Dignified Humanitarian Aid in Greece’s Refugee Camps

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Hannah Craig traveled to Western Greece to apprentice with Refugee Support Europe, an NGO that provides dignified humanitarian aid through unique methods and strong ethical principles. Hannah is studying public health, environmental studies, and Spanish.

During Tulane’s winter break, I traveled to Greece to volunteer for Refugee Support Europe, a humanitarian organization that meets refugees’ basic needs with dignity. Prior to this experience, I had conducted research on the cultural integration process for Syrian refugees resettled to Santiago, Chile and interned at Catholic Charities Archdioceses of New Orleans, Louisiana’s refugee resettlement agency. I felt that it was important for me to have hands-on experience in a camp to more deeply understand the experiences of the people I had encountered and gain perspective on the crisis as a whole.

Having taken several classes that touched on the flaws and historical failures of international humanitarian aid and disaster response, I set out to find an organization with a strong set of ethical standards. I applied to Refugee Support Europe because of their comprehensive volunteer code of conduct that follows the UN’s humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, avoiding harm, accountability, participation and respect. Each volunteer applicant is interviewed and expected to fund their own trip.

After a whirlwind weekend of finals, goodbyes, packing, and a long flight, I spent a night in Athens, caught a bus to Filippiada, and was put straight to work the next morning. Volunteers rise early, spend the day sorting donated clothing by size and season, keeping record of which caravans residents live in and the services they’ve received, working in the food market, and helping residents find clothes that they like and that fit. And some days, there’s time for an afternoon soccer match.

Two weeks in, I moved up to the coordinator position. My duties shifted to administrative tasks such as logging daily expenses in the organization’s accounting system, planning the arrival of donation shipments, assigning roles to volunteers, and placing orders for bulk items. I feel really lucky to have had a taste of logistical and volunteer management; I learned that, while I’m great at checking in with people individually, my group morale-boosting, energy-creating skills have room for improvement.

Refugee Support Europe does an amazing job of making sure residents’ needs are met day in and day out, but what really makes the organization stand out are the principles with which they act. Refugee Support Europe believes that everybody has a right to dignity, and that dignity is especially important to those who have fled violence and persecution. To create dignity, food and clothing are provided through markets, a unique method of distribution that creates choices for those who have so few choices to make. A market, rather than a food distribution, allows people to select ingredients for themselves and cook their own meals, creating purpose and options. The market runs on a point system. Families are given points weekly (100 for adults, 50 for children, and 150 for pregnant or breast-feeding women) and may use them at their own pace. The market’s produce is purchased from local vendors, and prices are monitored to assure that local markets do not face price increase due to increased demand. Dry goods are purchased in bulk in order to optimize the NGO’s budget which comes mostly from individual donations.

Clothing follows a similar model. The shipments of donated items are sorted and presented on shelves and racks that are set up to resemble a boutique environment. Every detail, down to the rugs, changing rooms, mirrors, and hangers, is intended to create normality and choice.

It’s a moving experience, seeing families excited by weighing and bagging apples, choosing the best-looking eggplant, and splurging on juice boxes for each child. It’s incredibly fulfilling to help a little boy find a stylish, warm coat and see him wearing it days later as he plays soccer with his friends. And while the most memorable moments of my experience are the in-person, fun interactions, I want to note that the most important work, what really keeps hundreds of people clothed and fed, is the volunteers’ behind-the-scenes work: long, cold days in the warehouse, driving the clunky van through tiny Greek village streets to pick up fruits and vegetables, working weekends, and making market point spreadsheets until 1 AM.

Going in to the experience, I knew I would have a lot to learn from the founders of the organization. I want to work in human rights advocacy, and the two founders, John Sloan and Paul Hutchings, have an incredible amount of humanitarian experience. I wanted to see what goes in to running a small NGO, how to build and maintain relationships with other organizations, and learn to conduct myself and a larger operation in an ethical and fair way to all involved. I also knew I would be greatly impacted by the strength and fortitude of the refugee community, and that certainly proved true. Every day at camp I was met with extreme amounts of generosity and kindness from the residents. But an important aspect of my experience that I did not anticipate was the motivation and diversity that I found in the volunteer group. I was inspired by the conversations we had about borders and migration, international human rights issues, journalistic coverage of the European refugee crisis, and the pros and cons of corporate social responsibility. The group hailed from all around the world, spanned a 50-year age range, and covered a wide breadth of religions, languages, and backgrounds. Each volunteer was prepared to contribute what they could, pulling on their areas of expertise and previous experiences, which created an energetic and welcoming environment.

While many of my questions about how camps operate and the ins and outs of the asylum process were answered over the course of the month, a few thoughts are left rolling around in my mind. I want to know more about the unique vulnerabilities that women face in migration and asylum, and I’m currently exploring this topic through my undergraduate honors thesis. It seems as though aspects of the current refugee experience such as the physical environment of camps, the family reunification emphasis, and the specifics of the monthly governmental stipend distribution do not fully acknowledge women’s experiences.

Female spaces are very important to the emotional well-being of many Muslim women, and not all camps have adequate places and programming. If a couple’s marriage status has changed during their many years apart or in the stressful camp environment or issues of abuse are present, a woman should be able to speak out about her situation and ask for help without worrying that it will jeopardize her asylum status. Women may also have additional expenses such as women’s hygiene products and health concerns that are not accounted for in their monthly stipend. I’m also curious how information could be shared between organizations more efficiently. If the Greek government has personal data for each refugee, how could that information be shared with the operating organizations in a safe and secure way to eliminate the redundant information collecting?








Finally, the realization that has been most impactful for me is the loss of human potential that long-term camps cause. Without the right to work, vote, drive, or own property, thousands of creative minds and able bodies are unable to make societal contributions. Due to the inundation of the asylum system and fewer refugees being granted asylum in Western Europe and the U.S., it’s likely the most recent arrivals to the Greek mainland will remain in camps for up to five years.

Given this situation and the experience I had this month, I want my next step to center around the idea that refugee communities are entirely capable of generating their own empowering education, creative projects, and innovative ideas, given the right tools and spaces. I’d like to use my skill set to enable refugee communities to self-generate these opportunities. Innovation almost always comes from adversity, the corners of the world, like a refugee camp in western Greece, where creating new solutions to the world’s problems is not a theoretical homework assignment but a dire necessity.

Many thanks to the Taylor team for supporting my experience. I am incredibly appreciative.