It’s not about us

The most common question I’ve been asked since our time volunteering with refugees ended has been something along the lines of: Was it difficult for you? How did you deal with it emotionally? Wasn’t it hard to see all the things you saw?

I completely understand why people are asking, and it’s really, really nice of everyone to care about our wellbeing. But it keeps surprising me that that question comes up first, rather than a question about the people we were there to support.

Volunteers do visibly struggle with burnout and the challenging environment in which they are working. It’s not easy and the work is never done, so everyone (myself and Tom included) has a tendency to skip that break or that weekend rest and keep going. As the crisis continues and donor fatigue sets in, while the living conditions and health of refugees deteriorate, that pressure is only getting worse for volunteers on the ground.

That said, Tom and I managed pretty well and, even if we worked like crazy at times, we kept each other in check. It’s surprising how quickly a situation becomes normal to you. The sights, smells and bad conditions in camps or unofficial settlements were all relative after a while – one place has a few portaloos and a tap so it’s better than the other with no sanitation; yes, this camp has wild boar but at least it doesn’t have a snake infestation or forest fires threatening to burn down the tents.

The things that got me most were not the conditions, but those off-hand comments that remind you how things could have been if your passport had a different country name written on its front cover. When I was asked how I got to Greece and explained that we drove there, the frustration of a refugee that she was treated so differently – that I’d been easily let through so many countries that denied her passage – was clear. And the young girl at the port who asked me where I lived and when I replied “an apartment in Athens”, triple-checked that I had a real roof not a tent before making a roof shape with her arms above her head just in case she’d misunderstood my English.

Before we left Greece, families that we’d got to know well treated us to coffee or dinners in their basic ‘homes’ – we sat cross-legged on the floor and were offered so much more food than we could eat. And then we were gone, travelling (freely and with only a cursory glance at our passports by staff at the ferry port) through Italy, leaving behind everything that they were forced to keep dealing with for many more months.

It's very easy for us to get away

It’s very easy for us to get away! Photograph by John O’Nolan, Flickr.

We kept an eye on what was going on – checking posts on the Athens Facebook group, worrying about whether the medication we’d left for a young boy with kidney failure would be enough, or if anyone would keep taking fruit and vegetables to the Hotel Oniro squat when we were gone – and we still keep in touch with those we can. But we could rest and distance ourselves from it after a time, in a way that refugees just can’t.

We are really grateful for everyone who has read about our time as volunteers and asked questions to understand more. There is one final important lesson that I’d like to pass on. I heard it repeated regularly by volunteers and it helps explain my surprise at your most common question to us:

For many volunteers, the mantra is ‘it’s not about us’ – whatever we are feeling, however tired we are, however difficult it might be to hear another story of suffering and separation, it is nowhere near as hard on us as those who’ve fled their homes because of war or insecurity.

We’ll stop writing about the refugee crisis for a while, and will focus future blogs on our time in Ghana (we’ve been here almost two weeks now). But wherever we are, we definitely won’t forget our experiences and the challenges that refugees continue to face in Athens, Calais and elsewhere. We know that other long-term volunteers will keep doing what they can to provide support and improve conditions. But it is only with a significant political change that I can see any end in sight for this crisis – it’s time Governments learnt that mantra too and got on with providing practical solutions to these problems!

If you’re interested in continuing to follow what’s happening on the ground, we recommend these pages and groups on Facebook: Care4Calais1, One Human Race2, and Athens Immigrant and Refugee Support Group3. If you’re thinking about volunteering yourself and want to ask us any questions about it, please do get in touch.

Our Final Challenge in Athens – The Orange House

Back in June shortly after we arrived in Athens, I’d spent a few days volunteering at a new project called The Orange House. 4 Based in a former shop in the anarchist area of Athens, they were hoping to refurbish their building in order to provide much needed accommodation and support for vulnerable refugee groups, such as unaccompanied minors and people from the LGBT community. It was a big job for skilled tradesmen, so once my limited DIY skills had been exhausted, I moved on to other things.

Refurbishment: during and after

Refurbishment: during and after

Skipping forward about 6 weeks, Faye and I settled down one evening after another tiring day and I saw a message flash up from Marina, the director of The Orange House. She told me that the house was now open: residents were beginning to move in, activities were being planned and a team of volunteers were helping to run things. Like many new projects, with lots of work but without a full-time professional team, things were getting a little stretched. Marina asked if Faye and I could come in each morning to help delegate tasks, and provide a bit more of a management structure, so that other volunteers could feel more confident and empowered to get on with their day. Thinking it would fit in nicely with our other commitments, we agreed.

