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What It’s Like To Volunteer In A Refugee Camp

October 30, 2017

Signage at Greek Refugee Camp

So, I didn’t intend to tell the Canadian Border Control Officer I was on my way to work in a refugee camp. But I was just so darn excited that I was blabbing to anyone who would listen. To be specific, I was going to ‘volunteer’ but because I said ‘work’, I received a raised eyebrow, lots of follow-up questions, and a big ’41’ written on my entry form – which was curious as I was only passing through Canada from San Francisco to Athens.

Then I grinned as I thought about security pulling my checked luggage for secondary inspection. They would discover a bag full of packaged women’s underwear to donate and a lice kit (just in case).

On my next flight, an unusually chatty passenger asked me why I was on my way to Greece and then thanked me for my service as I started to review my Arabic vocabulary flashcards. Although the acknowledgment was heartwarming, the truth was I was simply realizing a 20-year-old dream.

Translation Cheat Sheet in Refugee Camp

My journey with refugees started in my early 20s when I taught English as a Second Language. Later I helped resettle a refugee family from Serbia and then started my Master’s Degree in Refugee Studies with the idea of working for the International Red Cross one day. But my focus changed with marriage and a growing family.

Now that our kids were in high school, it would be easier to be away for a couple weeks. But finding an NGO that accepted short-term volunteers proved to be no easy task. After researching for two years, I finally stumbled upon Cross-Cultural Solutions‘s new refugee program which required a minimum 2-week commitment and provided logistical support. Ding-a-ling.

So I signed up to volunteer in October, the month when the weather in the Mediterranean is predictably pleasant. 

Beach in Argolis, Greece

At the advice of my well-traveled friends in a previous post, I bought packing cubes. Each bag has a theme – tops, bottoms, shoes, etc. I can’t explain why, but the cubes make packing faster and keep me organized while on the road. From now on, I’ll never travel without them.

And for the first time, I didn’t bring a camera. I decided to rely on my iPhone instead. Volunteers were forbidden to photograph camp residents because some people could be in hiding. Therefore pulling out a big camera would be more than awkward.

I packed jeans, activewear, t-shirts, and a jacket to wear at camp. Volunteers had to keep shoulders and legs covered – which wasn’t difficult as it wasn’t hot – so as to not offend Muslim residents. Though most female residents wore hijabs (headscarves), we did not.

Hijab Refugee Artwork

On the first day, our group of six volunteers arrived one by one to join the current volunteers. We were all Americans (male & female) aged 18 to 60ish years old. Some volunteers previously had worked in refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East. As a whole, the group shaped up to be smart, interesting, talented, and well-traveled. Compassionate and risk-takers. Dinner conversations were riveting.

Located an hour north of Athens, Chalkida was the lovely seaside resort town we called home. Complete with a promenade lined with cafes, gelaterias, and restaurants, the town was a relaxing place to return to after a day in camp. A friendly 3-star hotel served as home base for sleeping, gatherings, and meetings.

The hotel provided breakfast each morning. For lunch, we ate a sack lunch or opted for a falafel from one of the stalls in the camp. We had lots of choices for dinner from delicious restaurants in Chalkida.

Panoramic view of Chalkida, Greece

Before our departure, we prepared by watching relevant online videos through DisasterReady. And on our second day in Greece, we built on that knowledge with an orientation about the camp, the residents, and the refugee situation in Greece. They used the term “residents” instead of the stigmatized label “refugees”.

I was assigned to a long-term refugee camp on a retired military base housing 700+ individuals. The majority of residents were Syrian. They were survivors still on a long journey.

Understandably we were not allowed to ask residents personal questions, but we assumed most residents arrived by boat since the land border between Turkey and Greece is closed. The 4.1 mile sea voyage from Turkey to Lesvos, Greece is perilous due to overcrowded boats and often turbulent water. And that trial is after having had unspeakable experiences in Turkey and Syria.

Packing list for Dignity Packs

Unlike some Greek refugee camps, our camp was unlocked; residents could come and go as they pleased. But the camp was in a remote area with limited public transportation. Boredom was a problem. And it’s just a waiting game for resettlement assignments.

