Gerry: Greece, 2019, Cyprus 2020, Greece 2022

02/04/22

Sitting in the early morning sunshine thinking back on the past 4 weeks, here at the Dignity Centre in Ioannina, my thoughts wander back to my first volunteer session with Refugee Support back in 2019 (just 10 miles from here at the camp in Katsikas) and how that all came about.

Trip No 1 to Greece in 2019

Back in September 2018 after a hectic few months work I decided to take a weekend away to get some rest and recharge the batteries. I had already put together travel plans for the trip of a lifetime to China, for early 2019. But now I needed a break, so I booked a weekend away at a Buddhist retreat centre in West Cork. As it happened they were running a retreat the same weekend, themed on human suffering, and the need for kindness and respect towards all living beings, so I sat in on it. On the drive back home on Monday morning, I felt a sudden pang of guilt at the thought of spending such a large sum of money on my trip to China, when there was so much need in the world. At the same moment I recalled seeing an article on Facebook about the work of an organisation called Refugee Support, and in particular, their philosophy of Providing Aid with Dignity. As soon as I got home I googled it, contacted Paul, and so began my volunteer journey with Refugee Support.

I didn’t get to make that trip to China but each time I have volunteered it has had its own life-changing effects on me.

That first time volunteering in the camp at Katsikas was a rollercoaster of activities and emotions from listening to some of the residents of the camp relaying accounts of their nightmare journeys, to working in the shop providing much needed food supplies, or sorting clothing, children’s shoes, or, working with fellow volunteers and camp residents, including a bunch of kids, to make garden frames for vegetable growing, and flower beds from old tyres, in an atmosphere of fun and cooperation, that brought enjoyment, and colour to a barren location.

Trip No 2 to Cyprus in 2020

The following year at the Dignity Center in Cyprus, it was a very different experience. Here, I encountered mostly young men, hungry, lost, without a clear understanding of where they were, geographically, in relation to countries like Germany, and with little access to services except for Refugee Support.

Even the streets, where refugees gathered, exuded a kind of desperation. Each morning at the centre, it was a case of ‘All hands on deck’ to provide a morning meal to 80 people, some of whom had not eaten since the previous day. It was a place where the need was great, and you could see you were making a difference.

Trip No 3 – a return to Greece

Here in Ioannina (just 10 miles from the camp where I started out) we provide a similar shopping experience to that which Refugee Support had perfected at Katsikas.

We are lucky, to have a large walled space at the back of this building, and together with fellow volunteers, we have cleaned it up, put in planted containers, and a flower bed, with plans for some garden seating, which will give residents from the camps an opportunity to come with the family, on their shopping day, and spend some quality time in this space, relaxing, away from the claustrophobic and tense atmosphere in the camps.

Volunteering helps me

At the end of every trip I can’t help but feel:

  • Admiration for all the people I have served, who despite everything they have endured, somehow still manage to show resilience, friendliness, and a good humoured determination to make a better life for their family
  • Admiration also, for Paul, John, Paula, and all of the other Co-ordinators, whose Dedication Leadership and Inspiration, makes you want to do the very best you can, for all who come to the Centre.
  • Pride, in my fellow volunteers, who, by their concern for the welfare of others, gives me great hope for the future of society, and, Guilt, that I can only stay for one month knowing that many of those I served have been stuck here for years, and for some, the future looks very bleak.

But the overall feeling is that these experiences, have helped make me, a better person, and, for me, that feeling translates into enhanced mental and physical wellbeing.

Volunteering with Refugee Support has always been a two part obligation for me.

Refugee Support gets no government funding, relying solely on public donations, and traditionally relied on the fundraising by volunteers for a substantial part of their financial resources.

Before each trip I prepare detailed information on Refugee Support, highlighting the important aspects such as:

  • delivering aid with dignity
  • ensuring every euro donated goes directly to meeting the needs of refugees
  • of course details of my volunteer trip
  • details of the proposed fundraising activities.

I get this information out to all corners of the community through posters in retail outlets, and community notice boards, through social media, local sports and recreation clubs.

Over the years I have found additional ways to facilitate increased community response such as, carrying out the fundraising in December, when the generosity of the Christmas spirit is in the air, getting the support of local store owners, putting together a Hamper worth 100 euro, displaying it in the shop with the RSE logo and a notice stating that everybody who donates will be included in a draw for the hamper on Christmas week  so, even those who are lukewarm about donating to a cause have the opportunity of winning a prize worth a hundred euro for a 5 or 10 euro stake).

With the support of a local pub landlord (who provided the venue free, and supplied and paid for the music) I organised a fundraising night where entry is free, but raffle tickets are sold throughout the night for donated spot prizes.

Most important of all is being on the street meeting and explaining the role and purpose of RSE and my volunteering plans.

People are reassured when they hear that Volunteers pay all their own costs, that all donations go directly to meeting the needs of refugees, and, are going to be there, onsite, as a representative of your community, to witness that fact.

These events have the effect of providing everyone in the local community the opportunity to be part of Refugee Support’s response to the needs of refugees.