Refugee Crisis: Volunteering in Greece

Sorry for not posting in a while, its been a super busy/crazy few months – studying for the big pre-registration exam/working but it’s over now (woohoo!) A couple of days after my exam Jack and I headed over to Greece to relax for a few days and then to volunteer in refugee camps in Thessaloniki.

Jack’s previous volunteering in Lesvos and Calais this year inspired me to join him and help the refugees. So this year instead of travelling for a few weeks, I had a couple of weeks off work and we decided to have a short holiday for the first half and then to volunteer for the second half. Our holiday was really amazing, but the experience I gained from visiting refugee camps/volunteering superseded it completely. Jack and I were incredibly fortunate to able to spend time helping refugees in a practical way.

The current refugee crisis is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, there are 65.3M displaced from the collapse of Syria and Iraq as well as the horrors of Afghanistan, Sudan, Lebanon etc, etc. This means that 1 in 113 on the planet are are refugees, asylum seekers or displaced (UNHCR figures). When we were in Thessaloniki 2 weeks ago, we visited various refugee camps during the day – spoke to refugees, delivered aid and in the evening we helped to build accommodation (transforming an old jeans factory and plastic recycling ground into a warm and welcoming home where 800 refugees can live with dignity and respect. Whilst I was out there, I reflected on what I saw/what I did and below are two mini diary entries of my time there.

Initial Reflections

Update from Thessaloniki (Divya and Jack):

We are four days into our week in Thessaloniki so I thought I would share some of my observations and reflections with my wonderful donors/readers. Our first two days here have elicited entirely different emotions and have left us feeling an equal measure of anger, hope and sadness.

Our first day volunteering was spent with Together For Better Days. This volunteer run NGO, is a re-incarnation of Better Days For Moria, a refugee camp in Lesvos where Jack had worked in January. This project, based on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, is attempting to show that with an equivalent amount of money to a “standard” military – IGO – NGO camp, a permanent refugee residence can be built where basic human rights & living conditions can be met.

Context: The vast majority of the 58,000 (UNHCR figures) Refugees (25,000 children) currently being detained in Greece are living in Factory – Refugee camps that do not meet the sanitary, fire risk or safety standards necessary to keep livestock. I will anecdotally describe these conditions later having visited many of these internment camps today.

Furthermore, Together For Better Days is striving to have all the facilities of a functioning village (Not the case for the vast majority of other camps). These amenities include; an education centre, permanent and sterile medical wing, women’s centre, children’s play area, adults integration centre, farmland etc. The aim is to be able to make a self-sufficient oasis for those most in need, prove the concept and then replicate it across the continent.

The great news is that we hope to welcome the first 200 (of 800 in total) residents very soon. Their accommodation is ventilated, clean and relatively comfortable (3.5m2 floor space per person) dormitories for large families, with beds and storage for each individual (*See Elpida photo diary). While it may not sound like a lot, this is a relative luxury compared with the filthy, re-used tenting that is common in most refugee camps across the continent (Where the majority sleep on rocks under tents or in incredibly hot, dangerous warehouses).

Together for better days is entirely reliant on donors and are incredibly grateful for any donations given, so again, we ask that if any of you are fortunate enough to be able to donate anything; time, money or materials, it will all be welcomed and fully utilised. As previously mentioned, the vast majority of the 100+ camps in Greece fall short in almost every metric when it comes to meeting basic human living conditions. They are filthy, hot, poorly wired, overcrowded with little to no medical, educational, religious and communal facilities. One of the camps we visited yesterday, Kordelio-Softex, is home to around 1000 refugees. When we say home, we mean home; it is expected that the average time for an asylum application will be 3-5 years, with some NGO’s predicting that it will take 17 years for all 58,000 refugees currently in Greece to be registered and housed in the continent. It is infuriating and profoundly heart-breaking to know that tens of thousands (40% of the refugees in Greece are children) of children will grow up in these camps, with their only memories of their time on earth being of war, loss, grief, intolerance, racism, segregation, poverty and squalor.

