The Day I Didn't Volunteer with Refugees in Greece

It wasn't that obvious, the collection of dark green and blue tarpaulins, almost hidden behind a stone wall along the southern ring road around the Chios castle, but it was the white ones with the UNHCR logo that gave it away. I had never seen a refugee camp before.

One of the reasons I chose to visit Chios in Greece, of all the country's 1200 habitable islands, was because of the refugees here. For the past year I have been following the news stories about refugees from the Middle East that have reached Greece's shores, and with its close proximity to Turkey, Chios has had a large flow of these migrants.

My summer trip, I recognized, would take me on the refugee route: Greece, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary. Only I would have the privilege of doing it for pleasure. So here I wanted to see these refugee camps and volunteer and, although I wasn't sure how, be involved.

I have worked with refugees before. I went to university near Niagara Falls, which borders the USA. There, some people cross the bridge and claim asylum in Canada. During my final year, I volunteered at a refugee centre that housed families and organized the various health and legal appointments required of claimants. Being an unqualified student, of course, I wasn't allowed to interact with any of the refugees; I simply did clerical work, like scheduling appointments and leaving notes for people. It left me wondering more about their lives: what they looked like, what they liked, who they were.

Here in the camp in the town of Chios, there was noise inside the tents. Laughter. Chatter. Kids playing. Outside the tents, there were few people to see. A couple small groups of men gathered in circles, hanging around. Two women in various stages of doing laundry: one washing something in a bucket, the other hanging the now-clean clothes up to dry.

I stepped into the nearby Chios municipal offices to inquire about to I might be able to volunteerput together packages, perhaps. I was directed to a small office where a man told me about their situation.

"There are about 1500 refugees now," he said. "The flow is small." As of March, Greece has been sending some refugees back to Turkey, and as a result, migration via the Aegean Sea has dramatically decreased. Some of the refugees have moved on to the mainland.

The camp I saw is the temporary one, he said. If I wanted to volunteer, I should go to the permanent one on the north side of the Chios castle. "It's still temporary," he admitted, "but more organized than this one." He instructed me on how to find the entrance. (Not the one on the other side of the castle, he said, as this was just security. The volunteer groups would be at the other entrance, about a kilometre north of where we were, and there I could find someone to talk to.)

No one questioned my being there when I entered the camp. In fact, I stood around outside a Samaritan's Purse office for several minutes without anyone doing more than glancing at me while they talked on their phones. The office was a white trailer, like one I might see at a construction site.

While I waited I took in the scene around me. There were the big angular shelters I recognized from the news; these too were a white plastic material and had the UNHCR logo on them. The shelters were set on flat dirt land, something that maybe could have been a parking lot in a previous life. Inside the shelters were camping tents to house a few families.

Behind the half-dozen office trailers was the sea, and I could see and hear several kids splashing around in the water. They were walking out onto the rocks and jumping into the cool water with squeals of delight.

But most of the action was taking place at a pickup truck to the north of the offices. Under a tarp, volunteers were sorting food for refugees would had come to collect lunch. People carrying square plastic bins stacked with lunch (slices of bread and tinfoil take-away containers) walked from the truck back to their families; others were carrying the bins back, empty.

Despite the midday heat and humidity, many people were wearing jeans. Some women were wearing headscarves, and many wore long-sleeved shirts. There wasn't much shade around here, save for inside the tents or under a few isolated trees near the entrance. As I waited, I fanned myself with a brochure I had in my purse.

I asked a man wearing a Samaritan's Purse T-shirt about the possibility of volunteering, and he said I should talk to a volunteer group. He walked with me to the truck and introduced me to a man from Drop in the Ocean. I had read about this group before, but I hadn't wanted to start a formal volunteer process with them.

Before coming, I had no idea what my volunteering plan was and I didn't know what I was I looking for. I thought something would become clear once I was there and could see it myself. But standing there, with everything happening in front of me, I still had no idea.

As I spoke with the second volunteer worker, three small boys about 10 years old came up to him to ask for various things. One asked for spoons, and he was given a handful. One asked for salt. "With what are you going to carry it all?" the volunteer asked. The boy paused. The first volunteer I spoke with, the man from Samaritan's Purse, demonstrated how to cup his hands together. The yound boy did, and the worker poured a spoonful of salt into his hands. The third boy asked for something I couldn't hear, but he was denied (with a smile, I should add) and told to wait in line with everyone else.

