Coming back to New Zealand after working at Alexandria has been very difficult. I’m on a train at night with loads of people after a football match but my head is thinking about how soon I can manage to come back to camp. My country seems so far, far away from where I want to be.
My Facebook feed is full of the bombing of Aleppo, the attack on Mosul and calls for volunteers on Samos, in Athens, Alexandria, Veria. I so, so want to be back and to be able to help.
Volunteering at Alexandria has changed my life. I have little tolerance for the “first world problems” of my friends back home – so what if you have no hot water or the All Blacks lost to Ireland, at least you have a roof over your head, your own home, your family members in one country, alive.
Coming to work in Alexandria has been a long journey. In 2014 I saw a Syrian refugee woman begging in the streets of Istanbul. I rounded the street and saw her hand first, outstretched, asking for money, I looked down, saw the tiny trolley case and then the small child at her side. I gave her everything I had, thinking I’ve just gone across Turkey from north to south, but you’ve come from the Syrian border – such a long, long way. I went back each day, bringing food, money. And then she was gone. But she stayed in my head long after I returned to New Zealand. Her hand in my head pleading for help. Once I was home I gave some donations to various charities but it wasn’t enough. I wanted to do something more tangible.
I started looking for not for profit groups I could volunteer for. I applied to a couple but after registering heard nothing back; until I found Refugee Support. I filled in the form and very quickly heard back from Paul. After my Skype interview I was in.
Arriving on camp was initially challenging. On the second day it rained heavily and a number of tents were flooded out. The place was dismal and grey. But the attitude of the refugees was amazing. They just got on with things. We did a tent-to-tent distribution of umbrellas and by the afternoon the camp was peppered with smiling kids wandering around under the large black umbrellas.
I spent four weeks volunteering at Alexandria. I met some incredible like-minded, passionate people. When everyone is working for a common purpose you don’t need team building exercises. When I arrived there were volunteers from Spain, the USA, Germany, France, Switzerland, the UK and me, from New Zealand. Everyone worked amazingly well together, despite some language issues.
I got to work with the amazing Sarah Griffith, who is the founder of Bridge2, one of Refugee Support’s funders. Sarah is a powerhouse of energy and great at motivating the volunteers. It was inspiring to work with her.
During my time in camp I helped with a children’s shoe distribution, worked in the shop, sorted clothes in the warehouse, packed vegetables for Veria, helped with a men’s, children’s and women’s clothes distribution, distributed watermelons and other food tent to tent and played with the kids. It was physically and emotionally demanding, but also immensely rewarding.
The satisfaction in finding a nice winter coat for a woman and her smile as she left the boutique all wrapped up and warm was incredible. I’ll never forget the graciousness of people in the shop when we didn’t have something they’d asked for. So very humbling.
I’m returning to work soon and it won’t be my employer I’ll be working for, it will be the photos of the refugee kids on my workstation wall that will spur me on during challenging days. It will be them I’ll be working for. Because I’m coming back. I’m not sure when, but I’ll be back as soon as finances allow. Because helping those who have lost so much is incredibly rewarding, puts your own life in perspective plus you get to meet some wonderful people among the volunteers and refugees.
If you’re thinking of volunteering, just do it, you won’t regret it.