This Refugee Week, Queen Mary Library Information Assistant Anne-Marie McHarg reflects on her experiences volunteering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece, working with humanitarian organisations to support people fleeing conflict.
I left the dull dank grey skies of England in July 2017 and arrived in Greece to clear blue skies. The drive from the airport was just over an hour’s drive to the Island of Evia and its capital Halkida. The scenery was breath taking driving across the modern suspension bridge with the turquoise sea below and to our hotel. There was a group of twenty six volunteers on our programme, two of us British and the rest Americans. We all arrived with little knowledge of refugees and what they experience, and there was a very steep learning curve.
In the morning several of us went for long walks along the sea front, and some were brave enough to go for an early morning dip in the sea before. About 9am we all gathered in our small conference room leaning how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worked and our role as volunteers. As the July temperature rose outside our learning curve was hitting the mercury point inside. We were shown maps of the route the refugees take to Europe, from Afghanistan and Syria to Greece and Italy.
On the Monday morning we all climbed into our two minibuses and drove through the town and out around the bay watching the sun climbing the sky spreading its rays across the lapping sea. We continued our journey into the Greek countryside. Passing vineyards and farms, we drove through the gates of Ritsona Refugee Camp.
As we were shown around we were told that at present Ritsona housed five hundred and fifty residents in the camp, mainly from Afghanistan, Syria and Kurdistan. There were also some Afghans in another camp in Oinofyta, a small village about twenty minutes’ drive away.
We were there in July - the height of summer holidays - and our duty was to look after the children. They were happy kids, on the whole. One child had difficulty relating to other people, even children of her own age. In her young life, she had witnessed the atrocities of war: beheadings, gunfire and planes dropping bombs overhead. At her young age, this child was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
We had been told that when the children first came to the camp, every time a plane flew over from the international airport, they would duck and lay flat on the ground thinking that they were being attack from the air. It took a long time before the children felt safe.
All I could think was: just because they are refugees, are they always meant to be kept at the bottom of the rubbish tip?
We had a weekly theme for the activities we ran with the children. Our first week’s theme was professions. We asked the children what they would like to do when they grew up, and explained what each profession did. “Fireman”, “doctor”, “nurse”, “farmer”, “teacher” and “policeman”, they shouted.
The next morning, we arrived at the children’s play area to a large handwritten notice detailing a number of symptoms: headache, lethargy, burns, etc. An aid agency worker explained that the evening before one of the prefabricated containers housing refugee families had gone up in flames.
On his return from helping to fight the fire, the father to one of our four-year-old children, told us his son had said “wait daddy”. He rushed off to put his doctor’s hat on, got out his homemade stethoscope, and proceeded to take his father’s pulse and check his heartbeat. The next day his proud father came and told us what his son had done.
On my return home from my trip I related this story to a friend. I was shocked to hear her ask: “Why are you teaching three to five-year-old refugees professions? These children don’t need to know this.” All I could think was: just because they are refugees, are they always meant to be kept at the bottom of the rubbish tip?
And yet, here was a proud father, whose son had put what we had taught him of a doctor’s role in the right context. We were there not only as aid volunteers, but to inspire, to empower a child’s mind and give them hope for a better future.
Two years later, in 2019, I went back out again to Ritsona refugee camp with Ruth, another volunteer, and her family. I had met Ruth in Costa Rica the year before, volunteering in a nursing home for the homeless. For me, it was lovely to be back under the Grecian sun again; for Ruth and her family it was their first time in Greece, and we’d arrived in the middle of a three-day long national festival.
What a difference two years had made! There were a lot more refugees here now. From five hundred and fifty residents in 2017, there were now eight hundred and fifty people, all crammed into a small space.
On our first working day – a rainy Tuesday – myself and another volunteer set to work in the laundry. The laundry was a long container box housing sixteen washing machines. Six machines were broken; the rest leaked everywhere. Because of the weekend’s national holiday, we had a backlog of washing from the Friday with new customers arriving all the time.
We set to work, and quickly got a routine going. Soon we found we had no room, so we put some tubs of clothes waiting to be collected outside. As soon as we did this, the sky coloured with angry bruised clouds and burst all over the baskets of dry clothes. Shortly after, a Syrian gentleman came asking for his washing. When we pointed to the washing outside, he hit the roof. Arms raised in competition with his voice. Our staff looked shocked.
“Oh man, calm down, oh man, calm down”, our staff pleaded. Just as we thought we were getting somewhere, a friend of the Syrian man came in, with more shouting and arm waving. “Oh, it’s their fault!” said the Syrian man, pointing to me and the other volunteer.
“They’re only volunteers who have come to help us”, said his friend. “Look at this wet, wet, look.” The first man continued. At one point they had a wrestling match. When everything had eventually calmed down we said we were happy do it again. We did, and eventually caught up with two and a half days’ washing in one day.
The question you have to ask yourself is: why anyone would want to leave the country of their birth? A country where you have been brought up by your family, where for generations your ancestors born, lived, worked and died. Where you live in a community where everyone knows you and loves you, and in difficulties there is always help at hand.
What makes someone that desperate to leave the land of their birth for the unknown?
Is it to leave a war torn country? Living in fear, watching your children being traumatised every day and unable to sleep at night because of the nightmares of what they have seen and heard? In some cases, unspeakable things.
Yes: this is why.
Let me bring you back to our Syrian friend, who came to pick up his washing and found it left outside in the rain. He was fuming – the ability to make his own decisions has been taken away from him. Once he’d paid his passage to come to Europe, it was the human trafficker who would give the orders. Once you arrive at a refugee camp, you can no longer decide where you want to be. It is like a game of snakes and ladders, one step forward and two steps back.
I enjoyed my short stint in Greece. I was there to learn about what it is to be a refugee and what they go through. Through volunteering, you also learn about yourself: how far you can go and where you draw the line. In helping each other we learn from each other, and we leave in friendship and respect for each other. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has caused many refugee camps to close for lack of staff, and many NGOs have folded completely. Yet refugees are still coming, risking their lives for a better life in the West.