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I Spent Three Months Volunteering In A Syrian Refugee Camp
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I Spent Three Months Volunteering In A Syrian Refugee Camp


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One Woman’s Experience as a Volunteer
As told to Celeste Hughey

Since 2011, more than 4 million people have fled the atrocities of the Syrian civil war. When countries in Europe closed their borders in March last year, many refugees were stranded in Greece and Turkey. With nowhere to go, they were resettled into camps where they wait indefinitely for asylum or to be reunited with their families. When my good friend told me she was going to Greece to volunteer in one of these camps, I was stunned but inspired. At 35, she had just quit her job as vice president at a major media company and decided she would take time off to help. I asked her to share the story of her life-changing experience.

Getting To Greece

After I quit, I traveled for a few months in a selfish, indulgent way. Then one night when I was home, I was on the phone with a friend, complaining about something stupid, and he said, “Stop complaining, why don’t you go help Syrian refugees or something?” It pissed me off, and I got home and literally Googled “how to help Syrian refugees.”

"I got home and literally Googled 'how to help Syrian refugees.'"

I bought a ticket to Athens for three weeks later.

Three weeks later, I was checking in to a hotel near the Athens port, one of biggest ports in Europe where refugees are arriving. At the time, they were building additional camps in the area because tourist season was starting and the government didn’t want cruise ship tourists coming in from Mykonos to have to see all of the refugees. At the port, I connected with an Austrian organization called Echo100Plus. They were on their way to help out at a camp in the north of Athens in the woods.

The camp was called Ritsona.


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The People Of Ritsona

At Ritsona, the majority of refugees are from Syria, but there are also refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. We also had a huge, amazing family of Yazidis, which is one of the most persecuted groups in history. The refugees have phones. They have normal clothes. They have opinions about what’s happening and where the money is going. They’re very shrewd about the whole situation.

Many of them are separated from their families who have already crossed into Europe. One of my favorite families, their dad went to Germany legally and got a job and an apartment ready for them, and then they came over on one of the terrible boats and the borders closed. So we’d sit in their tent and call him (it’s a country away), and he’s just sitting there waiting for them. Another heartbreaking story was this beautiful woman who was newly married. Her husband was living in Europe and she came to meet him, but she couldn’t leave, so he came to visit her and they’d spend the week in her tent and then he had to go and leave her in this horrible situation for no reason. To watch them say goodbye to each other was so sad.


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My Day-To-Day

Our team was assigned “distribution” which honestly, I think, is the hardest job. I mean, if you’re in charge of bathrooms then good luck because that job sucks. But with distribution, it’s the necessities. It’s not childcare or education or social services. It’s getting them what, as humans, is their right: What they need, everything they need. So that is 3 meals per day, a liter bottle of water per person per day (to wash, cook, drink), clothing, and miscellaneous hygiene and non-perishable food items (diapers, tampons/maxi pads, razors, toothbrushes, tea and coffee, etc.).

We never had enough people to have separate teams to oversee each area, so the day was broken up. Our team was on the ground at 7 a.m. for breakfast. Lunch was at 2 p.m. Dinner was at 6 p.m., and we would leave at 9:30 p.m. Every day. Seven days a week. Clothing distribution happened certain days of the week and hygiene items twice a week, and it was a constant challenge to balance everything.

Since so many items come through donations, we never knew when we were going to have what. I remember the day we got 5,000 chocolate croissants. Another time, I got a bunch of urine sample cups since the Red Cross didn’t want them. Then we got a donation of olive oil in bulk the next day. Since urine sample cups were all we had as containers, two volunteers spent 6 hours filling the cups with olive oil so we could hand them out to everyone. We’ve gotten donations of stiletto heels. Also, for some reason, we had an overabundance of maxi pads. I mean boxes and boxes of maxi pads. I spent hours Googling “what can you make with maxi pads.” The only thing I found was a really terrible pair of slippers that no one would really wear.


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Everyday Heartbreak

One of the things that we had to do when we had a new person in the camp, we had to set them up with the bare essentials, which for me was one of the most traumatizing interactions with people because I would see them in their first moments when they realized where they were going to be living.

I remember when this family came—and it was towards the end of my time there, and I was emotionally not doing a good job of handling things—with a beautiful husband and wife and three kids, and the only tent we had was dirty with rocks on the bottom. I just remember handing him his bucket and some blankets and letting him go through supplies that were available because they had nothing, and his face was just in shock. He was obviously in shock because of what he had already been through, but to see him look and think, "How do I make a home here for my family?" I just went out and bought stuff for them, like a carpet and a twin bed, and I remember driving and crying and shoving shit in my rental car.

"I've never seen such anger and hurt and sadness in my entire life."

That was the hardest part—seeing people come and see the camp and thinking “Are you serious?” These are grown adults with families with babies and lives they’ve left. I’ve never seen such anger and hurt and sadness in my entire life.

The hardest demo for me to witness was the young men and women in college who are educated and almost out and ready to join the workforce who just stalled due to the war. For the little kids, obviously it’s horrible, but they get a lot of attention—a lot of different groups make sure that it’s educational and not traumatizing for them. But we kind of overlook the 18- to 23-year-olds. No one is helping them. They can’t get jobs, they can’t finish their education. They’re smart enough to know what’s going on, and they’re stuck. The young people need jobs, and they need psychiatric attention.


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Now that I’m back in the US, I think the most difficult part of being home is talking to everyone everyday and hearing how little things have changed. But a lot of them are getting their appointments for asylum soon—either Greek asylum or asylum to be relocated or reunified with their families. I also battle with the overwhelming sense that nothing I do now is important. Once you hold a traumatized kid and really help them get through a scared moment, going back to work is really hard. My experience shifted my whole direction. When I started looking for my next job, I knew my career had to be one that made some sort of a social impact. I found a company called Not Impossible, and its motto is “Help One. Help Many.” It focuses on using innovation and technology to solve the biggest issues facing humanity. One of my first projects involves bringing 3-D printers to camps in Southern Sudan so refugees who have lost limbs in land mines can print their own prosthetics. I continue to stay in touch with the people at Ritsona, and I plan to return for a few weeks at some point this year.

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