It is, at times, difficult to get my head around the fact it is already October, the familiar autumnal coldness has returned, but most importantly the arrival of the end of this year is imminent and will mark an entire 12 months since I first volunteered with Road to Freedom.
I wish I could sit here and tell you that in that year peace had been restored to Syria and all other nations at war; That refugees had been resettled, finally arriving at the safe haven they so desperately sought. Alas, life is seldom idyllic, as we all find out the hard way sooner or later, some harder than others.
In the grim reality of it all I can tell you the situation has got worse, far worse in the last 12 months. Throughout the year the death toll in Syria has risen to catastrophic numbers, countless lives, hopes and dreams on pause, trapped in putrid camps with little to no provisions and unbelievably over 500 unaccompanied minors held like prisoners in the Calais jungle, with no one to turn too and nowhere to seek safety. These figures don’t even cover the hundreds of children that are missing, completely unaccounted for, that have no doubt been caught up in some ill-fated nightmare.
For anyone that’s been out to volunteer you’ll be familiar with how the situation swallows you whole and entirely consumes your thought process. I find it hard to think about much else, I feel guilty for enjoying every day basics, knowing my brothers and sisters lie across the ocean, dying more inside with every passing day.
When I was invited to Athens with RTF I jumped at the opportunity. I hadn’t yet visited the mainland of Greece but I knew Athens had become home to a large number of refugees and I wanted to do what I could to help.
In a team of 4 we made the journey and I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by one of our teams’ long term friends out there at the airport, a refugee himself, but no less dedicated than any of us to helping his people. He had insisted on meeting and welcoming us, already a small insight to the nature of these wonderful humans.
After a well needed nights rest we put a plan into action of who needed help and how we would deliver it. To be honest, our time out there was a complete whirlwind, a sea of tasks and emotions combined so whilst it may not be in order, the following was what took place over the course of the week.
Having not long arrived we received an urgent call for help from an independent volunteer who had been made aware of a family of 5- one mother and 4 children – who had no money or food. We headed out to do a food shop for them and went to their private accommodation to deliver it.
Needless to say, sometimes basic aid isn’t all that’s required or appreciated, especially when helping individual families. They also require human connection, comfort, bonding, time and sometimes just conversation. The knowledge that someone cares can go a long way to bringing them some peace, even if only momentary, a fragment of hope is always precious.
With that sentiment in mind we spent some time with this family, getting to know them and listening to their story while the rest of the team assessed the situation elsewhere. We often split up when there were several tasks at hand in order to utilise the time we had.
We promised to check in on them before we left and within no time at all we had received another emergency call informing us of two young men who were sleeping on the streets with no money or food. Thankfully we were able to temporarily accommodate them whilst we were searched for a more sustainable, long term solution. Unfortunately, one of the young men was in quite some pain so we organised a trip to the hospital for him and covered the fee’s. Thankfully he was deemed well enough to return and after picking up a prescription and some food, they settled into a comfy warm, bed for the night. Later that week we found them permanent accommodation in one of the local squats.
Unfortunately, although there are squats and accommodation available in Athens, most places are completely full which leaves an alarmingly high number of refugees stranded on the streets in the cold with no food or sanitation.
With this in mind we decided to do a food shop of croissants and water so we could conduct a midnight distribution in the parks and squares. When the time came myself and another female volunteer on our team stayed in the car and the guys, led by another independent volunteer (amazing guy named Rando) went out to drop the items.
In case you’re wondering why we stayed in the car, the situation is extremely dire on the streets in Athens, far worse than we had originally anticipated and it was mutually agreed between the team that the guys would go to assess the situation before we ventured out. When they returned it was clear to see they were visibly shaken. They explained how they had openly seen drugs being used as well as an area within the vicinity where child prostitution was taking place. They had distributed in complete darkness not knowing what to expect, with only their phone lights for navigation.
It’s bizarre because I didn’t actually witness anything from the car but I was chilled to the bone just thinking about what had taken place just yards from me, what would continue to take place every night and I couldn’t see a way out for them. Have you ever felt emotional but numb simultaneously? A paradox of sorts.
After some rest and gathering our thoughts we decided to visit a family RTF had been working with long term, a lovely couple and their two adorable children. We visited them a few times, each time they insisted on us drinking tea with them and we played with the children. They seemed so in need of a friend, an ear and a friendly face, all of which it was our pleasure to provide. One night in particular they told us their story, they had journeyed from the Greek islands in a small, overcrowded boat that no one had been shown how to drive. Not long after setting out they saw a light in the distance which they assumed was the coastguard, their assumption would prove to be correct, the intention of the coastguard not so.
The family told us the coastguard had deliberately tried to sink their boat, even with the knowledge that children were on board. This was the first time on the trip I had allowed my emotions to take over. I couldn’t believe that after all their travels and horrors that someone they relied on for help had tried to drown them. I looked at them, their children, their kindness and pure hearts and it was almost too much to bear. Then I thought of their courage and everlasting hope and my pain seemed to pale into insignificance somehow. I will forever be in their debt; they are my inspiration.
Throughout the rest of the week we did more food drops, supplying aid where we could, spent time at the local squats and schools, visited a lone lady outside of Athens to deliver her some food and caught up with some families we have been working with long term.
One family in particular we grew close too and decided to surprise visit as it was their daughter’s birthday. This wonderful young lady and her sister have very cleverly taught themselves how to make jewellery which we decided would be a great way for them to make an income and give them some sense of independence again. We also suggested this to the daughter of the first family I mentioned earlier on and later went back to deliver her some materials.
Although we had a lot to do in a small space of time, we deemed it important to ensure we made time to visit one of the local schools in Athens to do a distribution of bananas and juice to the children.
They say a child has a special way of bringing joy to every day so you can probably imagine our excitement when we were faced with 150 little, smiling faces who had all been eagerly anticipating our arrival.
Upon entering the school, the children all rushed towards us excitedly to receive their healthy treat! It’s incredible that such simple things can bring so much joy, even if only for an afternoon and for us there’s no greater reward than to see them smile.
Afterwards we played with them which felt somewhat like being a human magnet as they all wanted to be picked up and swung around at the same time!
You would never imagine in your wildest dreams that these children have fled war and persecution, the warm, loving and gentle spirit they radiate is remarkable, something that truly touched me on this trip.
Last but most definitely not least we went to visit a new men’s squat that had recently opened and I was quite taken aback at what we witnessed. The men are living in horrific, inhumane conditions, sleeping on hard, cold floors with virtually no aid. As we climbed the stairs and looked around we noticed ‘Help Us’ smeared on the walls in human excrement, a disturbing sight to witness and a testament to the sheer desperateness encapsulated within these walls.
With winter around the corner we knew we needed to do something, so after purchasing cleaning products and ensuring the place was hygienic we decided to buy 73 mattresses with sheets and blankets so at very least these men had something to sleep on.
After a wave of emotions and a busier week than I had anticipated, it was time to say goodbye to our now very dear brothers and friends. One of the most special parts of this trip was connecting with our volunteer Imran’s long term friends out in Athens. The boys have all escaped nations torn apart by war, lost family members and all they had ever known, yet they were our biggest helping hand when it came to delivering aid, getting about and deciding the best course of action. They are men that have seen the most torrid times yet have nothing but love, compassion and hope within their hearts. It would seem some humans just have the capacity to withstand the most treacherous of realities and for this they are my brothers, touching my heart like nothing has before. I dedicate this to you, for you are my real life heroes and I carry a part of you next to me every single day.