Notes from a Refugee Camp: Volunteering in Greece

10/06/2016 11:38 am ET
A note of hope from a resident at Ritsona Refugee camp, hung among the tented area.
All photos Shayanne Gal (www.shayanneigans.com)
A note of hope from a resident at Ritsona Refugee camp, hung among the tented area.

Amidst the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, there are millions of innocent displaced refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing war-torn Syria and other countries in The Middle East affected by war. Through all of the insurmountable violence, terrorism, hate, and torture, these humans are only seeking a path to survival and peace. Last year, international borders, including that of Macedonia had been shut down, leaving over 57,000 refugees stuck in Greece - displaced in ill-equipped, make-shirt refugee camps, enduring horrible conditions and lacking the resources to survive. With an influx of new refugees arriving daily, failing international deals in the EU, and no political solution in sight, the situation is only getting worse.

This week, I embarked on a long journey to volunteer with Syrian refugees at Ritsona refugee camp in rural Greece. I had this definitive notion that once I arrived here, I would immediately be able to put my sentiments and experiences into words. Days have passed and that hasn’t proven the case - partly due to the extreme conditions of the camp that are hard to even grasp after just this short time, and also due to the overwhelming amount of information I’ve absorbed, the amount of torn human lives I’ve encountered, and the tireless physical and mental work I’ve done.

It’s difficult for me to paint a picture of life at a refugee camp in rural Greece – the filth, the trauma, the depression, the disease, the lingering smell of human feces, the isolation from society, the systematic food, clothes, hygiene product distribution where we refer to each human by a tent number - and that number becomes their fleeting identity here for all things relevant. The children, who are generally a light in the camp - still encompassed by bits of hope and joy, recklessly tossing cardboard boxes at each other and yelling just for the sake of it. The adults, those who arrived alone without family - lost in solitude and desperation, the fathers who have built pieces of furniture for their family’s ad-hoc tent homes out of wood with their bare hands, the mothers who have sheltered their multiple children through this ruthless, desperate search for asylum, the pregnant women who are imprisoned by the fact that their new babies will be born into a life of uncertainty, of improper living conditions, of inadequate access to humanity. The humans, who have all fled this conflict, who have been witness to too much death, and disease, and torture, who have been separated from their mothers, brothers, husbands, and children only for sake of international border closures, and for fear of their safety across the perilous journey to arrive here.

Today marks my 6th day here in Vathy, Greece. I’ve been volunteering at Ritsona, a Syrian Refugee camp that sits upon an abandoned air force base, home to roughly 600 refugees who are waiting for their asylum cases to process. They are, to put it simply, in a radically unjust limbo – having gone from their routine, healthy, and happy lives in Syria, to having to escape their homes in search of survival due to war, violence, and terror. Their realities are marked by worry, trauma, confusion, and hopeless uncertainty. Their reality is waiting.

A tent at Ritsona Refugee Camp.
All Photos Shayanne Gal (www.shayanneigans.com)
A tent at Ritsona Refugee Camp.

Among the refugees at the camp, ethnicities are mostly mixed between Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds – which has proven to be an extreme source of difficulty in establishing a cohesive community here, due to the conflicts and rampant discrimination between these two groups. We also house a few Sudanese, Palestinians, and Iranians fleeing war-torn regions, and the camp is an open entry camp, meaning that people come and go very often and the census needs to be updated weekly to keep up. Notably, the tents in the camp have autonomously divided themselves among ethnic and religious lines.

Apart from these distinguishing factors, the camp is home to humans. These humans are all filled with so much life, experience, and emotion – they are so profoundly human, that is criminally unfair for their lives to have been reduced to this remote, ad hoc tented camp in the midst of a secluded forest – enduring terrible conditions that, as I’ve come to learn, do not even comply with the standard global requirements for human rights.

A clothes line in front of the tents at Ritsona Refugee Camp.
All photos Shayanne Gal (www.shayanneigans.com)
A clothes line in front of the tents at Ritsona Refugee Camp.

