Welcome to part 3 of the recap of my volunteer trip to Greece.
If you would prefer to listen to this post as a podcast, it’s now available by clicking the links below:
Otherwise… read on!
As you may know, I recently crowdfunded a campaign to go to Greece and help out in the refugee camps there. In last week’s podcast (which was Episode 43), you’ll hear stories of my second week over there – after finishing up at Ritsona Camp on the mainland, I headed out to an island called Chios, where boats full of refugees were regularly arriving from Turkey.
I’ll pick up where I left off in last week’s post. I know that I promised to tell you about the Port shift and being on call for boat arrivals, so here goes…
The volunteer group that I was working with, which was CESRT (Or Chios Eastern Shore Response Team), has a very organised way of attending boat arrivals. Volunteers would take turns to be the ones to run and jump.
A couple of volunteers would be rostered on to what was called Port Shift. They would head to the port just before daybreak (around 4:30 or 5am) to keep an eye out for boats. Just before the sunrise is the most common time for boats to arrive, as they set out from Turkey in the dark to avoid detection, aiming to land at first light in Greece. If the Greek coastguard picked them up, they would be towed into port, which was why we waited there.
(Scenes from our port shift – That’s Turkey you can see over there)
Next, there was On Call Duty: Volunteers would go on call, phones on, ready to run and jump should a boat arrive. If a boat came in somewhere other than the port, or if there were lots of refugees landing at once, these volunteers would get a call up and they’d have to jump out of bed and drive to where the boat was.
If a boat did arrive, the volunteers would race to the scene of the landing and hand out blankets, dry clothes, food and water. Of course they would also offer first aid and comfort to those who hadn’t fared the passage well. There were often women and children on the boats that needed extra attention. If the CESRT team could make it there before the authorities, they would have more time to help the refugees before they were whisked away on a bus for processing. Teams also had hyperthermia training and carries those foil space blankets, in case they found someone who wasn’t coping after being drenched in the freezing cold. You have to remember that at the time I was over there, temperatures were getting down to about 2 degrees overnight.
(This is the Port Hut, where refugees were often given shelter, food and water in the night)
It was said that it was a privilege to be able to do this job, to be able to assist these people and bring them comfort and support, to welcome them to the EU and show them that there are people there who care. I did a port shift and an on call shift while I was there, but we didn’t have any arrivals those nights. It was said that 3 boats tried to leave Turkey at 6am on the morning I did port shift, but they must have been turned back by either the EU or Turkish coastguards. If you want to know about how and why these people come across by boat, it’s all there in last week’s episode, so make sure you go and check it out – it’s fascinating.
2 days after I left Chios, the weather improved and the boats started arriving again. 140 people arrived in one night. In a way I was disappointed that I wasn’t there to help, but I was glad that no one has crossed in the freezing cold and wind while I’d been on watch. I also know that the people arriving were receiving the best quality care possible from the CESRT team, and that’s all that matters.
So, after the refugees land, they’re then taken away in buses to the camps on the island. There are a couple of camps on Chios, known as Souda and Vial. As volunteers we didn’t have access to Vial (and we heard it was pretty horrific in there – maybe that’s why outsiders are not usually allowed in), so our focus when volunteering with CESRT was to work at Souda.
The occupants of Souda are living in tents, which is odd, since the Greek government recently made a statement that ALL the refugee camps have now been winterised and the tents have been swapped out for lockable Isoboxes. While this may have been the case in Ritsona Camp where I was on the mainland, it certainly wasn’t the scene I saw in Souda. There were dozens of tents. Apart from being more exposed to the elements, tents provide other issues too. We were told Souda had a rat problem – then rats were gnawing through the canvas, and even putting bunches of steel wool in the corners of the tents wasn’t deterring them. The tents were also more of a fire risk – occupants weren’t allowed to cook in them, but they still smoked inside, and the week after I left, one of the tents burned down. Also, tents aren’t lockable, which makes it less safe and secure, especially for women and children.
(Hey Government! With all due respect, these sure look like tents to me)
There was a definite air of tension in the camp. There was very little happiness, no laughter, no lightness of spirit. The feeling was heavy, downcast, bleak and on edge.
But we were there to try and change that, in some small (but hopefully meaningful) way. One of the most simple, yet very effective initiatives that CESRT had created was the daily tea service. Every day at exactly the same time, a small army of volunteers would rock up with the biggest urns you’ve ever seen, ready to serve tea to whoever might want to come out of their tents to have a cuppa. It was a great way to break up the day for the people living in the camps, and it gave them a reason to come outside, even when it was cold.
It was so cold we had to wrap blankets around the urns to keep them warm!
It seemed like it was also an informal English language session. Us volunteers would hold cups, milk and sugar, and we would strike up a conversation with anyone who seemed keen for a chat. I would ask them their name, where they were from, how old their kids were, how many kids they had… you know, simple, get-to-know-you questions. Serving the tea was a really nice way to break the ice. People would come up and ask for sugar, and they would count the spoonfuls (oh, and you do NOT want to know how many spoonfuls these people put in their tea!). Most people were extremely polite and used please and thankyou and gave us a little smile. I liked the way some of the men would say “thankyou, sister” when I gave them a cup – that was really lovely.
Pretty much the only time you’ll ever see me holding a bag of sugar!
As I continued to turn up to camp every day, I began to get to know some of the characters there. And I’d like to share a couple of their stories with you.
First was a bright young man from Syria known as EKD.
EKD had a spark about him from the get-go. He was energetic and charismatic, and was one of the only people in the camp who smiled with genuine enthusiasm. I could tell that it was probably all a bit of a mask to cover up some shit that he’d no doubt seen, but I loved his conscious decision to choose joy in the small moments, even if it was something as simple as tea.
