01 Mar Episode 42: My Trip to Greece – Part 1
Hello! And welcome to the first of my little series about my trip to Greece.
As most of you will know, I headed off to Greece on the 5th of February to join up with a group organised by Involvement Volunteers International. There were around 30 of us – doctors, nurses, naturopaths, nutritionists, and other allied health workers. Our mission was to break up into smaller groups and head to various refugee camps throughout Greece to volunteer our time and expertise wherever needed.
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(Photo courtesy of Jason Mac – @believeinacause)
Our first stop was a big meetup in Athens. After getting to know our team members, and a quick (and freezing!) early morning sightseeing trip to the Acropolis and Parthenon, our first job was to help out some people living locally. Some of our group had identified some refugees living rough in Athens, and wanted to help bring them some healthy food. A few of us went to the local produce market (which was an awesome experience in itself!), and I bought oranges and bananas for 100 people, and ingredients to make a healthy muesli slice. Then we headed back to Khora House, a place that looks after refugees, and with the help of their commercial kitchen, we cooked up a storm, and then assembled bags to give out.
Some members of the group had sourced other foods like bread and hummus, and in no time at all the care packages were made. Then we handed them over to a team who went out in the depths of the night to distribute them. As our volunteers pounded the pavements, they came across a fair few local homeless people too, so the locals ended up being well fed, and were grateful for the help.
Next up – I prepared to be sent north to a camp called Ritsona, where together with an NGO called Lighthouse Relief we would be working with pregnant and breastfeeding women. One of our aims in this camp would be to keep women breastfeeding, especially with babies who were 0-6 months old, as this dramatically decreases infant mortality rates in the camps. After a quick brainstorm as to how best to support these women, our group set off to the nearby shopping district in Athens to look for herbs. We came across the most amazing shop that stocked just about every herb you could ever imagine – it was a nerdy herbalist’s wet dream – I felt like I was in disneyland for naturopaths! Everywhere you turned, there were bulk herbs for sale, which you could take home and use as tea. Amazing quality herbs too – many were wildcrafted, which means they’re grown and gathered in the wild rather than farmed, and heaps of organic produce too. From what I could see, the Greeks are really big on organic farming, which was really good to see!
The shopkeeper could hardly believe how many bags of herbs we bought! We had a great time comparing our herbal medicine knowledge with hers – we both learned new uses for old favourites.
Sharyn and I put together a blend for breastfeeding tea. It contained herbs that are known to increase milk production and flow, plus the added benefit was that by drinking the tea, the women were becoming more hydrated, which also helps to produce more milk. There were also herbs in there to promote relaxation, which in turn helps to improve the flow of breast milk.
But we didn’t stop there. What about the other women in the camp – you know, the ones who aren’t breastfeeding? What could we do to help them? So after asking about what other health issues we might see in the camps, we also came up with a cough and cold tea, a calming tea, and a general wellbeing tea (so that no one felt left out). We also had several tubs of protein powder (courtesy of Bioceuticals) to take to the camp, to assist women who were not getting enough protein.
So, armed with all these goodies, we headed north to a seaside town called Chalkida and met up with the Lighthouse Relief crew, who took us into Ritsona.
Ritsona Team – Shay, Myself, Sharyn, Lauren and Sammy
Ritsona camp had recently been winterised. This means that the residents were no longer living in tents, but they’re now in what’s called Isoboxes – tiny little shipping container type buildings, each one housing up to 7 residents. They were super small, but each managed to fit a little kitchen space and a toilet. During the day, the beds were turned into a modular living space, and then back into a sleeping area at night. In their infinite wisdom, either the government or one of the NGOs had given out a bunch of steel framed beds, which obviously didn’t suit the needs of the residents, so they had been put outside and repurposed into makeshift drying racks for washing. I was like “What’s with all the single bed frames outside the Isoboxes?” and it was explained to me that quite often refugees are given things that are inappropriate for their needs, and this was clearly one of those cases. But at least nothing goes to waste here!
