In November 2017 one Wednesday evening I went to a presentation given by John Sloan and Ian McAuslane for CARE UK, an organisation sending aid for refugees in Greece and Syria. John and Ian must have been very persuasive because something clicked and on the Sunday I had booked my ticket and I arrived in Filippiada a couple of weeks later.
This trip and the next one to Katsikas involved providing food and clothes to residents of camps in Greece and was quite different to my more recent trips to the Dignity Centre in Nicosia. In addition over the four years that have elapsed since then so much has changed, both in the world and in the response of Refugee Support.
In 2017 I had a sense of more optimism and hope of moving on to a better future for residents of the camps.
I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the residents for improving their surroundings: men borrowing tools to build a children’s playground; women setting up a group to bake bread on fires outside; the families who cultivated the ground outside their cabins to grow vegetables. There was always a barber or two wherever I went. The scheme set up by Refugee Support to give grants to people to set up various enterprises, eg Yasmin’s cafe, a poultry business, a bike repair business was an excellent one but sadly the scheme was unable to continue as a result of Greek regulations.
In the camps we would see people on a daily basis which meant that faces soon became friendly and familiar. It was so nice to be addressed as “my friend”. It would not have been appropriate to ask people about their background or the circumstances which had led to them leaving their homes but I got to hear snippets here and there. Something that I found really sad, both in Greece and in Cyprus, was the waste of talent: people unable to use their qualifications and experience and, indeed, to achieve their potential – children not having the chance of a decent or, in some cases, any education to enable them to fulfil their potential.
I wonder what has happened to Nima, a bright, lively young man of 12 or 13 who spoke fluent English and German as well as his mother tongue. He helped us with moving supplies into the building and he and I had a competition to see who could move the most the fastest. No prizes for guessing who won. Nima told me his family wanted to move to Germany where he hoped to become a doctor and drive a Lamborghini.
The Dignity Centre is a very different place to the one that was set up two and a half years ago.
During that time a lot of activities have been undertaken, a great deal accomplished and some positive changes made to the lives of many of the Centre’s members. The Sewing Co-operative was a fantastic scheme and I believe it was of great benefit to those who were part of it. It was always a pleasure to renew acquaintance with the ladies and, of course, Ba, otherwise known as Teacher. It was good to find out too that many of the ladies have found jobs. I was pleased to have been involved in giving the sewing machines to the ladies who had been using them when the scheme closed which meant that they were able to continue to use the skills they had developed.
The main focus at the Dignity Centre now is providing essential food and hygiene items for people who have left the reception camp and who are without any benefits for at least two months. These people are also helped to register for a labour card, without which they would be unable to claim any benefits.
The “market” at the Dignity Centre is currently extremely busy as so many people are in need. A number of longstanding Dignity members work as volunteers at the Centre, some of them in addition to working.
I have to pay tribute to the Co-ordinators who keep things running smoothly.
I have met a number of them. Initially they were short term volunteers who were put in charge for a short period. (I was put in charge one day and recall a certain amount of chaos ensuing.).. The current co-ordinators, Paula and Summer, have a great deal more to organise and I can only imagine how stressful this is. At the same time they organise us volunteers, make us as useful as possible and make the experience both worthwhile and enjoyable. They really are superstars.
By the time of my most recent trip to Nicosia it was evident that the vast majority of people would be going nowhere for a very long time, if ever. The asylum process in Cyprus, and no doubt in many other countries, takes years. Although asylum seekers in Cyprus are allowed to work this is restricted to low skilled and low paid jobs. The situation faced by asylum seekers makes the “Aid with Dignity” offered by Refugee Support so valuable.
Working with Refugee Support has been a fantastic experience for me.
Being at the older end of the spectrum of volunteers and retired I have been able to go several times. I have met some wonderful people, both asylum seekers and fellow volunteers. While some of the service users can be difficult to deal with (fortunately the lady in Filippiada who didn’t like the shoes on offer missed when she threw them at me) I wonder whether I would always be in the best of moods if I had gone through the difficulties so many of them have experienced. It has been a bonus to meet many of the service users several times on different trips to the Dignity Centre and to see how life has improved for some of them. I have greatly enjoyed meeting lots of other volunteers and am happy to say that I am still in touch with many of them.
When I return home after a stint of volunteering I find that people show varying degrees of interest, ranging from none at all to those who are sympathetic to the plight of refugees and want to know in detail about my experiences.
I also get comments about how difficult and demanding it must have been and aren’t you great for doing it. The answer is no, I’m not. In fact I would say I actually get more out of it than I put in.