The first thing I noticed about him was a very American accent, and I even heard him use the word “D’oh!” in a sentence, just like Homer Simpson! It turns out that he learned English from watching TV, primarily American TV shows. I found out that he can’t read or write very well, but you could tell he was super smart and he had an aptitude for picking up languages easily.
He’d already done his research about Australia, and he asked me whether we actually use the term “put another shrimp on the barbie.” I laughed and assured him that we don’t! (We also explained to him that in Australia, they’re actually called prawns anyway). I also tried to teach him some alternative Australian-isms, like how to use “yeah, nah” in a sentence or terms like “chuck a u-ie.” He soaked up any new information like a sponge, and you could tell he was locking it all away for later use. I wondered what kind of job someone like EKD would get once he is settled in Europe – unable to read and write, but highly intelligent and extremely quick witted – what an interesting combo.
EKD was also a bit of a dreamer, perhaps an idealist. He had a tattoo painted on his neck in henna, it said “We all bleed the same blood.” I loved it and he let me take a photo of it – you’ll see the pic on my blog post, which is up now.
Then there was the boy from Morocco – I didn’t learn his name. He’d been persecuted in his own country and came to Greece, like everyone else, by boat. He said to us, “Morocco might be a nice place to visit for you, but for me it is not safe”. I could tell he was a bit of an outcast – not Syrian, not Afghani, not Iraqi, so he was not really befriended or taken under the wing by anyone. He had the kindest eyes – they reminded me of Pharell Williams.
I could tell that he was essentially a good person, but he seemed lost – hanging out with the wrong crowd – his friends were a bunch of misfits, fringe dwellers who you could tell were trouble. On my last day there, I found my Moroccan friend to give him a hug and say goodbye. The hardest part was the reality of telling him that I was leaving. When he asked where I was going, I replied “I’m going home” and suddenly realized how much weight that statement had. I had a home to go to, he didn’t, and it all just felt so insensitive all of a sudden. I still think about that kid (I call him a kid but her was probably 19 or 20). His vulnerability was so dangerous in a place like that. I understand now why the NGOs there tell you not to friend the people you meet on facebook, or swap numbers and keep in touch. You get so attached to people so quickly, and it seems like a nice idea to stay friends, but you have to remember that as volunteers, we move on, but they can’t. It’s so hard to respect that rule though, but I guess it’s a rule for a very good reason.
Overall, I felt like a fair few people in the camps were slowly going crazy. Traumatised, stuck, made to wait, put in a pressure cooker, looked down upon by the authorities, not given a whole lot of hope… it’s a recipe for mental illness. I saw a real lack of support for those suffering from PTSD, I think it was kinda accepted that pretty much everyone had PTSD to some degree, but I didn’t see a lot of action being taken to support people in order to improve their mental health. Seriously – bravo to groups like CESRT for creating activities like tea service and English lessons – they were a simple but valuable step that gave life in the camps some kind of routine and normality. It’s a shame there just aren’t the resources available to do a whole lot more than that. I guess that’s the harsh reality of war.
And PTSD wasn’t just limited to adults.
When I was working in the childcare centre, I was playing with a young boy who was 8 or 9 years old. He found a large tub that contained loads of those hard plastic animal figurines, you know the type – each plastic animal was around 8-10cm long. There were farm animals, wild animals, domestic animals, dinosaurs – you name it. Anyway, what he’d do was pick out 2 animals – one for him and one for me. He would motion for us to make our animals run towards each other. Then he’d get his animal to jump all over my animal, and he’d make a loud noise like a bomb exploding, like “whoooooosh!” Then he’s grab my now-dead animal and throw it to one side. Then he’d select me a new replacement animal and repeat the process. “Whoooooosh, boom” and another lifeless plastic animal was cast aside. Pretty soon I had a pile of about 20 dead animals next to me. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t have kids, and was a little out of my depth. I wasn’t sure whether to let him keep going, or to tell him to stop, or tell him it was wrong to kill things like that. I decided to let him keep going with the carnage – I thought maybe this was all part of him processing some stuff. Anyway, when talking about it with some volunteers later on, I found out that not only did he have PTSD, he saw his father get hit by a bomb in Syria. Talk about full on. Like, how does a kid even come back from that? I’m glad I didn’t try to stop his game of blowing up the farm animals. I figured he’s got a lot to work through, if working through that kind of stuff is even possible.
By the way, this is why I LOVED the children’s centre provided by CESRT. It gives kids (and parents) a safe place to play and hang out and hopefully heal a little. And this is why they need this space so badly.
Speaking of which, I’m still waiting to hear back on a final price from Janne to install air conditioning in the children’s centre. In order to have it fitted, they’re first going to have to upgrade the electricity supply to the building, so it may cost a little more than we first thought. It’s a stretch but I think we may be able to draw upon some more sponsors and get a few more donations. If you’re interested in developments, keep an eye out on my Facebook page or in my newsletter – I’ll keep you posted via those places. If you would like to make a donation, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can put you in touch with the right people.
(Pic courtesy of CESRT)
I hope you enjoyed my 3 part series on my trip to Greece. It certainly was a big adventure, a very fulfilling job, and it’s something that I would love to do again.
Make sure you follow me on Facebook for more updates on how your donations were spent. We are still waiting for a final quote for air conditioning for the Children’s Centre, so I’ll keep you posted on what happens there.
A huge and heartfelt thank you again to EVERYONE who donated and made this trip to Greece possible. I hope I’ve done you proud over there! It’s truly been a life changing experience for me, and I hope I’ve helped (in some small way) to make life in the camps a better place for the refugees.
If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer (or just want to know more about the organisations mentioned in the podcast), here are some links for you:
Involvement Volunteers International:
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