Some of the living conditions in the refugee camps we visited

Kordelio-softex refugee camps - here we met some of the most amazing/welcoming families. We spent some time getting to know them/hearing their heartbreaking stories and they wouldn't let us leave without a cup of coffee. It truly amazes me that those that have the least, want to always give you the most. The refugees here ( including newborns, children, pregnant women and the elderly) sleep on these sharp stones. I met one refugee whom is wheelchair bound and is unable to leave his tent due to the difficulty in pushing his wheelchair over these stones. The reality is that, this will be their situation for the next five years...
Kordelio-softex refugee camps – here we met some of the most amazing/welcoming families. We spent some time getting to know them/hearing their heartbreaking stories and they wouldn’t let us leave without a cup of coffee. It truly amazes me that those that have the least, want to always give you the most. The refugees here (including newborns, children, pregnant women and the elderly) sleep on these sharp stones. I met one refugee whom is wheelchair bound and is unable to leave his tent due to the difficulty in pushing his wheelchair over these stones. The reality is that, this will be their situation for the next five years…

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Imagine this was your bathroom for the next FIVE years? Its flooded and smells terrible. When you go to a festival, you complain about the smell coming from the portaloos...this is the smell that people will have to smell whilst living here...
Imagine this was your bathroom for the next FIVE years? Its flooded and smells terrible. When you go to a festival, you complain about the smell coming from the portaloos…this is the smell that people will have to smell whilst living here…
How many extension leads can one plug hold?
Two of the 25,000 children sleeping on stones – these two adorable refugees ran up to Jack and I when we entered the camp and just wanted to play with us! They were adorable. When I think about what the future holds for them, I can’t help but shed a tear.

Additionally – after visiting the residents of and looking around a number of camps in the greater Thessaloniki area – we drove to the Macedonian border to see the infamous Idomeni camp. While the camp has now been bulldozed (including schools, religious centres etc), and the 10,000+ refugees moved into the aforementioned permanent “residence”, there is a palpable air of suffering and loss of hope. This is where you may have seen images or footage of thousands of families sleeping on rail tracks in the winter/spring and the EU decided to close all of the borders and cauterise the flow of refugees. There are many sites where the scale of human suffering leaves an enduring heavy atmosphere; Idomeni is one of them. When I type “Idomeni refugee camp” into google, these images appear:

This make-shift refugee camp at the Greece-Macedonia border was destroyed over night – as refugees gathered the few belongings they had left they watched their tents and temporary homes get flattened and cleared overnight. The borders were closed and fences were built around the border to prevent refugees from leaving Greece and so many were forced to Thessaloniki.

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Hundreds slept on these railway tracks freezing temperatures

These are images I captured of the remains..

If reading this elicits anger, frustration, hope, envy or any motivational sentiments within you, we encourage you to act on those emotions and join this or a similar project. This is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, there are 63.4 million displaced from the collapse of Syria and Iraq as well as the horrors of Afghanistan, Sudan, Lebanon etc, etc. While the focus of the British media has shifted to the circus of domestic uncertainties and terrifying US elections, the suffering of hundreds of thousands of fellow men, women and children here in Europe continues.

I, (Divya) have only spent a few days here and this experience has opened my eyes, to the cruelty and suffering that humanity has inflicted on these people. These ‘refugees’ are people are just like you and I. They come from good families, had good jobs and just because of their postcode, this is now their life. One day they woke up and went to work as normal and when they came home, they were forced to face a sudden existential threat and abandon their homes, their business, jobs, family, friends, everything they have worked towards and migrate across Europe often losing many family members along the way. It truly is heartbreaking.

One of the hardest things to watch, was seeing young children, pregnant women, elderly and newborns sleeping on stone (so sharp I couldn’t even walk on it) in tents with strangers that they now have to call family, especially when you know that this will be their bed for the next five years.

When I sit and reflect and realise, that so many of these children will not receive an education it really resonates with me. Their only childhood memories will be, of living in a refugee camp, without access to education.

This is the beginning of my volunteering journey and am planning on returning of a few weeks in August, if you would like to join please do. I could not recommend it enough, I cannot articulate how much of an impact practical work can have. Volunteers are involved in fundraising, building/renovating accommodation, co-ordinating manual labour, distribution, decorating, art work, cleaning, talking/listening to refugees, cooking, medical/pharmacy work, teaching and so much more, the opportunities to help here are infinite.

