Written by a volunteer ... a voice of CGR
Athens — My time 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 similar 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 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 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 or 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 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 like apartments rather than the usual low-rise schools found in North America. They look like hollowed out apartment buildings with a courtyard in the centre for recess. They were turned into temporary home for many desperate individuals. Classrooms were now bedrooms and other rooms were used to teach kids English and Greek or were used as a doctor's office. What surprised me was the variety of people living there. It was not just Syrians but Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghani, and more. I only knew a little Arabic so I really wasn't sure whether parents from different areas spend time together or not. However, the kids definitely did. While talking to them, I realized most of these children knew at least 4 languages — speaking English , Greek, Arabic, and Farsi. They could help communities 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. Many of these refugees had been given asylum in other countries and were waiting to transit. I spent time talking to two of them. Instead of hearing their stories, we just relaxed and talked about sports and joked about how cold Canada is. One man 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. While I was finishing up my university degree, the man who wanted to be a cook was a father and a husband, trying to find a place to call home. I met many other refugees throughout the trip and each time saw people making homes in the in between, welcoming us in as they wait for some place better.
YOU can engage with refugees, especially those stuck in transition!