Volunteering with Refugees in Greece

You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land

Warsan shire

Last year, I decided that after finishing my A Levels I would take a gap year to commit more to my passion for travelling. As well as having a lot of adventures this year, I knew that I wanted to volunteer for a cause that I felt strongly about and whilst doing some research I came across the opportunity to volunteer in Greece at a refugee camp called Ritsona. Given how prominent the refugee crisis is at the moment and how passionate I have always felt about this, I knew immediately that this was the project for me.

The Basics

I went with an organisation called Cross Cultural Solutions and paid around £1600 for the week which included all of my transport (excluding flights), food and accommodation. There was a lot of support leading up to the trip to prepare you for the sensitive issues that you’ll be faced with when you arrive although not all of this applied to me as I was only there for a week, whilst others were there for months. The services that CCS provide are fantastic and the team are really friendly and make sure that you get to camp safely each day, picking up lunch for you on the way. The accommodation is a hotel in Chalkida which is really nice and very comfortable and it also has a lovely bar area which was a great place to meet the other volunteers and get to know each other after work each day.

Getting There

I flew from London Stansted to Athens which took me just under 4 hours before the CCS team picked me up from the airport and took me to the hotel. I also met up with one of the other volunteers here too so it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only volunteer starting that week. There was a variety of volunteers some of whom had been there for weeks and many who would be volunteering for months so it’s easy to adapt the experience to suit your lifestyle so everyone can get involved. We were staying in Chalkida which is about an hour from Athens and is a lovely little area with shops, a beach and lots of restaurants nearby. There’s also a train station so it’s easy to travel to Athens for some sightseeing on your days off. The journey to the refugee camp each day is only around 20 minutes and you’re driven with all of the other volunteers and you can also store all of your belongings safely when you get there in the office.

The Project

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when entering camp the first day. There were around 800 residents at Ritsona when I volunteered there from many different places including Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan and many more. Living conditions can vary but most residents live in iso boxes, as you can see in the picture above, which have resources for them to make meals for themselves (most food products are provided to them). It is also important to remember that if the camp is full, new arrivals will have to be turned away as heartbreaking and difficult as that is.

I spent my first day in laundry where residents will have an appointment card to bring in their laundry in the time slot given and then will come and collect it later. They can book another appointment whilst they’re there and it’s done this way because there are hundreds of residents and only around 20 washing machines so things can get very hectic! It’s important to make sure the system runs smoothly as the people here have had traumatic experiences and so handle things in different ways. There were many occasions in which I saw first hand how someone’s laundry not being ready was enough to cause a big scene- on one occasion a man even tried to lock another volunteer in the boiling hot laundry room! Whilst this can be frightening to witness, it is so important to remember that the majority of residents are incredibly friendly and when someone does lose their temper like this, it is normally in response to the trauma that they have been through and not directly aimed at the volunteers.

On my second day, I worked in the shop where there is a similar appointment system in which residents are allowed to browse within their appointment time for clothes that have been donated. They are then allowed to choose a certain amount, based on the size of their household to take back with them, obviously completely for free. The shop is where things can get more intense. This is mostly because sometimes there will be residents who are unable to find things that they like or that are in their size or will try to take more than their allowance. Of course everyone who comes in will want to get the best for their family but you have to be strict on letting people have anything extra because it can easily cause arguments and you don’t want to be accused of showing any favouritism.

I also worked in distribution which is where everyone comes to collect their milk and tea rations which is again based on the size of the household. This is a much easier process as people know what it is that they will be receiving and so you just had to check their card for the household size and hand over the products accordingly.

Other roles that you can fulfil are in the Female Friendly Space where female volunteers organise activities for the female residents at camp and from what I saw, this was a really peaceful environment and looked like a lovely space to talk in. You have to be volunteering for at least a month to work here in order to build a strong relationship with the women here.

