This was our first time volunteering with Refugee Support and right from the start, we felt we were in good hands.
I have volunteered annually in Greece with other organisations since 2017 and had been following the good works of Refugee Support in Cyprus. At the start of this year, my husband and I approached Paul and were accepted to help open the new Dignity Centre in Ioannina.
Several volunteers before us had done much of the hard work in preparing what had once been an old school in the city centre. Managed and steered by Paula, our wonderful and experienced coordinator, our first week in Ioannina involved multitasking – preparing the shop, decorating, cleaning, making curtains, translating documents and registering our first few hundred refugees.
Word clearly spread amongst the different ethnic communities as they came in waves from Katsikas and Agia Eleni camps (that lie east and west of Ioannina respectively) and those living in city centre accommodation.
My main duty was to welcome and register the refugees at the Dignity Centre who were not in receipt of any cash support from the Greek government. Many had been given Refugee or Subsidiary International Protection status whilst others awaited lengthy decisions about their asylum applications or appeals.
Despite their different situations, all of which seemed to have involved living in limbo for several years, smiles abounded.
I was constantly in awe of their warmth and desire to communicate in one language or another. Where there was no common language between us, one or other willingly stepped in to translate.
By the end of the first week, Paula and I had registered 300 refugees, by the end of the second week, another 200.
From Reception, those registered could come to our ‘supermarket’ where a range of food products, nappies and toiletries were on offer – fresh fruit and vegetables were bought from the delightful greengrocer across the street and other dry goods from various other suppliers.
For the refugees, no money was required. Instead, each person exchanged points for food where the total depended on family size and whether they were adults or children.
My husband spent most of his time helping in the shop where the distribution of food was offered with dignity and accepted with huge gratitude.
Stories were shared during the shopping sessions and as each week passed, familiar faces returned initially for their weekly, then fortnightly visit. Before or after shopping, tea and coffee was offered in our café area giving these people a chance to sit and spend time with one another away from the camps.
Our month flew by but not without taking stock of each day, comparing stories and sharing our frustrations from the stories we heard, of being stuck in Greece waiting interminably for a future that holds meaning and purpose.
We had an acute sense of our freedom to roam and felt privileged to spend our weekends off in the mountains north and south of Ioannina, and visiting Corfu.
As a small team of volunteers, as well as working together during the day, we also appreciated time off together at weekends or eating out in one of the many restaurants in the city. What a wonderful experience we had with Refugee Support.
We would highly recommend volunteering with them. Without doubt, we’ll be back for more.