Greek Travels of a Different Kind – Volunteering With a Refugee Charity in Patras

After my last trip to Greece in April (a wonderful 18 day trip around the Peloponnese) I returned home and on my first day back into work, I handed in my letter of resignation.  I hadn’t been happy in my corporate job for a long time and to go from one end of the happiness scale to another made me realise that life is just too short!

Now that I had some spare time I wanted to do something useful and had been thinking about undertaking some voluntary work.

Who could fail to be moved by the heart breaking images of little Aylan Kurdi who’s body was found washed up on the Turkish coast nearly 2 years ago.  Since around that time I have been following several charities and NGO’s based in Europe that are providing support to displaced people.  I cannot begin to imagine the hardship that these families have endured.

To cut this long story short, I applied to 3 charities providing support in Greece through Greecevol.info.  All 3 responded very quickly and I had a Skype chat with 2 of them – both very interesting opportunities.  I decided to volunteer with FoodKind, a small charity that provides food to people that fall outside of the eligibility for the official refugee camps.  I was to be based in Patras a large port in the north of the Peloponnese.  Having travelled to the Peloponnese in April I felt somewhat more prepared having become very familiar with the bus service.

I was told that up to 200 displaced people lived out of two abandoned factories located directly by the port.  Here their dream is to smuggle themselves onto a ship via a lorry and head for Italy and then on to other locations in Europe.  Many sustain injuries or fall sick so I decided to also invite my daughter who is in Emergency Medical Technician with the ambulance service.

Last week we flew to Athens and then headed onto Patras to begin our volunteering stint – my daughter for one week and myself for two weeks.  Here is a summary of our experience and for me a trip to Greece of a very different kind.

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We arrived in Athens – my daughters first time, so I just had time to give her a whistle stop tour of Monastiraki Square and Plaka, a stroll through the National Gardens and a quick peak at the Evzones in Syntagma Square.  We ended the day with a nice drink on the roof of the Attalos Hotel – my usual place of choice to stay.  As it was fully booked, this time we stayed at the Epidavros which is a nice basic hotel that is handy for the metro station.

The following morning we head off to Patras to start our volunteering.  We caught the 501 bus around the corner from the Epidavros Hotel to Kiffisos bus station.  The ticket to Patra is 24 euros and a 3 hour journey.  The express bus flies over the Corinth canal so no photo opportunity on this occasion!  We know we are close when we see the Rio-Anitrrio bridge.

Rio-Anitirrio Bridge

First a little about the charity.  Foodkind are a small charity set up by Deirdre McLeod and Luath Glendinning who met each other whilst volunteering in Chios.  You can read further here:

FoodKind Founders

Before we arrived in Patras I knew very little about what to expect.  I knew that there was a shared flat for the volunteers and that short term (less than one month) would pay 5 euros per night and long term volunteers would pay 3 euros per night.  I am not adverse to the idea of flat share but as an introvert it is very important for me to have my own space to reflect and recharge.  Also at 57 years of age I feel that I have gone beyond the point of communal living and would find it difficult to adapt to this environment.  I had decided to look for a cheap Airbnb and had approached several in the town of Patras as close to the volunteer flat as possible – these were far and few between.  The ones I did approach were very unreliable and as I’d already booked the flights, the only option that I could see was to stay in a small hotel called the Delfini.

This hotel is perfectly adequate and is mainly an overnight stopper for people travelling to Italy by ferry.  At 45 euros per night it was much more than I had hoped to pay but it ended up being in the perfect location for what I was here for.  A big bonus is that it has air conditioning and as we have been experiencing one of the biggest heatwaves in Greece for 10 years, it was an absolute necessity.   Another unexpected bonus is that across the road from the hotel is a small pebble beach and a well populated beach bar called Mare Mare which became the place for volunteers to relax and unwind during the few hours they had off in the afternoon.

This was all very nice on the face of it by very incongruous to what we were about to experience.