Being Evacuated

During my time volunteering here there was an occasion where we had to be quickly evacuated from camp as it simply wasn’t safe for the volunteers any more. There had been an incident in the shop where a man had become angry that he could not find anything that he wanted and he began to direct this anger at the volunteers. It was at this point that we all had to leave and I have to say that CCS did this incredibly efficiently and made sure the safety of all the volunteers was the number 1 priority. At no point did I feel unsafe and CCS were great at getting us all out with no problems. This then of course meant that we had some free time, but given that I was here to volunteer I wanted to know what else I could do to help, so myself and some other volunteers decided to go to the warehouse to sort through donations that had been sent to Greece for the refugees. These mainly consisted of clothes but also a few little toys for children and babies. Some items were deemed inappropriate like short skirts for women as this isn’t in keeping with their religion so before sending donations across, I would recommend that you check that they are suitable for the people receiving them.

Visiting Malakasa

After being told it was still not safe to return to Ritsona, I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to visit Malakasa, another refugee camp that was a lot larger. Around 95% of the refugees here were from Afghanistan and I immediately noticed that the living conditions where nowhere near as nice as they are at Ritsona. It mostly consisted of tents which I saw many small children in and I couldn’t begin to imagine how cold that must get in the winter. Despite this, there was a lot less tension here and the residents seemed to get along with each other a little better than at Ritsona, perhaps because there was less of a culture clash. I was working with the health team that went in and was doing some data entry and also playing with some kids who came in and were waiting for their appointment. A little girl named Asai from Afghanistan was teaching me some Farsi and we drew pictures together and became quite upset when I had to leave. She had been so lovely to me all day and tried to give me her watch as a gift which I obviously couldn’t accept so we agreed I would take a picture of it to take home with me instead! She was truly an inspiring young girl and was hoping to be able to make it to Germany with her mum and I truly wish her and her family all the best, meeting her was a really special moment on this trip for me.

Another special moment for me was when a toddler came in with her father and they had been waiting for an appointment for a very long time and the toddler was crying because she was so thirsty and had nothing to drink. Her father had been asking for a drink for her for a while but nothing had happened so I decided to give her my bottle of water, knowing I could get another when I was back at the hotel later that evening. As I handed it to her I became aware of some people watching me and then her father turned around and came over to thank me personally whilst some other residents gave me a lot of warm smiles! It was such a small gesture but it seemed in that moment that there was a real connection between us and a reminder that we are all human and should care and watch out for one another.

Sightseeing in Athens

Whilst I was in Greece I was keen to do some sightseeing in Athens as it was only an hour away by train from Chalkida, where I was staying. I did one of the open top bus tours where you can hop on and off to see the best sights of the city which I absolutely loved. It was so strange to me because there were some parts of Athens that were quite industrial and then there was the Acropolis nearby which was such a contrast! The Acropolis and Parthenon were top of my list of places to go and definitely did not disappoint. The views were fantastic and it was so interesting to see what Ancient Greece must have really have looked like which was fascinating to me.

I also went to the Temple of Olympian Zeus which was another fascinating archeological site along with the Odean of Herodes, Temple of Athena and Hadrian’s Arch so I would definitely recommend the hop on and off bus tour if you want to pack in some sightseeing in a short space of time!

My Thoughts

Something that frustrated me that I wouldn’t have really known about, if not for this trip was that even when there were families who have tried to follow the legal process by filling in all of the necessary documents to be able to live in another country, they had still been waiting for nearly 2 years to hear anything back. The system is designed to fail them, no matter what they do or how much they do everything by the book, the process is made as difficult for them as possible. So many people were talking about not even understanding the forms as they were in a language that they did not speak and they weren’t offered any translation help which is so frustrating to me. When you see babies and young children arriving in the refugee camp it immediately resonates with you that something isn’t right. The fight isn’t theirs and yet the only way for them to be safe is to travel to a new country, often on their own after family members have died, only to be told they’re not wanted there. If there is no room at the camps then they will sleep on the streets and I think that we often forget that these are real people living like this and not just faceless stories on the news. It is not only struggling families that have had to escape either. Whilst I was at camp I met so many business men, doctors, teachers and even CEO’s who had all escaped their country and were now living off donations in the refugee camp. This is such a huge lifestyle change and if we were in their position we would have had to do exactly the same thing and we would expect help from other countries too. Even within the refugee camps themselves, young girls are being trafficked for sex by other residents or by people from outside the camp so even after their treacherous journey, they are still not safe.

