To be honest it was never the plan to volunteer in a refugee camp when planing this trip - but luckily I met the right people at the right time! So I took this opportunity and hitchhiked to Ritsona where some friends I met in Athens, where already volunteering since a few days. As I arrived there, for a short time it seems that I couldn’t join the local volunteer team as they already had enough volunteers in the team and therefore they where not able to accommodate me in the rented volunteers house. Bam! My anticipation to do this and to work with refugees was destroyed all at once.
The days before I was thinking a lot about this and was really looking forward to help there. So I asked if it is not possible either because of the missing accommodation possibility or if they where really enough people in the team. From my short impression at that time it seams they could use every possible helping hand. As the following conversation showed me, it was really only an accommodation problem - so I asked if it is possible volunteer officially if I arise for my own accommodation; and this was possible. So I set up my camping equipment in the garden of the community house and started my volunteer work on the next day. After two days I got the offer to go to another refugee camp on Leros as there where to less volunteers and they where in need of more people for the upcoming winter clothes distribution. I accepted and two days later I joined the team on Leros.
The team on Leros was quite small compared to the one in Ritsona. The volunteers I met there just arrived within the last three weeks and it seams that the team was just rebuilding as it was evacuated in July the same year due to threats against charity organisations and its volunteers.
For the first week our main goal was to build up a “Boutique” where refugees could choose between different options of donated winter clothes such as a jumper, a long pair of pants and most importantly a warm jacket! Many of them still haven’t got anything warm to wear and the temperatures where already going slowly down during the nights. The distribution of the clothes went smoothly and mostly without problems. We had two cars to pick up the refugees in the hotspot1 and drive them to the storage facility, where the Boutique is located, and vice versa. Within a week we, a team of 9 people, managed to supply approximately 400 people with warm clothes for the winter. Awesome!
"This [the boutique] is the only place were they can choose. Everywhere else the choice is made for them"
The people where nearly all very thankful and happy for the work we’ve done.
Another big part during my stay on Leros was sorting boxes and bags of unsorted clothes, it sometimes felt like tones of it, mixed with all genders and age-groups. Looking at this kind of work I have to admit that it was definitely not my favourite work but when you actually see the result, for example someone is wearing a Jacket you have sorted out for the distribution, it was worth the time!
Beside the described responsibilities there were also shifts at “Pikpa”. Pikpa is a building operated by LSN (Leros Solidarity Network) that accompanies some families and minors that where on their own. When working on shifts at Pikpa you where free to do what ever you want - that maybe reads a little bit perplexing - getting a shift and do something but not getting a real “job description” but that was fine! So most of the time I spent there was playing with the children, talking to the people and listening to the stories of them. I also very enjoyed playing chess with one of the minors. He started playing three months ago and was already at a level many people don’t even reach when playing for years. He gave me constructive feedback on what moves I shouldn’t have done as well as why he has made a specific move - he was my teacher!
The official part of the shifts there where mostly food distribution of breakfast, lunch and dinner - official because most of the time the refugees served themselves by distributing the food to their people and cleaning up afterwards. We where mostly just there to check that everything is going smoothly and to help out if needed.
When it comes to the topic food I have to say that I’m very disappointed what I have seen. Not only on Leros but especially in Ritsona. You could tell the week day by getting the food delivery. Not much variations in the dishes and always tastes the same! Imagine being stuck for over eight months in a camp and getting the same tasteless food over and over again - I would reject it as well!
In Ritsona food was delivered in plastic boxes and wasn’t eatable at all most of the time. I’ve tried it! The food there was delivered by the military, 500 rations three times a day. Many people complained about the food and this is totally understandable. Most of them only took the bread, the milk, sometimes the juice (for the children) and cheese as well as the vegetables. When the military arrived with the food we unloaded the truck and brought it into the storage for distribution. A few minutes later a local charity organisation arrived to pick up as much of the food as possible to redistribute it to local Greeks that couldn’t afford food by themselves. About two third of the food was given away immediately to another local Greek charity organisation because it was not good and otherwise would have been trashed by us with the other third of the leftover food after the distribution to the refugees! Sadly I wasn’t able to find out the daily budget per refugee for food - I guess the money could be better invested in building a community kitchen and supply them with fresh ingredients instead! As far as I know the contract with the military is running out at the end of December and I really hope that they find a better solution for all this waste! As a dumpster diver, I was close to tears when I had to dump away that much food! But that’s not only a problem in refugee camps it is a worldwide problem - especially in well developed countries! We as humans are destroying this wonderful planet by wasting tons of resources and throwing it away just because it is not good enough to sell or we have just produced to much of it! But that’s another part of the story I could easily write pages on it…
Another great project I was involved with on Leros, sadly for just a short time, was the garden project. Near Pikpa ECHO100Plus - the organisation I was volunteering for, rented a small house with a big garden. Milda, a volunteer from Lithuania, encouraged some refugees to plant their own food there. After a few days the first families were found - everybody got a small field in the garden where they where able to cultivate food they like such as beetroot, onions, garlic and some spices.
I liked that idea and the refugees who where involved too! One of them was so exited about the garden, and maybe also because he had some activity again, that this person stayed longer and also was one of the first persons in the garden - even if this activity wasn’t planed for that day! Great! He couldn’t speak a word English, therefore the communication was hard but with hand signs and gestures; sometimes just a smile you could see that he was happy.
I’m very happy that I got the opportunity to volunteer with refugees. I learned way more than I have ever expected, met a lot of awesome people and my picture on the whole refugee “crisis” changed. I’m sad that wealthy countries within the European Union are not doing more for the refugees and I also wish that I could have spent more time there.
- ECHO100Plus, charity organisation website & facebook
- Voices of Refugees, a collection of stories on human displacement - website & facebook
Hotspot is the name for a European Union-supervised registration center⏎