By Camilla Gavin
Richard and I are just back from 3 weeks volunteering at a refugee camp in Northern Greece and thought it might be of interest to people to hear about our experience there.
Well, where to start…it’s been such an exhausting, life enhancing, inspirational time it’s difficult to know where to begin. So I’ll start by telling you who we volunteered with.
We signed up as volunteers with a small organisation called Intervolve (they are on Facebook, their website is in construction). It was formed by an international group of people who met while they were all volunteering at Idomeni camp on the Macedonian border back in early 2016. It is now a professional and incredibly hardworking group, funded in part by Help Refugees, that supports the residents of the Softex refugee camp (so called because it’s on the site of a redundant loo roll factory!). Softex is on the outskirts of Thessaloniki in a grim industrial trading estate beside a huge oil refinery. Intervolve are based at a warehouse 100 metres from Softex.
The international team of volunteers we worked with at Intervolve were a truly inspirational bunch, incredibly hardworking, dedicated and compassionate and a diverse mix ranging from a Canadian Archaeologist to a Spanish Biomedical scientist! Half our age and with twice as much energy they work 6 days a week often 10 hour days. It was truly life enhancing spending time with such a positive, energetic and warm bunch of people…and they amazingly seemed to enjoy having a couple of oldies amongst them!
So, what did we do? Well, amongst many things we twice a week went to the local vegetable wholesaler and bought a large van full of fresh fruit and veg which was then bagged up and distributed to the camp residents to supplement the meagre and depressing Greek army rations they were dependent on. Having fresh food like lemons, parsley and fresh tomatoes meant they could cook for themselves, and cook what their children wanted and were used to eating at home in Syria. Choice and autonomy are so important to people and yet so difficult to achieve in a situation like this. Intervolve also supplied chickpeas and rice, pasta,tea and sugar. We also twice a week opened the ‘Boutique’, a very grand name for a room in the camp that was full of rails and shelves of donated clothing. Each family was able to visit twice a month to stock up on warm clothes, winter coats, jumpers, hijabs, new underwear, you name it, we had it.
The picture below is of Intervolve volunteers bagging up veg prior to distribution.
I had a lovely time helping Mums find clothes for their babies and children, often jiggling babies on my knee to free up time for Mum to sort what she needed. I cannot tell you how moving it could be to see a young girl made so happy because she had found a jumper she loved or a pair of trousers that fitted, or showing a delighted pregnant Mum a box of maternity trousers! Believe me these people have so little, we all know how a new item of clothing can really cheer one up, well this could sometimes be the best experience in someone’s week.
Richard had a slightly less rewarding time, as he was on the Men’s side of the boutique, and men the world over are hopeless at clothes shopping (I’m generalising I know) and often left looking faintly ridiculous with barely fitting clothes that they had taken 30 seconds to select!
So keep your donations coming, but remember no short skirts, skimpy clothes, nothing white (washing clothes is difficult) and in as best condition as you can manage. Men’s jogging bottoms and hoodies for all ages are especially in short supply.
The picture below is of Richard in the boutique adjusting the Tshirt pile!
Intervolve also run daily English and Basic computer skills classes in a school room they have funded as well as Women’s Hours where women can go and just be together, and maybe chat, dance or relax. They have a fabulous Lebanese woman volunteer who works tirelessly to arrange community activities that help to ease the boredom and inevitable tensions that arise with people living in such awful conditions.
And what’s the camp like? Well, bluntly, it’s pretty horrifying.
Most of the 450 mainly Syrian residents live in UNHCR tents inside the old concrete warehouse. There is very little natural light, no proper loos, just a few portaloos, basins attached to the outside of the building, nowhere to wash clothes and a very few showers. Outside some people are now also living in shipping containers that have been adapted to basic rooms. There is no proper electricity supply, and there are deadly electric cables running along the ground that regularly catch fire. Why no one has been electrocuted I cannot imagine. When it’s not below freezing (it was -11c when we arrived and snowy) the ground is thick with mud. This is nearly one year after the first refugees arrived here. The Greek army are supposed to be looking after the logistics of the site, but to be honest, it’s very hard to see what they are doing. The International Red Cross and Save the Children both have smart warm portacabins on site, with large expensive 4 x 4’s outside, but it’s hard to see where the millions of EU funding are going, certainly not here. Intervolve assure us that conditions are way better now than last summer when up to 1,200 people were living here.
The refugees at Softex are mainly people who became trapped at the Macedonian border last year after the border closed. They are now registered with the Greek Government and are waiting for their asylum claims to be dealt with. Thankfully, people are starting to be moved on, they have no choice where, and gradually, gradually, with glacial slowness these applications are being processed. While we were there 60 people had heard that they had been given asylum in Ireland and Holland and they will be leaving for new lives in these countries within another month or two. I so desperately hope they are met there with kindness and warmth, they so deserve it. The strength and stoicism particularly of the women with small children was humbling. They have all been through unimaginable experiences and being at Softex for the last 9 months has not been easy, to say the least.
If you were considering a spot of ‘hands on’ experience I couldn’t recommend it highly enough! As long as you are prepared to work very hard, you would find as we did, that it was probably the most fulfilling, exhausting and meaningful thing you have done in years.
On a practical note – we rented an Airbnb appartment in Thessaliniki and a hire car (fairly essential to get out to the camp). Flights to direct to Thessaloniki are pretty cheap from both Gatwick and Stanstead.