Volunteering with Refugees in Greece


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.  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 disastrous 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?

At the time of this writing, 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.

Oinofyta Camp
Oinofyta Camp

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 medical supplies, equipment, and medicines. Medicines are donated from NGOs all over Europe. Deciphering the German or Greek on the boxes was definitely a challenge.

refugees in greece
My father, another nurse, Sherri Snell, and I working to set up the Med Bus

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.

Ritsona Camp

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.

Ritsona Camp
Ritsona Camp

We received many requests for entertainment, specifically games and musical instruments. The residents have basic needs met 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.

An Iraqi named Adnan, who once helped American special forces now playing with the musical instrument we gave him.
An Iraqi named Adnan, who once helped American special forces now playing with the musical instrument we gave him.

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.

refugees in greece
This was a funny and somewhat distressing moment. I attempted to hand out toys to the children and got mobbed. This tall young Syrian man offered to help and held the bag high and eventually had to find higher ground!

Oinoftya Camp

On our 3rd day,  we learned that 36 Afghani refugees had been transferred from the port the previous evening to Oinofyta Camp. 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.

The Incredible People

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.

refugees in greece
This sweet Afghani boy was excited no matter what we gave him. Of course the soccer ball and nets were a big hit.
refugees in greece
I’m not what you call a “kid” person, but these little girls stole my heart.

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.

Friederich, an amazing S. African doctor we had the privilege of working with playing "Memory" with the kids and using it as an opportunity to teach English.
Friederich, an amazing S. African doctor we had the privilege of working with playing “Memory” with the kids and using it as an opportunity to teach English.

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.

refugee camps in greece
This was a nice afternoon with another volunteer, Anna from Refu-Aid (the blond one). Sherri and I had an Arabic lesson, I had my hair braided and we listened to stories as we blew balloons with the kids. My father really enjoyed talking to everyone and they seemed excited when he visited. (My father in the light blue shirt)

The Stories

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.

Refugee Camp in Greece

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.

I loved this sassy little girl who stole my cell phone and took selfies
I loved this sassy little girl who stole my cell phone and masterfully took selfies
refugees in greece
Martez’s son, Suhaib who was the best behaved little boy I’ve ever seen. He sat on my lap for hours.

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. 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. Mostly because I didn’t think I did enough to deserve her love.


My 12 year old friend Berevan
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.
Refugee Camp in Greece
This picture was taken right before we left. I’m a complete mess. Even my Dad looks a little emotional.  In the background is Freiderich, a lovely South African doctor we worked with who was one of the many amazing volunteers we were lucky to meet.

I encountered many wonderful people during this experience. I met volunteers from Spain, England, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Austria and even a few other Americans.  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. Every day 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. Many hotels in Chalkida offered discounted rates to volunteers, even though they barely can pay their staff. Our hotel occasionally lets 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.

What Can Be Done?

If you are moved by this and find yourself wondering what you can do, I have some answers.

1.  Volunteer

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 usually take volunteers are Lighthouse ReliefAdventist HelpECHO100, and Joined Hands

2018 Update:  Please keep in mind that things change and the contacts I had in 2015 aren’t the same now. It is very hard to volunteer as an independent. You are better of joining a group and giving a significant time commitment

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.

*  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!


About The Author

Cherene Saradar

Cherene is a travel expert with 30 years of experience in over 100 countries and 7 continents. She has traveled solo to over 50 countries. She is also a nurse anesthesiologist with over 20 years of healthcare experience. Her passions include wildlife travel and visiting wine regions of the world.


  1. A Perfect 2 Week Itinerary for Greece - WanderingRedHead | 17th Jan 19

    […] Volunteering with Refugees in Greece […]

  2. Mary | 27th Jun 18

    I learned so much from your post here. Thanks for the wealth of information and honesty. I’m headed to Ritsona to work on a theater and musical project with I Am You this July and August. I feel much more grounded in preparing for the trip after reading your post, so thank you! I’m also taking a couple of days afterwards to see Athens, and I’m looking forward to checking out your posts on traveling Greece. Love your style and your perspective!

