Andre Kamber, a Dana executive in Seattle, participated in a humanitarian mission to Greece this summer. He wanted to share his firsthand experience, which offers a different viewpoint than was available on the national news.

 

A Humanitarian Refugee Experience

My initial goal was to travel to Lesvos, Greece, an island in the Aegean Sea literally next to Turkey (about 6 miles away) with a non-governmental organization called Salaam Cultural Medical Mission. Lesvos has been in the cross hairs of many of the refugees trying to come into the EU from war torn Syria, since it is so close to Turkey. While only a few miles away by boat, most refugees had never been around water, let alone a windy and rough crossing like this.  While there are many refugees that have previously made it to other EU countries, the overwhelming numbers have prompted many countries to put the brakes on immigration. The result is that there are thousands of desperate refugees that are now displaced, and have no options left, except to live in makeshift tents, hoping for the borders to open again. Many of these people are just trying to reunite their families (many men traveled ahead to secure new homes and then collect their families). All of them have struggled to make it this far.

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Almost to the day I arrived in Lesvos, the EU agreed to change the way it was going to allow immigration. Turkey was now going to patrol and reduce refugee traffic on the water route option to Lesvos and other island routes nearby. I watched for two days as boats tried to come across and land in Greece, but were turned back by Turkish naval vessels and escorted back to Turkey. Why the change?  They had negotiated a benefit for their people to try and become part of the EU, allow emigration by their (Turkish) citizens to Europe, and of course, a large monetary payment by the EU. The refugees have remained pawns in this shell game. Only the Syrians are allowed to stay, all other nationalities, including Kurds and Afghans, who are also fighting for survival, have to return to Turkey as part of the agreement.

The Greek government also closed all of the refugee camps on Lesvos, using military force. Previously, these camps had been open and friendly, and were mostly manned and supported by a variety of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations). All of the people who had arrived previously were now shipped off to the mainland to other larger camps. All new refugees were to be turned back to Turkey.

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After a few days of exploring Lesvos, our group decided that we needed to travel north, to assist at the largest refugee camp in Greece now, the Idomeni Camp. This is really a series of camps, the largest which has about 15,000 people there now, and several smaller camps of 2,000-3,000 people each as well. Idomeni is located on the Greek side of the border with Macedonia, and when the border was closed there, people just dropped tents down to wait it out. They wait in deplorable conditions. The organization I was volunteering with already had a medical team there for a few weeks, and they were familiar with the needs in the area.

We left for Idomeni on a Greek ferry, which took about 9 hours. As a boater and previous sailor, I was not concerned about this form of travel. What was concerning was the wind on the day we left (there is only ferry service twice a week). It was blowing about 50 knots in the gusts the day we left, and according to the Greek Coast guard there at the docks, the ferry passing was close to being scrubbed. Finally, the go ahead was given and we were off.  It was certainly one of the more exciting ferry trips I have been on. Waves were about 20-25 feet in height, so we certainly had some rock and roll!  Surprisingly, nobody got seasick in our group. After arriving in Kavala, we drove another 2 hours to a town near the Idomeni Camp and met the rest of our team.

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The next days we spent at a variety of camps near the FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)/Greek border. In total, there are about 20,000 people stuck here now. They are living in squalid, primitive conditions, unprotected from the elements, with barely housing available (mostly tents). The ground is basically dirt (mud in the rain) and there is no drainage or any improvements created to make this any easier. While there are many NGO’s helping there now, the need is MUCH greater than what is being provided.

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Some impressions to share:

  • Living outdoors here is very tough. The first thing one notices here is the smell. The overwhelming smells of wood smoke (a HUGE improvement over previous weeks, I hear, since bulk fire wood was finally collected and donated by another German NGO), and burning clothing, cardboard and containers, plastic, and diapers permeates every breath, despite the blowing wind which really never ceased while we were there. It was not raining for the most part when I was there, but it remained cold. I had a warm bed at the hotel every night – the refugees had some bedding inside a tent that was barely staying put in the wind. Often, families lived together in tents that held 4-5 people.

 
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  • I met many wonderful people on this journey, including other aid workers, medical providers, reporters, refugees, translators (often also refugees) from all over the world, all driven by their common instinct to help. It was a moving experience indeed. While I’m sure my individual efforts were minimal to the big picture, I feel like my primary mission was to be a witness for others and to convey and share that there are other humans that need our help, now.

 

  • I really enjoyed meeting the people at the camps. Many of them are educated, middle class working people from Syria that are now displaced. Many spoke English and I would ask them about what their journey was like and what they were looking for…many of these people are just like us.

 

  • Surprisingly, I enjoyed the kids in particular. They were happy kids, just wanting to play and loved getting candies and playing soccer (if they had a ball to kick around). Honestly, it was hard not to tear up, but the memoires of these few days of my life will never leave me.

 

  • To be candid, there were a few times where I got scared as well. The large groups of people that gathered to receive clothing donations that we were handing out were often disorderly and despite translators, they got out of hand easily. This is crowd behavior, and it felt like people were on edge and ready to blow. Lots of emotions and anxiety were present at every visit to the camps. Pushing and shoving were common and for a guy from Seattle, this was definitely out of my comfort zone.

 

  • I was very moved by the Greek people themselves. Despite being overwhelmed by a problem that was none of their doing, most people were more than willing to offer much support and caring. Greece is a beautiful country, and a relatively inexpensive place to visit. One side effect of this refugee crisis is that many tourists have bailed on Greece. I would encourage more people to travel to Greece and help support the Greek people who have already given so much.

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