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Volunteering in Northern Greece

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.


December round-up

The past month has continued to be extremely busy, despite the many other demands on people’s time during the festive season. Donations have continued to flow into Your Storage Space on Mondays and our monthly Saturday morning donation drop. Luckily levels of volunteers have also been great – sometimes astonishing! We moved our sorting times to the earlier 13.30 – 15.30 as we sort by natural light, and on a dull winter’s day this has been a real challenge. One of our volunteers has lent us some disco lights, which, when fixed on a static white light mode, do help (at least in a small area).

The warehouses in Calais are both still fully operational, supporting the camp in Dunkirk, sending aid on to Greece and Lebanon, and increasingly supporting the growing number of refugees who are street homeless in Paris. We are still sending aid both to the Calais warehouses and to RAFT (Refugee Aid from Taunton) who pass it on to charities delivering to the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. We have had several loads go out this month.

We have launched several Winter appeals: for Hygiene packs, Cold and flu packs, and Winter warmth packs for refugees on the streets of Paris, where conditions are dire.

This runs hand in hand with a massive challenge: we’re trying to raise £1,500 to spend on emergency aid over the winter. If you can help, our crowdfunding page is here: We have already had donations of winter fuel allowances, Christmas card and Christmas present funds, and just plain simple donations, all of which are much appreciated!

As well as sorting and packing, our volunteers and friends have been busy fundraising too. Ruth ran a stall at the Wonky Winterwonderland in the Silk Mill raising £123. Jules ran a Second Chance clothing sale, raising £200 for RAISE and similar sum which has gone directly to buy hot water bottles for refugees in Greece. Bruton Wholefoods continues to support us by keeping a donations tin ever-present by the till, currently supported by a basket of deliciously hot fresh chillies grown on the Emily Estate at Hadspen, each available for a donation to RAISE. The Frome Community Choir serenaded the women of Trinity Church, who in turn donated the amazing sum of £121.46 to RAISE: many thanks to both groups. We have also received a generous cheque for £200 from the Frome Circle Dance band. All these sums will be going towards our winter appeal.


We continue to be open to working in partnership with other groups with similar aims, in order to maximise the effects of our work. One partnership which is new this month is that with Hope and Aid Direct, a UK based charity who regularly drive convoys of aid out to people in need. Their next convoy will take aid to Thessaloniki and Lesvos in Greece in January. Although most of their five trucks are already full, we have managed to reserve a corner in one truck, and have put out an appeal for 100 filled handbags. The bags will be distributed to the women in the refugee camps to restore some dignity and normality, as well as providing some womanly comforts. The idea of filling and distributing handbags is something of a trademark for Hope and Aid Direct, and it has certainly appealed to our supporters. Our appeal closes on 7th January and the response to it has already been amazing: probably the closest we’ve been to going viral, with offers of bags coming from all over the country. It’s something we’ll definitely look at repeating and developing on if we can for Hope and Aid Direct’s next trip. Many thanks too to our two special town centre drop off points for handbags: Inspiration in Frome and Swan Vintage in Bruton.

Another partnership that’s been growing for a while is that with Calais Action South West. This month we have effectively amalgamated the two groups, welcoming them and their resources to the RAISE banner. This has allowed us to introduce an additional satellite donation drop point at Storagebase on the outskirts of Frome, which – with it’s extended opening hours – will be a boon. You can read more about that in this blog post.

Another of our aims is to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, and what people can do to help. At the end of November we held a public meeting with the Frome Syrian Refugee Support Group, with speakers also from Bath University, Somerset County Council and the Mendip YMCA. This caught the attention of Frome FM and the Frome Times, both of whom gave much appreciated publicity to the event.

Three of our volunteers, Rob, Laura and Tony, also visited Frome Community College to talk with students there about their experiences of volunteering with RAISE and in Calais.


The Frome Times also published the story of our Somerset Smiles bags, developed in response to an idea from the leader of the Paulton 2nd Brownies. This appeal, which we’re running with RAFT – Refugee Aid from Taunton – will see many hundreds of gift bags distributed to Syrian refugee children in the New Year, and has been massively successful.


Last but not least, in my (almost) monthly round up: I couldn’t resist including this picture of three of the lovely women who have been gathering in the Cheese and Grain to explore the fine arts of knitting and crochet. As well as working on squares for blankets, they are also raising awareness of what we do (and having a lot of fun)! Knitters and crocheters are welcome to donate 12″ squares towards blankets, and for those with more advanced skills, hats, scarves, and gloves are always welcome too.

Wishing all our supporters a very happy festive season,
and a peaceful 2017.

Festive Season opening hours 2016/17

Monday 19th December: last donation drop of 2016 at Your Storage Space, Frome.

Wednesday 21st December: Mill on the Brue, Bruton closed till Tuesday 2nd January

Saturday 24th December:
Inspiration, Frome closes for handbag donations at 15.00
Storagebase, Frome closes at 16.00
Swan Vintage, Bruton closes for handbag donations at 16.00

We wish you all a Merry Christmas!

Tuesday 27th December: Storagebase, Frome opens 10.00 – 16.00, and with slightly reduced opening hours for the next few days: information here.

