Anna Hulbert spent two months volunteering in Northern Greece last autumn. Below, she shares her experience – what she did, learned and felt. Thank you so much for your help, Anna – we are so grateful.
This autumn, I spent two months volunteering in Northern Greece. I decided to volunteer with Help Refugees because I wanted to find out how ordinary people, like myself, can help make a difference to the lives of refugees.
I started by volunteering as part of the dedicated Soul Food Kitchen/Philoxenia team. Soul Food was created in response to the crisis in Idomeni and now provides much-needed, hot meals to over 250 homeless migrants and Greeks throughout the city.
Preparing 500 meals a day required a lot of slicing, grating and the occasional blister, but the long days instantly became insignificant once I went on distribution in the city and saw just how desperately the meals are needed.
The distributions are both the most rewarding and the toughest part of the job. At first I felt uncomfortable refusing people seconds or reminding grown men to wait in line, but these actions helped guarantee that the food was given out in a way that was fair, safe, and sustainable. My time in the kitchen taught me that being an empathic volunteer meant being responsible – it meant acting with my head, as well as my heart.
The distributions also expanded my awareness of what it meant to have refugee status*. Most of the people we served on distribution were young men who were fleeing war-torn countries, such as Pakistan and Iraq. They have ended up sleeping in the streets and living in inhumane conditions, because is very difficult for them to claim asylum in Europe and receive refugee status. This could be due to the difficulties in meeting criteria, or difficulties in simply accessing the asylum process – try Googling, “asylum, Greece, skype.”
After a month I left Soul Food and started to work with the InterEuropean Human Aid Association (IHA). IHA provides a variety of vital services, including vegetable and winter clothing distributions and also works within refugee camps.
At the time, IHA were working in a camp in the small town of Epanomi, which housed around 200 refugees from Syria in two apartment blocks. Our main role in Epanomi was to support the limited schooling within the camp by providing fun and educational activities for the children living there. For many children, this might have been the only education they have had since they left home.
The purpose of our work was give the children structure and to encourage the development of social skills in preparation for a return to full-time education. Perhaps, most importantly, our room provided a space that allowed kids to just be kids – even if that meant letting them paint your face completely purple.
I think that returning home was probably the hardest part of volunteering. It is incredibly sad leaving behind a network of such positive, inspiring people and even harder leaving behind situation that is in no way resolved – but that is why it is important to share these stories, and hopefully inspire others to volunteer.
*The UNHCR definition of a refugee is “…someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.”
If you feel inspired by Anna’s experience and would like to find out more about volunteering with projects supported by Help Refugees, please visit the volunteering page on our website or get in touch. Help Refugees has always depended on the generous donations of time, funds and material aid from ordinary people – if you would like to get involved – at home or abroad – please do let us know. Thank you.