Dublin City of Sanctuary volunteer and mentor, Almut Schlepper, is volunteering with refugees in Greece for a few weeks. Here is her second letter from the camp.
I hope you are all well.
Thank you all for your messages. I am just going to give you an account of today. Not that one day here is the same as the other. You never know what will happen and you just have to be prepared and flexible for all situations.
Another grey and cold morning. I join the rush hour crowd to be at the camp for 11. I am lucky to get a seat on both buses and can get stuck in my book, ” The Thread” by Victoria Hislop, a good read about life in Thessaloniki giving you the historical background from the First World War until the Sixties.
In Elpida factory I change into my comfortable slippers that everybody smiles at but secretly probably covets. I join a young dynamic teacher from the UK who has given up his teaching job to teach under these different conditions. For the children, aged from 6 to 11, this class gives a chance not just to learn English but also get used to class room discipline and social behaviour. I observe that they try to cheat at Snakes and Ladders like all children – and adults. The teacher ends up with reading a kind of anarchistic story by Quentin Blake ” The Seven Washerwomen” with an older girl reading the Arabic translation. The children who were jumping up and down and running around a minute ago sit in rapped silence. I wonder when they last had a story read to them, their parents too busy to struggle with organising everyday life and the uncertainty of the future.
After a short lunch break we get a call to help out in the ware house sorting a large delivery of clothes. When you see these mountains of discarded clothes you realise what an opportunity this refugee crises is for the rich countries to get rid of their superfluous goods instead of taking them to the landfill. We end up with a whole box full of inappropriate clothes like lacy blouses and low cut T shirts.
In my men’s class only one student turns up. His wife is already in Germany with their daughter while he is here with their son. I ask whether the daughter is at school learning German trying to entice him to come more regularly to class. He quietly states, no, she is sick, in a wheel chair. I wonder when they will be reunited.
In the women’s class I also have only one student. There are always so many reasons they miss a class, visits to the doctor or trips into town, problems with the children or the washing machine. Most of the women are alone with small and teenage children, the latter being the more difficult to handle in these cramped conditions. This student brings her 5 year old twin boys who I supply with paper and crayons so they let their mother learn in peace. Her husband is also in Germany. She is very eager to learn as she showed me a photograph of him in his German class. After the class I deliver the jars of honey that I brought for the women who always invite me for tea. It seems appropriate as everybody has colds and coughs in this weather.
Of course one woman invites me in and I have camomile tea, yoghurt, tabouleh salad, pitta bread which she toasts on the electric fire turned sideways. While I am there she gets a Skype call from her brother in Athens so we are introduced to each other. I see the old mother lying sick in bed in the background.He is hoping to get them all to Denmark. I leave with apples and halva, and as usual with so much more than I came with.
Then starts a long time of hanging around. The class with the girls does not start until seven as they are in the Greek School until six. But again they do not turn up for various reasons. I could have gone home earlier but now I have to wait until the end of the shift to get a lift or share a taxi as I do not want to face the cold treck to the bus stop. So I try to learn my Arabic.
In the volunteer lounge I hear the people from Princeton discussing the superiority of their university. They actually have somebody organising ” civic engagement” , part of which is this volunteer work. How far removed is this from the prospect of education for the refugees. At the same time many of the volunteers have left steady jobs in large corporate companies, something like accountant manager because the work gave them no satisfaction.
At 8.30 , the end of the shift, everybody gathers and says how their day went. We tick off most items on the list of tasks for the day, like organising craft work shops for the women, removing rubbish, repairing the kicker football game from the activity tent, clearing the volunteer lounge, collecting toys for the shop. I get a lift with two engineering students from Saudi Arabia, who use their two week term holiday to work here as translator. Whoever complained that the Arab states did not do enough for the refugees….
Then I see a message from Care4Calais. The situation is worse than before in the Jungle camp. Now there is no shelter but the refugees are still coming hoping to get to the UK. Maybe I should have gone closer to home to help?
But in the end it is best to make the most of wherever you are.
I wish you all well