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Third letter from Thessaloniki : A drop in the ocean

Hello Everybody,
Thank you all very much for your positive feedback and wishes. Sharing my impressions with you makes it all the more worth while.
Now my four weeks are coming to an end. It was just enough time to get a glimpse of the intricacies of the work in refugee camps. Consider that here in Europe we only deal with a fraction of the 60 Million refugees world wide. Saab and Kakuma  camps in Kenya are accommodating- if that is the right word – half a million people.
“Drap in Havet” – Drop in the ocean – is the appropriate, humbling name of a Norwegian NGO, one of the many working here in Thessaloniki,  all scrambling for donors and EU money, which then has to be spent on specific projects.
Naturally they are all dedicated to helping refugees but every organisation wants to do it their way. “Jeder kocht sein eigenes Süppchen”, everybody cooking their own pot of soup. So if one camp has surplus clothes, blankets, boxes of biscuits or indeed volunteers they are only shared among the other camps if individuals take the initiative. As the overview is a logistics nightmare resources can be wasted. Donated ambulances and skilled personnel are lying idle because of problems with licensing. The UNHCR or the Greek State should be coordinating all the projects but so far I could only find one British group “Help Refugees” working more or less effectively as an umbrella group ( if you want to donate money I would give it to them, they were part of the Guardian appeal at Christmas)
Unfortunately it is not enough to want to help. A lot of well meaning projects are a double edge sword. For example the most vulnerable, young mothers with babies, are moved into private accommodation. They might have more privacy but they are loosing the group support and often have no longer access to medical care and education. Another shot in the dark:  giving school children bright blue rucksacks with the UNHCR logo printed on them. Why brandmark children straight away as refugees? They have a hard time as it is in the Greek schools who are trying to do their best under difficult conditions. I gave a class in a secondary school in front of pupils not just from Syria, but also Albania, Algiers, Afghanistan, Georgia, Turkey. High fluctuation, mixed levels also provide a challenge for the teachers whose pay has been cut from 1200 to 800€.
Yet even with all this mix of droplets there such important work being done on the ground.
I was at a fashion show of Naomi Thessaloniki where Syrian tailors and Nigerian seamstresses had created fashionable warm jackets and waistcoats from the grey blankets ( cleaned!) from the  notorious Idomeni camp at the border to Macedonia .”Remember Idomeni” it says on the label.
In my Elpida camp the indefatigable volunteers always find new ways to make life for the residents more bearable, with fitness training, football, craft and sewing sessions, talent shows, cake days or simply friendly smiles and words.
At the start of the shift the different tasks are allocated and at the end ticked off, everybody says how their day went. The worse job for me was sorting through piles of boxes of donated clothes, a lot of which were stained or inappropriate. Never give to charity what you would not want you own children to wear!
During the day we keep in touch in this large factory building with numerous what’s app messages in ping pong fashion, reporting leaking roofs, blocked drains, search for keys and tools, need for interpreters and help with challenging children. You are given a “protection training”, discussing the vulnerability of the various groups among the refugees and also your own, the pitfalls of too much attachment leading to disappointment. My greatest regret is not having learnt more Arabic, not even being able to sing one song in Arabic to bridge over the silences and tears.
But in the end I feel privileged to have got just a glimpse of the life of the residents in the camp who taught me so much more than I could teach them. In spite of having endured displacement, loss, separation and living a life in limbo with an uncertain future ahead they keep their spirit up and just get on with their lives as best as they can. Surely I will miss them and hope , “Inshallah” they will soon get to be reunited with their families and develop a new life in their new home land.

Looking forward to seeing at least some of you soon
All the Best



Second Letter from Thessaloniki

P.S. If you want to get an impression of the work on a rescue boat from Lesbos watch the moving and harrowing documentary : 4.1 miles by Daphne Matziaraki .


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