Meely Cooper

Carys Athey: One Volunteer’s Experience in Greece

A few weeks ago, Carys Arthey arrived in Greece to begin volunteering with indiGO Volunteers, one of Help Refugees’ partner projects. In this post, she shares the experiences that she has had so far.

 

“The journey begins…

‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

To put down in words what I have – and am – experiencing as a volunteer in Greece seems like an impossible task. And yet it was only a month or two ago that volunteering was a distant dream, little more than an idea that would pop into my mind  after seeing the news.

Now here I am, two weeks in to volunteering as a volunteer coordinator for indiGO Volunteers in partnership with Help Refugees. What an incredible experience it has been so far – incredibly humbling, a shock to the senses, each day filled with inspiring moments and people.

In the space of four days, I had left my job, packed up my flat and arrived here in Thessaloniki. In all honesty, I had little idea of what I would be doing or what to expect. I am amazed how easy it has been to step out of one life and be absorbed straight into another one.

You simply complete an online application form, book flights and confirm the dates you are available, organise accommodation and turned up at the HUB for an induction. You can be rolling your sleeves up in the warehouse and making a difference within a few hours of arriving. Never in a million years would I have thought it would be so straightforward.

The first thing that hit me arriving in Greece was the language: not speaking Greek made reading signs tricky, but given that almost everyone can speak English, you can easily get by.

The next thing was how welcoming and inclusive the volunteering environment is. This, for me, is the most special part of the whole experience so far: working with so many different people, from different cultures and backgrounds, and at different stages in their lives.

The work asks you to leave your ego at the door, and immediately you are brought together for a common goal: to help people in need.

It has taken me a while to understand the set up. In a nutshell, my understanding is that after the initial larger NGO’s reacted to the refugee crisis, smaller volunteer projects (grassroots organisations) started to pop up to meet the needs that were not prioritised or supported on a larger scale.

Help Refugees looks to support and enable these projects, which are ever changing as they do their very best to offer whatthey can in these uncertain times. An indiGO volunteer coordinator’s role is to match volunteer applicants to the grassroots projects, so they can continue to respond to some basic human needs.

The range of projects includes a mobile information team, that provides guidance on official processes that many refugee simply do not know about or understand. There is a mobile medical team that visits vulnerable people in and around the camps and cities, who otherwise wouldn’t have access to healthcare or expert support.  In addition, there is a team that sources fresh fruit and vegetables from local markets, bundles it up and delivers it to the camps. This ensures that residents have access to a variety of foods, and can obtain the nutrition that is so often lacking in the state provided meals.

indiGO Volunteers currently works with seventeen projects, matching volunteer skills and availability to the projects’ needs. My role now is to look at how we can move the support from the initial reactive approach to a more sustainable model, because the situation – of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers caught in Greece – will not be resolved anytime soon.

I’m not sure how long I will be out here, or how much I can help. I simply plan to do my best, as every day I see small things making a real difference.

If you want to get involved and volunteer, you can find out more here.

If you are in a position to help me fundraise, I am raising money for indiGO Volunteers to continue their coordination work – you can donate here.

Wish me luck & thank you!!!

* * *

Without volunteers like Carys, the grassroots projects that we support wouldn’t exist. Over the past two years, more than 15, 000 ordinary – or rather, extraordinary – people have volunteered with projects affiliated to Help Refugees, delivering frontline support to displaced people across Europe and the Middle East. To find out more about volunteering, click here; alternatively, if you are able to help us continue to support projects on the ground, please donate here. Our work on the ground depends on the generosity of people like you.

 

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Lara & Billie’s fantastic fundraising for refugees

We want to say a massive thank you to Lara and Billie, two volunteers who organised a fantastic community fundraising event for Help Refugees in North London.

Catching one of the last days of summer sunshine, they arranged ‘Moving LINES – Art, Music & Culture Fair’: a day of workshops (from photography to circuit bending), live music, spoken word and arts. We are so grateful for the immense amount of effort they put in, and to their friends for all of the support that they gave – from those who donated clothes, to the performers, to the magician and face painter; to the videographer, photographer, dancer and everyone in between.

