THE BLOG

I Know You Got Soul: How Volunteers Are Helping Refugees

10/05/2017 17:23 BST | Updated 10/05/2017 17:24 BST
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

It's February 2016, and TRAID, the clothes reuse charity I work for has just sent nine tonnes of donations of clothes, shoes, and blankets to Lesvos, Greece, one of the many epicentres of refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty.

Fast forward 15 months, and I'm sorting clothes and shoes in a warehouse in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, with a small group of volunteers. It's my first day, and an order has come in from a nearby camp for 2,400 women, men and children. We're working from a list detailing the numbers and sizes of jackets, jumpers, tee shirts, baby clothes and sanitary products required.

By the end of our third day, we've created an enormous sea of meticulously packed, labelled and sorted sacks and boxes ready to be sent to the camp. Our team is led by Alex Breyley, a long-term volunteer from the UK, who at the tender age of 23 is the warehouse maestro directing the constant flow of donations to the right place and managing the volunteers who come here to sort and pack. Alex started as a volunteer in Calais and Dunkirk explaining succinctly that in response to the humanitarian disaster he saw unfolding he "wanted to be one of the people that help."

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All images ©Leigh McAlea

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The warehouse stands by the side of a pretty grim motorway, and from the outside, the drivers whizzing past wouldn't have a clue at the hive of activity going on inside. It's run by Help Refugees, a UK charity which launched in response to the global refugee crisis. It emerged from the spontaneous wave of groups and individuals helping refugees to survive when they saw governments failing to act.

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Today, the charity funds scores of grassroots projects delivering practical help directly to refugees, and a few of them operate from this warehouse in Northern Greece nourished by the steady flow of volunteers and people power coordinated by Help Refugees.

There's the brilliantly named Get Shit Done Team. Its mission is simple - 'to help refugees by getting shit done'. From a large well-equipped workshop in the Help Refugees warehouse, this band of builders work on projects like installing showers and toilets in camps and building raised sleeping platforms to keep tents off the ground - crucial when the recent winter saw temperatures drop to minus 15 degrees.

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Then there's the Food Cooperative providing regular deliveries of fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement the meagre rations at army run camps. Coordinator Jonas Sweep tells me that they serve at least 4,000 people per week, enriching camp diets with things like cabbage, coriander, lemons and onions which are bought at the local market.

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Another team dealing with matters of the belly is the Soul Food Kitchen which feeds homeless refugees (and anyone else who needs food) in Thessaloniki. It was founded with Philoxenia (Food and Kindness in Action), and is headed up by 'that crazy Bosnian' Pixi.

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An anarchist and former soldier, he is full of real passion for his work and completely committed to feeding people who are hungry. He delights in telling me his path to the kitchen started with human waste.

"When I arrived at Idomeni (the notorious and now evacuated camp on the Macedonian border), I shovelled shit. People were getting sick. It was what needed to be done although it isn't very Facebook. Then I started cooking. I love to feed people. It makes me happy."

And what yummy cooking it is. The food is wholesome, vegan, freshly made and downright delicious. It's made with thought and love, the combined efforts of volunteers who chop, stir, cook, pack and distribute lunch and dinner to people who need feeding.

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Also heading up the cooking is another unstoppable force of nature, Tally Oliver, who organises her volunteers with an irresistible mix of command and charm. Under her cool eye, I chop endless onions, mince garlic, squeeze lemons, peel potatoes, wash dishes and stir a giant pot with an enormous wooden spoon like something out of Hansel & Gretel.

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I notice that Tally's day-to-day work also involves endless crisis management, helping individuals and families navigate legal quagmires, access health and dental care, organise clean clothes and stepping in when people have been left without food or water. Now permanently based in Greece she says,

"There is a huge sense of achievement when you have helped to change the course of someone's life. When you know people need help who are not being helped, you feel ordinary life is getting in the way. I have found the place I was meant to be."

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For a couple of days, I work with Fares in the kitchen, a refugee who volunteers at Soul Food. He is warm and fun, and shows off his card tricks to me. He's pretty good.

Fares is a Yazedi Kurd from Northern Iraq, a member of the persecuted ethnic and religious minority who have endured mass murder, enslavement, rape and forced conversion by Isis. He was captured with hundreds of others by Islamic State militants and incredibly, managed to escape, making the difficult and dangerous journey to Turkey and then on to Greece.

More than a year after his arrival in Europe, after witnessing unimaginable horrors, Fares still waits for his case interview for relocation, stuck in transit like so many others with the closure of the Balkan route into Western Europe, scattered with no homeland to return to and as yet, nowhere to go.

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And what of the hundreds of volunteers that pass through here working for a few days or a few weeks, helping to pack clothes, to feed people, to build things? They come from everywhere and they are young and old. In my nine days volunteering I meet two sisters from LA with an ABBA fetish, a retired vicar from Wigan who loves gardening, a tattooed 'house mother' who works at a very posh school in Kent, a group of women from Luxembourg who have raised donations for the kitchen and a teenager from North London who has travelled on her own for the first time.

It doesn't take long to realise that it is volunteers, whether long or short-term, who are plugging the gaping holes left by Europe's refusal to provide a political solution to the humanitarian crisis which continues relentlessly to unfold.

In the face of political inertia, rising xenophobia and hostility, and the abandonment of legal obligations to support refugees under existing international conventions, volunteers have transcended their traditional roles of providing add on support for 'professionals' and 'experts'. Instead, in many cases they are the main and only actors helping refugees and migrants not only to survive, but also to stop their humanity being stripped from them.

And here, by the side of a motorway in Northern Greece, the volunteers keep turning up. The last word goes to Pixi.

"It's the volunteers that put the soul into this place and into the kitchen. The work never ends, but the family of volunteers is addictive. There is no bullshit and it isn't artificial. It's a real band. A band of brothers and sisters."

If you would like to volunteer in Northern Greece, contact northerngreecevolunteers@gmail.com. Or make a donation to Help Refugees so they can continue to support fantastic work like this.