A few days later, we started at the Orange House. We got to know the existing volunteers and residents and explained who we were and why we were there. We then delegated some tasks and left for our afternoon volunteer commitment. As the week went on, our responsibilities quickly escalated. Marina (who already had a full-time job) had to go away for a week and a long-term volunteer, with responsibilities for the rota, social work and covering a significant number of the nightshifts, decided to end her involvement in the project at short-notice. Suddenly, we found ourselves pretty much managing the on-the-ground running of the project. We had great support from the volunteers, as well as Marina, and two board members, Aida and Barbara, based in North America, but coming in for a few hours each morning was no longer an option. We still made it to our afternoon volunteering at the squat, but it would be straight back to the Orange House after.

The Orange House

The Orange House – can you guess where the project got its name from?

It was exhausting, but rewarding. We had many challenges but we were able to use some of our project and people management skills to make improvements to how things worked – it was the first time we’d spent hours on end sitting at computers since we quit our jobs! We fixed some issues with the rota, recruited more volunteers for the unpopular nightshift, started giving new volunteers a detailed induction and used more transparent methods of prioritising, delegating and tracking outstanding jobs and tasks. We also worked hard to encouraged a positive attitude – which is vital in any job, but especially in the demanding environment of the Greek refugee crisis. There were many notable moments during our time with the project, both positive and negative, which will stay with us. Here is just one story that stands out:

Because the project provided support and a safe space for unaccompanied minors, a couple of the volunteers were tasked with contacting a teenager, J (not his real name), to see if he was okay and to ask if he wanted to drop by for a cup of tea. He was one of a number of people the project would check-up on.

Later that day, whilst Faye and I were at our regular afternoon commitment, we had a call from one of the volunteers. She’d been in contact with J by Facebook messenger, and he was in some difficulty. He’d travelled to an agricultural region about 90 minutes north of Athens to do some farm work on the promise of a ‘short-term, easy way’ to get himself a little money. He’d worked for a month, but the farmers didn’t pay him. That day he’d returned to the farm and was demanding pay, but it sounded like he wasn’t going to get any and it also sounded like he didn’t have any way to leave. We were concerned for his safety and sought the advice of a charity specialising in forced labour situations involving children. They took over and coordinated a rescue with the local police force. We thought perhaps we could pick up J the next day to bring him back to Athens. But late that evening, we had another call from the charity, who told us that the police were treating J has an adult who had been caught carrying out illegal work. They were going to detain him until he could be deported back to Afghanistan. Apparently J’s Greek papers (issued to refugees on arrival) stated that he was an adult. We felt awful – we had initiated the rescue and now the victim of exploitation was being detained by the police.

After a bad night’s sleep, we returned to the Orange House and called a group of lawyers providing free advocacy to refugees. They contacted the police station and reassured us on two counts a) deportation takes months, so he was not in any immediate risk and b) they had successfully prevented deportation in similar cases before. We were relieved, but things weren’t over yet. J was still in detention and his phone had been confiscated. We contacted the police and were told we could visit, so the next morning we drove out of Athens and up to the police station with some food and juice for J and accompanied by a translator called Sayed – one of the many Afghan translators who’d worked for the British military, later forced to flee his country after threats from the Taliban. At the police station, only one of us and the translator were allowed to enter, so Faye and Sayed went in. I didn’t see the conditions, but Faye recounted how terrible they were: dirty, overcrowded and hot. J’s mood and demeanor quickly improved when he saw Faye and Sayed and heard that we were working to get him released. He explained that his Greek papers did say he was an adult, because like many minors traveling alone, he’d lied about his age when first arriving in Greece. This was for a simple reason – he wanted to be able to travel freely in order to continue his journey north (without the interference of the authorities). But like most refugees in Greece, he became trapped when the borders closed. His Afghan ID did have his correct age, so it was a matter of getting the police to translate it from Farsi, recognise this mistake and let him go.

It took a frustrating amount of time – the workload of the lawyers in Greece is huge – but J was eventually released after 3 weeks (by this time, we’d left Athens) and is doing well. There are many things shocking about this case, not least the response of the police and the charity set up to support victims of forced labour*, but the thing that stands out for me is the thought of what would have happened if The Orange House hadn’t been looking out for J – would he have been left in that police cell for months? Would he have been deported? The case reinforced the need for projects like The Orange House, staffed by people who show genuine humanity and compassion. The incident forced us to examine our own actions too: in retrospect, it is likely that we would have more seriously considered attempting to pick-up J ourselves, even though we know all the risks.

We were only the managers of the Orange House for about 14 days, but so much happened in that short space of time it felt like a lot longer. It came at the end of our two months in Greece, and pretty much finished us off, both physically and emotionally. We were spent and it was time for us to leave: with great sadness at saying goodbye to all the people we’d met, but also relief: we needed to sleep and we need to decompress.

After sharing a few reflections on our brief time in Calais in September, in our final Greece themed blog, Faye will write about leaving Athens and look back on our volunteer experience as a whole.

You can read more about the Orange House on their Facebook page and website. They are in constant need of donations to support their vital work. 