On our arrival in Patras we were asked to contact the co-ordinator by Whatsapp and we were then given the address of the flat which was a ten minute walk away.  The volunteer cohort seems to change quite regularly but there is always a co-ordinator and volunteer doctors and nurses from Docmobile.  Most of the Foodkind volunteers are students working during their summer holidays.  Several have good experience of this type of volunteering and it was really inspiring to listen to their experiences.  Our group consisted of a range of nationalities including Swiss, British, German, French and Norwegian.

Each day has a set routine but the co-ordinator has additional duties such as shopping for the food at the local wholesalers or supermarkets.  They would also visit a Kurdish family living in a flat in town and a group of Sudanese men living in makeshift accommodation elsewhere in the town.  These people have nothing and the food donations are a lifeline to them.  Despite that, on the one visit I made to the families I was touched by the offer to sit and drink tea with them.

At 9.30am, the volunteers set off to the two factories to distribute breakfast which is usually a chocolate spread or jam sandwich and an orange.  A doctor and nurse will tend to the medical needs at the big factory during daylight because there are more people to see.  If there are enough volunteers a FoodKind volunteer will go with them to help distribute the food.  Another two volunteers will go to the little factory and when they are finished will make the ten minute walk to the big factory to join the other volunteers.  This is usually finished by around midday depending on how many people need medical attention.

Depending on the rota you may have the afternoon off until 4pm.  Everyone is usually back at the flat for 4pm for vegetable chopping duties including the doctor and nurse!  Everyone will take a turn at cooking duties which I must say I found a little daunting as I had never cooked on such a large scale.  The meals would tend to be rice or pasta with a vegetable dish made with an onion and garlic flavoured with spices and served with a salad made of cabbage and either cucumber or tomatoes.  We would also prepare breakfast which consisted of making up hundreds of Nutella or Jam sandwiches!

Also during the afternoon period, containers and cutlery would be washed regularly and the preparation area was always kept immaculately clean with the table being disinfected regularly and the floor always swept and mopped.  The flat is not designed for such a catering operation and yet they have made it work really well with an outside area to wash the cooking equipment and food containers and the kitchen (and also the bedrooms) are used to store the bulk food supplies.

Twice during my stay, some of the guys went orange picking.  A farmer located about a 40 minute drive away had heard about the charity and offered his oranges as long as someone could come and pick them.  Also a local church group came one day and told us that they’d just dropped off food and towels at the small factory and had been doing this every week.  It is uplifting to hear how other people want to help.

At 8.00pm the food would be transferred into large containers and packing crates and loaded into the car for evening distribution.  The medical team would now base themselves in the small factory to tend to the medical needs of the people there.

Before my first visit to the factories I was a little apprehensive.  I think this is because I didn’t want to feel like a ‘Do Gooder’ who turns up, distributes the food and then leaves without another thought.  I didn’t want to feel that I was being patronising either.  I would imagine that although the refuges were experiencing hardship, they were still proud men and deserved to be treated with dignity and compassion.

On the first distribution to the big factory, we set up the containers on a small table where the men would queue for a portion of food.  Some of them would have their own plate or a receptical that they would share with others.  Others would bring old carrier bags or empty plastic containers.  Some would borrow the lid of one of the food containers before washing it and bringing it back.

I think my initial concerns were allayed quite quickly.  We were introduced to some of the ‘residents’ who helped to provide translation services for us.  One of these is a man called S (for purposes of privacy I will use their initial) who had lived in England for a few years.  A larger than life, gregarious character, he seemed to bring a lot of positive energy and humour to the group. S appeared to have established himself as a group leader – people seemed to listen to him (and also do as he told them to do).  The group was made up of about ten Dari speakers mainly from Afghanistan – one described themselves as the ‘family of ten.’  It is clear that little groups have established themselves though what isn’t very obvious to an outsider like myself is that everything is controlled by others.  However, I am conscious that it is not my role to understand the internal politics but to  serve food.

Another person who offered really great translation services was a 23 year old man called A who was always there to meet as at the gate to carry the food boxes and would always help us carry them back to the car.  His manners were impeccable and he was always keen to learn more about lots of things such as the medical equipment the doctor used and just general things about European life.  A’s parents were from Afghanistan but fled to a refugee camp in Pakistan which is where he was born.  Although born in Pakistan I think he clearly sees himself first and foremast as an Afghan.  His dream is to get to France to make a better life for himself by continuing his studies.

