Three years ago I spend three weeks in a Refugee Camp in Greece working as a Volunteer. These three weeks changed my life and my way of thinking completely. Even though it was one of the most real, shocking and exhausting experiences in my life, I still feel very emotional thinking about my trip to Greece.
I get often asked how it was or how I ended up spending my vacation in a Refugee Camp in Greece, so here is the story:
How it all started
Since I can think, I feel the urge to help less privileged people. By the time the refugee crisis started, I had just finished my apprenticeship and felt no fulfillment in my life. I got to see and hear about the situation in Iraq and Syria on daily television and newspaper just like everyone else did. I remember how I was obsessed with clicking through the Youtube videos about the war and the people on the run. Every night before falling asleep, I have wished somehow to be able to help these people. So I started my research and came across the Swiss Refugee Help Organization.
On this Website are many ways listed, how to support the refugees either with money or with a helping hand. That’s where I came across an organization called Borderfree Association which comes from a woman from my hometown Zurich. And without even hesitating I signed up to Volunteer for three weeks in a Refugee Camp close to Thessaloniki in Greece.
I was not prepared. I actually had no idea what to expect. I couldn’t even picture how my work would look like. So all I knew was, I had to be able to drive a car in Greece, I needed some money to get around, I needed warm clothes because on the Olymp region it will be freaking cold in November and I needed my journal to write my thoughts. That’s all I knew and all I had prepared.
Organizations for a good cause are mostly runned by people that are working for free. There is no time for instructions, preparation, and planning for a volunteer. So I had to find my own way to the secluded camp in Katerini. The organization rented an apartment where all the volunteers could sleep for free. When I arrived there, I had to share my room with six other people. I knew that it would not be a visit to the pony farm, but I still had imagined something more pleasant. But there was not even time or space to think about these luxery problems. It was time for my first day at the Refugee Camp.
My first day
Basically, a car drove us up the mountain and stopped somewhere in nowhere in front of a tent landscape. The other Volunteers wished me a good day and disappeared between the tents. So I ended up spending my first day hardly overwhelmed, playing games with the kids. On this day I realized that I have to make myself useful in my own way.
Best and Worst Days of my Life
On my second day I entered the Camp with a clear vision: Whatever I do, it will be helpful. It was the day I started teaching six Iraqi women. We started our English classes around a fireplace outside. The school rooms were already used by the kids.
Every night after class I prepared my papers by writing down English words next to the little drawings I did. All we had was pens, blank papers, and a little Chalkboard. The two-hour class every morning turned out to be the best two hours of my day.
Our Bonfire Classroom started to grow quickly. By the end of my first week, there was no more space left in the circle. The women and I started talking for hours about life, breakups
The word “Freedom” became a whole different meaning and I realized how close joy and sorrow was. I was writing a diary at this time and I will copy my texts down below. I wrote my diary in German and I will just drop them into google translate and don‘t change them in a proper english.
So I spend my mornings teaching the women of the Camp and my afternoons drawing and teaching dance moves to the kids. It was a life changing experience. I have never felt so much love in such a dark place.
After the Camp
I’m not going to lie: The weeks after my volunteering were an emotional rollercoaster. I felt like, I was just spending time with people that lost literally everything, going back into a world where people are getting angry when their McDonald order came without Ketchup. It was just so unfair and I had a hard time processing it. But even with my personal battle I had to go through: I would do it again. Always. Ever.
Refugee Camp Diary
IT IS REAL
It is real. A sentence that I often repeat since I’m here. It is real and this situation does not affect Iraq, Syria or Greece. It affects you – me – us. This is not a bad
movie,or something that happens anywhere in the world. It is a happeningright in front of our eyes. A happening that takes 1h30 minutesflight time from Zurich airport. IT IS REAL.
I am fine, sometimes almost too well. We used today for a break. A break, which people can not take in the 7km secluded camp. Some of us volunteers are emotionally upset. Not me. Honestly, I hardly feel feelings. I’m paralyzed, I work. I’m even looking forward to the camp. I like the drive there, through the colorful forest shaped by the fall and when suddenly the tent landscape appears in the middle of nowhere, I can not wait to get out of the car and greet the children. Here there is no fear of contact. Kisses are distributed, the children are thrown into the air, tickled and hugged. When I watch movies together (they like Mr. Bean most of the time), I can hardly lie down because many children either brush my hair, pull my cheeks or sit on my lap. Sometimes, when I play volleyball on the court and the oldest men and women of the camp walk past me, they stop at my side, they take my hand and bend. Then they keep walking, go back to their tents and continue to hope that after more than two years of flight, the hope and the wait finally come to an end. But it has no end. Here is a strange land with a foreign language and strange people, families, doctors
andteachers, sisters and brothers, parents and children are waiting for a normal life. I wonder, what is normal? What is still normal when one has watched his own house look like a ruin? I do not want to describe what these people must have seen. Their relatives did not just die, they also had to watch. Can anyone imagine that? Not me. And even if these doctors, teachers and pilots, mothers and daughters, the most valuable in life were taken even then, these people still believe in the good. What is mostvaluable? It is dignity. They were dignified. For these doctors, teachers, and pilots, who once led a good life, now have a 23-year-old stranger to ask for a warm jacket. They ask me if I could drive them to the hospital. Although she herself, driving for 20 years and probably could do much better than me. They could hate me for that, but they do not.
The people here are not stupid, no – some of them are even more intelligent than we will ever be. You know exactly what’s happening here. It is real. And despite this awareness, they do not give up. They do not give up for their children, their brothers, and sisters.
After 2 weeks in the camp, I will not use the word “refugee” anymore. Because other people do not call me “stayed”. Because Ghazal, Selma, Rashid, and Samy are personalities. They have names, stories, and feelings and not last because they are my friends.
Days of farewell in Petra.
My functioning became paralysis my paralysis became sadness and my sadness became tears. I have to cry. The past two days have been tough. An up and down of indescribable emotions. A lot has happened. People are now picked up by bus. In fact, 200 people a day. The farewells are difficult and hard to bear. Where does the ride go? Despite this drama remains the hope that the bus doors open in a safe place. In a place where you do not have to worry about freezing or if the child does not get enough food. In a place where you can take showers, in a place where you can be human, in a place that we call home. But what do you say to a friend who needs to get into such a bus with her five children by the hand? A friend who longs for
a homebut does not know if the doors open there? What should I, a young, rich Swiss woman, who returns in a few days in her warm home say to this woman on the journey into the unknown? When the cryingeyes of a desperate mother look at you, there is not much left to say. I’m speechless for a moment. The engine of the bus comes on and in the end, I wish strength and afterward comes a “never give up”. I am ashamed as these words pass over my lips and I decide to remain silent. I am not a believer but I pray. I pray for justice, humanity and hope. Amen.
A pink Sky filled with hope
Last night the sky over Camp Petra was pink. The people in the camp sang and danced. Hours of joy. But the beauty of the sky is deceptive. It is very cold and the people in the camp freeze. Even me – although I do not have to sleep there and I can be happy with my clothes equipment. Today I ran into a little girl barefoot, she must be around 4 years old. When I took her aside and started taking my shoes off to give her my socks, she waved and said, “no my friend, please stay warm.” Although it is not warm outside, the hearts of these children are the warmest you can see.
I was a Volunteer in a Refugee Camp in Greece. Read how this experience changed my life completely and take a look in my diary I wrote during this time.