* we have decided not to name the forced labour charity, because although we disagreed with its response in this instance, it is just one case out of many and may not be reflective of their overall work or approach. We did provide them with feedback.

July in Athens: Plans change and then they change again

Our time in Athens was neatly divided by a return to England for a wedding. The second half (post-wedding trip) didn’t go to plan to begin with, but ultimately ended in a very rewarding experience, managing volunteers at a project called the Orange House. I will write about this in a next blog, but for now, this is a tale of how our plans didn’t quite pan out.

Before we left for England at the end of June, the Schoolbox Project I’d been working with came to an end 2 and Faye had pretty much completed a website she was building for AMURTEL. 2 We were still providing support to several families on an ad hoc basis, but our regular commitments that took up the most time had run their course.

Searching for something new, we applied for positions with Movement on the Ground (MOTG) who were running children’s activities at the camp called Skaramangas, about 30 minutes drive from Athens. Our first, introductory day was really interesting (in a good way). There were 100s of children and MOTG seemed to have a well structured set of activities and relatively good facilities (a large circus tent and a playground). We left the camp at about 8pm, as the sun was low in the sky, looking forward to starting with MOTG properly later in the week, if a bit daunted by how exhausting it was going to be, especially in a concrete-covered camp that radiated the heat of the Greek summer. It was going to take up all of our time: 6 days of 12+ hour shifts in a row, with a rest day on Sunday.

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Several hours after we left on our first day, the camp experienced a serious disturbance involving a large group of young male residents. Several experienced volunteers who were staying late were caught up in what was described as a mini-riot, between members of the Syrian and Yazidi communities. Some refugees were hurt and some of the isoboxes (caravan type living spaces) were damaged.

One of the problems for people in this situation is that there really isn’t much for them to do. Long hot days in difficult conditions, combined with poor treatment, the uncertainty of what the future holds, the separation from family and friends, and the lack of money, meaningful work or positive focus in life all take their toll on people’s state of mind. It affects everyone, but young single men – often traveling without their families – are perhaps the most likely to act out their frustrations with violence or trouble-making.  The riot combined with several other security issues prompted MOTG to suspend activities at the camp. So we were left looking for new ways to contribute to the crisis.

We had a soft spot for the squats of Athens, which were mainly located in or near Exarchia – the anarchist area. They had their significant problems – lack of food, sanitation, and at times leadership and space – but they usually had a more relaxed atmosphere, particularly compared to some of the unofficial camps. They afforded the refugees a bit more dignity and I think this contributed to the more stable environment. The squats lacked any official support, so we thought we would spend more time helping them however we could.

Firstly, with our car and donation money to spend, we bought food and supplies for a relatively new squat, called Hotel Oniro. For example, we bought enough plates, mugs and glasses for every resident and about 10 kgs of spices: the chef was so pleased, as he had been struggling to add flavour to the staple donated foods of couscous, pasta and rice.

Secondly, we decided to help run some activities for the young people at Hotel Oniro. They didn’t have much communal space and had to be quiet in the squat so as not to disturb the neighbours, but there was a nearby park. A small group of Spanish volunteers were also running activities in the afternoon, so we joined forces. We mainly did English lessons and our Spanish friends concentrated on arts and crafts. Each afternoon, we would meet at the hotel and usually take about 20 kids to the park for lessons, activities and then play. It was important for the kids to use up some energy and get out of the hotel for a bit. One of the kids at the hotel, Samer, had previously been living at the port with his father where he was regular visitor to the Schoolbox Project: it was great to see a familiar face, and I was glad they had found a nicer place to live.

Dedicating the afternoons to Hotel Oniro, gave us time in the mornings to continue our other work: supporting individual families with specific needs, working with another squat to help with food supply issues and spending donated money on aid. Once again, we seemed to have found our niche, but once again it was about to change dramatically.

Part two of this blog coming soon…

[Note: Yes, we are in Ghana now and will get to that soon, once we’ve caught up on a few stories from Athens.]

When reality is worse than the rumours

When we were in Athens there were a lot of rumours flying around among refugee communities that volunteers worked hard to put right. There were rumours about when the borders would open again (often said to be next week – never true), why they were being kept in Greece (so the Greek Government could make money off the EU – hmm…) and how the asylum process was ‘really’ working. A weekly document created by various voluntary groups in a range of languages and disseminated widely aimed to dispel those myths.

Other rumours were more widespread and nobody quite knew the truth. For example, the Skype calls… Until late June and July when an alternative face-to-face system was implemented, the only way to begin your registration as an asylum seeker in Greece was by calling a Skype number during time-slots allocated to each native language. The problem was that few callers ever got through. I heard that 2 or 3 asylum service employees were manning the phones, despite the near on 60,000 refugees and migrants estimated to be in Greece. But that’s ridiculous, right?!