If you are in a position to donate materials (*see list at the end of this post) or money, please please do – the smallest donation i.e. your morning coffee allowance can have a profound impact. We have self-funded this entire trip so every penny (100% of your donation) donated will go to those that need it the most.

To donate: https://www.gofundme.com/divya-malhotra

To volunteer: Together for better days: http://togetherforbetterdays.org

Elpida photo diary (first)

Photographs of some of the initial stages of Elpida’s transformation

The surrounding grounds at the factory was piled one storey high with recycled plastic – the incredible volunteers physically cleared this all away…
This a photograph I have taken from Together for better days (TFBD) facebook page – it’s the back of the warehouse that will become outdoor communal space for the refugees.
Gardening and landscaping
Initial stages of outdoor sports area: the volunteers clearing piles of junk to help create outdoor sports area.



Initial stage of outdoor kitchen transformation: Dismantling and cleaning outdoor storage next to pizza oven & bbq.
Caterpillar in children’s play area
Designing floor plans – Greek builders creating 3 large floors into 300 dormitory style bedrooms with recreational, cooking and communal areas.
Lighting and ventilliation installation

The progress made here in 4 weeks was truly incredible

Corridor on level 3
The bedrooms are bright, airy with views of the surrounding countryside
The beds can be arranged as single beds or bunk bunks

Washing up area

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Priming the outdoor kitchen storage area
A few car tyres + a bunch of creative volunteers and TA DA! Recognise what that mushroom table was before?

Decorations made from recycled plastic bottles

Sports area

Education centre
Acupuncture tent
Indoor computer area…we have screen but no computers, donations anyone?
Jack building bedroom cupboards


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TA DA! If you have an idea, you just go with it. Lovely benches built and designed by some of the talented volunteers.

Two super talented-creative girls transforming this house into a home with their wonderful ideas, signs and arty skills!


Final reflections

My volunteering in Thessaloniki has come to an end and I’m struggling coming to terms with what the future holds for many refugees. Not only has this experience opened my eyes, but also it has affected me emotionally and made me realise that you and I are some of the luckiest people on this planet.

During my final day, myself and some of the other volunteers, were invited to eat lunch with one of the families we had met in the refugee camps. Not only did they prepare a beautiful meal for us, despite having the bare minimum, they made us feel so welcome. In fact almost every single person I walked past in these camps would greet with me with ‘hello, welcome, welcome’ and always insist you joined them for a cup of tea. The more and more I hear/see how terribly some of these people are treated, the more and more it breaks my heart. One refugee I met said, “British people hate refuges”, and another “No-one wants us, we are treated like animals”. This is hard enough to hear, but when you sit and think about it, it’s even worse. We, as a nation have portrayed that we “hate” refugees. I know that this is not true, but sadly it is a message that Britain have sent to many of the displaced refugees…

Ivy and I bought and distributed puzzles, board games, colouring books, crayons, board games, skipping ropes, playing cards, frisbees and baby wipes amongst some of the refugees. Of course, shelter, food and supplies are of primary importance, but also Ivy and I felt it was felt that it was important ensure the children were entertained and busy, as thousands of them are unable to leave their campsite. They cannot walk to the shops or go into town – they are essentially prisoners but haven’t actually committed any crimes. Some of the volunteers spent their time teaching sports, languages, maths and english. As I have mentioned before, ~25,000 of the refugees are children, most of whom won’t receive education whilst in these refugee camps. So what happens in 5 years; will the majority of these children be illiterate?

Jack spent his final morning picking up Salih and his mother, Mürvet from hospital, before returning them to their camp. On my final morning, Yasemin took me to meet Salih and his beautiful family. Yasemin and I played with Salih and his brother Runi, we spoke with many of the refugees and heard their stories/experiences. Mürvet kindly prepared some fruit for us and Mahran made me a necklace and showed us his impressive collection of Art made from recycled materials, pieces of fence, trashed pop cans, little pieces of iron and wires – a wonderfully talented man.

One of the hardest things that these refugees have to face is the constant uncertainty: How long will they be living in these conditions? How will the children receive an education? When will the borders open? When can they get asylum? So many unanswered questions…I met a 1st year medical student that wanted to return to Syria because the conditions were so poor/future was so bleak. Yes, he would rather face the threat of being bombed/shot everyday than living in these conditions and he is not alone, several young professionals (lawyers, engineers, architects, pharmacists etc expressed the same concern). If you saw the video I previously posted about the state of Aleppo, I’m sure this illustrates how poor the conditions are.

