As a Canadian volunteer working in Greek refugee camps during the spring of 2016, it was difficult to find a meaningful project among the chaos.
One Syrian refugee showed me photos of his destroyed home that a neighboor had just sent him - his cat, still alive, crouched among the rubble. Another Afghan showed me horrible scars from torture at the hands of the Taliban.
The chaos in these camps had a violent origin. It also had a human consequence. Young children ran into your arms; small human drones seeking adult targets, unconsciously recognizing that their own parents were too traumatized by violence, or by their flight from catastrophe, to fulfill a patient, and peaceful, parenting role.
Some kids were terribly neglected: infants crawling alone in tents, smeared in feces; toddlers wandering onto the highway, hugging teddy bears on the centre white line; and bands of rogue boys, opening doors of moving cars as startled visitors drove through the camp.
As a response to this misery, international volunteers, like my family, continuously swirl through Greek refugee camps, trying to help. How do we find the right project? What materials are needed? Who do we ask for direction and specific instructions? To a visitor, it was an ant hill of perplexity: confused volunteers, harassed managers, frustrated and depressed refugees, and toddlers minding babies.
But as imperfect as it was, the alternative to volunteer help was to leave the care of refugees totally to the Greek military or its bankrupt government. Not good options.
At the Ritsona refugee camp, one hour north of Athens, there were about 200 closely layered tents in a rural area clustered around an abandoned military base. The camp was managed by the Greek Air Force; the first clue that poor decisions had been made.
Why place refugees 15 kilometers from any town? Instead, they could have been located in the many unused apartment buildings close to services like shopping and schools. After all, Greece was in severe recession and rent from abandoned apartments would have been an economic stimulus.
Seeing the chaos, my first instinct for an independent volunteer project was to create a quiet space with picnic tables, offering traumatized families a place of tranquility. But even that simple task was burdened by bureaucratic rules and cultural difficulties; and to be sure, my own cultural bias.
There were layers of bureaucracy in these camps: the Greek Air Force, the United Nations, and NGOs (non-government organizations).
The Colonel in charge maintained the camp's infrastructure. He was personable; but after three months, running water was still a work in progress, and there was only a little electricity and poor internet. People had to line up to get their food from volunteers handing out packages of diluted macaroni in an abandoned warehouse. Of course, like you and I, they would have preferred being given fresh food and doing their own cooking; but sadly, their input was rarely requested.
Oh, and the mass-produced meals had no vegetables, tasted terrible, and were culturally unfriendly; for example, white buns, instead of pita bread which was routinely spotted with mold. I know because I occasionally ate an unused meal for lunch.
Many camp residents were middle class citizens, like most Canadians. One Yazidi friend of mine had been a medical health officer in Iraq; one Syrian girl was in 4th year dentistry in Damascus, and so on. As a Greek civilian commander of another camp stated "food lines for these people are inhuman".
The second layer of bureaucracy, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), were there to assist the government with registration and to care for vulnerable people: single children, pregnant mothers, and ethnic groups who faced discrimination. Again, after the same three months of waiting, there had been no registration, in spite of repeated promises.
UNHCR had urged refugees to register by Skype; but that was impossible since there was no internet. So refugees were left hanging; unable to proceed on their western migration to countries like Germany, and with no official papers and little understanding of their options. Having risked their lives to get here, they were traumatized and frustrated. Some walked out of UNHCR meetings to show their anger.
The third level of bureaucracy were NGOs that provided services for people. In Ritsona, relatively small Swedish charities provided community projects such as communal tents, language instruction, maternal care and play areas. And of course, they coordinated the many volunteers; for example, my son and I were asked to build a wheelchair ramp.
Proactive volunteers could generally find some worthwhile task: help an NGO build a fence or a shed, or distribute food. One could even play soccer or just hang out with some of the many needy children desperate for adult company. But more timid volunteers often felt under-utilized and bewildered.
My wife once intercepted several European Union (EU) officials inspecting the camp - EU money supports these camps, 83 million in March alone. She bluntly informed them about the camp's many failings; saying that "this poor level of care is unacceptable in a western democracy".
She spoke from anger. Unlike NGOs who were under the thumb of the military, she was free to speak truth to power. And just maybe, it was her intervention that stimulated sudden activity by contractors on a water treatment system and the hiring a new food caterer. One role for volunteers was just to bear witnesses to the living conditions and embarrass the various bureaucracies into providing better care.
Volunteers like us, with a lifetime of experience, could see that effective management was lacking; conversations were repeated continuously to an ever-changing mix of transient volunteers. There was no central desk, or even a poster board to display lists of ongoing or planned projects - who was the coordinator of what? And most distressingly, refugees were rarely consulted about projects, leading to a culture of dependency.
Enthusiastic but young managers of small NGOs ran human support services; but critically, lacked both the experience to manage complex multicultural tasks, and the wisdom to push back against a military-style system that accepted the concept of less care for refugees than their own citizens.
