Cork volunteers answer SOS from refugee camps

Three Cork people who have volunteered in refugee camps in Greece share their life-changing experiences with COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork volunteers answer SOS from refugee camps
Volunteering Greece: Marie O'Donoghue (on the left in blue and navy), along with other volunteers in Greece, working with refugees.

VOLUNTEERING in Greece with refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is hard work, with all the tensions that inevitably arise when migrants are thrown together in camps as they await processing.

But there is a real generosity of spirit among the volunteers, who often make return visits to Greece.

Marie O’Donoghue, 61, from Ballinlough, took early retirement from her job as principal of Scoil Eanna in Montenotte two years ago.

She has been to the Greek island of Lesbos twice, working with refugees there in February, 2018, for six weeks followed by another six weeks in September. And she plans to return in March, 2019.

“It just feels right to be there,” says Marie, when asked why she is drawn to helping refugees, who are often traumatised after their precarious journeys by boat from troubled countries.

“I always had an interest in volunteering but I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into education.”

Marie worked in clothing distribution with a Dutch NGO, Movement On The Ground. She worked in the Moria camp where more than 8,000 people live. The conditions there are appalling. She also worked at Kara Tepe camp “which is considered palatial compared to Moria.” It accommodates over 1,200 refugees.

“Moria is horrendous. People there are living in tents, crowded one on top of the other. It’s not safe for children. There is drug-taking there and a lot of people are traumatised, depressed and fighting. There have been attempted suicides there.”

Marie says that there are “two Morias” — there’s the chaotic one, run by the Greek army, where people can be queuing for hours to be assessed. Then there’s the area known as the Olive Grove which is more organised, having been taken over by the organisation Movement On The Ground.

While volunteering, Marie had very little time to herself. She worked six days a week, starting at 8.30am and finishing most days at 7.30pm, apart from later finishing times on Mondays and Wednesdays. Debriefing sessions with other volunteers were held once a week. Marie paid €850 for her accommodation in Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos.

When Marie returns to Lesbos in March, she hopes to work in Moria as it is “more of a challenge.” Admitting that at the end of every day, she felt “shattered, but grinning from ear to ear,” she adds: “I don’t know what it is but it’s just a very special place.

“Kara Tepe is very peaceful while Moria is a different ball game altogether but I want to spend more time in Moria. I have made great friends there. Three Dutch people I met stayed with me at home in Ireland and I’m going to Holland next month to stay with two of the women I met at the camp. Initially, people thought I was mad to go to there but they can see how energised I am when I come back.”

Volunteering Greece Nicky Walshe, right, who volunteered in Greece, working with refugees. Pictured with Fahd Qasem Sukhnah, left, a Syrian refugee who helped out with translations. He has now got asylum and has been to Holland and Malta.
Volunteering Greece Nicky Walshe, right, who volunteered in Greece, working with refugees. Pictured with Fahd Qasem Sukhnah, left, a Syrian refugee who helped out with translations. He has now got asylum and has been to Holland and Malta.

Nicky Walshe, 59, who is based in Douglas Street, first went to Greece in September, 2017, and stayed there until January, 2018. His first stop was Moria, followed by a longer spell in Kara Tepe. Nicky, an electrician, had a job working in maintenance for the Simon Community in Cork.

“That showed me the importance of helping people. I had been in Spain for six months, just chilling out, when I decided to do something. I always wanted to volunteer and I picked Greece. I looked up NGOs working there and sent HSA (Humanitarian Support Association) an email. They were delighted to get me. I had to fill in a few forms and get some medical things done. They were involved in clothes and blanket distribution and had an education centre as well where English was taught. When I left Lesbos, HSA was on the verge of closing because they ran out of funds.”

Nicky can understand why there is so much anger among the refugees. They often have to walk for 24 hours to be processed in Moria.

“People are more subdued in Kara Tepe. But overall, there is a lot of anger at the system. When the refugees get to Athens, they get processed again to see whether they can get asylum. The Greek Government is making it hard for refugees to come in.

Nicky says: “As Europeans, we should be ashamed of ourselves. What is happening to the refugees is sinful, the way they are treated. Ireland hasn’t taken in many refugees.

“Ireland has its own problems with homelessness. We have to look after our own but we need to look after others, as well.”

Reflecting on his four months volunteering , Nicky says it was “the most rewarding time you could possibly have.

“I’d love to go back but it would be hard for me, financially. I lived in Mytilini in an apartment that cost €350 a month, which wasn’t bad. All your living costs are your own.”

Nicky spent Christmas on Lesbos: “I went out with some other volunteers to a restaurant but it was no big deal for us.”

Tina Pisco .
Tina Pisco .

With her children reared and a track record of working as a volunteer and advocate for various causes including Repeal the 8th, Clonakilty-based writer, Tina Pisco, 61, decided to go Greece to volunteer in October for five weeks.

She went to Nea Kavala camp in northern Greece which accommodates around 800 refugees. Before going there, Tina completed a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course.

“As a refugee, it’s good to have a practical skill,” she said. “Teaching English is what I ended up doing in Nea Kavala.

I was matched with an organisation called We Are Here which does education, community and social type work. They have also created a women’s space. “

Tina says “tensions are very low at the camp compared to other ones. There are enough toilets, showers and washing machines for the refugees”.

Teaching women English, starting at a very basic level, was “incredibly satisfying. The situation (for the refugees) is horrifically frustrating and the biggest frustration is that nobody really knows what’s going on or what is going to happen and where you have to go and what pieces of paper to bring. There’s a lot of rumour. People are in very difficult circumstances.”

Nea Kavala Refugee camp in northern Greece where West Cork-based writer, Tina Pisco, worked as a volunteer.
Nea Kavala Refugee camp in northern Greece where West Cork-based writer, Tina Pisco, worked as a volunteer.

What struck Tina about the refugees from African countries, as well as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, was how “kind” they were.

“I don’t think we would be as good and as kind as these people were. They were incredibly hospitable, wanting you to come into their containers for tea and also cooking for us. Hospitality is really important for them. I didn’t want to come home at all.”

Tina stayed in an old house which was a ten-minute drive from the camp.

“It was wonderful in the sunshine but now, it’s wet and cold over there and the house is leaking and you have to walk outside to the toilet. I had my own room but I’ve heard of volunteers who were four to a room.”

Pre-conceived ideas about refugees are often inaccurate, says Tina.

“We imagine maybe an African man in a tracksuit, leaving behind some sort of hut. But I met engineers, doctors, architects, journalists and cameramen who are refugees. The vast majority that I met were professional middle-class people. They’re incredibly resilient.”

Tina points out that as well as the difficult circumstances in which the refugees find themselves, their host country “is in a really bad state. In Ireland, we have a housing crisis but apart from that, we’re not doing too badly. But in Greece, particularly northern Greece, along the highways you can see that the 2008 crash just killed the place. There are factories and empty hotels that have been abandoned.

“Greece is doing as much as it can for the refugees. The Greeks don’t have much. It’s a huge burden. I feel the EU needs to help Greece.”

The experience of volunteering in Greece “was difficult and very raw. I found myself bawling in my bubble bath because I’m in my own bath in my own home. The people I met had nothing.”

Tina, who plans to return to the Nea Kavala camp, is raising money for the refugees. See www.gofundme.com/woman039s-space-nea-kavala-camp.

More in this section

Sponsored Content