My friend Alex Green defends volunteers in Greece fighting to help refugees who have all but been abandoned by the international community.
Neil Dykes’ comment piece in The Guardian ‘Some volunteers make a difference to the lives of the refugees here, but too many don’t’ takes us on a rambling tour of his volunteering experience in Greece. Neil paints a picture of his fellow volunteers as feckless, dreamy and implausibly hungover; “drunks” and “dimwits”. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Declaring an interest early on; I’m a volunteer in Northern Greece for the charity Help Refugees. Alongside being the largest funder of grassroots refugee projects and groups in Europe, our small team manages a distribution warehouse and project hub near Thessaloniki. Within tantalising distance of the now-impassable Macedonian border, this region has 24 refugee camps and a refugee population of around 15,000.
The situation here is a maze of actors and acronyms: UN, NGOs, government and military. Neil’s article makes little attempt to give context. Within the region, the sheer size and scope of what has to be provided by volunteer groups in the region is both inspiring and terrifying. And it’s largely overlooked.
The failure of governments and household name NGOs to react to the influx of refugees to Europe is well documented. And in response, it’s often volunteers who are the ones building schools; providing dental and medical care; improving sanitation, and serving meals. If there’s one lesson to take from Greece, it’s that the big NGOs have lost any monopoly on effective aid provision. As for the grassroots, our agility, our energy and our relative independence from the paralysing effects of bureaucracy mean that we’re often the ones providing vital frontline services.
Case in point: in response to glacial progress made by government and large NGOs to ‘winterise’ camps in Northern Greece, volunteer groups are working flat-out to improve living conditions in camps.
Most refugees are housed in tents, usually inside old industrial warehouses. These spaces were clearly never designed for human habitation, and winter poses a very real threat to the residents. In response, the aptly named ‘The Get Shit Done Team’ is producing raised wooden flooring to protect occupants from cold and flooding. It’s a small but extremely important step to improve living conditions. And this is no minor operation. In the last month, they’ve produced over 3000m2 of new flooring. Their work is ensuring that Greece’s often harsh winter is more comfortable and survivable for thousands of people.
Even the basics, such as getting quality, nutritious food in camps is still a challenge. Camp residents rely on often substandard meals provided by contractors working for the camps’ military managers. Again, volunteers have stepped up and since the beginning of October, a team in our warehouse has made up over 11,000 packs of fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement families’ diets.
Alongside this, the volunteer-run SOUL FOOD Kitchen in our warehouse also produces hundreds of hot meals every day for the largely-ignored population of refugees sleeping rough in Thessaloniki. These are services that simply would not exist without the hard work and dedication of huge numbers of people giving their donations, money and time.
One of the most worrying elements of Neil’s article is his sneering attitude towards volunteers’ attempts to address the very real mental health impacts of working in refugee camps, writing them off as “drippy” exercises in “naval[sic] gazing”. Whether volunteering for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, camps here are not always pleasant, safe places. Recent tragic news from the camp in Moria demonstrates this with terrifying clarity. In an environment where victims of war are routinely dehumanised, children are forced to sleep rough and residents face a very real threat from far-right groups, trauma is only too easy to pick up. Stigmatising attempts to tackle this seems painfully unhelpful.
I can’t help but feel sorry for someone who’s worked in this environment and taken away this attitude. In this field, no one’s perfect. But I’ll leave my time here inspired by the remarkable range of people from around the world: the teachers, medics, carpenters, students and cooks who are giving their time, money and skills. Ordinary people, refusing to be bystanders to history.
If we had an effective response from governments, volunteers wouldn’t need to fill these gaps. But while governments drag their heels and while there are still survivors of war rebuilding their lives without adequate support, we should celebrate those people giving their time to help. Volunteer groups in Greece are breaking down barriers, collaborating in new ways, developing innovative new ideas and more effective, participatory approaches to aid work that conventional aid organisations could and should learn from.
You don’t have to take my word for it. We always need volunteers: come and see for yourself.
UPDATE: Perhaps due to criticism, the original article has been removed from The Guardian’s website.