Image by: Andrew George

Banners at the now closed Idomeni refugee camp (northern Greece)

Well, it turns out it was not so ridiculous after all. Journalists working for This American Life got to the bottom of that rumour in a recent podcast. In fact, there is just one person answering these Skype calls.

This is pretty much how it goes when you’re volunteering. You hear something that seems too unlikely to be happening on European soil. Then you find out that actually the reality is worse than the rumours. Gradually you expect that as a matter of course.

I’m not intending for this blog to be negative. I don’t want you to think that people aren’t finding ways to continue with life and finding ways to cope. However, it feels important to share just a few things that we know to be true, even if we wish they weren’t. Please suspend your disbelief…

Prison sentences punishing the wrong people: To take a boat from Turkey to the Greek islands, refugees pay smugglers. This is risky of course, but there are some risks we doubt they could have imagined.  One Syrian refugee we know of caught steering a boat to safety has been sentenced to 20 years in prison in Greece. Deemed to be endangering the lives of others, rather than helping to keep them alive, he has received this incredibly lengthy sentence. He is appealing but many more are in a similar position.

Families are having to fight for serious medical conditions to be treated: Medical care can be hard to come by for refugees. Many people end up leaving medical problems untreated, such as the 3 year old whose broken arm from when she was a baby has never properly healed – her older sister said she’ll get treatment when they move to Scandinavia (where they plan to reunite with her father). Other medical conditions can’t be ignored. We know of young children – one with a serious heart condition, another with kidney failure – whose parents have struggled, pressured and argued to get them the treatment they need all whilst living in temporary accommodation and waiting for their asylum claims to be heard like everyone else.

Young men are taking serious risks to earn money: Legal work for asylum seekers is restricted and options are limited. But a lack of money is causing some people, particularly younger men as far as we saw, to take illegal and risky steps to earn just a little. Reports reached us of refugees working as male prostitutes in the northern part of the city centre. Others accept offers of ‘easy, no strings work’ on farms only to find themselves stranded and forced to work without pay.

And nothing has stopped the smuggling: While the mass migration across Europe of 2015 couldn’t go on forever, the closing of the borders and the various EU processes, plans and deals haven’t stopped people taking routes out of Greece. Instead, what was a long but comparatively safe journey by foot and public transport across Europe has now become another expensive smuggling route. Others are considering paying smugglers to take them back to Turkey or even Syria – anything to take back control and get out of the situation they’re currently in.

These are just examples of breakdowns in the system. It’s not all going wrong for everyone – people are having their asylum claims heard and accepted and things are moving forward for them. But with numbers in this position only slowly creeping up, it’s important that we don’t think that everything is fine now that the wheels are vaguely in motion.

During our time in Athens, rumours often needed to be put right. But sometimes we also needed to question how things that seemed so unreal could really be happening.

We’re finally going to the Acropolis!

As I post this, Tom and I are about to head out to visit the Acropolis. We felt like we couldn’t face everyone back home if, after 2 months here, we didn’t go! So we’re squeezing in a trip on our second to last day in Athens. If you ask us about our overriding memories of our time in the city in a few months’ time though, I’m pretty sure that the tourist sights (however amazing they are) won’t feature.

The Acropolis

The Acropolis

The last few weeks have been incredibly busy and in some ways harder than the others. The longer we’ve spent here, the more we’ve seen and understood of the experiences of refugees in Greece. Unfortunately, the deeper you dig into this crisis, the worse it seems to get!

The families we thought were vulnerable when we arrived are now just ‘normal’. Some of the ‘vulnerable cases’ we’ve come across since are experiencing things we could never have imagined from our safe and secure lives in London and still can’t quite believe are real. But we’ve also learnt more and developed our own response along the way, giving us greater insight to know where we can be useful and enabling us to pass on information and guidance to newer volunteers coming into the city.

The last few days here have been filled with completing projects we’ve been working on, trying to resolve problems faced by some of the families we’ve been supporting and saying goodbye to friends – some lucky enough to be volunteers like us and likely to go home soon, others refugees who sadly aren’t free to leave this situation behind. When we drive off on Tuesday to head to Italy, it’s going to take a while to switch off from what has been a pretty all-consuming two months of volunteering.

We’ve got a lot, lot more to tell you about our time here. A list of stories to share, questions we want to answer and half-written blogs are all over the place – in notebooks, emails to myself and documents. We’ll post these in the weeks to come, as we get a chance to sit down and write, and can better reflect on the many things we’ve seen and done.

For now, we’re off to have a break, see some sights (without having to squeeze them in alongside everything else!), and go to 3 different weddings in 3 different countries. Leah and Phil, Marcus and Claire, and Stew and Dagna – it might be a bit of a shock to the system, but we’re really looking forward to celebrating with you!