Some had been in camp for 1.5 years waiting to hear news of their next move. Some teenagers were unaccompanied minors. And many were eager to reunite with family members already resettled somewhere in Europe.

A painted mural at refugee camp depicts a boat crossing

A painted mural at camp depicts a boat crossing

I may have been one of the first volunteers to enter the camp with a smile on her face. I was surrounded by the rock-stars of the worldwide refugee network I’d only read about – United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders. The big players were there, and I was a bit star-struck. But it was time to get to work.

My first assignment was Laundry.  Ten washing machines were housed inside a windowless shipping container. In the past, washing machines broke down due to residents overstuffing machines or using too much soap. Under the new system, residents made appointments to have their clothing washed by us. Then they hung their clothes to dry outside.

Hanging clothes to dry

I enjoyed this work because of the interaction with residents. Most were very appreciative, and it was a fun challenge to speak Arabic. When I didn’t know a word, I slowly spoke simple English with hand gestures to get my point across. You know how in America our hand gesture for ‘finished’ (as in ‘your laundry load is finished/all done’) involves sliding your fingertips across your neck? Yeah, I worked really hard to not use that one.

Dirty laundry often came to us with flies on it, so we wore gloves. And besides the language barrier, we experienced other obstacles. Machines broke down sporadically, and water or electricity went out at unpredictable times. 

Laundry Facility at Greek Refugee Camp

Unforeseen delays forced us to get behind on finishing last loads for the 4:15pm pickup. Many residents had waited 10 days to get an appointment, so I didn’t want to disappoint them, especially if they had really young children. And I didn’t want to keep clothes overnight in case of mold and/or if the family didn’t have extra clothes at home.

The laundry dial was in Greek, so I followed the washing instructions left by previous volunteers. But when I realized we were using the ‘Hand Wash’ cycle, the mama in me said there is no way we can get clothes clean in a cycle reserved for cashmere sweaters. So we upped it to the more time-consuming Everyday Cycle, and everyone was much happier with the improved cleanliness. So my long-lasting contribution to the camp was probably the improved wash cycle. Laundry Machine in Refugee Camp

In my second week,  I worked in the Distribution Center – a dimly lit concrete warehouse with peeling paint on the ceiling and a wandering iguana. There were signs of rodent activity too, as I found a half-eaten parka inside a gnawed box.

From here we distributed water, milk, and hygiene supplies to residents. Although filters were rumored to be placed on taps soon, there was no drinkable water in camp.

Distribution Center in Refugee Camp

Additionally, we sorted clothing donations and stocked shelves in the Clothing Store. Notably, there were a lot of donated English school uniforms. Residents made monthly appointments to ‘shop’ using points. Items such as coats and shoes were worth more points due to low supply and high demand.

Volunteers put out winterwear that week due to the change in season. It can snow in the area, and homes don’t have heaters. 

Staging Area for Sorting Donation in Greek Refugee Camp

I was surprised my ‘mom knowledge’ was so useful. As the only mom on the crew, I was consulted as to the size of some of the children’s clothing. I created a bin for distributing baby blankets I discovered tucked away in storage. I confidently could tell a father that his 2-year-old daughter was old enough to drink milk (rather than formula). A teenage boy brought an item to Lost & Found which I identified as a nursing pad.

Originally this camp was filled with tents, but about a year ago they were replaced by Iso-Boxes which everyone called ‘caravans’. They looked like trailers or portables with a small kitchen and bathroom inside. I assumed for that reason, our camp was viewed as one of the ‘nicer’ refugee camps in the country. I loved seeing how residents personalized their caravan by adding an enclosed porch made of cardboard or a small garden fenced in with headboards.

But life as a refugee remains challenging even under ‘good’ conditions. There’s a conscious effort to give residents a feeling of dignity, which is attempted many ways. But my biggest takeaway was their lack of choice and power in determining their own futures – their next day, week, or year.

