Trustee Andrew Bridges at work in the refugee camps
Trustee Leads Volunteer Team at Refugee Camps in Northern GreeceJoanie Blackwell
Q: Tell me about your decision to work at the refugee camps. What inspired you?
I visited Syria in 1974 (as an undergraduate) and July 2010. I fell in love with the country and found Syrians amazingly hospitable. During my more recent trip, I pondered why it was that the regime had suppressed public access to social media: the fear was of persons being able to connect with each other, to have “virtual assembly.” Then when the conflict erupted in 2011, I followed the horrors closely and heard from time to time of an acquaintance and his family who had made it out of Syria to Egypt, Dubai, and finally the Netherlands.
Also, based on my many visits to Greece, including long stays there in connection with the American School, I have a deep love for Greeks and Greece. I saw how Greeks have suffered in recent years from economic calamities, and witnessed how magnanimously they were responding to the refugees washing up on their shores. That made me want to do something to help Greeks deal with the refugee crisis as a way of helping both Greeks and Syrians.
My Facebook friends in Athens were posting about volunteer work they were doing with refugees, and describing the situation in detail. Those Facebook posts helped me understand the desperate need that existed and the ways individuals could help. I was already planning to travel to Greece for an ASCSA board meeting and some beach travel. I felt guilty going without doing something to help with the crisis, so I decided to squeeze in a quick trip in late April. The decision was made on just a couple of weeks’ notice.
How did you go about making contacts and setting up logistics?
Logistically, everything came together thanks to Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and Twitter. From friends’ posts, I learned about various volunteer opportunities, then discovered relevant Facebook groups – some formal like “Lighthouse Relief” and some informal like “Hot Food in Idomeni” or “Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers.” After reviewing a variety of groups, I decided that northern Greece had the greatest needs at the time, so I focused on “Information Point for Idomeni Volunteers” (now “Information Point for Northern Greece Volunteers”).
I announced on Facebook that I would cover all the in-country expenses of any friends who would join me on the trip. Four committed, but two couldn’t afford the airfares to Greece, so a friend (and competitor!) and I donated our frequent flyer miles to get them there. The five of us stayed in the Holiday Inn in Thessaloniki for maximum convenience and flexibility, since we didn’t know for certain where we would end up working. We rented a nine-person van to transport equipment and other volunteers as needed. The van made us very popular!
Before we arrived, Lighthouse Relief required us to take an online course in humanitarian principles. That was extremely valuable, because volunteers can sometimes do more harm than good without the proper preparation. We also studied open-access Google Docs that many volunteers had prepared, which outlined the various activities in the region and tips for staying safe and dealing with tear gas and crowd control, etc.
Q: Where did you serve and how long were you there?
It was a six-and-a-half day trip including travel to/from Greece, of which we were active on location for four days; two at the Idomeni encampment on the FYROM border and two at the EKO gas station near Polykastro, ten miles south of the border. I highly recommend this video, which was filmed during our stay, and helps visualize the experience:
Q: How many people were living in the camp? Where were they from?
At the Idomeni camp, there were about 13,000 refugees. They were mostly Syrian, but there were also Iraqis, Kurds, and a smattering of other nationalities. At the EKO camp in Polykastro, there were about 3000 refugees. They were also mostly Syrian, but there was a Kurdish quarter in the camp and a few Afghanis.
Q: Describe some of the displaced individuals you met.
They were a huge variety, of all ages: a Syrian mother who cried with joy when she saw us turn up with a baby stroller for her; a boy who tried to smother my cheeks with kisses whenever he saw me; the teenagers who helped us distribute food to tents at EKO; and persons who came out of their tents to make sure that their neighbors didn’t miss a food distribution. The children enjoyed “reporting” me to other volunteers when I tried to “break in line.” (One of our duties was to enforce line integrity to prevent fights from breaking out, and I had to pull a number of persons out of line and march them to the rear. When I pretended to cut the line myself, the kids loved it.)
One of my colleagues reported a story to me that I didn’t see myself: at Idomeni there, was a child who would grab any available adult around the leg and not let go. At first it seemed like a game, but then became annoying. Then it came out that he was from Aleppo, and his house had been hit with a barrel bomb that killed both of his parents and deafened him. The child was obviously in massive trauma and was probably looking for something in his life that he didn’t have to let go. That sobering story and helped me understand how desperate many of the people there were. They are all fleeing horrors.
Q: What were your day to day tasks?
Tasks arose on a moment’s notice. Our “impact statement” documents their variety:
- Bought 100 kilos of vegetables at a warehouse store about 30 km away and delivered them to the kitchen at Hot Food Idomeni.
