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December 7th 2015 – December 15th 2015
On December 7th, I, Sarah, was on the way to my first deployment. Together with three other volunteers, I took the bus from Vienna to Greece. Our destination was Idomeni, a small village near the Greece-Macedonian border. In parallel, a second team embarked on the same journey, together with trailer full of tents, sleeping bags, blankets, shoes and cutlery, amounting to a total value of about 19.000 euros. The scheduled rendezvous point for both teams was Idomeni.
At that time, the border was closed for all refugees, with exceptions being made for Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. As a result, 3 000 people were forcibly interned at the Idomeni refugee camp. A week earlier, refugees protested this action by going on hunger strikes and rioting, prompting all NGOs (except for MSF and Save the Children) to leave the camp. We recognized the deteriorating situation and immense human distress, which is why we decided to assist in Idomeni.
At our arrival, we first made a quick survey of the situation on site. It was early December and icy winds were accentuating the already cold weather. Most people were sleeping in pop-up tents, old wagons or tents left behind by the UNHCR. There were portable toilets, but since nobody was cleaning them, people – us included – made use of the surroundings to satisfy our hygienic needs. There were no showers. The air was full of smoke smelled of burned trash and wood. People were cooking tea in their tents. For the first time, I saw the barbed wire fence along the border. In the middle of this beautiful landscape, something completely unnatural and artificial was erected – an absurd view. On the Greece side of the border, people seeking shelter and safety were stuck, while on the Macedon side, soldiers with their water cannons and armored vehicles were fortifying their position. The fence did not align with my vision of Europe.
In the afternoon, a group of volunteers from Salzburg arrived, and so promptly joined forces. The group was centered around Dr. Susann Schmitz, who focused primarily on the medical treatment of children. In the meantime, my colleague Christine and I were preparing soup in the makeshift kitchen of the camp. Later, we spent the night in our tent. I was freezing even though I had two sleeping bags and I began wondering how the refugees around me were coping with the low temperatures.
On the next day, we started distributing clothes among the refugees, but suddenly the local police forces started to encircle and clear the camp. The refugees were ordered to embark on buses heading to Athens. There was tension in the air, but fortunately everything went down peacefully. All volunteers were now barred from entering the camp. Christine and I nevertheless managed to bring supplies from the makeshift kitchen to buses. Unfortunately, we ran out of water and we didn’t have nearly enough provisions for everybody. Some people tried to hide from the police or go on by foot, so we had to convince them to get on the buses, otherwise the harsh weather would have exposed them to life-threatening danger.
Our team was now composed of twelve people, and we decided to go to Athens as well – with a short stop in Thessaloniki.
At our arrival in Athens, we first drove to the Taekwando stadium, which was used as temporary shelter for the refugees. We also met up with the trailer that brought all the goods we collected from donations. We were looking forward to finally distribute them inside the camp, but we were denied entrance to the camp by the police.
On the next day, we therefore decided to distribute clothing in front of the stadium, but the onrush of people resulted made organized distribution impossible. Order returned only after a while. I started to babysit so children wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. Afterwards we shipped 5000 blankets to the Island of Chios, where they were desperately needed.
In the late afternoon, I was able to gain accessto the stadium. There, I met volunteers from Sweden, who helped us distribution supplies inside Taekwando. Inside the stadium, I felt a constant unease. People were sleeping on the floor, there was a displeasing stench in the air, the floors were flooded with water from the toilets and violent incidents were common, which is why many people preferred sleeping outside. For the refugees inside the stadium there were three options: being deported back to their home country, requesting for asylum in Greece or counterfeiting their papers.
During our time in Athens we returned to the camp again and again to distribute provisions to people in need. We also visited two occupied buildings, where we were also able to distribute supplies to about 140 people sheltered there. We were glad to able to provide meaningful and worthwhile help people in need, even though we had to overcome lots of barriers.
We spent a few days in an occupied house called “Notaria Squat”, where we sorted through clothing items and handed it out. There was a huge storage area full of clothes which could not be distributed due to the onrush of people and the resulting chaos. In addition, we bought ample supplies of food for the residents of the occupied house with our monetary donations.
On December 15th we embarked on our return journey. The hard work and cold of the last days in Greece made their mark – I would spend the next few days sick in bed.
I was able to gain lots of new experiences on my first deployment. I learned a lot, and I was shown the importance of spontaneity, flexibility and creativity while working. I met wonderful people and their interesting stories. But first and foremost, I gained motivation to keep going. Providing the overall situation does not change, this will not be my last deployment.