It’s an old adage, if you volunteer you get back much more than you put in.
Nothing could be more true than my experience of working with refugee support in the camp at Alexandreia, in northern Greece. I had never volunteered abroad before and as someone at the older end of the volunteer age spectrum I was initially anxious, wondering if I really had anything much to offer and how I might fit in with so many volunteers who were younger than my own children. Those anxieties were gone within the first few hours of working with this remarkable organisation.
One of the first words of Arabic I learnt was shukraan, thank you. I heard the word many times and I used the word many times, but now I want to say shukraan for so many things.
Firstly to John and Paul, shukraan. It has truly been a privilege to work with your organisation, to watch how you put your ideas into practice, with dedication, passion, courage, sensitivity and good old fashioned hard work. I learnt so much.
Shukraan to my fellow volunteers. Hard working, cheerful and supportive. Volunteers came and went on an almost daily basis, each passing on their knowledge to the next, everyone helping each other, it was one of the best examples of good team working I have ever come across.
Shukraan to Andrew and Linda, our team leaders, for their unfailing support and kindness and for their endless hard work.
But most of all I would like to say shukraan to the men, women and children living on the camp. Their courage, their dignity, their belief in a better future, despite their past and present troubles, is an inspiration. It humbles me but I hope in some way will make me a better person.
During my time in the camp I learnt many Arabic words but only one Arabic phrase. It was taught to me by a young man of 21 years. He had been part of a voluntary rescue service in Aleppo during the bombing, helping to save many lives. He had lost two brothers to the bombing before his family decided that they had to leave. He and his family had travelled through Turkey, before getting the boat to one of the Greek islands and from there had come to Alexandreia. He had been in the camp for seven months and during that time he had taught himself English, so that he could help as a translator for one of the NGOs. He spoke movingly about how the war had changed him, how he had to turn from a boy into a man so quickly and how he had had to learn to rely solely on his own resources. But, he said, we have a phrase in Arabic, “ebtasem lel donya, al donya tbtasem lak”. It means if you smile at life, life will smile on you. So to you Mohammed, shukraan and I will always try to smile at life.