In April 2016, I visited the Greek border town of Idomeni and thought I had walked into a war zone. The Skopje military were firing concussion grenades and tear gas into the thousands of refugees camped along the border.
I watched as people who had fled war and had made perilous journeys became furious at this treatment, saw people young and old gasping for breath, and ran with parents and their children. Europe, I thought, what have we become?
Two years later, on 30 April, I will be returning to Idomeni together with 18 fellow Refugee Support volunteers where we will begin our week-long trek to Skopje to re-trace some of the refugee route.
Because, although that dreadful border camp no longer exists, there are still just as many refugees trapped in Greece surviving in poverty but living in limbo while Europe fails to give them all a second chance.
It was immediately after that visit to Idomeni two years ago that my good friend John Sloan and I created this volunteer organisation and now registered charity to support 800 of the 50,000 refugees trapped in Greece.
Since then and over the last 2 years, we’ve had 600 volunteers from 40 nations help many thousands of refugees on the seven refugee camps in Greece where we have worked.
My own journey actually started about 9 months before that in the summer of 2015. The image of 3 year old Alan Kurdi face down on the beach, symbolised both people’s desperation and Europe’s neglect. Like many people I was deeply affected and had to do something. Even now, it still upsets me to think about it. In September of that year I went to Calais and with John supported Care4Calais distributing aid in the Jungle.
But I was never very happy about how unfair or undignified those distributions were. And it was also no place for people to live.
So when John convinced the Greek Air Force Major running Alexandreia refugee camp to let him in to help, I jumped at the chance to join him. After my visit to Idomeni and seeing the harsh conditions at Alexandreia, I decided to give up my job for one year so I could dedicate myself full time to helping the 800 Syrian refugees there.
That was a huge turning point in my life. I had a research business, a mortgage in Brighton, competing in triathlon, a wife and four children. I knew I could survive without a salary for a year but there were fears: dwindling finances, business on hold, time away from friends and family, would anyone support us…
There have been sacrifices and it has been difficult but I have never once regretted it. Best of all, I discovered that there were people from all over the world who are willing to give up their time and come and help in difficult circumstances at their own expense.
By putting the dignity of refugees first, what John and I had done was give the many people who do care about refugees an easy way to help directly, either by volunteering or by donating.
We started off in that first camp by creating a shop to give out bags of essential food and everything grew from there. Every improvement has been due to volunteers coming with ideas and donors continuing to support us.
Our shops now distribute food, thanks to the ongoing support of groups like Help Refugees, using tokens that we give to refugees in the camp. They can buy whatever they want and feel a little normality in the midst of the chaos that comes from living in a refugee camp. We created ‘Clothes Boutiques’ that presented the clothing nicely, like a normal shop would, and even built changing rooms. It took months and huge expense but we created a community kitchen. With refugees and volunteers working together, we are preparing up to 400 meals, 6 times a week. We created a language school teaching up to 180 students a week English, Arabic, Greek and German. We built three cafeterias, two high quality playgrounds, and an artificial football pitch. And we paid for the heating during a harsh winter when larger agencies needed time to organise themselves.
These are just some of the tangible things we’ve done, but I like to think what we have offered is something more valuable and harder to count. We have said to refugees: here is a group of people who care about you, who you can rely on and who will respect you as fellow human beings. We gave them a slice of normality, a chance to be themselves and most important of all, helped to restore some dignity.
No-one should be living in a refugee camp. They are degrading, crowded and alien. We have made life more bearable but we want people to leave so they can rebuild their lives in proper homes, get jobs and educate their children. We will all benefit from that.
I’ve seen a slow improvement in camp facilities. But conditions are still dreadful, people are waiting far too long for their asylum applications to be processed and refugees continue to arrive in Europe by sea and increasingly by land.
As a continent we have failed refugees. Greece no longer has a sprawling slum at Idomeni but the border is still closed, conditions are worsening again as numbers increase and prospects for those still trapped are bleak.
Or you can donate here. All funds go to supporting the refugees in Greece.