Inside a refugee camp- a volunteer’s perspective

A man from a small village in Iraq. He is
missing a leg and is confined to a

This is an article about what I saw and did in three refugee camps in Greece. Idomeni (an illegal refugee camp), as well as Herxo and Nea Kavala (two military run camps). I hope to give advice to anyone interested in volunteering, and to show what it’s like to live in this environment. I volunteered with a wonderful organization called Drop in the Ocean, and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in volunteering.

Who are in the camps?

I met Syrians and Iraqis at my camps. These were broken into further subdivisions- Arabs, Kurds, and Yazidi. Some people were from big cities, and were highly educated. Others were from small villages and had little education.

An Iraqi man who invited us into his tent for
coffee. We sat and spoke with him for
almost an hour.

What are the people like?

The people in the camps were very welcoming. I was invited into many tents and offered coffee, tea, dates, or whatever they could spare. Despite the squalor of a refugee camp, people were quick with a smile, and happy to have a conversation with me. The kids were always eager to play too, and I had a few great games of football(soccer).

Are refugee camps dangerous?

Most of the camps are run by the Greek military, so there is a constant military presence at the entrance of the camp. Most people living there are also very kind- so I never felt like I was in danger. But there are the occasional snakes; rubbish collects around the camp, which draws in mice and rats, and the snakes eat the rodents. One man showed me pictures he had taken of two dead snakes, each about 2 meters (6 feet) in length. But I never saw any snakes myself.

And while the camp never felt dangerous, it can be unpleasant. During distribution, people are always on edge. I’ve been pushed. I’ve had rocks thrown at me by angry children. I’ve been yelled at. I’ve had old women, and crying children, and frustrated men beg me to give them special treatment, but in order to keep the distribution from falling apart, I had to say no.

What are the living conditions like?

Conditions vary by camp, and they’re hardly equal. Idomeni, which is now closed, had as many as 16,000 people, and was VERY rough. Families could be seen finding lodging inside abandoned train cars, or on the tracks themselves. Idomeni was a border crossing, where people went into Macedonia(FYROM) and made their way toward Western Europe. But when the neighboring European countries shut their borders, no one was allowed to pass through Idomeni. People kept arriving at the crossing, hoping to get through, but no one passed. And so the camp swelled to an incredible size. Camps run by the military are generally cleaner and better, but are still no cake walk.

Idomeni, a now closed camp, was considered illegal, and was largely lawless. People stayed in tiny tents, and had little access to services. It was a terrible place.
UNHCR tents in a military run camp

What’s distribution?

Distribution in Idomeni. People line up to our trailer to receive supplies.

The bulk of our work was spent on distribution. We handed out pretty much anything, from eggs, to t-shirts, to underwear. The two military-run camps I was at had about 1,500 people in them. Each family in the camp had one tent, and each tent had one identification card. The tents, and correlating cards, had numbers like G12 or T93 or E15. A person would come to us, show their identification card, we would type their card number into the computer, and then give them whatever supplies we were handing out.

We called the people by sections- “now serving sections A, B, and C.” This way we’d only have to deal with 100 or so people at a time, instead of the whole camp. One time the army screwed us over, and called the entire camp for distribution, rather than doing as we had asked and calling a specific section at a time. This resulted in a small mob appearing at our tent. There was pushing, yelling, a manic teenage boy kicked over our supplies and had to be hauled away, and there were plenty of people who wanted to argue about not receiving enough. The lesson here… planning is key.

Distribution in Idomeni was much more difficult than the military run camps

A good distribution is one that has been planned well. Everything from how the people enter the distribution area, to how they exit, to how the instructions are given, to how we arrange our goods, to how many people we let in at a time, to how we set up our team. Prepping for distribution really feels like preparing for battle, because so many things can go wrong, and the slightest mistake can have big consequences. Even though most people are peaceful and patient, it really only takes a handful of people to disrupt an entire distribution.

The children adapted to the awful conditions as best they could. Many remained in high spirits.

Are there many kids in the camp?

These camps are about half children. And there are kids EVERYWHERE. We can’t do construction in the camp because kids will materialize out of thin air and poke their curious little heads into our business. It doesn’t matter if we’re stacking boxes of tampons or cutting wood, kids will investigate.

The parents allowed me to photograph their children, but not the adults. They feared persecution if the adults needed to return to Syria.

The military-run camps have play areas for the children, a make-shift football (soccer) field, and a small playground. Each camp has a little school, but it’s not enough and the kids often get into trouble, for lack of things to keep them busy. I witnessed a lot of anger issues with some children. Lots of fights, lots of rocks thrown in anger, lots of tears- with little adult supervision to settle disputes. I witnessed two ten year old girls in a brutal fight, and when we pulled them apart we saw that one girl had deep fingernail gouges in her cheek, red with blood. These are children who were used to structure, school, and a safe home- and now it’s all gone; I think I would have emotional issues too.