Everyone was speaking English, I noted, though it seemed like it wasn't the first language for anyone involved.

I was given a phone number for a superviser so I could talk to her about volunteering, but I knew as soon as I had it that I wasn't going to call. I thanked him for his time and walked back out of the camp. I found a space on the shaded front steps to a townhouse a few steps outside of the camp where I could sit and gather my thoughts. A dog inside noticed my presence and started barking, so the homeowner, an older man with unkept white hair, opened his door. Seeing me there, he gestured that it was okay for me to sit on his steps and yelled at his dog to stop barking. Then he got on his motorbike and drove away.

A few minutes later group of mostly women and a young girl about 11 or 12 walked up the road and sat down beside me in the shade. I smiled and said hello, and one of the women smiled and said "salam" back. I say it back. After our greetings were complete, one of the women and the young girl sat on the steps beside me. while the others found their own spots in the shade of the building. With no conversation, me speaking only English and the group speaking only Farsi, we quietly went about our business sitting next to each other.

What am I doing here? I thought. Like my time at Niagara Falls, I felt more comfortable in the background and, for better or for worse, didn't like to idea of working directly with the refugees. I thought: I should have done a better job of organizing something before I came here. I could have written to Drop in the Ocean, at least, to discuss options. What skills do I have? Would I actually be useful? I would probably be more of an annoyance than an asset. Did I just want to be able to say I helped?

As I considered my feelings about volunteering, a young man arrived with a tinfoil lunch container. Inside was a corn and tomato salad, sliced cucumbers, and some meat, all nicely divided into three sections like a toddler's dinner plate. The family ate and chatted.

At this point, the Greek homeowner arrived back on his motorbike. As he pulled up in front of his house, he said something to the group and shooed us away with a flick of his wrist. The woman and child who were sitting next to me on the steps quickly jumped up and scattered like mice after a light is turned on; clearly this wasn't the first time this had happened. They found a place beside the others in the group along the wall. Even though I stood up with the others, the old Greek man indicated I could stay, and so I sat back down.

While we were sitting there, three volunteers (two from Samaritan's Purse, one from Save the Children) walked by to and from the camp. None say hi to this group of refugees next to me or even glanced our way; instead they continue by without looking up from their cell phones.

When lunch was done, the boy collected the container and went off to return it. It was time for the group to move on, so we all said goodbye with waves and smiles. Without knowing any other Farsi word, I said "salam" again.

Soon after, a father and daughter walked by, and seeing an opportunity for both shade and conversation, they came over to sit in the shade where the others had been. He introduced himself but I couldn't make out his name, and he made his daughter introduce herself to me.

They were from Afghanistan, he said, and he pointed to a nearby couple with a blond toddler and told me they were from Iraq. "Where are you from?" he asked. When I responded I was from Canada, he grinned. "Canada! Canada good."

He turned away. "Europe bad. Europe bad." He counted with his fingers: "Food bad, house bad, doctor bad."

He asked if Canada had any refugees from Afghanistan and I told him we had a few, although admittedly I had no idea how many. (See: Canada's refugees by the numbers: the data - CBC) He smiled even though I didn't give him much of an answer. "Canada good."

He repeated his list of bad things. "Doctor bad. 'Doctor tomorrow, doctor tomorrow,'" he said as he waved his hand in dismissal. "Everyday 'doctor tomorrow.'" He told me about his daughter's health problemsor tried to, but all I could gather was that it was something to do with her chest. He had brought her over to us again, away from where she had gone to play with the blond toddler in the lane, so that he could tap her chest to show me where she was sick or hurt.

He asked for a photo. I got my cell phone out of my purse and gave it to his daughter, who came to sit beside me on the front steps. After showing her to how use it, she took a few photos of me and a few selfies. Her dad suggested we get a photo together, so we did.

Chatting with a man and his daughter, living at a refugee camp in Chios, Greece

Chatting with a man and his daughter, living at a refugee camp in Chios, Greece

Then the old Greek man came out of his house again, now wearing what looked like pajamas (a white tank top and a pair boxer shorts) and exposing what looked like serious burns on his legs. As he had done previously, he dismissed us all with a flick of his hand, only this time it was clear from his frustration and his lack of clothing that I was no longer welcome there, either.

Hand in hand, father and daughter walked toward the main street with another refrain of "Europe bad." We waved goodbye, and I headed in the opposite direction.


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To volunteer in Chios, read this.