Dublin City of Sanctuary volunteer and mentor, Almut Schlepper, is volunteering with refugees in Greece for a few weeks. Here is her first account of experiences and impressions.
I picked the worst winter for 40 years to come here. The airport was closed so I had to travel 8 hours on the bus from Athens through snow covered mountains and olive groves. Much worse was the situation in the refugee camps with their flimsy tents. Maybe you saw the pictures of desperate people in deep snow trying to fix broken down tents. After enduring so much hardship, even the climate turns against them.
There are loads of camps around Thessaloniki. The worst one is called ironically Softex in an old toilet paper factory. Under a leaking roof there are large tents put up. Everything is dark, cold and miserable. No wonder there are fights breaking out under those conditions.
My camp, Elpida (meaning ‘hope’), is one of the better ones. It is in an old factory on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, jointly financed by the state and the NGO Emergency Response International. There is heating from small fan heaters. The residents are given food supplies and can cook for themselves. Even big ovens for baking. There is medical care and a school for the children in the morning. In the afternoon they go to a Greek school. In a sort of shop they can choose clothes themselves following a point system. Lots of material for art and crafts, sewing.
There are lots of young, dedicated volunteers from all over the world, even as far as Chile who are communicating all day in true present day fashion by quick chats on what’s app. I end up with a hundreds of messages which I try to ignore.
It took me a while to find my place in all that activity. A lot of the residents are hoping to be reunited with family members in Germany, so they actually have a motivation to learn German. (I just hope they will make it, as the German government just announced a return to the Dublin Convention, it is planning to send asylums seekers back to Greece from March onwards).
So now I have one teaching group with men and boys, one with women, one with girls. That sounds easy, but there are lots of obstacles. People have different priorities. The water pipes were frozen, so when the water came back on they all wanted to wash first. One day the electricity was out and the main task was to keep warm. The attendance can also be very erratic because of visits to the doctor and child care problems. Yesterday I did a class with 4 year old twins, Hassan und Hussein, running around. Being half an hour late and chatting during class is common. But my work in DIT has well prepared me for that. The main challenge is to teach without any common language and with such phonetic differences. So you need a lot more imagination, props and activities. I am trying to learn some Arabic, so I appreciate how much longer it takes to get round the intricacies of pronunciation. By the way, I am known here again ” Almuti” as I was in the school in Uganda. My name means death in Arabic, not a good opening with people who have experienced so much of it. When I was invited to tea in one of the women’s rooms an old woman told a story about her daughter and a baby, started to cry and all the other women joined in. The box of tissues was passed around. All I could do was hold her hand. It is so frustrating not to have even a common language other than gestures.
After the exhausting lessons it is quite a relief to do something practical, like sewing hooks on blankets to make curtains to keep the draught out.
The main challenge for me is transport. I need to take two buses, sometimes it takes nearly two hours and when I finish at 8pm it is difficult to get back. Yesterday I spent half an hour standing at a dark and windswept stop on a lonely road, only to give up. The other volunteers were very helpful and squeezed us all into a car, one even in the boot. Some of them have hired cars but I don’t want to have to face the traffic as well.
I hope on my day off on Sunday I can explore this multicultural, multilingual vibrant city which had to reinvent itself over the centuries. It has always been a city of refugees, from the Ottomans inviting Jews fleeing from Christian persecution, later Armenians, White Russians, Bulgarians and millions of Greeks expelled from Minor Asia in 1922. I wonder how it will cope in the long term with this new influx of refugees, 65 000 altogether in Greece where the economy is in dire straits. Public pensions have been cut by half in the last years.
Strangely, for once I feel more positive towards being German, and embarrassed by the total avoidance of the problem by Irish politicians by just taking in only of couple of hundreds well selected refugees. If only they could meet these people, destitute, traumatised, families torn apart, but also so talented, creative and eager to learn and make their contribution, they would welcome them with open arms.
All the best