Mahmoud, Syria, Softex & Irida Women’s Centre
I am probably the oldest volunteer of Intervolve, as i had been recruited while I was still residing in the camp InterVolve used to operate at. Initially i joined the carpentry team initiated by InterVolve to get out of my depression and the feeling of uselessness and powerlessness i was feeling while in my tent. Soon my purpose changed completely, as I saw how my contribution was important to me and all the people I was serving. This was one of the main reasons why I refused my relocation to Germany, and decided to stay in Greece to continue what I started. There is no other place where I feel I belong other than InterVolve, not only because of my love for it, but also because I believe in its way of working.
With Irida, I felt like we have built a safe haven for our women and children. I do not see Irida as my work place, but as my home, and its people as my family and community; their struggles are mine and I understand their sufferings.
With GiftStoria, my online wood craft tailored-made gifts store I created, I teach women how to make items from wood. It’s beautiful seeing the women being so focused and relaxed for a few hours per week, while it’s also important for me to see the therapeutic effect the sessions have on the participants. Just the idea that women have now useful items made by them decorating their houses or caravans makes me smile!
I have been lucky to have had InterVolve support me to become who I am now, and now Irida is doing the same for its members. Irida’s presence is extremely important for people that many even wished it existed in other countries as well! I wish the same, because i have noticed that women coming here feel safe and improve psychologically, while they also gain skills and confidence. I believe the services provided respond to what women want and need.
Phoebe, United Kingdom, Irida Women’s Centre & Thessaly
As I told my coworkers on my first day at Irida, I will be working with InterVolve from one month to one year, which depended on whether I felt I was useful, whether the work was productive, and whether the organisation was professional, caring and effective. I am now six months into working for InterVolve and extending my stay to a year, and there really is no place I'd rather be.
Starting at Irida was a beautiful experience, the team was encouraging and passionate, I always felt challenged to think critically and thoughtfully about the work we were doing and how we could improve. I learned many things from my time spent with the people that make Irida what it is, but one that sticks out to me is adaptability. This work more than most comes with unexpected complications, both structurally and interpersonally. However, at Irida these issues were always met with innovation and consideration as to what would be the best possible outcome for the women. My most precious memories at Irida are of course, of the women and children.
I am now working with InterVolve's Thessaly team in Kotsochero and Volos camps, where the team is just as supportive and passionate as the last. It is always difficult to witness camp life, especially at a time where the hope of a satisfactory asylum process is bleak, but the strong relationship InterVolve has developed with the residents has allowed the work to be incredibly rewarding and worthwhile.
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.
Kiki, Greece, Irida Women’s Centre
After 7 months of full-time volunteering, I feel so blessed to be a part of this team, as well as Irida as a total; now I finally understand what Irida is all about. Looking at all those women smiling and enjoying their time while studying for their English classes, and looking at them cooperating with each other and making friends, fills my heart with joy and love!
When I first started volunteering at Irida, the few hours that I was spending there didn’t allow me to see what this centre was about. After my graduation, however, I decided to dedicate all my energy and time for Irida. That was and still is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.
Gloria, Italy, Irida Women’s Centre
I joined Irida in January 2018 just after its opening. From day one I realised how important it was for the organisation and the team to keep loyal to the mission of InterVolve and of Irida itself: working towards a person-centred approach, focusing on the needs of the people coming to the centre and responding to them with an ad-hoc analysis, strategy planning and activities. Throughout my 9-month volunteer experience at Irida, I was constantly reminded to focus on women and children, their diverse needs, their vulnerability, and also try to empower their strengths. I believe the strength of Irida has been the capacity to adapt to people’s needs and to always change according to what women and children would request and what the context could support. As a safe, respectful, multicultural centre I believe Irida represents a role model to be adapted in different geographical and social contexts.
Hasan, Syria, Thessaly
My name is Hasan, i am 22 years old, Kurdish from Syria, and I have been in Greece for 2 years. I volunteer with InterVolve since July 2018 as a translator and cultural mediator, while I also lead the Young Men Activities at the Koutshochero camp.