Walking in to the yard, the first things that you saw were enormous piles of vintage clothes– all donated by Billie and Lara’s generous friends. The ‘Fill a Bag for £5’ deal would have convinced even the most reluctant shopper, and second hand books – from the portfolios of little-known artists to antique guidebooks of Paris – were stacked high and surrounded by records and trinkets.

Friends of Lara and Billie built a stage, and a host of artists treated us to their innovative performances: from Guido’s junk percussion to a set by Angolan-Portuguese musician and band, Amadis and the Ambassadors, each band had a twist that made it unlike any we had seen before.

“We proved that together we can make a difference and have a positive impact around us! We proved that together, with our skills and hard work we can do great things!” Lara Levy

Delicious homemade food and drinks were on offer all day, including elderflower presse, iced chai tea, and Lara’s falafel (snapped up so quickly that she had to run home and make a second batch!). Chef Sam appeared in the evening, and created an amazing chana masala to keep us warm as the sun began to set.

And as it did so, a host of spoken word artists took to the stage. Led by Erb’n’Word, poet after poet took to the stage and, against the darkening sky, captivated us with their powerful lyrics. From Mumma Sue’s reflections to PoetCurious’ love letter to the power of poetry, the eloquent calls for change and social justice reduced us to both laughter and tears. The number of people who were willing to take the microphone, regardless of whether they had planned to, is testimony to the inclusivity and warmth that characterized this magical day.

Under cover of darkness (and tarpaulin, as the rain made a brief appearance…!), an auction of local artists’ work was held. Pieces that had been on display were now available to take home, including a painting that had been specifically created for the event by the phenomenal Adrian Eaves. As the auction wound up and people began to head home, a musician – with the light of fairy lights and candles surrounding him – returned to the stage, singing softly.

We are so, so grateful to Billie and Lara – and all their incredibly talented friends – for creating such a fantastic day. From the moment we arrived, we were amazed by your kindness and energy: you have created the most wonderful community, and we felt so lucky to be a part of it.

In order for Help Refugees to carry on the work we do, we rely on incredible community fundraisers like this. We hope that Billie and Lara’s amazing efforts have inspired you to hold your own event – if so, please do get in contact with us here: communityfundraising@helprefugees.org.

 

 

All photographs by the INCREDIBLE Tiffany Roubert Photography.

 

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Greek court approves first forced deportation of Syrian asylum seekers to Turkey

On Friday, Greece’s highest administrative court approved the forcible return of two Syrian asylum seekers to Turkey.

This decision not only determines the fate of 22-year old ‘Noori’ and 29-year-old ‘Afaaz’*, but also affects the future of hundreds of other refugees and asylum seekers affected by the EU-Turkey migration deal.

The deal, agreed in March 2016, stated that every person arriving irregularly on Greek islands – including asylum-seekers – should be returned to Turkey. In exchange, the Turkish government would receive €6 billion in aid from the EU, and nationals would be granted visa-free travel to Europe. Gestures were also made towards the future activation of resettlement schemes for Syrian refugees from Turkey to other European countries.

The deal, and Friday’s decision, is constructed on the flawed premise that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers. From instances of forced returns to countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, to refugees being subjected to violent attacks, rights groups have collected a substantial amount of evidence to show Turkey is not a safe country.

A leaked letter by from the UNHCR also noted that there were significant obstacles to monitoring the situation of Syrians returned to Turkey from Greece, sparking grave concerns about the treatment of returnees.

Since the coup attempt in July 2016 and the subsequent declaration of the state of emergency, the dangers faced by refugees and asylum seekers have only increased. Safeguards against forcible returns of refugees to places they may face persecutions have been further eroded. Last week, Amnesty International released a new report on unlawful returns from Turkey to Syria, which include cases of forced deportation and collective expulsions disguised as “voluntary returns”.

Friday’s ruling flies in the face of all this evidence, and establishes an ominous precedent insofar as it validates the assessment of Turkey as a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers. This not only endangers Noori and Afaaz, but also compromises the safety and rights of hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees currently in Greece.

In the words of John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, this decision breaches a very clear principle: “Greece and the EU should not be sending asylum-seekers and refugees back to a country in which they cannot get effective protection.”

“Until such time as asylum-seekers and refugees can be guaranteed effective protection in Turkey, EU countries must stop sending them there.”

* Names have been changed for protection purposes

 

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