Thursday 29th, Friday 30th, Saturday 31st: Swan Vintage, Bruton normal opening hours for handbag donations: information here.

Happy New Year!

Sunday 1st January: all our donation drops will be closed and having a well-earned rest!

Monday 2nd January: Storagebase, Frome re-opens

Tuesday 3rd January:
– Mill on the Brue, Bruton re-opens
Swan Vintage, Bruton re-opens for handbag donations

Thursday 5th January: Inspiration, Frome reopens for handbag donations

Monday 9th January: 13.30 – 15.30 donation drop in Your Storage Space, Frome





Storagebase becomes additional RAISE donation drop point

Following the death of three year old Aylan Kurdi in 2015 many people became more aware of the refugee crisis and started taking action to help. In particular many small groups developed in the UK collecting aid and taking it to Calais.

The network of grassroots groups is gradually becoming less fragmented. We had become aware that there was a second local group, primarily from Midsomer Norton and Radstock, operating as ‘Calais Action South West’ from Storagebase Self Store on the outskirts of Frome.


Dean & Laura from Calais Action South West & Christine & Pippa from RAISE

Over the past few months we have started to work together as we both had the same aims, and it seemed silly not to. RAISE has more local volunteers, and so a number of us have already been out to Storagebase to help the Calais Action South West team sort, pack and load their donations. We have also transported some of the aid they collected.

Calais Action South West have recently decided to stop operating independently of RAISE, and to join forces with us. They bring with them lovely donors and volunteers, and an additional donation drop point in Storagebase, all of which we warmly welcome.

One brilliant thing is that Storagebase are happy for aid donations to be dropped off during their opening hours, without a volunteer being there to receive them (like with our satellite donation drop at Mill on the Brue in Bruton). This means we can improve our service to donors, offering 7 day drop offs.

As the unit we have in Storagebase is smaller, we can’t do the detailed sorting that we achieve in Your Storage Space, where we now have getting on for 100 categories to sort to. We therefore aim to quality check and do basic sorting of donations in Storagebase, and then move donations across for fine sorting.

We may run other specific services and projects from Storagebase too, as things develop.

We will continue to receive donations every Monday afternoon and the third Saturday morning of every month in Your Storage Space, and would encourage people to bring larger donations direct to this, our main sorting space.

We are incredibly grateful to both Your Storage SpaceStoragebase and Mill on the Brue, for continuing to support the vital humanitarian work that we do in RAISE.

Storagebase Self Storage can be found at 1 Cornbrash, Commerce Park, Frome BA11 2FD.

100 handbags

We have been given the opportunity to send some aid to refugees in Thessaloniki and Lesvos in Greece with UK charity Hope and Aid Direct. This is great news: it’s not proved easy for us to get aid to Greece in the past.

As they already have aid lined up for most of the five trucks going to Greece in January, we won’t be able to fit in much from our warehouse this time, but we will be able to squeeze in some pushchairs, suitcases, and …. handbags!

Now handbags are a new thing for us to collect, but one of the trademarks of Hope and Aid Direct is to take handbags for the women, filled with womanly things. Although this may sound like a bit of a luxury (they’ve never appeared on any needs list I’ve seen) handbags are something that many women wouldn’t normally leave their homes without. They can be incredibly useful, as well as symbolic and comforting, and can help to restore dignity. Once filled with a selection of small gifts, it’s easy to understand why Hope and Aid Direct’s handbags are so very popular with the refugees.

So, what we need from you now is LOVINGLY FILLED HANDBAGS! As with all donations, they must be in good condition. Please fill your handbag with a selection of small gifts, like: a piece of jewellery, lip balm, wet wipes, hand cream, comb or brush, gloves, tissues, toothpaste, toothbrush, sanitary towels (not tampons), a mirror, a little make up or perfume, a scarf, maybe a little note or card with a greeting, and other things that might normally be carried in a handbag. Please do not include: used cosmetics, food, or anything sharp.

There is a very quick turnaround on this as the convoy is leaving the UK in January and we’ll need to pack and load all the handbags, so the deadline on this is 7th January.

To make this easy for you we have town centre drop off points in both Frome and Bruton, as well as our regular donation drop points.

Oh, and it would be really great if you would print and share the poster! Many thanks!


Somerset Smiles are flooding in!

Our Somerset Smiles campaign is going brilliantly, with stacks of bags being left at all our drop off points!

Especial thanks go to the pupils at St Julian’s primary school in Wellow, who not only gave us many wonderful gifts for Somerset Smiles bags, but also this lovely press release!



It’s not too late if you still haven’t dropped your Somerset Smiles bags in. The giving of these gifts ties in with Christmas but most of the children receiving the bags will be Muslim, and they’ll be given the bags in the New Year. So please keep them coming!

Frome FM radio interview


For those who weren’t able to come to the open meeting earlier this week, but who would like an update on what we’re doing in Frome to help refugees, please listen to this ‘All About Frome‘ radio interview from 22nd November.

Rupert Kirkham interviews Christine Kaltoft about RAISE, and John Careswell about the Frome Syrian Refugee Support Group.