Speaking of inappropriate… OMG… the food. Seriously, do NOT even start me. I got to see what people are being fed, and it was NOT good. People were being given ready made meals in the form of army-style rations. Actually, to call them “meals” wouldn’t be quite right. They were totally gross. They made my airline food on the way over look like the most gourmet shit ever. One ration/meal was just boiled potatoes. Another was some unidentifiable meat, and some old, manky coleslaw. The World Health Organisation standard for preventing malnutrition in refugees is 2000 calories per day. But there don’t seem to be a lot of guidelines being followed for exactly how those 2000 calories were to be delivered. So if you take a portion of old coleslaw and add some crappy hydrogenated vegetable oil in order to increase the calories, that’s apparently ok. Understandably, a lot of these meals were going uneaten, which was such a waste of everyone’s time and money! The NGOs at the camp were then burdened with the task of trying to repurpose the food (if you can call it food) by organising for it to be delivered to places like the local prisons or homeless people.
Now, before you think that the refugees are being ungrateful in some way by turning down this food, bear in mind that the residents of Ritsona have just been switched to Isoboxes with kitchen facilities. It’s not like some camps where they’re in tents and they’re not allowed to have fires or open flames. These people want to cook and have the ability to do so! Yet they’re being given crappy ration food instead of ingredients. There’s a lot of politics involved as to why this is the case, and I won’t get into it except to say that it may have to do with who is in charge and how the money is changing hands – after all, certain companies have won contracts to feed the camps, and of course, there are various parties profiting from the food distribution, so I don’t necessarily think the system has the refugees’ best interests at heart. But politics aside… want to know Lighthouse Relief’s solution? They decided not to try to change the rations right now. Instead… Give out ingredients and encourage people to cook for themselves. Yay! Cooking not only results in a better quality of food, it also brings back a sense of dignity, normality and purpose.
Here we are packing take-home bags for our beneficiaries
Pregnant and breastfeeding women in the camp are currently being supported by Lighthouse with take-home bags of rice, chickpeas, vegetables and fruit. One of our volunteer tasks was preparing and distributing these take home bags. We made hundreds of them! The other thing Lighthouse do is every day, is that they organise a women’s drop in tent, where residents can bring their small children and have a feed and a chat. We put out platters of yoghurt, cheese, fruit, breadsticks, eggs, peanut butter, salad and nuts. We made a nice sit down mat area with cushions around a low coffee table, where women could graze on the healthy food platters at a leisurely pace. The kids loved the yoghurt and the peanut butter. The women loved the salad, which was just fresh greens tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (they actually went crazy for the greens!) and they also loved the nuts. I turned a blind eye when some were stashing cashews in their pockets to take home to the men and the older kids. I could see in their eyes that they were enjoying the cheeky thrill and who could begrudge them a few nuts?
These drop in sessions were a great opportunity to chat with the women and children. Many of the women were in camp without their husbands, which made me so sad. Here I was missing my hubby after only a week apart, and some of them haven’t seen their husbands in 6 months or more, and potentially wouldn’t see them for years. Many of the Syrian women were well educated, they had some money, they had mobile phones, they were ok for clothes, etc. But they were stuck – not moving forward with their lives, and it was really hard to see. They’d been in the camps for months, waiting to be processed. Their husbands had often gone ahead to pave the way for a new life for them. But the system would drag things out and sometimes try to send the women to be settled in a different country to their families. For example, I heard of one woman whose husband was already settled in Germany, but she was told she was being sent to Austria. I mean, WTF? Why wouldn’t the powers that be try to keep families together? It seriously made no sense sometimes. And it’s frustrating for those on the ground who are trying to help.
(Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Relief)
Overall though, the people I spoke to were trying to remain cheerful, but it was hard, especially because it’s winter over there, so it felt bleak, and many of the residents seemed depressed and were losing hope. On the colder days, they didn’t surface from their tiny Isoboxes till well after lunchtime. Some of the kids were acting out too, I imagine due to trauma of the war, and perhaps boredom from being in the camp. There was no official school set up for the kids, so many were just kicking around at a loose end. There’s a group called I Am You there, which helps to educate the kids, and Lighthouse were in the process of setting up a new Child-Friendly space that looked really cool, so hopefully things are slowly improving on that front. The kids don’t go to the local Greek schools though, since they believe it’s likely that they’ll soon be moved on to a different country with a different language again. The GREAT news is that a lot of the kids were picking up English super fast, faster than their parents, which was helping with communication around the camp big time. The two main languages spoken by the refugees were Arabic (by the Syrians) and Farsi (by the Afghans) and there are very few interpreters around, so often the kids are called in to translate.
There were other signs of hope too. We met a really cool Syrian man who had set up a falafel stand inside the camp. For One Euro and 50 cents you could get a falafel pocket with hummus and salad. It was epic! Yes – I ate the bread (I knooooow, right, it’s full of gluten… but if I was going to have a blowout while I was away, at least it was supporting someone like this, and eating authentic, handmade food!). And… it was freakin delicious! A couple of team members and myself had stashed spices in our luggage to give away as gifts (Middle Eastern spices are actually super hard to find in Greece!). So we thought the fairest thing to do was to give them all to Falafel man – we gave him cumin, coriander root, and sumac. He was super stoked, and I’ve even got a photo of him using the sumac on the falafel pockets straight away. Word on the street was that he was being settled in Geneva soon, so hopefully he will take that entrepreneurial spirit with him.
Now, although the original plan was to stay in Ritsona Camp for the whole 2 weeks, it very quickly became apparent that there wasn’t quite enough work to go around. Although there were loads of daily tasks to do, mostly food prep and making up take home packs, none of us quite felt like we were under the pump enough to warrant us all being there. So 2 of us decided to move on to where there was a greater need. This often happens in volunteer work, as everything is constantly in flux and changing very quickly – camps are closing and new ones are opening every week in Greece, and refugees are often moved around on short notice. Therefore, the volunteers also move around on short notice to where they are required the most.
Soooo… two of us (myself and a wonderful naturopath called Sharyn Hocking from Wollongong) drove back to Athens and then flew out to Chios – which is a Greek island close to Turkey. It’s one of the islands where the boats are coming in. I’ll tell you more about my island experience next week, as that’s worthy of a whole other podcast episode!
Before we left Ritsona however, we packaged up all the tea blends, and wrote detailed instructions on how to brew them. We also went to a local homewares store and bought tea pots, a kettle, and canisters to store the herbs. These would be left behind in the new female-friendly space for future use. Then, to make it extra special, the volunteers we left behind (Sammy and Shae) decided to run a tea party. It was a huuuuuge hit! I think around 200 women turned up. One of the Lighthouse co-ordinators was gobsmacked at how the event was received – it seems that once basic needs are met, like food and water, it can be easy to forget that these people are still suffering and need something fun to lift morale.
The tea party raised everyone’s spirits and I’m sure they’ll be talking about it for weeks to come. There were medicinal teas, yummy sweets, and take home tea packs for the women. Sammy and Shae educated the women on the benefits of each of the herbal teas and how to use them. The women were particularly interested in the breastfeeding tea and the cough and cold tea (there’s been a flu epidemic going around the camps, and even though the Isoboxes are warm, they are also filled with a dry heat and many residents have a nasty lingering cough). So the whole event for good for the body AND the soul. So if you contributed some funds to my crowdfunding campaign, know that your donation was very much appreciated! I’ll go through how the rest of the money was spent in next week’s show – once we got to Chios, there were a lot more needs that had to be met, and there were a lot of things to spend the donations on!
Okey dokie – that’s it for my recap of Week 1 in Greece. Next week I’ll fill you in on my time in Chios, which was a whole other scene indeed. The camps there were rat infested, overcrowded, full of health issues, and sometimes violent. So tune in next week and I’ll tell you all about it.