When I was asked by Ra’ed Khan to come along to Athens it felt like a no brainer to me. Why wouldn’t I say yes, to helping people and being a part of this beautiful journey Road To Freedom had laid out across their 9 previous trips. The personal connections they had made on the ground and the continued dedication to helping the refugees across the board was truly inspirational.
However, the week leading up to our departure left me extremely nervous. Everyone that knows me well enough is aware that I am an emotional person. I just didn’t know how I would personally handle the situation and how hard It would be.
Despite our flight cancellation we managed to make it into Athens 24 hours later than expected. We had slept a few hours the night before, and I had barely slept an hour the night we left London. All this meant that I was completely exhausted.
It was during dinner on our first night in Athens I realised just how hard the journey was going to be. We had connected with a fellow aid worker who had recently moved to Greece to help with the crisis. The work she was doing was truly admirable. She had picked herself up from
her life in England and moved to another country to dedicate her time and effort to helping strangers. We heard stories and accounts of struggles she had faced in Athens. You would think it would be all about helping these people, but certainly not the case as you begin to learn of the politics involved.
I remember half way through the dinner turning around to a few colleague and whispering in her ear ‘This is so hard’ and crying uncontrollably behind my glasses. As I rested my face on her shoulder and felt her stroking the back of my head, at that exact moment I realised just how hard this was going to be.
According to the various aid workers in Athens, there are 6 squats where many of the refugees are spread out across. The other areas consisted of open squares and ports (which have been closed since our trip). Our first night we visited one of the squats which was previously a school housing approximately 400 refugees. We were greeted by many kids as we walked in leading us in to meet the two Syrian gentleman that oversaw the organisation of the squat. Standing out in the open area this little kid walks up to me and decides to point at my bottle of Iced tea, rightfully I offer it to him and he guzzles the entire bottle down. He then signals him wanting to sit on my shoulders and from that point on I knew he was special.
The situation is truly dire out in Athens. I don’t think people realise. I was surprised to visit public areas like squares and parks only to see refugees gathered and sleeping there. A few days into our trip we drove down to Thessaloniki which is a five hour drive from Athens. Here is where we visited camps like Sindos and Lakadikia. For me camp Lakadikia was the worst, rows and rows of tents in the middle of nowhere. The intense heat reminded me of my visits to Pakistan in August, where you are literally suffocated by the humidity. As the rest of the volunteers went to catch up with refugees they had met on previous visits, I went along to sit in a tent. This is where the intensity of the situation really hit me. There was no electricity and we were just sitting around conversing with the refugees. This particular tent consisted of about 8 guys. My back was burning and my forehead dripping with sweat, I felt like I was going to pass out. I saw a guy throw water on the floor, an old school trick I had seen many use in Lahore where by throwing cold water cooled the surface. I cannot comprehend how people can live like this, our visit was only a few hours….. But imagine living here for weeks and months.
Later on we went to another area where the camps local barber resided. He was cutting this boys hair who had his first of many interviews in Athens re his relocation the following day. The sense of community amongst the refugees was truly heart breaking. The barber’s skill set was admirable as he paid great detail cutting this boys hair with the few tools he had. This is where I got to speak to a gentleman from Syria. He spoke the best English and told me about how he was a doctor in Syria. He spoke of London and various other things. I was shocked, how could someone this intelligent, articulate, successful in their field be resorted to a life of this. The sense of brotherhood amongst everyone really stuck out to me. These strangers treated me with such respect and love, I didn’t even know them.
The next day we connected with a local volunteer from Nottingham who was covering an open public area where a massive group of refugees were residing. Families with babies, women, men and teenagers sleeping on the floor. We walked around to each one to assess the situation and see what each one needed. Many just needed food and shoes, where others needed to get to the hospital. So we did exactly that, helped them with what they needed with the guidance of an Arab speaking refugee. We handed out waters, bananas and shoes. I had to drive a woman (along with her son and husband) to the hospital down the road as she had broken her ankle. We turned up only to be told she would need to return the next day. To see the situation in this area was very hard. Although they were advised to head to the camps on their own accord, majority just wanted to stay here in the hopes of when the borders opened, they could get the train over.
We returned to Athens the following day and decided to purchase tons of food to hand out in the public areas including the port. Imagine rows and rows of people just waiting for water and food, the basic necessities that I certainly take for granted in England. The hardest was when we ran out of food and women who would arrive saying their many kids and family members hadn’t eaten in days. If felt like what we tried to do was just never enough, so many needed help.
I was surprised to hear of Pakistani’s taking refuge in Athens. What were they escaping? It was this lack of knowledge that led us to meet one particular family. A husband, his wife and two kids who were staying in a hotel converted into a squat. I sat for some time with the woman and we spoke in Urdu. She told me of her struggles since arriving in Athens and what she had escaped from Pakistan. She was from the area Quetta where local rebel groups had taken control and were causing havoc (most recently a hospital was bombed in this area killing many innocent people). She said they had to leave otherwise her husband would have been killed, ‘how could I take care of two kids’. Their journey involved traveling for days to Iran via bus and then their difficult journey via boat to Turkey then over to Greece. She recalled they almost drowned in this boat, pleading to the Turkish border control to grant mercy and let them pass ‘I held up my little one to the officer’.
During our talk she made me tea and I got to play with her kids. I noticed a plate on the side which had a few slices of bread and some biscuits. She offered it to me and I refused, however our cultural hospitality forbids saying no to food when offered so I accepted. Apparently this was the only food they had.
Saying goodbye to all the amazing people I had met in Athens was very hard. I felt so many things… Guilt for living in my own bubble oblivious to the plight of others, sadness that I couldn’t do more and a sense of relief that finally my eyes were opened. It was during my connection in Zurich where I couldn’t control my emotions. I wept as the plane took off thinking that I left all the people behind…. Yasin, Zaid, Hamzah and all the other kids and families who I had come across. Everyone’s face has forever been embedded in my heart and I can never forget them.
I plan to do more. I have to. These people are our brothers and sisters, who had no choice but to leave their countries as they are at war. Many have passed and the ones that have made it just strive for hope. They want to know that the world hasn’t turned their backs on them. The amount of unconditional love and kindness I experienced from strangers…. I will never forget. To all the amazing volunteers on the ground who continue to do such amazing work, you are my heroes. To all the kids who continue their days with huge smiles on their faces… You are my heroes.