1 week as a volunteer in Athens port of Piraeus, in Greece – with the non-profit organization Team Sweden Volunteers
The week before Easter, I went down to Piraeus in Athens together with a friend, with the volunteer organization Team Sweden Volunteers.
I didn’t know what awaited me more than what I’d read in the media. It was different than I’d imagined… and yet I’ve worked in similar situations before.
The first thing I reacted to when we got down to the port the first day, was all the children who were playing so close to the quay. Those children who had traveled in a rubber boat across the Mediterranean and was lucky to survive such a risky trip, could probably didn’t see the danger of playing so close to the edge.
I, however, saw several different scenarios pass through my head, of what could have happened. I tried to keep track of the children who played there, and so many times I told both the kids and their parents, that it was dangerous. It’s difficult to convey what you want to say when we don’t speak the same language. Not impossible, but difficult.
There was just over 5,000 refugees at the port when we came there – about 7000 when we left a week later. There’s different terminals where the refugees are located – E1, E2 and Stonehouse, which is an old warehouse with a concrete floor and which isn’t a good place for people to live in.
Men, women and children sleep in tents which they have set up inside the warehouse building or outside the building directly on the asphalt. Some families sleep under the open sky. Unfortunately, not everyone has a tent.
The tents in the building has been put up very close together, and you can’t come between them. The only private space they have, are inside their small tents, tents for 2 people. Many families consist of up to 6 people, and they share one tent.
There are toilets inside Stonehouse, but no showers. Some people haven’t showered in a long time. A man came up to me and asked for new pants. 13 days in a row he had the same pants – and no shower during this time – so I understand that they need new clothes. I gave him new pants. Outside the buildings there are a dozens of moveable toilets lined up and the smell when you walk past them, is almost unbearable.
We chose to spend our time at Stonehouse with the Greek volunteers. Fantastic people who spent almost all their free time, their energy and love for all the people down there in the port of Piraeus, those who fled their country due to war and lack of human rights.
Every day, we were at Stonehouse from 8 am in the morning to give them breakfast, lunch around 2 pm and at 8 in the evening, dinner is served by a Greek football team. Everybody gets food three times a day. In between, they get water, sweets and other things they might need, like clothes.
The thing that permeated the atmosphere inside Stonehouse was fear, despair and hopelessness. That was also my first feeling when I came there – I was strongly affected by their emotions.
Food, fruit and water are donated from some Greek people, who pays for everything. Clothes, strollers, and other things come from people around the world. I met many Greeks who came with fully loaded cars with clothes and other things, which they wanted to donate to the relief organizations in the harbor. The Greeks have a heart of gold.
The second day we were there the refugees started a protest march – where hundreds of people participated, and with only one message; “Open the Borders! Mama Merkel – Open the Borders!”
We joined the protest march for a while, but on a distance because the Greek police kept track of the situation. I would’ve wanted to go in the front along with these people, shouting “Open the borders, mama Merkel!” together with them, but I didn’t dare because the police kept an extra eye on everyone. Mostly they leave the volunteers alone, but they don’t like when we are filming or taking photos.
Anyway, it felt good to have the police on the spot, considering all people with different religions. Many disagreements and anger. Desperate people fleeing aren’t always so rational. They have nothing to lose, except possibly hope…
A Spanish aid team, SOS – Remar, has set up a tent where they serve tea and where they have a corner for children where they can sit and draw. A very good initiative, educational and very much appreciated. Both for refugees and volunteers.
Every time I came into the tent and got a cup with extremely sweet tea, I used to look at the children when they were drawing. It gave me a peace of mind. At least for a little while. The children gave me their drawings with a big smile.
To get a drawing from a refugee child means a lot. It’s such a great feeling. I have all the drawings on the office wall at home now, and I smile every time I see them.
Between meals, I walked around and talked to people, and played with the kids. We gave them soap bubbles and they became lyrical of these bubbles. It was absolutely wonderful to see and hear the children laugh so heartily.
I always said Hi to everyone I met and most of them smiled and said hello back. I think it means a lot that you see them. As to acknowledge their existence. That we are all equal, no matter where we come from.
