ATHENS— My time last year volunteering with CGR in Greece was eye-opening in more ways than one. There was of course the usual culture shock one experiences when going on trips like these. You’ve probably heard a number of stories from family or friends that have gone on similar trips. At first almost everything was a contrast to what I was used to. Where I was used to seeing wealth, I saw poverty. Where I was used to seeing peace, I saw turmoil. And where I was used to seeing home, I saw squatting. As my time in Greece continued what was seemed black and white became more grey as a father hugged his daughter or a family turned an old building into a home.
As refugees have fled Syria, Afghanistan, and many other war torn areas they came through Turkey and into Greece as a launching pad to Europe. On March 9th, 2016 Macedonia closed their borders along with other Balkan countries effectively putting a plug on Greece. While stuck in Greece, refugees have been forced to either stay, leave via government applications, or be smuggled out. I met both types of refugees and I met them in their homes.
The first group we met were in the worst conditions. Families found themselves squatting in an old abandoned school complex, with sometimes as many as 14 people sleeping in one small room. Schools in Europe look more like apartments than the usual low-rise high schools and elementary schools one finds in North America. They look like a hollowed out apartment building with a court yard in the centre for recess. It was now a temporary home for many desperate individuals. Classrooms were now bedrooms, other rooms were kept as classrooms and used to teach kids English and Greek or were used as a doctor’s office. What surprised me was the variety of people living their, it was not just Syrians there were Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghani, and more. I did not know any Farsi at the time and I only knew a little Arabic so I really wasn’t sure whether parents from different areas would spend time together or not. However, the kids definitely did. While talking to them I realized that most of these children knew at least 4 languages—speaking English, Greek, Arabic, and Farsi, they could help the community communicate with each other and the world outside. Unfortunately, compared to the other areas I visited it seemed like those living in the worst conditions were also the farthest from being able to leave.
We later went to a former summer camp that had been renovated into a refugee camp. There was a lot more room for the kids to play, however the families still suffered the same shortages of hygiene products and other amenities. The difference, apart from more space was that many of these refugees had been given asylum in other countries and were waiting in transit. I spent time talking to two of them. Instead of hearing their story we just relaxed and talked about sports, and joked about how cold Canada is. One of the young men was headed to Sweden, the other to France with his family. The one headed to France offered us tea and told us about how he wanted to be a cook some day. I didn’t think about age, but eventually it came up and I realized both of these men were about the same age as me, 22. While I was finishing up my university degree the man who wanted to be a cook was a father and a husband and was just trying to find a place to call home.
I met many other refugees throughout the trip and every time saw people making homes in the in between, welcoming us in as they wait for some place better.
YOU can have a part engaging refugees especially those stuck in-transition…