In Between Lives My Two weeks of volunteering in Northern Greece

In February 2017, overwhelmed by recent news and some despicable outbursts from politicians, I decided that I needed to form a sharper opinion about migration, so I decided to go to help the refugees where they were. Also, it's been 10 years that I work at Adobe, and this seemed a good time to take a break. I had no idea about how to tackle this, but I was determined. I do not have any lifesaving skills that would be useful in a camp, so I asked Miquel Bada (friend and ex-colleague) who had volunteered in Greece before, and he directed me to Refugee Support. Unfortunately, the immediate reply was "we are sorry, but we are fully staffed, but we can recommend alternatives". So, I contacted Northern Greece Volunteers, to see if I could join them, and got a positive response. I then immediately booked my travel, accommodation and a rental car for two weeks (shorter stays are not very useful). I was set to go. All of this happened within 48 hours of taking the decision.

"Quit thinking about how much you'd want to do it Rufus, just do it!"

Northern Greece Volunteers is a self-organized coalition of independent volunteers, teams, and small organizations providing humanitarian aid to refugees in Northern Greece (and is a project from "Help Refugees", a UK based charity). They are based in and around Thessaloniki where they contribute to efforts in around 20 refugee camps, providing diverse support in terms of food and clothing distribution, hygiene, shelter, psychosocial support, medical care and information services.

Before I left, I knew there was a very slim chance to work at an actual refugee camp, because, as I mentioned, I had no specific skills. However, there are many other things that can be done to help. The first three days I got busy helping in the Warehouse and the Kitchen near Thessaloniki.

The Help Refugees Warehouse near Thessaloniki

Donations of clothes from all over Europe arrive to the Help Refugees Warehouse in large quantities. These must be sorted and made ready for distribution. Shoes and clothes are sorted by type and sizes and are put into other boxes in an organized way so that when a camp asks for supplies, these are readily found and sent. Also, clothes needed to be vetted for appropriateness (no violence, religion or otherwise potentially offending images on t-shirts, for example) and quality. Donators tend to send their old clothes, and that's great, but if they are too worn out, they will be thrown away. The rule is “if you wouldn’t wear it, then why should a refugee?”. This is fair, considering that refugees live with a great amount of fear and stress, not knowing what will happen to them in the future. The least that can be done, is to provide them with clothes that make them feel human in their inhuman situation.

A few days were spent helping in the Soul Food Kitchen, which provides hot meals for refugees and people living homeless in Thessaloniki Greece. That's right, there are even homeless refugees, whom have not been accepted in the Camps. There I was chopping anything from turnips, carrots to onions and fruit. It's a vegan kitchen and the food was excellent. We prepared lunch and dinner for about 80 people, with a team of about 7 volunteers. Small team, incredible impact.

Work at the Soul Food Kitchen

Towards the end of my second day, Holly from Help Refugees asked if there were any volunteers for a "Camp Cleanup" that was going to be hard and very messy, and if anyone had a car to drive there. That was a mission for me! I had a car and I could drive four volunteers to and from the camp. We had to provide passport information and an ID picture, so that a request could be made to the authorities for us to enter the Vasilika Camp. Many "voluntourists" think you can just walk into a camp, hug a few children, make a few selfies, and leave. It is not so. There are procedures and actual danger in not being properly prepared.

On my fourth day, in the morning, we had a briefing from Tracey from Intervolve about the task ahead of us. We signed a disclaimer, and we were good to go. The cleanup team of five included myself, Ingrid (Slovakia), Caroline (Germany), Rose (UK) and Philippa (UK). We were all unsure of what we were going to find, and, in silence, we drove to the Camp.

The Vasilika Refugee Camp

We were greeted by Maurizio (Italy) the Camp Manager, who'd been here for over nine months. Documents and badges from Intervolve were shown to the police at the gates and we were let in. We were provided protective gear and a few tools (knives, hammers, wicre cutters, brooms and a couple of wheelbarrows) and were asked "are you sure you know what you are in for?".