InterVolve is actually doing a great job and has an amazing team. We are like a family, even though we are all here for different reasons, and we always support each other. The huge difference between the other organisations I have worked with and InterVolve is the professionalism, the awareness of how to deal with security issues, the diversity of activities and the hardworking and dedicated team.
Personally, I have learned a lot of things while volunteering with InterVolve, such as managing a project, estimating the budget, attending meetings and participating at the organisation’s strategy. There are many more things i would like to say about InterVolve, but they are beyond what I can express.
Jess, United Kingdom, Thessaly
Before volunteering with InterVolve I had little experience of humanitarian work and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Upon joining InterVolve I was happily surprised by the professional nature of the group and especially the amount of training and support available from the core team! I needn’t have been concerned about my lack of field experience as my field coordinator instantly found a way to show me how my skills could be used in a different way which meant right from the start I felt useful and like I was helping to make a difference. From seeing children who were initially too shy to leave their parents side – to now happily running off with friends, and seeing the change in our English club from only male residents, to almost a 50/50 split between men and women have been two profoundly simple highlights – which I think got to show how something as straightforward as a kids activity or a space to practice English has made a difference to the people we are trying to help. When I joined InterVolve it felt like joining a community - it’s exciting working with people who all share the same passion yet all have such different backgrounds and experience, which has helped me see a different side to things.
Marina, United Kingdom, Thessaly
I spent a month volunteering with my husband with InterVolve in Koutsochero refugee camp, near Larissa last year. Volunteering with InterVolve is busy and, at times, the hours can feel long. A month disappeared in front of our eyes, as each day was filled with all the activities that InterVolve provides on the camp. It’s difficult to know the benefits from all that InterVolve offers aside from the more tangible ones of providing food and clothing, but individual refugees there seemed to be very grateful. As volunteers, we could only hope that our human to human connections with the residents was beneficial. Interacting with both refugees and volunteers (from anywhere in the world), who have been brought together through adversity, is a hugely positive and rewarding experience.
Having planned a break in January the decision was, shall we hang out on a beach in Vietnam and eat delicious food or do we get involved with the refugee crisis. We had watched the nightmare unfold on our TV screen and been appalled by the indifference of the British public so perhaps it was time to do more than sort clothes at our local collection point.
A few weeks later we arrived as volunteers at the Softex refugee camp in Thessaloniki, it was minus five degrees and snowing. We were confronted by rows of filthy military tents inside a gloomy abandoned factory and lines of portacabins (caravans) outside in a muddy wasteland, the backdrop of a giant oil refinery completed the desperate scene.
On the first day we did a vegetable delivery, this enabled everyone to cook what they want rather than having to eat the monotonous military rations. Then it was working in the `boutique` giving out donated clothes and shoes. There really wasn’t time for a break or lunch and the exhausting day finished for us at 7 pm. As we drove away, the others in the team were getting ready for the next stage of the day, providing for people living in an abandoned train. The energy and dedication of the InterVolve team was really impressive.
The next three weeks were spent doing much the same, handing out everything from toothbrushes and nappies (diapers) to fruit and veg and underwear. It quickly became apparent that this had to be done in a friendly but respectful and dignified way. These people are not beggars but decent, honourable beings fleeing war who every right to expect help. Far from being endlessly grim, most days were upbeat and friendly with lots of laughter and fun with many offers of food and tea and opportunities for contact and conversation as far as language allowed. There were many high points especially in the boutique when individuals and families would come in with worn out clothes and sometimes they would find something they really loved and that fitted perfectly. Quite a few came out looking like film stars which gave them a huge smile and left us holding back floods of tears.
The chance to spend time with an impressive young team of dynamic, `insanely` hard working people was really heart- warming. But would I say that I had a` lovely` holiday—well probably not. What I had was something much more, an inspiring, life affirming reconnection with my own ideals and humanity.