I’ve been putting off writing about this for a long time for fear that I could not do justice to the experience. However I finally think I may have digested enough. Politics seems to be taking the front pages of the newspapers – here in the UK at least – so the refugee crisis has taken a backseat in the public mind for the time being. This doesn’t change the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are displaced.
Near the beginning of this year I got the chance to join a group of students at my university in travelling to Athens to volunteer. The group was brought together by a student at my university who lived in Athens and had spent Christmas volunteering in Lesvos. She had seen firsthand the people suffering and wanted to do what she could. People often ask whether I traveled with an NGO but the truth is, the situation is not that organised. Most of the work I saw is grass-roots, self-organised with little overarching organisation for an area.
We left home about 2.30am on a cold, misty night. We slept a four hour journey down to the airport and a two hour flight. We wondered zombie-like through the airport and metro and finally found ourselves in the blaring sun in central Athens. After dumping our bags at our AirBnB, we went out for a meal, fueled by the buzz of over-tiredness. Then we headed into the Athens night. This first walk through the humid, rainy city brought home what my week was set to be. None of us knew exactly where we were headed or what we would find. We were exhausted and got lost and I was near tears by the time we got back. But this was a rekkie. We had heard of a number of “houses” set up in abandoned buildings and providing space for as many people as they could. They were run by locals who had the bravery and initiative to make a difference. These places had space for only around 100 people at a time: tiny fraction of those who needed them.There were no maps or advertisements. We simply had to search. We visited two houses that night. Both had people sitting or standing outside, smoking or talking. Some eyed us with suspicion, some smiled. The houses were not built for people – one was an old tax office – and the narrow corridors were almost always full. Only one had any form of planning for volunteers that coming week and when we went to sign up, the schedule was empty.
The next couple of days, five of us took work at the house, while the others went elsewhere. Throughout the week we moved through the camps and home scattered about the city. Each place was so different yet our tasks were almost exclusively sorting, folding, and handing out donated clothing. The first day at the house, we spent hour after hour trying to get the piles, boxes, and shelves in some sort of order so people could find what they needed. I spent one afternoon literally up to my waste in baby clothes, close to despair as I tried to sort them into age groups and force them into the shelving space designed to take half the volume. At Piraeus, the port which seems to have become notorious for its camp, we sat in the dust on the floor of a huge, dark, cold, and grimy warehouse sorting and folding. At what had once been an Olympic hockey stadium, I spend two hours straight slicing bread and blistered my fingers in the process.
I only spent a week there and often I felt like giving up. Hours spent sorting would end in ten minutes of people, desperately searching for coats, scarves, basic clothing to protect them from the cold or replace what they had been wearing for days. By the time the panicked search was over, our hours of work would be totally undone. I can’t help but think of tales of Black Friday in America where violence breaks out over a good deal. Though searches here were desperate in some cases, the people took the clothing with such gratitude. These items were not only free but desperately needed yet those searching through would do all they could to thank us and if they spoke no English, to smile.
Things weren’t always pretty. One morning we found the warehouse had been broken into overnight. One time we had to turn away a pregnant woman asking for shoes, because we had none in her size. When handing out donations, we had to place a limit on what we gave so that everyone got a chance. It isn’t the place of a group of students to deny donations to people in need but the truth is, we could see no better way when there wasn’t enough to go around. It is hard to know how to reconcile yourself with that. Yet there was no clear agency to oversee things. I saw little more of Red Cross and UNHCR than the odd medical van. That is not to say they are not doing what they can. Simply that there is more to be done than seems possible.
One hot day we stood in a shipping container set along the slab of concrete in Piraeus that had become the home of so many, sorting donations for distribution later. The container acted like an oven and we took regular breaks to sit just outside, gulp down water and wipe the sweat from out faces. At regular intervals, people would approach. Some spoke in English, others pointed, all asking for water. In some cases we had to hug our bottles protectively to us “It’s for me. I can’t give it to you. I have no more to give. I’ll have nothing to drink.” We pointed them to the other end of the concrete: “water is that way”. But finally, one of our group decided to make sure our second-hand information was right so we sent off. We had been told a blue shipping container was doing water distributions but as we neared the end of the camp, we found nothing. Several medical vans and charity workers were about. We started with Red Cross. “We don’t know. Check UNHCR.” UNHCR sent us somewhere else. We bounced from place to place seeing no sign of water and I began to feel I had stepped out of reality and lost myself in a Kafka novel. Finally someone came out of one of the canteen to speak to us. She seemed exasperated. “We’re not giving out water bottles” she said as though it was the thousandth time that day. “There’s water on tap that’s fine to drink. They just don’t want to because they’ve come from places where you can’t drink tap water.” I wondered why she wasn’t telling the people around us that. Then I wondered why I wasn’t telling the people around us that. I couldn’t speak there language in most cases and what good was telling one or two people in a few thousand? We traipsed back to the shipping container demoralized. Others came by that afternoon to ask for water and we told them they could fill their bottles from the tap but later that day, when we were gone; that night when more people arrived; next week when god knows what was happening, who would be there to tell people where to get water from?
The essence of the crisis seemed to be that no one could plan ahead. Everyone is so busy just about managing that there is no space to breath and plan, let alone to communicate and coordinate. Everything we did was so necessary but it would be necessary all over again tomorrow.
I was near tears several times during the trip but they weren’t always unhappy. The moments so vivid in my mind were moments of utterly beautiful human nature. One afternoon during our break a group of children asked us by gesture to join their game of catch outside their parents’ tents. A striking woman in a turquoise scarf looked on protectively from one and although she said nothing to us, she looked so glad that her children had these moments of joy. When we went to leave, she called to us and held up a phone to take a photo of us with the children.
The next day one of the little girls from the game of catch ran up to me and held out her fist. I opened my palm and into it she dropped two gold plastic earrings. They are the sort of things I would have treasured for dressing up when I was her age. I would have put up a fight before letting anyone else take them, yet this girl with so little insisted that I take them. After I hugged her she ran away seeming quite happy, tailed by her little sister, who had acquired a plastic viking sword and helmet from the donations earlier that day.
I don’t know what will happen to those people who had such an impact on me, or to the thousands like them. I can’t pretend to have any expertise or begin to make suggestions. I only hope that the generosity and goodness I saw both in migrants and volunteers can begin to counteract the ugliness and difficulty of the situation. Bad things are happening but the only way to act, it seems to me is with some patience and compassion.
If you are considering volunteering, donating, or doing anything for this cause, I urge you to do so. Plan carefully and stay safe if you want to travel to any of the camps. The best way is to contact current volunteer co-coordinators via Facebook or email beforehand. There are a lot of people already doing incredible work but more is needed. Anything you can do is worthwhile. Expert help is especially treasured but the manual labour to get food and clothes to those in need is also great. I was there for a week and the situation varied from day to day so I can’t comment on how it compares now to when I went but if you are considering doing anything, I urge you to act.