Hospitality, queues and anarchists

The refugee community is as diverse as any other. The varied ways in which refugees are responding to the crisis reflects this. No one person’s experience is the identical to any other, but there are some themes that seem to tie them together. Here are just a few that we’ve observed.

Waiting: Many families have been split up because only some of them made it further into Europe before the borders closed. In every one of these cases we have encountered, those stuck in Greece are applying for reunification: that is, the right to rejoin the rest of the family in whatever country they made it to (often Germany).

For some, there is a time pressure: such as R, who is 17 (with 2 children) and wants to join her father in Germany.3 She is worried that once she turns 18, she will not be entitled to reunification (this would be an incredibly to-the-letter reading of the reunification rules, which may or may not be applied). The waiting times for appointments are on a timescales of months! R has recently found out her second asylum / reunification interview will be in December (her birthday is in January).

Not all refugees have the patience. We know of people who have used smugglers to get themselves to where they want be: a dangerous and expensive method – one which we do not in any way advocate but, at the same time, can empathise with.

Protesting: with the slow and unwieldy asylum application process, the difficulties of obtaining adequate healthcare and the conditions in the camps, some refugees have taken to protesting. Yesterday we went to meet with a group of around 25 refugees, many with medical conditions, who are peacefully protesting by sleeping outside of the offices of a Greek NGO. They feel their rights as refugees (including the rights to housing and adequate healthcare, which the NGO in question is tasked in part with providing) are not being met.

They asked us if we supported their protest and of course we said yes! Their rights should be respected, yet we have even heard that the NGO will not let them inside to fill their water bottles or use the toilet. No single organisation is to blame for these problems, but the problems really need to be dealt with. We will go back soon, to see if we can provide any comfort to the protestors in the form of food and water.

Queueing: Refugees can spend hours in endless queues for food, appointments, doctors – you name it, there is probably a long queue somewhere right now in the blazing sun. With the exception of those strange people who wait outside the Apple store, no-one likes queueing. I cannot imagine the stress of having to do it constantly with an empty stomach, your entire family in tow and the possibility that you will not achieve anything at the end of it. Many times people queue only to be told the appointments have finished for the day or the food has run out. There are surprisingly few fights!

Refugees queueing on another hot day

Refugees queueing on another hot day

Self-organisation: Recently we have spent a lot of time in the squats. In the Exarchia area of Athens there are at least 6 squats for refugees. These were set up by local anarchists and handed over. The squats are in old hotels and abandoned schools.

They work in a very different way to the camps – the refugees set up their own programmes of activities and must manage all aspects of everyday life (cleaning, cooking, entertainment, security, education etc.). Volunteers help and contribute, but the ethos is that it should be with the support, blessing and input of the residents. I find this is an inspiring model, but it has its challenges: not being official camps, the squats do not get the same amount of aid or support. Squats also run the risk of coming to the attention of local fascists and the police, who can cause problems.

Hospitality and friendliness: Despite the uncertainty of where the next meal will come from, countless people continue to be warm and hospitable. Yesterday morning, as we waited around to meet someone at one of the squats, we were given seats in the shade and hot milk by a man we had never met before.

Such hospitality is frequent and it is with some guilt that we accept it – we do so because it is such an important part not only of Middle Eastern culture, but also of creating relationships between equals (not just refugees and volunteers). Being able to hold on to and continue with your culture’s traditions and norms is an important part of coping in difficult times.

Smiling and laughing: Life is tough, but many people are able to keep smiling and laughing. Lots of people have built strong social networks and communities and, whilst it’s definitely not easy, these play a huge role in maintaining morale and wellbeing – giving people the endless patience they need to keep on waiting.

Buying in bulk

A fellow volunteer, Ana, treated Tom and I to a tour the other day. She’s been here two months longer than us, and will leave shortly to head back to the US. It wasn’t a tour of tourist sites or good places to eat and drink though. This was a tour of the wholesale and cheap shops of Athens.

Often volunteers’ knowledge is lost when they go, leaving others who come in their place to work things out from scratch. This problem is solved, in part, by Facebook – where a community of volunteers share information and offer advice and support on topics ranging from an incredibly complex asylum process to public transport and accommodation. That’s a resource we can’t do without, but nothing beats a proper handover.

Shopping is not necessarily what everyone imagines when picturing volunteering here. It’s definitely not the image I had in mind before we arrived. But the squats, camps and many other projects here in Athens rely heavily on donated items. Whilst there’s a warehouse stuffed full of boxes of useful things on the outskirts of town, the process to get hold of this can take time. One of the most helpful ways we can ‘volunteer’ is to respond to requests for donations ourselves when they’re needed. It also gives a little, needed boost to the Greek economy along the way.

Boxes of bargains in this shop near Omonia

Now (thank you so much, Ana!), rather than heading to Lidl and one of the worst shops in the world – Jumbo, where terrible music meets an incomprehensible layout that makes it impossible to find either what you need or the exit – we’ve been on some more interesting shopping trips.