Clothing store at refugee store

The laundry facility might close without advance notice. Electricity or water goes out. Someone takes your milk allocation. Sometimes a camp permanently closes with little forewarning.

But in the bigger picture, refugees are at the mercy of a higher power who determines their next move – the when, the where, and of course, who. Some residents learn of their new placement just 24 hours before departure.

According to the  UNHCR, the top three European countries receiving the most resettlements in 2017 are UK (20%), France (14%) and Sweden (14%). But because each country speaks a different language and resettlement is so sudden, residents can’t learn the new language in advance which would ease their transition.

Tragically, many of the children at the camp were not in school. They could attend the local public school, but transportation was difficult and lessons were taught in Greek. The kids I saw were playing soccer, hopscotch, sliding in boxes, and just being kids. A few young boys entertained themselves by stealing pens in Laundry, sneaking into the Distribution Center, or throwing rocks at volunteers.

The teenage boys and girls were really sweet and eager to practice their English. They were helpful translators. I was spellbound as they translated our signage into Arabic. It looked like artistry in motion as they wrote gracefully from right to left.

Made in Oinofyta Refugee Camp

Oinofyta Wares: Residents upcycle and sell items made of discarded refugee tents

For the most part, I felt safe. We were instructed to always travel in pairs, and we had an evacuation plan. Occasionally residents protest out of frustration against the onsite government agency but typically action is not directed toward NGOs. I found a few residents quick to anger when things didn’t go their way, but in general, everyone greeted us with a friendly ‘Marhaban’ (hello) followed by a warm smile.

It seemed only men volunteered with the local NGOs while the women appeared to take care of the children and traditional household duties. Residents were given ‘cash cards’ but creating a significant income was difficult. Some entrepreneurial residents set up storefronts in the camp, including the ‘falafel man’ who was not only smiley and sparkly but also made the best falafel gyros. 

Falafel sold by resident at refugee camp

We were told never to shake a man’s hand in camp unless he offered his hand first. And – oh no! – I accidentally extended my hand with a wide smile to the first man I was introduced to. But the residents are savvy and know they are living in a foreign country with different social rules. I imagine the numerous Western humanitarian workers on site created a good introduction to Western culture.

There are overarching issues many refugee camps deal with worldwide. Big donations shipped from abroad circumvent local merchants and can drive small businesses to close. The regional economy benefits more when supplies are purchased locally. Additionally, if refugee camps have better services than the surrounding community, tension and resentment may fester.

Greece has been a very gracious host to refugees. And the Greeks are sympathetic to the refugees’ plight yet quick to tell you about their own high taxes and alarming unemployment rate during this time of austerity. While it doesn’t make headlines anymore, Greeks still struggle. And 45,000 refugees and migrants are perceived to increase the strain.

Feral cat in Greece

I questioned my cultural assumptions. In the Clothing Store: Do Syrian boys wear pink? In Laundry: Do Syrians use the same 7-day calendar we do? In general: Would a newborn automatically be granted Greek/EU citizenship (I think the answer is no)?

I learned that Arabic has a lot of regional variations. And although I correctly focused on Levantine Arabic, my dictionary didn’t completely reflect what was actually spoken at camp.

Arabic Dialects

Arabic Dialects (Credit: Rafy via Wikimedia Commons)

I also made a few self-discoveries: my value to the camp as a mom, the ease of learning Greek and Arabic at the same time, and my unbalanced stereotype of Middle Eastern men due to the media.

I twirled as brain food came at me on so many levels. To take it a step further, I’d like to volunteer on the front line of sea arrivals on one of the receiving Greek islands in the future.

Boat in Chalkida Greece

Greece is known for its warm Mediterranean hospitality. So it was fitting that on our last night an enthusiastic Greek server said ‘I will always remember your smiles!’ Likewise, I’ll remember the smiles, the feelings, the stories from my unforgettable trip in Northern Greece. Such a gift!

Resources: 4.1 Miles documentary of refugee sea arrivals in Greece, UNHCR statistics of refugee situation in the Mediterranean



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