and it became overwhelming. We were new at this type of work and I believe we were unfocused. We would run around to the music store, the hardware store, the grocery store, etc, all before arriving at camp for the day. We tried to visit both camps every day. We would have to split up at times, someone driving a little boy to the local clinic for a chest x-ray or going to check on a refugee family at the local hospital and make sure they had some food and diapers for their baby. We had identified that the medical bus was short on certain emergency drugs like sublingual nitroglycerin and insulin so we would visit local pharmacies, trying to obtain some. I am very thankful for Google Translate! Although the food delivery they received seemed like decent food, I noted many dietary deficiencies, especially a lack of fruit and vegetables. One day I purchased every banana in the grocery store and distributed them. I can’t believe the excitement this generated. I now look at bananas completely differently…as a luxury item.
Who are the Refugees?
One day as we walked around Ritsona, we were invited to sit with a Syrian family, so of course we did. We ended up spending the entire afternoon with a group of people, many of them the same family, listing to their stories. One man, Mo, was there with his wife Wafa, grandchildren, two daughters and son-in-law. His sons had fled Syria for Germany to avoid being forced to kill for Assad’s. The plan was for Mo and Wafa to follow later with the grandchildren, but the Greek borders closed during this time. The family is now in a forced separation with the children and grandparents in Greece, and the parents in Germany. Mo had a government job in Syria, as well as running his own real estate and taxi businesses. He had saved for retirement his entire life but because the Syrian currency has been massively devalued, his savings is worth a measly $40. The two daughters I met had nine children between them, all living in either one of two tents. The Son-in law, Martez, had shrapnel injuries in his right shoulder, affecting the nerves to his right hand. If he doesn’t have surgery he will never be able to use it again. These are just a few examples of many heartbreaking stories we heard. We came back to visit this family again later in the week and ended up giving them some money, hoping that someday they will move on from this camp.
They were incredibly hospitable despite their circumstances, making sure we had chairs, serving us coffee and oranges as their beautiful sweet children ran around playing with us. The children somehow remain happy, open, and loving, despite the horrors and misery they have known in their short lives. Many children have witnessed members of their family killed and most still cringe at the sound of an airplane flying above. Unfortunately these camps are very close to an air force base. Almost every Syrian had an injury either from shrapnel or a bomb. I met several with shattered knees, amputated limbs, etc, many from Russian bombs.
Mo is in the blue shirt. The man holding the little girl is a local Greek man named Ilias, who befriended Mo and now they are close. Ilias visits often and has invited Mo and ten others to his home for dinner. We were happy to have met Ilias and another Greek friend since we had heard of him earlier in the week. This is a typical example of the amazing Greek spirit and generosity that we saw again and again. It was clear the children loved Ilias and his friend.
Among the Afghanis at Oinofyta was a 13- year- old girl named Towfan that had taught herself English. She became our translator and friend. She was sweet and intelligent with a sad story. Her parents and brothers couldn’t afford to leave Afghanistan and sent her with an uncle and cousins so that she wouldn’t be forced to marry a 65 -year -old man. She hasn’t seen her immediate family in two years and doesn’t know where they are or if they are alive. I can’t imagine what she and others endured, walking all the way from Afghanistan through Iran, through Turkey then the harrowing trip across the Aegean in an inflatable raft with a life vest sold by corrupt Turkish smugglers that may not even function properly. Sherry bought her a cell phone and SIM card and we still keep in touch with her via Facebook and Instagram. Being able to keep in touch and keep up with what is happening there makes me feel a little better.
The hardest thing about this type of volunteering is leaving. I felt that there was so much more to accomplish. I also felt that my efforts fell woefully short of all the things needed. I had become close with a little Kurdish girl at Ritsona camp named Berevan. She whispered in my ear that she loved me as we parted and I became so choked up that I couldn’t speak for several minutes after. Moments like this really got me.
Saying good-bye to the Afghanis at Oinofyta was even more traumatic. I had two adorable little girls literally clinging to me as I inwardly sobbed and fought back tears. I’ll never forget the looks on faces when they realized that the only people they have known at this camp so far who looked out for them were leaving. They didn’t realize that we were not in charge, nor part of some large NGO. We were just independent volunteers who came to help for a week. We had no idea that we would be in essence running the camp for a few days! I truly wish I could have stayed much much longer. I am happy to report that shortly after we left, more volunteers arrived from Ritsona and other places to have a presence there. I now feel less like we simply abandoned them all.
The Crazy World of Humanitarian Aid
I was surprised by the world of humanitarian aid. There were many groups operating, both NGO and independent. Some coordinate well with others, some don’t. Some are willing to share their goodies, some are not. I found there to be some groups that were territorial and too proud to accept help. As far as I know, not one refugee at these two camps has yet been interviewed by the UN for asylum, which is a refugee’s human right in Europe. Another human right is internet access, since many of the UN interviews are to be conducted via Skype! The internet is also needed for the paperwork, applications and for people to locate their families.
