Episode 43: My Trip to Greece – Part 2

Episode 43: My Trip to Greece – Part 2

Welcome to part 2 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:

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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 42), you’ll hear stories of my first week over there – I was assigned to a camp on the mainland, just north of Athens called Ritsona, and in that episode you’ll hear my observations of what’s working over there, what isn’t, and what we did to help.

I’m also pleased to announce that since that episode went to air, I was contacted by the Lighthouse Relief team in Ritsona, and they asked me if I’d be willing to be of assistance via email with menu planning and nutritional analysis of the food offered to the refugees. Naturally I’ve said yes, and it’s exciting to know that although I’m back in Australia now, I can still keep using my skills to help out from afar. Yay!

Ok, onto today’s episode…

After spending a few days in Ritsona, another naturopath, Sharyn Farrell, and myself, headed back to Athens and flew out on a tiny little plane to an island called Chios. Chios is one of the most eastern of all the Greek islands, and it’s placed very close to Turkey. I think this distance from Chios to Turkey is something very small, like maybe 5km? From the mainland where I was staying you could see Cesme, a town in Turkey, as clear as day.

Along with a couple of other nearby islands like Lesvos and Samos, that proximity to Turkey puts Chios on the frontline for boat arrivals.

(Images: Google Maps)

First of all, I want to give you a bit of an overview of what’s going on. It’s a complicated political situation, and although I asked a lot of questions while I was over there, it’s still hard to get a handle of what’s really happening, and probably won’t do it justice, plus the situation is ever-changing, but here goes anyway…

The refugees make their way from war-torn Syria to Turkey, where it’s not exactly legal to be a refugee. They hide out in the forests there while they wait for their turn to board a boat. They pay people the people smugglers a huge sum of money (rumoured to be equivalent to about $10,000 Australian Dollars), for a one-way ticket to freedom.

Here’s the thing: Once the refugees set foot on EU soil, they can claim asylum. Which is why they’re trying to get to Greece, as it’s the closest EU country to where they’ve come from.

By the way – It’s worth mentioning that not all the refugees I met are from Syria – that’s just the most common country they’re from. But we also had a fair few Afghanis, Iraquis and a scattering of people fleeing other countries.

Now – if you’re wondering what the people smugglers are like, well, it sounds like they’re pretty unscrupulous. The most full on story I heard of was about the life jackets. If the refugees are cashed up, they will purchase life jackets for the trip across. But here’s the most evil thing I heard the whole time I was away… There was a racket operating with the people smugglers on Turkey where cheap counterfeit life jackets were being made and sold to refugees. And by counterfeit I meant they they had the wrong type of foam in them – a cheap substitute to real life jacket foam that wasn’t buoyant at all – in fact, the cheap stuff soaked up the water and made them sink faster. And given that many of these people were from land-locked countries and couldn’t swim, PLUS some of these fake life jackets were being fitted to children… well, it’s a special kind of evil indeed.

Refugees are big business to some not-very-ethical people, and when you leave crooks in charge of ensuring their safe passage across, it becomes very risky.

I heard stories of boats being overcrowded and children being accidentally crushed and killed on the trip across. I also heard stories of families being split up into different boats, and not all the boats made it across, separating parents from their children. It was heartbreaking.

And then there’s the little matter of border security. Here’s how it works.

There are 3 coast guards in the water between Turkey and Greece. And each one is on the lookout for refugee boats. First of all, you have the Turkish Coastguard, patrolling Turkish waters. If they catch the refugees, the boats are pushed back to Turkish land. Next up you have Frontex, which is the name of the EU coastguard. They’ve got a very nice looking, super fast boat, they’re also on the lookout for refugees, and they will also push boats back into Turkish Waters. Finally you have the Greek coastguard. They’re meant to pick up the boats in Greek waters and escort them safely into port. Except word on the street is that that this sometimes doesn’t happen. Hmmmmm…

So it’s like a giant game of Frogger (if you’re a child of the 80’s you’ll know what I mean!). And the refugees are packed, up to 45 or 50 people at a time, into a rubber ducky style boat, not dissimilar to what I’ve seen the Byron Bay lifesavers use. It’s completely bananas.

If they avoid all the coastguards, they will hopefully then land on Greek soil on one of the islands. This is where CESRT comes in.

CESRT stands for Chios Eastern Shore Response Team. It’s a volunteer group run by a remarkable women by the name of Toula. When I asked how and why she became so involved in this cause, she simply pointed out her living room window to the tiny beach below. “See that spot?” she said “That’s where they landed.” Have you seen the footage of boats landing in the middle of the night, and local Greek women rushing to help with blankets, food and drinks? That was Toula. This woman is a dead set legend.

But she didn’t stop at just helping boat arrivals. Toula saw many other opportunities to make life in the camps a better place. You see, after arriving on the shore, refugees are sent to camps on Chios where they wait to be processed and moved on.

(Souda Camp)

To make quality of life better, CESRT offers:
Children’s Centre
A Daily Tea Service
Clothing distribution
English Centre
Womens Centre

Talk about a busy and inspiring group of people!

Daily tasks by volunteers were incredibly varied and would include the following:

A Morning meeting – every day we would get together as a team, tasks would be allocated, and volunteers would have an opportunity to share any news, celebrate their wins, and voice their concerns.

(I think EVERY meeting space should have a mirror ball!)