Tom and I have bought so much underwear from a wholesaler that we were asked if we were opening a shop. We’ve negotiated a good price on 60 plates, 60 glasses and 60 mugs. And we’ve become prized customers at a vegetable stall – to the point of being given free fruit.

Ana and I making a delivery to a newly squatted hotel

Ana and I, after delivering to this newly squatted hotel

We’ve only been able to do this thanks to generous donations to our fund. We never thought our total raised would surpass £2,000 so quickly! You can see here on our site what we’ve spent your money on so far.

If anyone else wants to donate to keep us in the bulk shopping business for longer, we’d be really grateful. Remember: our money’s unfortunately worth less in Euros right now. Our suggested solution: give a bit more! 🙂

My time at the Schoolbox Project

In my third week in Athens, I started volunteering at a project called The Schoolbox Project based at gate E1 of the main ferry terminal, Pireaus, where hundreds of families are living in tents pitched directly onto the hard tarmac. It is hot, noisy and dusty.

The purpose of the project is to provide therapeutic play to refugee children. The refugees coming into Europe have been through so much: war, dangerous journeys in the hope of finding safety and now huge uncertainty in what the future holds for them. I had read many things about the toll this was taking on people’s wellbeing and mental health, so it seemed right to get involved in a project that was responding to that.

The Schoolbox consisted of a shipping container used to store materials, some gazebos for shade and a bit of outdoor space bordered by other containers. Activities happened outside the box, so we moved some of the drawing materials and a small play tent into the shade. Many children quickly appeared and some settled down to colouring but others were boisterous and energetic – their play-fighting quickly crossed over into actual fighting. We did our best to prevent and breakup fights, but it was a tough afternoon.  After 3 intense hours, we closed up for the day.

The Schoolbox

A calm-looking Schoolbox

In those 3 hours, I didn’t have time to stop and think about what I’d seen, but on the drive home I was suddenly hit with emotion. What I had witnessed was shocking: those children were really suffering and seeing it firsthand was overwhelming.  I also realised that in some respects, I was out of my depth – not being a parent, trained social worker or child psychologist.

When we did get a chance to get advice from one of the longer-term volunteers, however, I was reassured that I didn’t have to be any of those things – she gave us the confidence that just being there (whatever our background and experience) was helpful. Armed with some techniques to help calm the children and a new understanding of the structure and variety needed for effective therapeutic play, we started week 2 at the Schoolbox with renewed enthusiasm.

Things then improved in many ways. As volunteers, we had more of a sense of purpose and built more variation in the activities, which the children appreciated. It gave them focus and allowed them to exist in the present, instead of having time to relive painful memories or worry about what else was going on in their lives. They did rock painting, dream-catchers, flextangles 2 and some scratch crayon drawings. Some of the older kids also started English lessons with the volunteers who were teachers.

It was still non-stop hard work, but very rewarding. At the end of each day, a few kids would always walk back with us as we headed towards our cars or the bus stops, pleading for piggybacks or to play football. It was tough, but at least we could promise we’d be back the next day.

As is often the situation in this crisis though, things can change very quickly. On the Friday, we were told that gate E1 would soon be cleared of refugees. The Schoolbox would need a new home and it was decided that the activities would stop to allow the container to be moved. In the port itself, there were a lot of tensions: the police were intimidating the refugees, driving around on motorbikes at night. The knowledge of the imminent camp closure also caused a huge amount of anxiety amongst the adults: quickly picked up by the kids. Add to this, poor conditions at the port, bad food, the stress of observing Ramadan in such an unstable environment and sweltering heat (it reached 40 degrees).

Something had to give, and on the Saturday night, it all got too much. Fights started to break out amongst camp residents and the children responded similarly. Despite the best efforts of the volunteers who were there at the time, the Schoolbox container was completely trashed.

The kids were acting out their frustrations – fear of the closure of the Schoolbox and knowing they’d be forced to move (yet again), just when they thought that they had some stability, safety and sanctuary. Their journey in life has so far not been easy and for a few months with the Schoolbox and all of the volunteers, they had a safe place.

Some of the Schoolbox volunteers

Some of the lovely Schoolbox Project volunteers

It was a tough ending for everyone involved, but on reflection I am proud about what we were able to do. Since the closure, I’ve had reports back from some of the other volunteers who were able to go back to help out at other projects. The E1 residents’ tents have now been moved to underneath a motorway flyover at gate E1.5: really not ideal, but it does provide some shade. This is just a temporary location before they are moved again to camps outside the port. Tensions have dropped a bit, some of “our kids” have started to visit the child-focused activities being run at that gate, and the School Box will reopen sometime elsewhere.