One NGO, for example, put on its Facebook page a request for builders; in spite of the fact that many refugees were carpenters. So a chap flew in from Calgary, only to discover the project was delayed. He left after one week having done nothing; with both less money for himself and, presumably, less empathy for the whole process.
Having worked as volunteers on the island of Lesbos, we realized that many NGOs at Ritsona had been created to address the crisis of refugees coming on boats from Turkey, bringing people urgently needing immediate care: rescue from the sea, good food, and warm clothes. But after March, refugees were no longer allowed to go on into Europe; and so became unwilling residents of Greece.
NGOs struggled to shift from this acute care model to one based on the need for more permanent care: schooling for kids, adult language classes, housing, and so on. As a result, refugees were not treated as members of a community, and had little input into the camp's living conditions.
I suspect the Greek government did not allow big international NGOs to run these camps because they had the institutional power and experience to expose the shabby living conditions here. Indeed, some large NGOs, like Doctors Without Borders, had vacated some camps in protest of poor treatment for refugees. In other camps NGOs which did criticize the government's management were kicked out.
The Colonel was busy flying his expensive planes. And the Greek government was busy coping with its bankruptcy. So the prospect for good management in these camps was not good from the get-go.
For example, vitamin supplements were urgently needed due to the poor diet; but were mostly absent. The need for birth control pills was generally ignored. The health hazard of the many smoking fires completely escaped anyone's attention.
When an abandoned tent full of human feces remained standing next to neighbouring tents, on-site NGO managers waited for the Colonel to remove it. After three days of disgusting smells, my son and I tore down the tent and dragged it to the nearest garbage disposal container, with help from refugees.
In another instance, my wife observed a manager thinking that a reduction in the amount of bottled milk used meant that mothers had suddenly started to breast feed; unaware that women cannot just switch on their mammary glands at a whim. Maybe there was another explanation?
If the Canadian media gives readers the impression that refugees in Greece are being well looked after, it's not true. In Ritsona, 800 refugees have lived here for three months with no running water, only a few electrical outlets for 800 people, no internet, bad food, and little information about the registration process for asylum or relocation within Europe. Refugees have walked out of meetings with UNHCR officials, angry with empty promises.
Most Canadians have seen past TV reports of Somalian or Ethiopian refugees accustomed, regrettably, to surviving on subsistence conditions. But middle-class Syrians find it difficult to exist in camps that lack education for their kids, recreation for their youth, and any purpose in life for themselves. For them, subsistence in these camps is a bitter pill. One woman told my wife "I would rather go back to Syria and die quickly than live like this".
They were desperate. Some refugees organized a one-day hunger strike, stopping delivery of the food truck and occupying the food distribution warehouse. They did some damage. But one of the leaders also helped me set up a large community tent. He was active. He wanted a better life.
One family we met had received an email from a Canadian law firm saying "Thank you for filling out the Canadian immigration assessment form on Canadavisa.com" - sounding like a government web site. The email assured them that they could reasonably expect to get Canadian citizenship based on family reunification. They had no family in Canada, so the idea of reunification was a scam.
In Turkey, smugglers of human misery uncaringly stuff refugees into unsafe boats and callously allow them to drown off Greek beaches. But we have counterparts in Canada, like this law firm, who maliciously try to cheat refugees already burdened with many personal crises.
My wife was invited into tents more often than I, and so got drawn into female conversations with real emotion. My male friends also told me of their frustrations, but not their deepest feelings. On reflection, maybe our cultures are not so different.
Many refugee women were mentally fragile and despaired of ever finding peace, security, or jobs for their husbands. Some had faced incredible hardships, with families torn apart. There were no counselors to help them. I met one psychologist there - he was a 25 year old recent graduate and spoke no Arabic.
One day, I was approached by the Colonel to remove a tent. As a bulldozer cleared nearby brush, I asked him if we could make a park out of the cleared area that still contained large pine trees. He said "Okay." I had a project.
I imagined this park space to be a pleasant, shaded, and quiet area for frustrated refugees during the coming summer heat. So before any NGO took over ownership and decision-making, I and a few refugees leveled the land with a pick and rake, and bought and spread gravel under the pine trees to cover the dirt and dust.
I hoped this small project might blossom into a resident refugee committee that could give input to the NGOs and the Colonel on much larger issues - a catalyst for more control over their own living conditions in this community. By then I was using the word "resident" instead of "refugee" more often. As one Syrian wrote on his tent wall "we are not animals".
I was warned that some residents would see any picnic table in the park as a source of firewood - their tents are not heated and they like to do their own cooking.
I was also warned that any chairs I supplied or made would be stolen - the tents did not come with furniture. If that was the case, my plan was to buy more chairs until the camp was saturated with them; making stealing unnecessary. Or better still, I would supply enough wood so they could make as many chairs as they needed.
