By Beth Anderson
During the Christmas holidays I spent a week volunteering at the Help Refugees warehouse in Thessaloniki. Before going I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d volunteered in Calais in the summer and seen the horrific conditions there (help is still needed in Calais – see here), but the situation in Greece was utterly shocking. While we were there temperatures sunk to a painful -12 and it snowed in Thessaloniki for the first time in 25 years – this made our work incredibly difficult.
And yet we were so lucky. We could go back to a warm flat at the end of the day and to a home and family at the end of the week. It’s hard to imagine how the refugees feel sleeping outside in these conditions, with little warm clothes, food or hope of an end to the ordeal.
We spent the majority of our time in the warehouse: sorting donations and packing them up ready to give out to refugees in camps and sleeping rough in the area. One day we made up several winter baby packs. Each included babygrows, jumpers, trousers, booties, nappies, baby wipes and a baby sleeping bag. We made six for newborns, as well as some for older babies. The next day we came back to find that they had taken the packs after an urgent call for warm baby clothes during the night: a reminder that babies are being born in these conditions. We also chopped firewood to be delivered to camps and unloaded lorries of donations from across Europe.
Another day we worked with the incredible Soul Food Kitchens. The kitchens provide hundreds of hot meals a day for refugees and homeless people in Thessaloniki. The work was made considerably more difficult by the weather. Frozen pipes meant we had to buy bottles of water to cook with… but the water bottles froze too. In the end, we had to melt and boil snow to cook and clean with. This made work slower and was very frustrating but made for a funny (if a little chilly) day. We discovered tomatoes turn to concrete when frozen, how to cook and dance simultaneously (so as to not lose any toes to frostbite), and how many pairs of gloves you can get under latex gloves!
However, distributing the food made us realise that whilst we can joke about the cold, it is dangerous and inescapable for many refugees sleeping rough around Thessaloniki. People are living in abandoned buildings without walls. It’s horrific. Soul Food Kitchens give them two hot meals a day, which makes a huge difference. Even only being out there a week, we found hot food at lunchtime warmed us up and boosted morale considerably.
No one should have to live like this. Another project we worked on, Filoxenia, recognised this. It aims to take vulnerable refugees out of camps and move them into flats. We helped to finish the flats, painting (once the frozen paint had thawed), doing basic building work and cleaning. As well as this, we looked after the children of families who had already moved into some of the finished flats. The blocks also included community spaces, a shop based on a fairness/points system and soundproofed rooms for counselling. This was an amazing project to be part of and was very rewarding. We finished two flats – that’s ten people who can leave the camps for safety and warmth. The project has ambitious aims of refurbishing several abandoned blocks of flat, each around a Greek school that will take refugee children. Long term, the project hopes to get refugees and locals more involved in refurbishing the flats too.
On our last day we worked on a community space for refugees in a nearby camp. These people had been in outdoor detention centres and so were very traumatised. The area, donated by a local who owned the land, was a safe space where people could have fun, cook and eat. In between work we had several snowball fights with the children using the space. Understandably, no photos were allowed in the space but it was great to play with the children and see them enjoying themselves (albeit at our expense – they were a lot better at snowball fights than we were!).
The situation is desperate but Hull Help for Refugees has made a difference. Thanks to money raised in Hull, we could respond to urgent needs whilst there. We bought much-needed heaters, kitchen supplies, cleaning supplies, mattresses and cushions. We also bought lots of bikes which proved to be extremely popular! HHfR offered some comfort and warmth to people living in horrific conditions. We showed we cared and people were so grateful for this.
Want to help?
Here are some links to donate to the projects mentioned:
Help Refugees – an umbrella organisation funding projects in Greece, France and the Middle East.
Filoxenia – supported housing project taking vulnerable refugees from camps into flats.
Soul Food Kitchen – providing hot meals to refugees and homeless people in and around Thessaloniki.
Alternatively, giving your time is much appreciated – volunteers are desperately needed in Thessaloniki (email email@example.com) or more locally at Hull Help for Refugees!
Photographs: Beth Anderson