- Served one lunch (~1500 meals) and two dinners (~5000 meals each) with Hot Food Idomeni.
- Distributed food (one bowl porridge, one orange, one bottle of water) to about 300 babies, pregnant women, and elderly in their tents at the EKO camp, on behalf of Save the Children.
- Distributed dinner (~1500 meals) at a Doctors Without Borders meal center at the EKO camp.
- Helped build one large family tent at the EKO camp.
- Bought 200 pairs of socks, multiple tubes of sunscreen, 100 pairs of men’s and women’s underwear, and other miscellaneous items in the U.S., and delivered them to Polykastro.
- Purchased and delivered 1000 diapers, 500 baby wipes, and 400 liters of milk to the Lighthouse Relief distribution center.
- Reorganized a storehouse for Lighthouse Relief to aid in efficient distribution of clothes to families.
- Collected approximately 75 pounds of Lego blocks in the U.S., and delivered them to a refugee school in Athens.
- Delivered baby strollers to two families.
- Ferried several enormous vats of stew from Polykastro to Idomeni.
- Helped ferry volunteers and provisions at various points and times.
Not bad for four days!
Q: Was the language barrier a challenge?
Not really. A number of refugees speak English. (Remember, many of the refugees are middle-class and educated.) But we were working hard and fast, and didn’t have time for lengthy conversations. We would walk through the camp with food specifically for babies, calling out “babies?” and the refugees knew what that meant. Tent flaps would open and mothers would come out, or someone would come out to tell us to look in the tent next door, and so forth.
One of my colleagues who spoke Arabic actually felt that was a disadvantage: when a refugee knew he spoke the language, the refugee would then start trying to negotiate for more than we could offer. Serving 5000 meals in one evening meant that we simply had to hand meals out one after the other without debating whether the person could have an extra piece of bread.
Fluency in Greek felt like an advantage when we showed up at Idomeni and I explained to the Greek police at the barrier why we were there and what we planned to do, but didn’t make a practical difference to our work.
Q: How did you maintain a sense of hope and positivity in the midst of so much tragedy?
Seeing kids playing ball or playing with makeshift toys, and seeing the outpouring of support of volunteers from around the globe gave me hope.
Q: What was different than what you expected?
I expected to see more images of poverty, something more akin to the slums of Mumbai. What I saw were ordinary persons who were displaced, who are living uncomfortably (in flimsy tents on pavement in rough weather) and in a state of political/residential/economic limbo without any end in sight.
Q: Was there crime? Did you ever feel unsafe?
There was no crime that I could detect. The only time I felt unsafe was during a huge lightning and hail storm that came up quickly when we were serving food from a truck on a road in the middle of fields in Idomeni. I was the tallest thing around except for a power pole and the truck. I crouched down, bending my knees as far as I could while keeping balance. (The kids laughed their heads off at me when they saw that: they thought I was going to the bathroom with my clothes on.) I wasn’t wearing rain gear, and was convinced the next lightning bolt would get me. But it passed after a while.
Q: What was the general attitude of the refugees toward Greeks and Greece?
I had limited insight on this point. In general, I think they were grateful for being there, but most I encountered wanted to get out and were frustrated that the FYROM border was closed. For most, the goal was Germany or Norway. The ones I met did not want to go into government camps because they feared they would be the last to leave.
Q: Now that you are back, what images have stuck with you?
Strong winds buffeting the tents at EKO; the lightning and hail storm at Idomeni during the lunch distribution; the children playing; the makeshift school tent at the EKO station in Polykastro; the barbed wire in the distance at Idomeni; the smiles on faces as we distributed food; and the children in many different settings, making the best of a bad situation. The images in the video I mentioned are extremely representative of my experience.
Q: Would you go back?
In a heartbeat. If I can spare another week from work, I will go on a moment’s notice. (And I will try to organize another group as I did before.)
Q: What can people do from their homes abroad to help the situation?
- Donate generously. It is better to send money than supplies from the U.S. I recommend Doctors Without Borders; they were the underpinning for virtually all the work I saw in Polykastro and Idomeni, and were consummate professionals. Designate gifts explicitly for Greece/Syrian refugees.
- Support Syrian refugee resettlement in the US. The persons who are fleeing are fleeing for very good reasons.
- Go and help. Learn more about the most urgent needs in the ever-changing crisis through Facebook groups. I also will provide detailed advice to anyone who wants it.
- Be vocal in supporting the Greeks who have endured so much and who have shown amazing hospitality and generosity even in their own difficult times.