On a brighter note, I encountered so many wonderful people during this adventure. I met volunteers from Spain, England, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Austria and even a few other Americans. I now have contacts in many different organizations that I hope to work with in the future. The Greek people have completely won my respect and love. I’ve heard countless stories of the generous and kind acts towards refugees by Greeks throughout the country. Everything from teachers making the children draw pictures in class for the refugees, to local women’s organizations collecting blankets and clothing and baby supplies to bring to camp. Everyday locals came to Oinofyta to ask what they could do or what we needed. The Vice-Mayor of Oinofyta came by and wanted to help however she could. When we had a meal in the tiny town of Oinofyta, the restaurant owner welcomed us with free wine (The strong homemade kind…at lunch). Many hotels in Chalkida offered discounted rates to volunteers, even though they barely can pay their staff. Our hotel occaisonally let refugees shower and eat there. The owner of the music store gave us nice discounts when we explained why we were purchasing so any instruments. In Athens, some grandmother has invited an Afghani refugee family who was living outside in the square to come into her home.
Of course there are people in Greece who are extremely unhappy that the refugees are in their country, using their scant resources. The truth is that there are exponentially more of the sympathetic and generous people in Greece and I saw many with my own eyes. These stories rarely make the news, as it is apparently more exciting and gets more ratings to show some fringe right-wing fascist group protesting the refugees. This gives ammunition and fuel to the xenophobics among us who are looking for any excuse to keep refugees out.
What Can Be Done?
If you are moved by this and find yourself wondering what you can do, I have some answers.
Obviously this isn’t for everybody but if you have the time and money to travel to Greece to do this, many different skill sets are needed. Teaching is badly needed. Psychological help is needed for many who have PTSD. Medical of any kind is always welcomed. Organizations that definitely need volunteers are Lighthouse Relief, Adventist MedBus and Joined Hands. If anyone is interested please contact me and I’ll put you in touch with the right people.
2. Donate money
We all know that some charities are better than others and many like myself can be reluctant to donate money to unknown organizations or those that may not use your money in the way you expect. I can attest to a few organizations that I know are doing what I would want them to and I have contacts in some.
* Lighthouse Relief – A Swedish organization specifically working with refugees in Greece. They have volunteers from all over the world. They do many things but are mostly on the island coasts aiding those arriving by raft. They are also in a few mainland camps. http://www.lighthouserelief.org/home/
* I Am You – Another Swedish run organization that works exclusively with refugees in Europe. http://www.iamyou.se/mission/
* Refu Aid – An organization from England started by an inspiring young woman I met and admire greatly. They focus on supporting the local medical communities that care for refugees. I think this is a much needed service since Greece does not have the resources to take care of all the refugees in their clinics and hospitals without outside help. http://refuaid.org
* Sea of Solidarity – Since I have left, many wonderful things have happened at the camps. This group is responsible for much of that. http://www.seaofsolidarity.org
* Doctors Without Borders – consistently gets high scores from charity watch groups such as charity navigator
3. Write or Call your Congressmen
The only real solutions to this problem are complicated and political. Our world leaders have been sadly incompetent in dealing with this crisis. Stopping the hemorrhage of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is the only true way to solve this crisis. Just to summarize the bigger picture, there are about 4.8 million Syrian refugees, 80% residing in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In Jordan, the Zaatari refugee camp is now the largest city in the country complete with hair salons and coffee shops. The Syrians are not permitted to leave the camp and engage in normal Jordanian life. These countries are hardly equipped to handle this massive amount of people let alone provide education for all those children. In my opinion, these large refugee camps will become terrorist recruiting grounds if conditions are not improved and refugees are not permitted to return to their normal lives of working or going to school in their host countries.
Afghanistan is hardly in the news these days but the Taliban is increasingly gaining power. Afghanis are the 2nd largest refugee group in Europe with 200,000 arriving in 2015. The reasons for this are complicated but most of the educated young middle-class who thrived after 9/11 when the US and NATO had a larger presence are now losing jobs and see no hope of economic revival. Many who leave are the Farsi speaking Hazara minority, often persecuted by the Taliban for being Shia. If they escape to Iran, they risk being recruited to fight for Assad in Syria. They are targets of Sunni extremists wherever they are. They are also not given the same asylum seeking rights in Europe as the Syrians which is a major ethical problem for the UN and the EU.
4. Go to Greece as a Tourist!
They need you and your being a tourist has never been more affordable there. Go help their economy and enjoy the hospitality of the wonderful Greek people, eat some of the best food you will ever have and enjoy the gorgeous landscapes, architecture, history and mythology that few countries can compare to. Greece is honestly my favorite country in Europe. It has been for over ten years now. Seeing the inspiring humanity of the Greeks only made me love them more.
If you need more evidence that you should go to Greece….please read this post!