Richard and I are just back from 3 weeks volunteering at a refugee camp in Northern Greece. It’s been such an intense and moving experience that has certainly taken us out way of our comfort zone, 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 InterVolve – a professional and incredibly hardworking group, funded in part by the charity Help Refugees. We volunteered to support 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. We were based at a warehouse 100 metres from Softex.
The international team of volunteers we worked with 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, dates and tomatoes meant they could cook for themselves, and cook what their children wanted and were used to eating at home. Choice and some form of autonomy are so important to people and yet so difficult to achieve in a situation like this. We also supplied chickpeas and rice, pasta, tea and sugar. Twice a week we 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.
I had a great 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.
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.
Despite the grim conditions there was plenty of opportunity for fun and laughter with many generous offers of food, tea and conversation as far as language allowed. And 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.