CamCRAG commitee members Lara and Sarah recently returned from five days volunteering with, and talking to, NGOs working in northern Greece, to see first hand the work they are doing and how we can support them in the future. Here is a brief summary of their trip.
Day 1 – Help Refugees Warehouse Thessaloniki
Help Refugees have a warehouse near Thessaloniki for clothes and other donations, and aim to support other groups in the area – such as Soul Food Kitchen, who operate out of the same space. Despite there being 24 camps in the region, refugee numbers are relatively low at the moment. However, this is likely to change soon as refugees move from the Greek Islands, others are pushed back from Eastern Europe, and more risk the water crossing from Turkey as the weather improves.
We spent some hours sorting childrens clothes, and help is always welcome in the warehouse – go through www.helprefugees.org.uk. Volunteers need to register several weeks in advance and be able to support themselves. Volunteers staying a fortnight or more are especially welcome.
Day 2 – Alexandreia camp, through Refugee Support.
There are about 80 families in the Alexandreia camp – two thirds of its 600 capacity. Despite being controlled by the military (it is an ex military base), access to volunteers is relatively easy and the camp appeared well run, with a food shop, clothes boutique and classrooms. There is a permanent UNHCR and Greek government presence, providing legal, social and health services.
Volunteers from Refugee Support are working hard in this camp and the one at Fillipiada, and the group hope to be working soon in a new camp at Katsikas.
Days 3,4 & 5 – CalAid in Ioannina
CalAID is the biggest distributor of non food items in the region, currently serving 2000 refugees, mostly Syrians, Kurds and Afghans, with over half under 18 years old. They also support other services, such as a recent project to provide eye testing and glasses for children. They accept volunteers, and you can find out more at www.calaid.co.uk/volunteer/
We spent our first day organising and distributing clothes to families. CalAid’s volunteers work really hard, six days a week, and have an excellent code of conduct and safeguarding policies, emphasising the important of not photographing refugees, or of giving lifts to children, so not it is not normalised for them to get into strangers’ cars. Smuggling networks still operate in and around the camps, and refugees are often at risk of exploitation.
The following day we went on clothes distribution: All three available female volunteers were needed, as the women in the camps do not want men to be present during their clothing distribution. This was, mostly, really enjoyable, and we had cheers and dancing when there was success. At times it was hard when women were unable to find something suitable e.g. shoes they liked or fitted, reminding them and us of the reality of their situation. One six year old girl was inconsolable when she couldn’t get pink sparkley shoes like her friend. Despite such setbacks, the CalAID volunteers all worked really hard to make this a positive experience for all the families.
The experience emphasised to us the importance of sorting donations in the UK, to ensure only suitable quality clothing and other aid is sent to organisations working on the front line.
Having seen the situation first hand in Greece and made links on the ground, we are happy to offer information and advice to anyone wanting to volunteer there or send donations.
If you want to find out more about our trip or you are thinking of volunteering in northern Greece please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org