A volunteer meets with a child

Many of the kids, troubles aside, are actually very sweet. They’re eager to help, and jump at the opportunity to carry a box, or to help us prep for distribution. Once a 13 year old boy asked us if we were hungry- when I told him yes, I was hungry, he disappeared and returned with a shopping bag full of croissants and juice boxes. Enough for our entire work team.

A handful of the kids can be trouble makers, and can cause problems for us, but the vast majority of them are bored, intelligent, kind children, eager to fill their time with something meaningful. I really treasure the time I spent with them, playing, teaching, and learning from these kids.

Resting on her lunch break

How long is the work day?

We (the volunteers) worked 7 days a week, often starting our shift around 9 or 10 am, and getting home around 8 or 9 at night. Some days were longer, some shorter. I’d say the average day was about 10 hours with a one hour break in the middle somewhere. I think the longest shift I ever had was a 14 hour day, although the coordinators were very clear that people could take a day off if they needed the rest.

Relaxing after a long day

What’s the cost of volunteering?

Most of us shared an apartment building with several rooms, which ended up costing us 15 euros a day, each. Others stayed in a nearby hotel which was 20 euros a day. It was also vital to have a car because the camps have no public transportation. In the low season a car can cost 10 euros a day, in the high season it can be 50 or 60 per day. I was there in the high season, and four of us shared the cost of the car- it ended up being about 12 euros a day, after being split among us. Gas is VERY expensive in Greece, with a liter of unleaded costing about 1 euro and 65 cents. That’s over 6 dollars a gallon for unleaded gas. Some German volunteers drove to Greece and then slept in their van- this saved them money on both lodging and a car rental.

Food in Greece isn’t expensive- a good restaurant will run you 7–10 euros with a nice beer and a hearty meal. A gyro is about 2.50 euros. Supermarkets are abundant and you can buy groceries for about the same prices in the US.

As you can see, the cost of volunteering, unless you plan on sleeping in a car, can get expensive.

Organizing our new warehouse

How are the distributed goods organized?

We get a lot of donations- shirts, toys, shoes, etc- and we need a secure place to keep them, so we have a warehouse. We also need to know exactly how many of a particular item we have before we can hand them out, because we don’t do distribution unless we have enough for everyone. This is how we avoid heated arguments and fights; if there are not enough supplies for everyone, then people are much more willing to cut in line, and argue, and yell.

The warehouse, after DAYS of organizing

I spent many grueling hours in the warehouse- counting, labeling, stacking, sorting, folding, recounting, restacking… ugh… just thinking about it makes me crazy.

Why volunteer?

This is an incredible humanitarian crisis. With millions in need, and the governments not doing nearly enough, it falls on people like you and me to clean up the failures of our politicians. I volunteered because I was already traveling in Greece- it was easy for me to set aside time to help. But not everyone has the capacity to volunteer, so there are smaller ways to help- donate to charities, pressure politicians to support refugees, and educate people about what’s happening.

What’s the best part about volunteering?

My favorite part of all this was the opportunity to walk around and speak to people one on one. To hear their stories, to learn about their hardships, their joys, their ambitions. To speak with the kids, and play with them, and hear all about their lives. The moments that will stay with me are all the intimate conversations I had with the people I met.

What’s the worst part about volunteering?

A wound received by a ‘barrel bomb’ in Syria-
an explosive that is dropped from a helicopter,
and showers shrapnel on all nearby. This man
has no bones beneath the scar, as they were
removed after his injury.

There are some real difficulties with volunteering. The long hours. The head aches of distribution. The annoyance that the people we’re there to help can sometimes yell at us, or lash out at us. There’s the language barrier, and all the frustrations that come with clashes of culture. But honestly, the worst part of this experience is feeling like I’m just a tiny bandage on a massive wound. This crisis is so big, with so many key players involved, and everything I did was all a short term solution. I helped to feed, and clothe, and care for people- but it doesn’t mean anything if they can’t get to a place of safety. What these people need, more than anything I can give them, are open borders. Not being able to give them that, and not knowing if they’ll ever get it, is probably the thing that frustrates me the most.

Father and son

Please check out Drop in the Ocean, the people I volunteered with. They are a Norwegian NGO working with refugees.

Please check out this amazing program that raises money and awareness by selling refugee art.

Learn more about the refugee camp, Nea Kavala.

This article was originally published on Drop in the Ocean’s blog.

Creative project manager for work. Photographer, writer, traveler for fun.

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