One can hardly call taking a few chairs "stealing," or burning a few tables "vandalism" in a refugee camp. These people had suffered so much and were being forced to live in tents, waiting interminably to discover their fate: a new life in Europe with its many challenges, unending asylum in Greece with few job prospects, or a return to the chaos in the land they had just fled. We should give them a break.
If you or I were caught up in some comparable violent nightmare and fled to a neutral country, we would expect better treatment. In my opinion, the most effective weapon against religious terrorists, like ISIS, is to demonstrate western values of compassion and tolerance.
After all, our democratic values are the reason, I presume, why refugees flee west to Europe, not east to countries with despicable theocratic governments like Saudi Arabia or Iran. So let's prove that they made the right decision; and show the world that our civilization treats refugees as it treats it's own citizens - no one gets beheaded.
Not that western governments work perfectly, especially here. I heard stories from our hotel clerk that Greeks routinely applaud friends who have figured out how to not pay taxes. Some factories here also pick up residents from refugee camps on occasion to do illegal work at 3 Euros an hour; and again, no taxes are paid. This tax theft is likely a big reason for Greece's current state of bankruptcy and inability to properly care for even it's own people.
And if their present situation was bad, consider their upcoming difficulties, even under a best case scenario. As middle-aged adults, they must somehow get out of this camp, relocate their families to a new country, learn a new language and culture, upgrade their education, and then find jobs. What daunting challenges!
Yet as I walk through the camp, I am always greeted with big smiles and generous invitations to share a meal or coffee in their meagre tents. The best meal my wife and I had after three months in Greece was made by an Afghan mother in a refugee camp.
They wanted to tell their stories, to be acknowledged. One resident had been a baker in Syria. He fled to Iraq when President Bashar al-Assad asked his group to come to a peace meeting in Damascus. Sensing that the meeting would turn into a slaughter, he took his family and fled.
Mostly, they wanted out of Greece.
In spite of screw-ups, refugee camp conditions were improving as I prepared to leave. I saw crews of both residents and volunteers clearing away garbage, soccer games in the evening between different ethic groups, international volunteers mentoring problem kids, and small school classes for both kids and adults. And, one volunteer got Internet into the camp.
Volunteers were vital to the admittedly marginal living conditions of residents. For example, the Air Force had limited bottled water rations to one bottle per person per day. My son was actually told to retrieve a bottle he had given one mother. So the next day, a Spanish couple brought in car loads of bottled water.
But volunteers, like myself, come with baggage and mixed feelings. As a climate change activist/volunteer, reducing my use of fossil fuels may simply lower the price of fuel and so enable others to burn more. Similarly in this case, one could argue that volunteers allow the government and military to avoid their responsibilities for proper care of people in Greek refugee camps. It's a difficult discussion, with no absolute answers.
I wish the Canadian government helped European democracies give better treatment to refugees from.....well, from anywhere. Because it is likely that climate change will produce many more refugees in the future and we need to know how to respond. How would Canada deal with a similar situation; for example, Mexican refugees fleeing droughts? How about helping residents of Fort McMurray fleeing vast fires?
Volunteers demonstrated many acts of kindness in this camp; an inspiring international response to a terrible injustice. And not to be forgotten, many Greek volunteers are here, displaying both humanity and tolerance.
This country has few jobs and is officially bankrupt. In the small Greek town where I live, neighbours were supporting 19 other unemployed families. And on top of all this grief, they have also dealt with a million refugees passing through their country in the past year, and now have 50,000 living in semi-permanent camps.
On the island of Lesbos, Greeks have been dealing generously with people fleeing Turkey for over 100 years. Even now, many Greeks volunteers work in refugee camps alongside international volunteers. But there is a huge fatigue here. Greeks need our help, both from volunteers and governments.
In the end, my park project was modified by the residents — as it needed to be. Instead of building picnic tables myself or even with help, I simply bought a few hundred used wooden pallets and some tools and placed them in the "park" to be shared and used. Hesitantly, one young man asked me for three pallets so his pregnant wife would no longer sleep on the ground. He smiled when I said "no problem, this wood belongs to the community, no line-ups." I see therapy in that.
The pile of pallets was gone in five minutes. They were recycled by resident carpenters into furniture for their tents, tables and benches for the own living areas and so on - one chunk of wood was made into an ashtray.
The NGOs were so impressed with the workmanship of our resident carpenters that they ordered more pallets and had residents, not volunteers, make tables and benches for community projects, like a woman's centre. Finally, I was out of a job.
Maybe some picnic tables will eventually get built for the park. And maybe on some cold day in the next winter, some will be used for firewood; but hopefully, not before a few quiet games of cards, a meal under pine trees, and a laugh or two.
Sure, it's only a drop in the ocean; but families fleeing civil war and destruction deserve that small respite.