Then there’s the warehouse – This is the heart of the whole operation. Without the warehouse, nothing else would work. Clothing donations come in from local Greek groups, but not all the clothing is appropriate (we saw some doozies, including evening gowns and sequinned numbers, I mean, what the…?). So the clothing is sorted into useable and unusable, then we would divvy it up into male, female, kids, and then sizes, and we would separate the pants, shirts, jumpers, coats, underwear… everything. It was a huge job, and it had to be chipped away at everyday, otherwise clothing distribution would just not work. I spent a fair few mornings helping out here.

Distribution involved teams of volunteers going on outreach to camp and speaking with the occupants – finding out what people needed and distributing goods as best as they could. There was also shopping. Volunteers would also often go to local stores to buy clothing, footwear, supplies or food for the refugees, depending on the needs at the time.

(Pic courtesy of CESRT)

There was also a daily tea service at Souda – this was one of my favourite tasks, where I got to speak to a lot of people. I’ll go into this one next week.

The English Centre and the Womens Centre also provided essential services to support refugees and not only make their time in the camps a little better, they would also help to give people skills to prepare them for life on the outside when they finally moved on to a new country.

Then there was the Port Shift and volunteers on call for boat arrivals. I’ll save this one for next week, as it’s a pretty huge one.

But one of my favourite services was the children’s centre. Honestly, apart from the acute care given during boat arrivals, this, from what I could see, is one of the most important services that CESRT offers. Life in the camps is no place for a child – it’s bleak, there’s no grass or trees, nowhere to play (I saw kids playing in the dirt with nothing but stones), and there’s definitely a tense vibe around the place. There’s also no hot running water. I heard stories of kids going for a month or more without having a shower, and in winter there, it’s like less than 10 degrees on many days (plus there’s wind chill because they’re right next to the sea), so a cold shower is out of the question. Skin infections like scabies were common.

CESRT’s solution? They opened a children’s centre a 10 minute walk away from camp. Parents are encouraged to bring their children there. It’s like a daycare centre, with heating, rugs on the floor, an abundance of toys and art materials to keep the little ones entertained, and the best part? Hot showers!

Volunteering in Greece with Refugees

So while mum was in the bathroom showering a child, volunteers would be in the common area babysitting the other kids, then another volunteer would put together some clean clothes for them to change into. The freshly showered child would return in their fresh new clothes to the common area to hang out, while mum would shower the next one. Each child would also leave with a goodie bag full of food to eat.

The childrens centre at the time of my visit were providing up to 25 hot showers per day, every day. It was epic!

The whole operation was headed up by a very passionate woman called Janne, who was super dedicated, creative in her approach to solving problems, and open to feedback on how to make the place even better. The first thing I noticed was the goodie bags of food were loaded with sugar. Here’s what they were getting:

2 pieces of fruit (nothing wrong with that!)
But they also got
A couple of pieces of milk chocolate
A lollypop
A sweet biscuit
And a sugar-laden muesli bar

So after talking to Janne, we decided to overhaul the goodie bags to include more nutritious foods. She was concerned that the kids’ teeth were suffering from the sugar, and that they weren’t getting enough protein. So here’s what we came up with:

2 pieces of fruit
A breadstick
A piece of cheese
One small sugary treat (either a lollypop, OR a small amount of chocolate, but not both)
And to top it off, a protein rich home made bliss ball

I purchased a food processor from a local electrical store (I got a Kenwood one so that I know that it will last). Then I created a recipe using easy-to-source ingredients that would also be familiar to the mums and kids (they’re often very wary of food they’ve never seen before so I wanted to keep it familiar).

The balls ended up containing almonds, sesame seeds, tahini, and a small amount of dates and honey to make them stick together. We wrote out the recipe for the other volunteers and we even filmed a video to show them how it was made.

Now you may be asking the question… Why did I leave one sugary treat in the goodie bag? I’m glad you asked! Honestly – these kids don’t have a lot else to look forward to, and a small bit of chocolate was a damn sight better than chocolate, plus lollies, plus a biscuit, plus the muesli bar. I thought small changes were better than trying to be too heavy handed. We were aiming for improvement, NOT perfection. That’s the best way to make changes that stick.

Now, while I was at the Childrens Centre, I also saw a few things that needed fixing. They were heating the place with little gas space heaters, and there was no air conditioning. Janne told me that they urgently needed to get air con installed before Summer arrived, as the rooms are small and stuffy and they heat up quickly. I also spotted a couple of holes in the floor where the boards were rotten, which needed to be patched up before someone puts their hand or their foot through them.

This all takes money, right?

Luckily I still had a fair few dollars left over from my crowdfunding campaigns. Yay for crowdfunding!!! It totally rocks!

Although I’d already spent a fair few Euros on healthy foods and herbal remedies for both Ritsona and Chios, I still had heaps left over and had been wondering how to spend it. I spoke to Janne and asked her what her most urgent need was. She has since organised some tradies to come and quote on the air conditioning. She’s going to get back to me as soon as possible with details of how much it will cost.

Before I left I also purchased enough ingredients to make bliss balls for the next month, so that we would keep the momentum going with that after we left.

I’ll keep you posted on where the proceeds of the crowdfunding are going. It’s really exciting – I’m hoping we can cover both the air conditioning, plus the repairs to the floor, but we’ll have to wait and see. Hopefully I’ll have some news for you next week.

Stay tuned next week for Part 3 and the final instalment of my adventures in Greece. I can’t wait to tell you about the people I met at tea service each day and some of the stories they had to tell.

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