I think about the Schoolbox children every day and I hope for a better future for them. I am also privileged to have worked with some amazing volunteers (the photo above shows only some of them).

One birth and a whole load of bureaucracy

Here, one thing can lead to a lot of others! That Facebook request we responded to took us not just to the makeshift camp on the outskirts of Athens. It also led me to support a Syrian family and, in particular, a young girl with a newborn baby in hospital. In the process I’ve not only encountered bureaucracy so crazy I’m not sure I can describe it, but also got to know a lovely family.

I apologise in advance for the length of this story. I felt it should be told in full.

Starting from the beginning

The volunteers mentioned in our recent post who were delivering donations to the unofficial camp outside Skaramangas had, on a previous visit, met a family of 6 – a mother, her 2 daughters and 2 sons, and the eldest daughter’s one-year-old son. That family was soon to grow – the eldest daughter (she has agreed for me to write this post but asked not to be identified, so I will call her R) was 9 months pregnant at the time. The volunteers not only gave their phone numbers and were ‘on call’, driving R to the hospital when she went into labour, but also found them a safer space to stay at a squat in the city.

At the point at which these volunteers left Athens for home, R had just been discharged from hospital after the birth. However, her baby had an infection and was transferred to neonatal care. And this is where I come in.

As R wanted to visit and breastfeed her baby during his expected 10-day stay in hospital, I agreed to support her – taking her to the hospital, a 45 minute bus ride from the centre of town, and advocating for her when there to ensure she could spend time with her son. What I thought might be one day of showing her the ropes with Athens buses and then leaving her to it, turned into daily trips with her and plenty of time sat in a boiling hot waiting room or wandering the streets near the hospital with R, waiting for the unpredictable hours when the nurses would let her in to the unit to see her baby.

Now, here I need to explain a few things. R is just 17. She married at 15 years old but her husband is in Syria still, as his parents felt they couldn’t leave. She left her home around the age of 13 to escape the war and hasn’t been able to go to school since she was 12. Her home no longer exists – it was destroyed by a bomb. She is incredibly warm, savvy and smart, she wants to study maths and science, but for someone who has lived in a war zone or on the move with her family for so long, dealing with buses and hospitals alone in a city you don’t know, let alone when you’ve just given birth, is tough. So, I didn’t leave her to it. Most days we took the number 21 bus together, conversing in slow, simple English or via Google translate, and spent a few hours out in a suburb of Athens together.

From what I’ve seen of friends becoming new parents, dealing with a new baby in a stable situation is tough enough. Add in all of the above, plus the fact that you’re living with your one-year-old in a squat without hot running water and your husband is still in a war zone, and it gets tougher. Then you come to the bureaucracy, just to make it more complex. That bureaucracy came in two forms – the Town Hall and the Asylum Service.

The Town Hall

Firstly, we needed to register the baby’s birth. R doesn’t have a passport, her papers including marriage certificate are all in Arabic and an official translation would have taken at least 10 working days, but most likely double that at huge expense. We thought we’d give it a try without and turned up, papers in hand, at the Town Hall (which incidentally is on a street that you can’t find without doing lots of research online because the Greek street name has fewer words in it than the phonetically transcribed name on Google maps… who knew?!).

Amazingly, lots of smiling, pleading, thank yous and a little bit of me pretending that I could read the Arabic on her marriage certificate got us to a birth certificate of sorts after an hour. Then we questioned why they had not included the baby’s first name – surely an essential part of a birth certificate – and the trouble started. I have since found out that, in Greece, first names are typically only listed on birth certificates once the baby has been baptised, which may take place when they’re 2 or 3 years old. And, legally, both parents have to be present to register the first name, often needing paperwork from the baptism.

For R, a completed birth certificate can’t wait that long as she is applying for family reunification in Germany. Her father’s asylum claim has been accepted there as he travelled ahead, before the borders shut. She plans neither to baptise her baby (since she’s Muslim) nor return to Greece in a few years’ time. Plus, her husband will not be coming to Greece but hopes to reunite with her eventually in Germany if possible.

The solution according to the Town Hall… for someone to certify and stamp a letter and ID from her husband proving he agrees to the chosen first-name. So why doesn’t her husband just pop down to the Greek embassy in Syria (which most definitely does not exist) or could R go the Syrian embassy in Athens (again, does not exist), or couldn’t her husband visit a lawyer in his city (there are none, there are no services)? So far, we’ve found no real solution, but I’m working on it. For now, they have a baby that officially exists in Greece, and he has a surname. A success in part.

The Asylum Service

And then we get to the second bit of bureaucracy – the family’s asylum claim. They had originally been based in a camp in the north of Greece, moving to Athens due to constant flooding of their tent and a snake infestation that made R fear for her and her children’s safety if she gave birth there. Despite their move, the Greek Government is still processing their registration and asylum claim in the North, with no option to move it to Athens.

