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.

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 4 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.

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.