Within a couple of months operating at Alexandreia, it was obvious that our distribution model could help improve the health and wellbeing of refugees in other camps and do that in a way that places dignity and respect at the heart of how we do it.
Through August and September we had been delivering food and hygiene packs twice a week to the 400 refugees at Giannitsa and 400 at Veria so were considering what more we could do there. Both camps had some volunteers based there trying to support the refugees with additional food and clothing but neither had consistent, high quality provision.
Numbers had been dropping at Giannitsa as many decided to leave the terrible conditions there: many of the Iraqis had decided to repatriate and others had decided to leave of their own accord. When there was severe flooding early September the authorities shut down the camp and moved the remainder to other camps.
Veria is one of the few camps where refugees live in buildings rather than tents. As a result, conditions are better there but it is crowded, there is very little for people to do and there are many young children and babies with specific needs. They all needed better clothing for the winter and better nutrition. Fortunately for them the dynamic Sarah Griffith, who had done so much for Alexandreia, is now setting up a Bridge2 operation there which will provide that in a way that also puts dignity and fairness first. This freed us to focus on the other camp we were considering.
At the invitation of the local UN Refugee Agency representatives and in co-operation with the site manager and the other NGOs on site, we have now set up a similar operation for the 400 Syrian and Afghan refugees at Filippiada refugee camp in Western Greece.
We will be providing something special with real dignity and this will make a huge difference to the daily lives of the refugees there.
After some initial discussion, we sent a ‘strike team’ for 2 days in September to see how we could help there and to demonstrate what we could do. On that visit, our volunteers worked solidly to organise an unusable room of chaos, put in shelves, sort 300 blankets and bag up a lot of bedding for the worsening weather.
Following on from that at the beginning of October, we were asked to take over Filippiada’s large warehouse . Thanks to hard-working, dedicated volunteers we have got a lot done in just 3 weeks.
The warehouse had 12 large rooms full of unsorted boxes and disorder so distribution was inefficient, frustrating and undignified.
- Volunteers Shannon, Pelle, Jorge and Tijmen immediately set to work while John concentrated on negotiating how we would work with the authorities and other the other NGOs
- Working together with Calaid and local Greek volunteers, we cleared the corridors and rooms and identified which rooms would be used for distribution
- Rooms were decorated, display units were built, clothes rails installed and we also bought a generator to guarantee power supply during the daily, prolonged power cuts
- Quality items were selected for display and presented in a pleasant shop environment
What services are we offering?
Refugee Support Europe has been granted overall control of the warehouse which has enabled us to organise the space, establish our code of conduct and distribute items in the most dignified way possible.
- Within 10 days we had opened the Men’s boutique and a few days later we opened the Women’s boutique with sorted, well presented high quality clothing in an attractive, welcoming environment
- Less than 3 weeks after arriving, we opened a mini-supermarket that we have stocked with essential hygiene items and additional food and which will have an innovative points-based system for distribution (more on that system will follow)
- We will soon be opening a Children’s boutique, Shoe shop and a Toy Shop
How does our system help?
Before we arrived, a number of NGOs were already offering additional nutrition and clothing but we were really keen to do it in a way that was a lot calmer, more dignified and minimised any stress.
Refugees are in desperate need and big-hearted volunteers want to do what they can to help them. This can mean responding to individual requests that, despite best intentions, can mean distributions are continually in crisis mode. Our rules have been, and always will be, hard to impose:
- Only one or two people shopping at a time
- People only shop at their invited time
- No exchanges
- Only shop from what is available, not to go hunting for something
This means saying no and that can lead to frustration and upset. That might seem harsh, but by following these rules, without exceptions, we are creating a much more dignified experience:
- The distribution of items is a lot fairer
- Everyone calms down and stress is reduced
- Refugees and volunteers can spend some time together and have a genuinely pleasant experience
- Refugees can choose the clothes they need
- Women have the opportunity to feel beautiful
- It keeps the stop and stock tidy and well ordered; and we are much more efficient
Ultimately, by providing a consistent, pleasant and structured service, we build trust between refugees, volunteers, other NGOs, site manager and our donors to deliver a dignified experience.
Living on a camp is stressful, it is our responsibility to reduce that stress.
There is much to be done but together with the support of donors and with volunteers from Refugee Support and CalAid, this will be amazing. The food and clothing we give to refugees is important, but just as important is the way that we do it.