First birthday of volunteers in Greece!
We have now been operating as Refugee Support Europe for exactly one year. Here is what we have done.
At the heart of what we do is a system for the collection and distribution of humanitarian aid that is consistent, fair and dignified. We are also committed to buying as much as we can locally to support the Greek economy. No-one is paid a salary and all volunteers pay for their own travel and accommodation.
We started with one shop stocking a few essential items and now we offer range of services, have seen nearly 400 volunteers with another already 60 booked between now and August, spent about £200,000 all for the benefit of the refugees and distributed many donations in kind of food, clothing, toys and household items – all under our guiding principle of Aid with Dignity.
Mini-markets in Alexandreia and Filippiada
The core of our operation, every refugee is entitled to one visit a week to our mini-market under a points based system where we stock whatever food people want and they can choose whatever they want with their points (equivalent to about €5 per person). Dignity of the individual is placed at the heart of the ‘shopping’ experience so that it is quick, calm and friendly. The mini-markets are maintained to a high standard and we’re particularly proud of the fact that the shop has always opened, well stocked and on time.
We’ve been constantly improving those spaces and recently renovated the mini-market in co-operation with the Get Shit Done team.
Boutiques at Alexandreia and Filippiada
Refugees get one visit to a boutique (every 3 weeks in Alexandreia and every 4 weeks in Filippiada) to select 5-6 items of well-presented clothing in a calm, shop environment (with dedicated boutiques for women, men and children in Filippiada). Like the mini-markets, these have always opened. The boutique at Alexandreia has also been recently renovated.
As part of the boutique system we have also done monthly distributions of carefully sorted and well-presented shoes (with a dedicated shoe-tique in Filippiada) and regular distributions of toys and games, when we have enough for all kids, using a points system where the kids get tokens to spend on differently priced items.
The vast majority of shoes and clothing distributed are from well-sorted donations of used clothing but we also buy clothing locally when there is a need, particularly new underwear. We have just ordered 200 pairs of shorts and 200 t-shirts of the right size for men. Last summer we imported 600 specially manufactured abayas from Jordan and will be shortly be placing a second order.
We distribute fabrics and wool and have 7 sewing machines at Alexandreia which we lend out to individuals so that they can make their own clothes.
Preparation in Katsikas
We are nearing completion of the development of a shopping arcade at Katsikas for when refugees arrive. Electricity hasn’t yet been installed so the latest information we have is that they will arrive in the last week of April.
In co-operation with the Timber Project, we have created three boutiques, a shoe-tique, mini-market and will be developing a cafeteria in a reception area. The standard of these distribution centres is well beyond anything else in a refugee camp in Greece.
We rent an off-site warehouses to receive deliveries and sort clothing with a unique storage system using plastic crates.
We have the ability to receive container loads and palleted deliveries in Alexandreia. We have bulk-bought items that we know we will need to save money. We also receive shipments from other partners such as moses baskets from Carry the Future and various items from the UNHCR.
We have been hiring a van and in the process of buying 2 vans to service the camps.
We regularly run physical and creative activities in co-operation with other NGOs on-site.
We have added more equipment to the kids playground at Alexandreia that now has 6 swings, 6 rockers, a trim trail and 2 pieces of climbing equipment.
We have another in development at Filippiada and are also creating a football pitch with goal posts at Alexandreia.
At great cost and after months of negotiation about health and safety, we completely re-fitted and equipped a community kitchen that is run by a joint resident and volunteer team under the guidance of an experienced volunteer chef that produces a hot, nutritious, Syrian meal on a varied menu, once a day, 6 days a week.
This is particularly important given the camp’s low opinion of the food offered by the state, and to give families a break from cooking their own food.
Also a large investment, we renovated a large derelict room with doors, windows, music and television developed from a derelict room which we supply with tea and coffee and maintain and is run by team of residents on the camp.
We have recently redecorated it and are currently consulting with the community about what activities they would like to have in there and how we can support them.
New-born babies and post-partum mothers
Following a tragic incident in July, we arranged for all new-born babies and their mothers to spend time in local accommodation post-partum until they have recovered from the birth.
We have now arranged for 8 babies to be accommodated somewhere comfortable away from the camp until the medical team say that they are OK to return.
Adult and kids language lessons now run 5 times a week from 10:30-4:30 in 2 fully equipped classrooms in Alexandreia (with chairs, desks, teaching materials and whiteboards), following a programme designed and run by an experienced TEFL teacher. We have beginner, intermediate and advanced classes in English for about 70 adults and beginner classes in German for about 20 adults and Greek (led by a local resident) for 3-4 adults.
We have about 80 kids being taught in the mornings before they attend the local Greek school in the afternoons. NRC is also funding an Arabic speaker to support the teaching and are in the process of building classrooms for the under 8s.
The school is also running beginner Arabic lessons for volunteers at lunchtime and a lending library with well-stocked shelves of fully catalogued books, that has lent out 40 books.
Six children at Alexandreia have now corresponded with 16 children around Europe as part of our Refugee Penfriend project and we are expanding that project into Filippiada in co-operation with Project Hope for Kids.
Stepping in when we are needed
The large agencies often struggle to respond quickly to needs when they arise on the camp. When it suddenly got very cold in the camp in the winter (down to -13˚C) and there was no electricity we supplied every caravan with a heater and the gas to supply them.
When there were some children who weren’t able to go to school because they hadn’t been vaccinated, we paid for the vaccines.
In addition to sourcing the kind of clothes people want to wear (for example headscarves and leggings), we supported the breaking of the fast during Ramadan and will be doing the same this year, importing the right kind of food such as dates.
We also provided a sound system, candles, appropriate clothing, fabrics and ice-cream for the Kurdish Newroz celebration
Improving the environment
We distributed a professionally taken and framed family portrait to every caravan to make them more homely.
And recently we added some flowers to the grounds of the camp.
We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers. Every one has to agree to our volunteer agreement, code of conduct and safeguarding policy. They are all interviewed before they are booked into the camp to work for between 2 and 4 weeks. We have volunteer co-ordinators in each camp who stay for longer and they begin every day by leading a daily briefing.
After care is important and we offer a telephone debrief service with a counsellor to talk through their experience and help with any difficulties returning to normal life. And we run a closed facebook page for those who have worked with us for them to share stories, help each other and stay connected.
We hope that this review of the last year has given you a good idea of how important your support can be. And what can be achieved by a group of committed volunteers.
We are more committed than ever and will do all we can to continue offering aid with dignity.
Paul Hutchings, the founder, took a sabbatical from his market research business in April 2016 to run Refugee Support Europe with co-founder John Sloan. Frustrated with the poor response of Europe to the enormity of this humanitarian crisis, he just had to do something and has been inspired by the commitment and enthusiasm of people around the world who have felt the same.
Learn more about Refugee Support and their work: