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Impolite Appeal: Help Me Help Them

Why I'm heading to Athens with a team of other experts to help refugees - by Dan Steiner


My grandfather and father arrived in the UK in 1939 as refugees from Czechoslovakia. If it wasn’t for the help, support and acceptance of this nation, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m shortly heading to Athens with some friends from Crisis, a UK charity that helps the homeless, to volunteer in large disused buildings such as former schools that are now housing refugees.


I’ve volunteered with Crisis every Christmas for the last 13 years and I’m now a senior volunteer there, which means I help run one of the Crisis centres that are set up over the festive season. Senior volunteers are involved throughout the year and we’re kept informed about decisions that are made, and given feedback on policies that we put forward. We have to keep up-to-date with first aid, mental health awareness training, volunteer management training and conflict de-escalation training, attending top-up courses every three years, and we have to attend regular forums, which are good for training and networking with other senior volunteers from different centres. We also have to be regularly involved with our key and specialist volunteers and foster good relations so that they keep coming back at Christmas – continuity is invaluable.


The experience and organisational skills we have gained at Crisis will be put to great use in Athens. 57,000 people are stuck in Greece because Europe made a deal with Turkey in March which says that all migrants and refugees who cross over from Turkey to Greece are sent back. At the same time, the Greek government closed all its borders with the surrounding Balkan states so these 57,000 people can’t get into other European countries. They don’t have enough money to support themselves and rely mostly on private donations and volunteers like us.


The recent coup attempt in Turkey, and its aftermath, have further complicated the situation. Contacts in Athens report a new influx of refugees and hundreds of recent arrivals are now sleeping in the streets there.


It’s very unstructured over there; you’ve got a lot of Indians and a lot of chiefs. There are scores of NGOs, as well as the government and the UNHCR, who’ve been asked to come in to help, advise and organise funding, and there’s too much overlap (for example there are maybe 10 NGOs who are just there in a medical capacity) at the same time as huge gaps in funding and the provision of care and support.


Sumita, one of my colleagues at both Crisis and on this trip to Athens, is providing logistical support and some structure to one small area. She also runs a closed Facebook group and it’s now massive, with 9,000 people having joined so far. It’s useful for independent volunteers like us – from the moment they arrive, they know what to do and are able to contribute, rather than run around like headless chickens.


When we arrive, the first thing we’ll do is go to as many of the unofficial refuges as possible and also to a place that Sumita and a friend have set up specifically to house single mothers, their children, and vulnerable women.


We’ll first go around talking to the refugees, asking what their needs are and seeing if we can meet them. Then we’ll buy everything we deem necessary in bulk at the best possible prices – we can’t just spend money for the sake of it. And if we know, say, that Sumita’s refuge is going to need a freezer and a cooker in 2 months’ time, we’ll hold some money back so that we can pay for them then. I’m personally also keen to ensure there is adequate support for LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Questioning) people over there, so when I arrive I’ll talk to Marina (Sumita’s friend who started the refuge with her and runs it day to day) to see what’s there already, what’s needed and what’s possible.


After our initial needs analysis and shopping trip we’ll work at the refuges providing whatever services people need. If someone needs to go to hospital we’ll take them, paying for the taxi and someone to translate and find out information – the language barrier is a huge problem otherwise. We’ll teach English, provide other schooling and training, cook, clean and even just entertain the children because they’re all so bored and need occupying, and all parents need space. What we do has to be sustainable after we’ve left too – we’re only there for a week, so I’ll be prioritising training other volunteers who can stay there longer – many of them are completely inexperienced.


Recently, the Greek government has closed some of the camps and moved people into new ones but the UNHCR has inspected some of them and said that at least one doesn’t meet their humanitarian requirements (for example there is no running water or showers). So the situation isn’t improving and there are still massive problems. The UNHCR doesn’t operate in the places where we’ll be working, so we’ll be making a real difference.


I’ve been doing a lot of background reading so I’m as informed about everything as possible when I arrive, and will have a good idea about the current situation and what needs to be done. I hope you’ll help us do as much as possible by donating and sharing this article – even the smallest of donations can make a difference.


Thank you in advance.


You can read our appeal for funds for Dan's work here
and DONATE to Dan and his colleagues’ work here.


Main image credit: International Federation of Red Cross via Open Migration

Dan Steiner

About the Writer


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