We were led to the furthermost hangar (Hangar 7), passing by one occupied hangar and two inhabited ones that had already been cleaned and were ready for the tents to be built. The image below, is how we found the place. You should have seen the dismay on our faces. "We are never going to finish this".

Hangar 7 at the Vasilika Refugee Camp

Basically, as it happens, refugees are sometimes relocated to other camps or living structures in the area. Many people, in the camp that we started working at, got moved, about 60 refugees still live here. The way this happens is that they get told, about a day ahead of time (sometimes less), that they are getting moved. They have very little time to collect the few belongings they have, and get ready. They leave their tents in a hurry. Hence the mess…

The mess that was left was overwhelming...

... food, beds, blankets, toys, and all sorts of items left behind inside and outside the tents.

There will most probably be new arrivals very soon, maybe thousands, or maybe not (that’s how it goes here). I guess the islands need to be prepared for the holiday season, or are simply getting too full. Therefore, we needed to clean up the hangar, so that new tents could be set up and so that any newcomers would have a more humane environment to spend their waiting period.

There were about 65 tents to be cleaned up, and dismantled. This was the first cleanup for everyone in my team of 5 volunteers. We just began, trying to find a method to do it efficiently. It was not until the end of the second day, that we finally grokked it. Clean out a whole row of tents, then cut the wires, then make the tents collapse, to finally fold them and trash them. We've become very efficient and we named our team The Tent Busters™.

On the sixth day, we felt quite proud! And ready for a day off.

For general information, refugees have basically three options after they made the grueling journey over land or sea:

  1. Relocation somewhere in the European Union: refugees get told in which country they will go (depending on EU quotas). They can refuse, but then the wait begins again.
  2. Reunite with family members already residing legally in the European Union. This is never immediate, because such requests must be approved on multiple levels.
  3. Pay smugglers to get across the border (thousands of Euros). This frequently ends up in arrest, imprisonment, push back or deportation, and the situation can worsen significantly for the refugee and their families. The fact is that, even if they make it across one border, they must cross others as well, and eventually arrive where they were planning to go. But they would be there illegally for the rest of their lives, or until they somehow legalize the situation. This is the worst option, but the temptation is very strong to take shortcuts.

The refugees are truly "in between lives", waiting for their fate to be decided by the system. As I mentioned, some will try a run through the border, and they will do that until their money runs out… All the others need shelter, care and a humane way to survive the long waiting period. This is where these grassroots volunteering organizations come into play, covering all sorts of needs, which the larger organizations don't necessarily do. Now that the "emergency" is lower, at least in the public's eye, there has never been more need for volunteers to help the migrants and their families.

I leave Greece enriched and energized. I made friends I will never forget. And I now have a better understanding of what "really" happens with middle-eastern refugees, and will try to remain active and involved. On my last evening in Thessaloniki, me and my team went out for dinner, and I was told "you have that look in your eyes of those who will return"...

Thanks to the Adobe Matching Grants Program I am also able to turn my time into a donation. For every 10 hours of volunteer service an Adobe employee gives to a charitable organization, Adobe provides a $250 individual volunteer grant that can be directed to the organization of my choice. I will devolve the entire sum to Refugee Support Europe, a sister organization for the projects that are mentioned here. (Update: through the Adobe Matching Grants Program, Adobe matched my work in Thessaloniki with 2’018,72 USD. Thank you!)

A real workout too: during my twelve days volunteering I strode 173'604 steps, walking 141 Kilometers (87.5 Miles). And, because there needs some time off as well, Thessaloniki is a wonderful city in the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, right in front of Mount Olympus.

Thessaloniki waterfront

Don't hesitate to contact me at if you have any questions about volunteering in Northern Greece, I will be more than happy to share more of my experience.

One word of warning, don't stay for more than two weeks, or you might remain indefinitely. I have met many of these good souls...

Further reading: DESPERATE JOURNEYS - Refugees and migrants entering and crossing Europe via the Mediterranean and Western Balkans routes (UNHCR)

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