    • csaradar | 5th Jul 18

      Thank you for your kind words. I am so excited for you and for Ritsona to have you. I absolutely love Greece and I hope you love it too!

  3. Hewad | 12th Mar 18


    I really enjoyed your article! I am going to Greece in July/August and would love to spend 1 week volunteering. Could you please send me details regarding the process you went through?

    Thank you

    • csaradar | 13th Mar 18

      Hey there. Happy you want to volunteer. The process I went through is sort of obsolete now. I would contact Lighthouse Relief or Echo100 volunteer organizations who work in Greece and see if they are taking volunteers. I know that the summer months they will get full so good to plan early:) Good luck!

  4. Malina Baranciuc | 4th Mar 18

    Hello! That was a very interesting piece of work to read and also very informative. I’m a second year student and I would like to volunteer this summer for 3 full months in Greece in order to help and give my support to refugees. I have some experience in working with children (mainly in teaching, especially languages, such as English or Spanish-to be noted that I’m not a teacher, nor do I have a teaching certificate, but I enjoy planning my own lessons and I’ve done this before when I was an au pair in Madrid over the summer). If you still keep in touch with a particular NGO or any other king of organization which is in need for volunteers, I would be more than happy to step in. Any kind of advice and piece of information would definitely help me to better understand the implications of such a job. Hopefully I would hear from you 🙂

    Best wishes,

    • csaradar | 5th Mar 18

      Hey thanks for writing and for your interest. Sadly it has been a while since I was there and things change quickly. From my understanding, Ritsona camp may not take independent volunteers anymore. You wanting to be there 3 full months is great and I’m sure some group would love to have you. However, some groups may have age limitations. I would contact Lighthouse Relief or Echo100Plus….both very good NGOs operating only for refugees in Greece. You could also try the AdventistHelp group who is operating in Oinofyta camp. My advice is to be flexible and ready for anything and not to try to take on too much. The world of humanitarian aid is not what I expected…it can be crazy and sometimes there are big egos involved that don’t want help. Crazy, right? Let me know how it goes!

  5. Lucy | 8th Dec 17

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Informative and interesting. I plan to go to Thessaloniki next year to work with Help Refugees. I worked with them in October in Calais, cooking in the kitchen and distributing food to the refugees in Calais and Dunkirk. It was an upbuilding and soul stirring experience that I will cherish forever. I’ve just started a blog, where I plan to publish posts talking about my volunteering experiences: https://nomadiclucy.blogspot.co.uk I have published my first post, which talks about my wonderful volunteering experience in Calais. I’d love for you to take a read and give me feedback 🙂

    Keep up the great work!!


    • csaradar | 9th Dec 17

      Lucy going to read your post now and thanks so much!!!

  6. Dermot | 14th Sep 17

    IM on my way there mid October until Christmas. Thank you for your blog. Inspiring lady ?

    • csaradar | 19th Sep 17

      I’m so happy to hear this. Best wishes!

  7. Anam A. | 16th Feb 17

    I would like to volunteer abroad with Syrian Refugees. In your passage you mention that if anybody would like to volunteer you will put them in contact with the right people. Please help! Thank you!

  8. Ten Reasons to Visit Greece Now - WanderingRedHead | 17th Sep 16

    […] Read more: Volunteering with Refugees in Greece […]

  9. Brian Sterley | 28th Jun 16

    You are truly building the Kingdom of God. I salute you. Brian

    • csaradar | 28th Jun 16

      You are very kind Brian! I really don’t feel that I did enough. I was so inspired by other volunteers I met. I will go back someday!

  10. Brian Sterley | 28th Jun 16

    PO Box 800
    anerley 4230 KZN
    South Africa

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.