Many of the women I saw, both at Stonehouse and at E2, were completely apathetic. Their eyes were empty, as it had stuck on something that no one else could see. They wept silently with tears running down their cheeks. It looked like they lost hope. No hope – no future.
We were told about a woman who took her child and was about to jump from the quay, but someone had stopped them at the last moment. I get so sad and heartbroken when I hear such stories.
The vest with “Team Sweden Volunteers” -logo seem to calm people down a bit, and it resulted in a lot of questions. Some of them I could answer and others I couldn’t. Most of the questions you got was, “When will the border open?”, “Can you help me to get to Germany? I have family there.” “What will happen to us?”, and so on. These are difficult questions that none of us volunteers can answer, and such issues the European Union doesn’t want to answer. They get no answers from anyone. They are desperate people who just want a life and a safe future for their children.
One day a Syrian man approached me and asked why we were there and helped. I told him that we were there to help them. That we belonged to a volunteer organization from Sweden and that we had taken time off from work to be able to help on spot. He wondered who paid for the trip and the hotel, and I told him that we paid ourselves. Then he asked if we had come all the way from Sweden just for their sake. “Yes,” I said. He took my hand and thanked me several times. He had tears in his eyes.
It was a very emotional meeting for both of us.
On the weekend, the Greeks had arranged a concert in the port of Piraeus, for the refugees. The singers sang both in Greek, Arabic and other languages. Greeks, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, volunteers from all over the western world – everybody was there. People danced and were happy – at least at that moment, and the people I talked to afterwards, had gotten back the hope for a better future. I really hope they will hold on to that feeling.
The day before we were going back to Sweden, we were interviewed by a journalist from a Spanish magazine.
We talked about the situation there, what was missing, the fantastic Greeks who gave all they could spare. All of these volunteers who had come from all over the Western world to help on spot in Greece. The journalist told me that they had a fund that the Spanish people had donated money to, and which they wanted to donate to any volunteer organization in Piraeus.
The Greek government wants the refugees to be channeled out to refugee camps outside Athens, where there are real toilets and showers, but they refuse. As these camps are old military buildings, the refugees think that they will become prisoners there. They are simply afraid. Some people I spoke to, told me that they had already been there, but had decided to go back to the harbor. They said it wasn’t good at the camps.
The last news I heard was that the police and the military will forcibly move refugees out to these camps – the tourism season is starting soon in Greece. The tourism is what the Greeks live for, so I can really understand how they think in this situation.
I met so many nice people – old people as completely lost hope of a better and safer future, but who didn’t show it to their families, young people who still had hope left and thought that everything would work out, children with severe trauma. Children who didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation, but still knew that something was wrong.
My heart cries for all these people. People who have lost hope for the future. The future that doesn’t exist, because the Western world has turned its back on them.
I feel so sorry for the way they are treated by the authorities and others. I’m angry at the European Union for the way they treat the refugees and think that they can pay another country to take over the responsibility. I’m so angry at the Swedish government and all the others who closed their borders. I am so sad because it feels like we, the volunteers, are working against the authorities.
At the same time, I’m happy and proud to still be a part of the good, human side. I’m proud of the Greek people who give of their free time, energy and love for these refugees, even though many Greeks have financial difficulties. I’m glad that I went there and did what I could, although I think I could have done so much more.
I felt a constant worry. Tears who wanted to come out. I wanted to shout out my frustration over the situation. Tell all the politicians in Europe, who for some reason think they have the right to determine the fate of these people. To make a deal with a country like Turkey, who doesn’t follow the UN rules on human rights, and also pay them to stop the refugees from getting into Europe. Pay them to send these people back to the war they fled.
The earth belongs to everyone – regardless of nationality, color or religion.
Greece who already struggling financially and who is close to bankruptcy, they take care of all of the approximately 50,000 refugees who are now estimated to be in the country. The people who can be proud of this, when it ends up in the history books – it’s the Greek people.
Please support the non-profit organization Team Sweden Volunteers and the volunteer work they do on spot in Greece. No contribution is too small.
No one can do everything, but everyone can do something!
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If you want to make a donation, you can contact me and we will solve it.