Last week one of our volunteers, Rachel Birch, spent the week volunteering in Northern Greece. Below is her story from the trip.
I have recently returned from a six day volunteering trip, delivering aid to refugees in camps in Northern Greece. The convoy trip was organised as a joint venture by Hope and Aid Direct and Muntada Aid. Three lorry loads of aid were driven across Europe to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece by six amazing volunteers. Most of the 22 tonnes of aid was brand new, including over 1500 pairs of Adidas trainers, 600 bottles of suncream, 1000 bottles of shower gel, 45,000 packs of nappies, 1000 pairs of crocs shoes and 27,000 bars of soap. West Berkshire Action for Refugees sent 53 boxes of aid weighing 500 kilograms, including shoes, toiletries and maternal care packs. I met the convoy team in Thessaloniki, alongside a further ten volunteers who had all flown from the UK, giving up their own time and using their own money to fund their trips. The team’s ages ranged from 17 to over 70, but each person was incredibly committed and hard working. Over the space of just a few days the team bonded and formed strong friendships. It was a real privilege to work as part of such a fantastic team.
Our work in Thessaloniki began with unloading our three lorries of aid into a local warehouse. The warehouse is shown in the pictures below – unbelievably when we arrived it had only been set up three weeks previously, yet was already filled to the brim with donations of aid. The warehouse is run entirely by volunteers, with several volunteers sleeping on camp beds among the boxes, with a few Syrian refugees who are also helping at the warehouse. The amount of work required to sort, pack, lift, organise and distribute the aid to 30 camps with 30,000 refugees in the area appears overwhelming, but the small team work tirelessly to match the aid to where it is needed. They only have their own cars and one van, so they were very grateful for all of our extra hands and the two 7.5 tonne trucks to drive the aid to where it was most needed. Our role was to help in the warehouse each morning and pack both trucks with the aid that was required in specific camps. We then spent the afternoons driving and distributing what was required.
The refugees I met and talked to each had their own moving and difficult story to tell. We delivered aid three times to a camp in the mountains called Petra Olympou, which is currently home to approximately 1400 Yazidi refugees from Iraq (http://google.org/crisismap/a/gmail.com/greece). The stories the men there told us about the way that Yazidis have been persecuted are stories that I will never be able to forget. They told us many horrific stories of what they had endured, including how two months ago 19 Yazidi women being burned to death in a cage for refusing to be sex slaves for ISIS (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-burn-19-yazidi-women-to-death-in-mosul-for-refusing-to-have-sex-with-isis-militants-a7066956.html). A father welcomed me into his tent where he lives with his wife, 11 daughters and two sons. I couldn’t help but think him a hero for managing to save so many lives by taking them away from such a terrible situation.
Sadly, the circumstances the family now find themselves in is far from suitable to bring up children. All 15 family members are living in one large UNHCR tent. The toilet facilities at the camp are woefully inadequate, with one portaloo shared between about 50 refugees. One of the daughters showed me where the communal camp “showers” were – this turned out to be makeshift tents that you could stand in where you could pour water over yourself having collected it from the taps on the opposite side of the camp.
Despite the awful circumstances, the families and children were so pleased to see us and all wanted us to visit their tents and talk to us about their lives. One man that I spoke to for about an hour told me that I had made him feel like he wasn’t alone. These people must feel like the whole world has turned their back on them; they have escaped a genocide and risked their lives to find a safe place to bring up their families, to find borders being closed across Europe and a lack of any dignity or refuge offered to them.
We also visited camps in which tents were set up inside old, disused warehouses. As you can imagine, when the temperature is 36 degrees outside, being inside a canvas tent inside a warehouse is almost unbearable. Just visiting the tents for a few minutes felt oppressive, I couldn’t imagine trying to live in there with a family. The tents are set up directly on the concrete floor of the warehouse. The refugees are not given any mattresses, so they are sleeping on top of blankets on the hard, concrete ground. One man showed me his bed where he sleeps with his wife and two young children – it was a single yoga mat. Inside the tents you could see their meagre possessions, a few toiletries, a small amount of food and a few items of clothing. It is difficult to comprehend owning nothing more than what you can carry in your hands.
We had spent the whole morning packing care boxes for each of the 66 tents inside the warehouse. It was several hours of work for the whole team, packing each box carefully and fairly with the same items, including toiletries, a headscarf and various food items. What had seemed in the warehouse to be a useful and helpful box of aid suddenly seemed paltry and insignificant when we were actually handing it to a refugee in a tent. The size of the problem in Greece is so enormous and the need so great that any help volunteers can offer just feels like a tiny drop in a huge ocean. Many more volunteers and more agencies are needed, alongside governments and the will of people across Europe for any major change to occur.
Despite the horrors they have lived through and are continuing to live through, the children continued to be children. They laughed and joked and wanted to play endless hand clapping games with us all (not helpful when we were falling over them all trying to unload a lorry!) We saw lots of young babies living in the camps and heard from volunteers in one camp that a new baby was born in hospital the previous day who weighed just 4 kg. It would be discharged from hospital and start it’s life in the camp the following day. It is difficult to imagine the life that that new baby will lead if governments across Europe do not pull together with a solution to help these people.
West Berkshire Action for Refugees are planning a trip to the ‘jungle’ camp in Calais in August. Our website gives details of the aid we will be taking and where to drop this off. Alternatively, please donate whatever you can to help refugees in need – https://westberksrefugees.org/how-to-help/