Our trip to Greece in September 2016 as humanitarian and medical volunteers was our first venture as a team. The team consisted of 4 nurses, a music teacher, an admin person with teacher aide and children’s ministry skills, and a Australian Italian who was living in Rome and volunteering full-time with refugees.
Operation Hope teamed up with a Non Government Organisation (NGO) already working in the refugee camps to gain the necessary permission from the Greek government to volunteer in the camps.
10 days at Oinofyta
Our first 10 days were spent volunteering with the NGO ‘Adventisthelp’ in their medical clinic at the Oinofyta refugee camp north east of Athens. Oinofyta refugee camp started as a huge tent camp set up in the grounds of a disused commercial warehouse. At the time of our visit there was a mix of tents and rooms in the warehouse to accomodate the 120+ families. Oinofyta Refugee camp was one of the best resourced refugee camps in Greece. By early 2017 the warehouse was renovated with an increase in the number of small rooms to provide accomodation indoors for all the refugee families. Airconditioning and heating was also installed.
Operation Hope medical volunteers worked in the medical clinic each day from a transportable container converted into a small 3 bed clinic. Local ambulances were used for emergencies or impending child birth. Our hired mini was used to transport refugees to medical appointments in Athens and to transfer refugees to nearby hospitals. NSW Rural Doctors donated (following our enquiry) two dental kits that were shipped direct to Oinofyta refugee camp for use in the medical clinic.
A small but thriving school with a rotation of volunteer teachers and international volunteer teams was operating, providing an educational program in the mornings for the children. The Operation Hope humanitarian volunteers worked in the little school taking classes in ‘tent’ classrooms. The children were unruly, undisciplined and in survival mode. Sharing did not come naturally. These children have only ever experienced trauma and grief in their short lives.
Family packs from UNHCR (containing blankets, mattresses, basic food supplies and water) second hand clothes, food and hygiene items were distributed from the warehouse shop to the families on nominated days.
Many of the refugees’ needs were basic. Our funds were used to purchase underwear, tights, scarves, over 100 pairs of sandals, urgent medical equipment and supplies for the medical clinic, sewing items and huge amounts of material for the sewing group, games of chess & UNO (card game), 150 kitchen colanders (for rinsing rice), washing powder & pegs for over 120 families, a laminator & laminating pouches for the school along with English books and flash cards.
During 2017 a camp kitchen, camp laundry, undercover dining area, a computer laboratory, library, sewing business were created using funding from NGOs working in the camp. The camp was closed by the Greek government just prior to Christmas 2017 with all residents being moved into rental accomodation. The sewing business continues to this day in a nearby warehouse providing real employment for those families involved.
We then travelled north to Thessaloniki and teamed with ‘Salaam Cultural Museum’ a US based NGO at the Katsikas refugee camp where we volunteered for two weeks.
Conditions in the camps were atrocious. Over 1600 refugees were living in tents inside an abandoned warehouse. Mould, dust, dirt, filth, mud coated the floors and walls of the building, and snakes and vermin had free access. Rows of portable toilets and showers lined the outside walls of the warehouse. There were no kitchen or laundry facilities and roof leaked during rain.
A massive new, clean warehouse located 100m from the camp was a busy hub where we spent a huge amount of time sorting donated clothes and shoes which then were ‘sold’ in the camp boutique. Each family received a number of ‘tokens’ according to the number of people in their family, tokens which could then be ‘spent’ in the boutique. A similar token system was used in the food store – where fresh fruit and vegetables were ‘sold’ each day. There was also hygeine and basic staples (rice, flour, oil, tinned food) available.
Schooling was limited and severely affected by camp conditions. Team members volunteering in the school found there was a very limited curriculum and attendance was irregular due to lack of sleep. Conditions in the tents made sleeping difficult so many children slept until mid morning. Nevertheless we made sure the lessons were fun and bright and stimulating. We sang and encouraged action games, plus donated books and english flash cards.
Helping to improve conditions.
The donated funds that we could make available were used to make life more tolerable for the refugees. We teamed up with an NGO team from the US – giving their carpenter funds to buy and construct benches, desks, door and walls for the school rooms. Wood for construction of a pizza oven shop in the huge rented warehouse along with small tables and chairs in a ‘Mens area’ plus card games and chess sets were purchased from funds we donated.
The women wanted to start a new women’s group in a place with some privacy. An area in the large rented warehouse was cordoned off and temporary walls built to give privacy to the women who attended. Asked what they would like us to do for them, the women asked us to supply hair, nail & beauty supplies for the women’s group. We also donated sewing items to the little tailors shop that was operated by several of the refugees in the large rented warehouse.
The Katsikas Refugee camp was closed by the Greek government in early 2017 and the refugees relocated to rental properties in villages nearby.
During our time in Greece, we distributed over 100 soccer balls to 10 refugee camps – the balls having been donated by a young boy in Brisbane who wanted refugee children in Greece to be able to play soccer.
It was a privilege to be able to meet the refugees, listen as they told us of their traumatic journey to Greece, and then offer comfort and love. We promised to tell their story to the international world and highlight their plight seeking support and help for them.