One evening, when R and I returned to the squat in Athens from the hospital, a day or two before the baby was due to be discharged, we found her mother had received a call to say they had an appointment with the Asylum Service. That appointment was going to be in Thessaloniki the next morning at 7.30am. They were excited – an appointment is hard to get! – but Thessaloniki is a 6-hour journey, it was 5pm, and all train services in Greece were on strike.

We went back to the hospital to try to get some kind of paperwork to show the Asylum Service that the baby existed (the birth certificate wasn’t yet ready) so that he didn’t get left behind in Greece. And because all but essential services at the hospital shut at 2pm of course, resorted to a photo of her with the baby showing his hospital tag and a handwritten note from a kind nurse. Then Tom and I put them on an overnight bus and explained how they could find the Asylum Service office when they got there – guess what, same problem with finding the place on Google maps!

The next day, the excitement had most definitely faded. They’d been contacted on the wrong date. Their appointment had been the day before. They explained their journey from Athens, they explained they’d left a week-old baby in hospital, but their names were not on the list so they were most definitely not coming in. The mother of the family, R and R’s son left the other siblings behind with friends in their former snake-infested camp and travelled back to Athens deflated.

A little bit of luck

The baby with no official first name was luckily discharged the next day. We only waited 3 hours for the handwritten discharge note from the doctor saying he needed some over-the-counter vitamin drops. But after the wait, I was lucky enough to see this tiny little baby meet his brother for the first time, helping R to manage the insane excitement and jealousy that mixed into one as her older son realised that he was no longer the only one.

Catching the 21 bus for the final time with her son

Catching the 21 bus for the final time, this time with her son

Then the next morning, they called me to say their asylum appointment had been rescheduled; again in Thessaloniki, again at 7:30am. Another bus journey was organised. This time with not one but two babies to entertain for 6 hours and this time their appointment took place. The whole family has now returned to Athens with no information about what stage of the asylum process they’re at, when they will hear more, and what will happen next. They’re in the system somewhere, we just don’t know where.

I’ve taught R the phrase “fingers crossed” in English. She says it all the time now. She recognises that however much they deserve asylum and deserve a safe home, they also need a lot of luck to get that anytime soon. I am keeping absolutely everything crossed for this family and hoping things work out from now on.

Some new friends and a case of mistaken identity

In our second week in Athens, we responded to a Facebook request asking for someone with a car to help deliver supplies to a camp called Skaramangas.  What we thought would be a quick job, turned out to be a long but rewarding afternoon and evening.  Because of this trip, we met some amazing volunteers and refugees. (N.B. Another blog to follow with a much, much longer story about one particular family that we met.)

Skaramangas is one of the better official camps in Greece, although it is not without its problems. Situated near a foul-smelling industrial zone, 8 miles outside of Athens, its residents sleep in air-conditioned cabins and its facilities are of a higher standard than most.2

However, outside the walls is a small unofficial camp with around 60 tents. The people in these tents hoped that by setting up outside the official camp, they would eventually be allowed in. Rumour has it that they might have been let in this morning (fingers crossed the rumours are true!), but when we were there these people were in a desperate situation: living in a hot and dusty corner right next to huge road, without running water, toilets or regular access to food. It was to this unofficial camp that we had agreed to help deliver and give out supplies.

The delivery had been arranged by Cecilia, Zeynep and Leslie: three friends who had travelled from Istanbul, Barcelona and Boston to volunteer in Athens. They were supported by Percin, an entrepreneur, also from Istanbul who was visiting Greece and had connected with them through Facebook.  They are veterans of the crisis and knew what they were doing, so we followed their lead. We met at their rental apartment in central Athens to load the cars before making the 30 minute trip to the camp.

To help give out the supplies, which consisted of vital baby food, nappies and hygiene products, we were assisted by a wonderful group of young men living in the main, official camp: a mixture of Syrian and Kurdish refugees – a warm, friendly and helpful bunch. ‘Crowd control’ is a factor when working with tired and hungry people, so our young men helped manage the queues and translated for us as we distributed supplies.

We spent several hours at the camp without too much trouble, until one angry man accused Faye of being from the Greek Government (why, we do not know). Needless to say he was not a big fan of the Greek Government, and therefore not too keen on Faye. At this point, we had given out most of the supplies and decided it would be safer to call it a day.

To say thank you to our young friends, we took them out for some food at a nearby roadside cafe. To hear their stories is upsetting and shocking, but their spirit and attitude is inspiring. We saw photos of the aftermath of bombings in their home towns (images too shocking to appear in the British media), found out about the journeys they’d taken and the family members they’d left behind, and heard about the problems in the official Skaramangas camp (a small group of trouble-makers stealing, threatening and committing acts of violence against other residents with the Greek police refusing to do anything about it). As the sun set, we took our friends back to the camp and then headed home.


Dinner with our new friends