M is a young man that we nicknamed Christian Ronaldo.  He was very passionate about football and always wore a football shirt.  His other passion was computers and IT and this is what he had previously studied and where he wants to develop his career.  M also provided translation services for us.  M, as also the others had endured a very arduous journey to Greece.  He showed me photographs of his time in a Serbian refugee camp in winter which he described as ‘very bad’.  He would never want to go back there and says he would rather go back to Afghanistan than to Serbia where the police deploy very brutal tactics against the refugees.

Another translator is a very kind man called B also from Afghanistan.  He talked about the place where his family were from, a beautiful town called Paghman locate in the foothills of the mountains and on the outskirts of Kabul.  He showed me photographs of Paghman in winter when the snow is thick on the ground and it is sad to imagine such a beautiful placed wracked with the destruction of war.  Everyone talks with such pride about their homeland.   B has family in Ireland and this is where he is aiming for.  His 83 year old mother had lived in Ireland, but only for a matter of months as she found it very hard to adapt.

In the small factory I met a young man called I who was from Iran and he was the only person that I met who had their sights set on the UK.  He had a friend in England who was a barber and was famous for offering his services free of charge to the homeless – he showed me his Instagram page.  He offered us some translation services in the small factory.

What I was to discover is that both of the factories were controlled by the smugglers.  They would determine who would come to Patras and which factory they would be allocated.  The small factory is an abandoned carpet manufacturing plant that seems to have been frozen in time with lengths of carpet  still on the loom.  The men live either on the first floor or on the roof, sometimes in a tent or just a blanket on the floor.  The roof is littered with broken glass but also offers very clear views of the port.  This is very sad to see.  The gateway to their dream within arms reach and yet realistically so far away.

The small factory has an electricity supply which is used for charging phones and also limited light supply.  There is a water supply and I saw men washing their clothes from a water outlet on the ground.  The large factory doesn’t have a power supply but does have a water supply that facilitates the washing of bodies, clothes and eating utensils.  Despite the difficult situation for washing, most people always looked clean albeit with holes in their shoes or trainers that are falling apart.  They say it’s because of all the running they do from the police!

On the Friday before Eid, we were invited to eat at the big factory.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but was delighted to have received the invitation.  After the medical needs had been tended to we joined the 100+ men to sit in rows, cross legged on the floor.  There were a number of servers who brought us cooked lamb and bread on paper plates.  They also filled our cups with cola and stood over us with a torch so that we could see.  After this very delicious meal, they poured water on our hands to clean them.  This was a very humbling experience.

Often we would be asked to join them to share a watermelon after we’d finished food distribution.  The water supply in the large factory must come from an underground tank as the water is very cold “so cold when you wash yourself it gives you a headache!”  However, it served as a great cooling machine for the watermelon!

 

On the day that I finished my time with the charity we were told that 16 people had made it onto the ferries the night before.  We were told that sometimes the police will let a few go but on other occasions respond with brutal force, usually smashing up any phones found on the men knowing that this is their lifeline with the smugglers and also their families.  I do wonder if once in Italy their lives will become even more challenging than they have been so far.

All around both factories there are signs of people that have come and gone.  Some to Italy and some on to Athens or other parts of Greece and others back home after giving up.

I have been touched by this whole experience and I will never be able to articulate how much this has impacted on me.

One evening whilst distributing food at the big factory, I became suddenly overwhelmed with emotion.  I made a quick exit from the factory saying that I needed to go for some fresh air.  I didn’t want to show how upset I was in front of our friends.  However, several members of the ‘family of ten’ followed me out.  I sat on the kerb side near the car park and they came and sat on the floor with me, showing concern that I was sad.  One of them through one of our translators said that I mustn’t cry because he hasn’t seen his wife and children for a long time and if I cry, he will cry.

There is so much more to tell about this experience.  Maybe some of it I will just keep in my heart along with each and every one of these brave and courageous men and boys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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