When we arrived at the beginning of April, Alexandreia refugee camp had only been open 2 days and there were just 250 Syrian refugees. It quickly grew to its current capacity of about 800 but the conditions were harsh. Families who had fled a civil war with next to nothing were living in crowded tents, the food was poor, the chemical toilets were disgusting and the camp was prone to flooding.
Unfortunately, that is still the case so the conditions are still terrible and now they are also living with 40 degree+ heat and clouds of mosquitos.
We still have much to do but, thanks to a brilliant team of unpaid volunteers and our generous donors, we can rightly be proud of what we have achieved in such a short space of time to improve life under those conditions.
Regular basket of essentials
Everyone on the camp now consistently receives a free basket of essential basics twice a week through our free shop: milk, biscuits, toiletries, tea, coffee, sugar, baby food, nappies, wet wipes, contraception, and washing powder.
In addition to this regular basket we offer other things they need: toys, new arrival packs, tent equipment like kettles, headlamps and solar chargers, mosquito nets and treatment, headscarves.
We struggle to satisfy everything they need but have an established system and service to ensure that it is calm, dignified, friendly and equally applied to every family on the camp.
In addition to the regular food we offer through the free shop we are now providing fruit or vegetables at least twice a week. Depending on how many funds we have we also distribute yoghurt, honey and tinned fish.
Sometimes this is offered through the free shop and sometimes it is distributed tent to tent. It is always done with dignity and fairness.
It is evident to us but we are also told by the wonderful medical NGO on-site that general health has improved.
New clothes and shoes
When we show the UN and other NGOs our operation, they are impressed with our free shop and distribution system but the clothes boutique blows them away! What started as a room full of jumble now has a regular stock of good quality, appropriate clothing, all sorted on hangers, a changing room, mirrors and a children’s play area. Residents are given a time slot to attend and can then calmly select what they need from a fixed list of items, eg 2 x pieces of underwear, 2 x t-shirts, 1 pair trousers/ dress.
We can serve the whole camp with clothes in 3 weeks (1 week children, 1 week women and 1 week men).
Shoes, always in heavy demand and always an emotional distribution, are managed separately. We have to arrange the shoes, give people a choice of up to 5 pairs and an opportunity to try them on so we need to make sure we have enough volunteers and enough shoes for everyone in the right sizes. We always need good shoes!
A community room for activities
We have renovated one of the derelict large rooms so that we
now have a great space for the camp to hold meetings, run activities and escape the weather. We have installed windows, doors, mosquito screens, lights and electricity points. It has been completely redecorated and the floor has been polished.
Our inaugural activity was a cinema showing for the kids and we will be supporting the camp residents to run many more activities.
We plan to install computers in the room so that they have regular and useable access to the internet and are looking for funders to help us with that.
Physical activities for children
We now run regular physical activities for the children on the camp in the evenings. We’ve distributed 100s of footballs and toys for the kids, and the IRC run structured activities for them during the day, but the kids still have a lot of time on their hands and bags of energy.
We have run football training with a former professional who runs a football academy in London and organized football matches with local Greek teams. For the girls we’ve arranged basketball and volleyball practice.
We have to split groups into boys and girls and into different age groups to make these work effectively. It is time intensive but extremely rewarding to see the kids having some fun.
Converting one of the large rooms on-site into a mini-warehouse with lighting and shelving has given us a good space to, sort and organize the donations that we receive. We use this daily to feed the free shop and clothes boutique so we can be more efficient, maintain consistent supplies for the camp and ensure that the quality of what we offer is high.
We’re building a reputation as an organisation that can be trusted to deliver good quality aid fairly to the whole camp. As that reputation has grown, we’ve started to receive offers of larger deliveries so now rent a larger off-site warehouse about 5 miles from Alexandreia. With 24 hour access and a forklift we can accept large deliveries on pallets. So if you can send us a lorry load of useful aid, we will now be able to manage it!
Supporting the local economy
We try to spend as much as we can in the local economy to ensure that the local community benefits as well as the refugees. The local family-run hotel, cafes and restaurants have directly benefitted from the 800 volunteer days worked so far and we have now spent about €50,000 in local shops and service providers.
The local community have been very supportive but with Greece struggling economically it is important that refugees are not perceived as a drain on scarce resources.
Collaboration with other NGOs on the camp
We work closely with the Greek Army, UN Refugee Agency, Slovakian St Elizabeth’s University Hospital, International Rescue Committee and InterSOS. We attend a weekly co-ordination meeting to avoid duplication and to see how we can support each other to support the refugees.
As a small, decentralized organisation that can act quickly, we have paid for important developments in the camp that would have taken the larger organisations longer to complete. This includes a solid platform around the wash area for the children to be able to wash their hands easily and a brace of A benches for them people to sit in the shade. Our distribution system also means that we can also help these organisations deliver on their commitments in the camp eg mattresses, flooring and mosquito nets on behalf of the UN, and hygiene items on behalf of the IRC.
St Elizabeth’s delivers medical services in the camp and they do not have a large fund to spend in the camp. We have paid for their two rooms to be tiled so they can be used as professional clinics and we regularly supply them with baby milk powder, female contraception and important treatment materials.
As one UN representative said: “Refugee Support is at the heart and soul of Alexandreia”.
We have more plans for Alexandreia. We are competing a community kitchen to provide a hot meal of nutritious, tasty food for every resident on the camp and we have cleared the space to build a top-notch playground for the kids. We need to maintain supplies through the free shop and we want to increase the amount that we offer.
We have also started to supply toiletries and nutritious food to a nearby camp with 450 Syrian refugees in Giannitsa. The conditions there are even more shocking – there is no regular supply of essentials, very little shade, and it is crowded. Like Alexandreia, there are many young children, babies and pregnant women. We are currently visiting three times a week with a van of supplies and need to make sure that we can maintain that level of service to build trust and understanding.
If you would like to help us to continue this valuable work and support our future plans, please donate. All volunteers are self-funded and unpaid so everything you give us will go directly to benefit the refugees: Click here to donate