Despite the NGO’s efforts to enhance the living conditions as best we can, there are some realities of the situation that are not flexible for us. I was chatting with a woman who had fled from Syria to Turkey and then to a previous refugee camp (that had been destroyed by the Greek government months ago) before arriving at Ritsona Camp. Her husband is in Germany, and she is with her four children here at the camp – awaiting their long anticipated, but meantime unlikely reunion. When asking her about what we could do to improve life at the camp and if she had any suggestions, she answered me simply and with a slight sigh: “It is forest. No life good in forest.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat.

She was right. While we are all doing our best out here to ensure basic conditions for the refugees and working tirelessly to appease whoever we can, the camp is still in an isolated forest, poorly constructed and unapologetically separated from common society.

Directional signs at Ritsona Refugee Camp.
All Photos Shayanne Gal (www.shayanneigans.com)
Directional signs at Ritsona Refugee Camp.

As a volunteer, my primary responsibilities circulate around the crucial food and supply organization and distribution to all residents in the camp. My team is a cohort of young 20-somethings from all over the globe - ill-equipped, but self organized and extremely motivated. We deal with various other organizations and charities, including the Greek Army - who is in charge of providing us resources for three meals a day. These meals are not only monotonous in nature, but incredibly bland- and at times, practically inconsumable. As a result, many of the refugees refuse the meals we provide – and we are forced to donate the leftover food to charity, but because that is a time-sensitive operation, we have been unfortunately propelled to throw a lot of this food away. It is both stressful and discouraging to dispose of so much food for reasons beyond our control, and communication with the army in efforts to improve some of the meals have proven completely non-negotiable.

In our day to day, we wake up in the early morning hours, slip our volunteer vests on, and drive to the camp from our communal house – only to begin unloading cases of water bottles, fruits, and foods from the Greek army’s truck. Then the chaos begins, as the children start lining up with tickets for their family’s all-too-familiar, humdrum food acquisition. They attempt to climb through the warehouse window, screaming “Extra juice please!” “Rubbish bag!” “Cold water!” Shukran, Shukran.

My team also works with clothing and product (hygiene stuff, towels, backpacks, etc.) distribution, in coordination with external donors and NGOs. As some resources are very limited (and sometimes non-existent), and as the refugees grow more and more discontented and discouraged, what may start as a simple distribution or request has the potential to become an escalated conflict between us and the refugees – fueled by raw emotion and again, conditions beyond our control. One such instance occurred yesterday, when a man asked for a stroller for his sister who was scheduled to arrive today. Unfortunately because the stroller distribution was delegated by us to another NGO on-site, we had to direct him to them, but eventually after a bunch of back and forth, we all came to realize that we don’t actually have any supply of strollers left at the camp. This led to anger and frustration on both sides – whereas the refugee held a slight distrust of us, believing that we may be hiding extra strollers, while we were disappointed in the fact that we honestly didn’t have any to give, and there was nothing we could do about it at the time.

These sorts of situations, miscommunications, and lack of cooperation among the different organizations at the camp define life at Ritsona. Everything is make-shift, from the camp’s infrastructure itself, to the organization and authority over its activity.

Every day as volunteers, we do distributions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with plenty of other activities in between– including clothing, product, and shoe distribution, carpentry work, and simply playing and providing moral solace to the children and their families. We do what we can to break the insanity of this monotonous life, to shield the residents from the deteriorating conditions of the camp, to try and make sense of the desperation and the agony among them all. At the end of the day, we arrive at our “home” - a shared house along the beach, some 15 minutes away from camp. We sleep in rooms, with beds, and a roof above our heads. It is almost too difficult to endure the guilt for these luxuries, knowing fair well the conditions of the refugees’ tents at the camp – and every day until now, I’ve found myself waking up in a sweat in the middle of the night, wondering where I am, unsure of what is going on. After reflecting once more on my surroundings, coming to terms with the real factors of my presence here, I fall back asleep, wake up again in the early morning, and do it all over again.

These are my notes as a volunteer at a Syrian refugee camp in Greece.

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