Being from the UK, I was shocked when I arrived to find that in comparison to other countries in Europe we are actually doing very little to help. The numbers that are shown on the news at home seem big when you see the report, but are so tiny when you compare it to the numbers of people we have turned away or when you can see what somewhere like Greece is doing. It is not only accepting refugees into the country that we can do to help and I strongly believe that the UK should be offering more support whether that be through housing, finances or humanitarian aid. It was also important for me to see that so many of the refugees had absolutely no interest in coming to the UK, in fact many of them told me they did not even like it and felt unwanted there. To know this was the image we were giving off was upsetting and I spoke with residents at the camp who were actually surprised to see me be open minded about the situation which told me a lot about how my country is perceived.

So many of the refugees that I met were incredibly bright, a boy called Ryan who was the same age as me could speak so many languages I could hardly keep up! He had a great sense of humour, was so ambitious and I truly believe that once he has residency permanently in a country he will be so successful in life. He also introduced me to a tiny little girl who was only 5 and could speak 6 languages so I felt pretty stupid in comparison! Ryan was from Kyrgyzstan and had to flee his country because of the bombings and danger where he lived. He helps out in the laundry room and shop, translating for us which many other residents also do which is such a huge help. Some have even started running their own shops and hairdressers which is such a great idea to return some normality to life in camp. It is moments like this where being the same age as Ryan felt like we were from different worlds. There were young kids who had seen decapitations, had been blown up walking home from school and had lost limbs, had seen family members killed and I could never begin to imagine the effect this would have on them. So to be turned away from a country or judged for being a refugee is the absolute last thing that they need, so if I have learnt anything from this trip, it is to be kind always. Don’t think of them as a refugee, don’t think of them as foreign. Just think of them as human beings who need our help, because if the situation were reversed and we weren’t lucky enough to live in a country that is safe, we would be in exactly the same position that they are in now.

Overall Top 10 Tips

  1. Be prepared to see that the people you are volunteering with will not necessarily always seem like they want you there. This is because they don’t want to be there themselves! They have been forced to flee their homes and so will of course not be thrilled about their situation and therefore you can’t go in thinking that you will make the world of difference or that the residents will be incredibly grateful to you.
  2. Listen to the company that you’re with at all times as you may be forced to evacuate from camp very quickly if things start to get too tense.
  3. Be aware that people will have been through a traumatic experience and so it’s best not to bring it up to them as they most likely will not want to talk about some of the things they’ve seen.
  4. Respect the culture at camp by wearing appropriate clothing, if you are female cover your shoulders and knees.
  5. Be aware of the religions at camp and so if people are practicing Ramadan, it is a good idea not to sit and eat your lunch right in front of them.
  6. Be prepared to work hard and provide the best service you can for the residents.
  7. Treat the residents with respect and the same as if they were not in a refugee camp, particularly as there are so many intelligent and hard working people in there it’s important not to insult their intelligence.
  8. Do not take pictures at camp unless you have been given permission to do so.
  9. Do not give any special treatment or extra products to anyone as this will be highly controversial and cause tensions to rise.
  10. Learn as much as you can whilst you’re there and be open minded so you can spread the word when you return home on what the situation is really like, not just what we are shown in the media.

Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.

Khaled Hosseini

Thanks for reading about my time working with refugees in Greece. This experience meant a lot to me and taught me so much about what’s really going on out there and I wish I could show certain people this to see it for themselves. It’s so important to be open minded and I truly wish we could all be more accepting in this world and care for one another a lot more. If you want to get involved and volunteer yourself you can go to where there is also information about donations. XOX

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