When I sit and reflect…families up to 10 sleep on stone/concrete, in the torturous heat/cold. For the next five years/foreseeable future, their toilet will be a portaloo, children cannot go to school, adults cannot work and they are fed pretty terrible food… it goes on and on.

Onto some positive news…for one of the first times ever during this refugee crisis, there is a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. I have been working with Together for better days (TFBD), a non-profit organisation that believe that there is a humane solution to this global issue – they believe in creating a welcoming and dignified space for people seeking protection in Europe by spreading hope. As I mentioned in my last post, the aim is to be able to make a self-sufficient oasis for those most in need.

Whilst many of the super talented volunteers were making all things carpentry (tables, seating areas, storage, education centre), creating chill out/sports/relaxation areas, landscaping, cooking, cleaning etc….I spent 4 days transforming old rusty storage into outdoor kitchen area next to the bbq/pizza oven with a group of volunteers. We dismantled, de-rusted, primed, painted and designed this storage and cannot wait to see how 800 refugees utilise it when they arrive. The team at TFBD have transformed an abandoned warehouse into a home. They are truly amazing people.

To every single refugee I have met, you are so special, so creative/talented/intelligent and I hope that my work, the work of the incredible volunteers, donations can help us move closer to some certainty of a future.

I plan to go back for a few weeks to continue volunteering – and to hopefully help in the camps pharmacy, work with medical teams in various camps, teach fitness classes, English and help in any practical way I can.

I have self-funded this entire trip, there have been no registration/enrolment fees etc. and so 100% of your donations have been used to buy supplies, medicines, food, clothes, building materials etc. for those that need it most. Again, I would like to thank you all to those that have donated. You are wonderful.

I ask again that if you could donate anything – yourself (practical help –come join me, it’ll be the best thing you’ll ever do), materials, medicines or a few coins – I cannot express how helpful it will be. Now that I am back at work, my only contribution to the refugee crisis will be funding. So please if you can, donate as little as the equivalent to your morning coffee allowance –together we can help fund a stable home/future for so many families.

You and I are truly are some of the luckiest people on this planet, never take that for granted.

Elpida photo diary (second)

The Outdoor kitchen area

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Ivy and I buying activities and baby wipes for some of the refugees (thank you for your donations, 100% of them are spent the refugees)

 

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Some of Mahran’s art
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A handful of some of the volunteers – some of the best people I’ve ever met.
Spring cleaning? Fancy donating some old clothes and bits n bobs?

Not only have these people often lost their homes, family and belongings – they are living in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable and require everything and anything you or I would need to build a new life, survive and be comfortable. Below is a list of suggested items needed in some of the camps over in Greece. If you are getting rid of old things, doing some spring cleaning or want to donate anything – I will be sending/taking stuff over when I go back to volunteer in 2 weeks.

Refugee items wish list

• Clothes for all ages/sexes (new-borns, children, teenagers, adults, elderly)
• Shoes and accessories
• Hygiene items (baby wipes, nappies, soaps, sanitizer, sanitary towels, general toiletries etc.)
• Medicines
• Toys, games and activities for children and adults
• General sports equipment (balls, rackets, nets, ping pong, tennis, badminton, bicycles etc.)
• Language learning, activity books, educational books
• All things arty: Stationary, paint etc.
• Electronic: computers, TV, projector, screens, photocopier, mobile phones etc.
• Cloths for sewing, wool, cushions, curtains, sewing machine
• Tables, chairs, shelving, home furnishings
• Kitchenware and appliances: cooking utensils, cutlery, crockery, pots/pans, rolling pins, wooden spoons, kitchen towels etc.

If you would like to donate anything/get involved please get in touch with me at: d.malhotra@rgu.ac.uk

To donate money (100% of your donations go direct to those in need, we have complete autonomy over the donations, so far I have bought supplies (water, medicines, hygiene items, clothes, activities etc. for refugees I have met as well as construction materials for Elpida): https://www.gofundme.com/divya-malhotra

Thanks for reading these super lengthy posts, I will post regular updates during my next trip in a couple of weeks – Elpida should be up and running completely!

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