Volunteer story: Doreen (May 18)

01/06/18

I have now been home for over a week, and it has taken this long to regain any sense of normality. I felt strangely bereft when leaving the camp, and have dreamed vividly of it every night since. I have no doubt I will return as soon as I can – there is so much more to do there, and I feel I have barely scraped the surface of need.

My experience in Katsikas was a world apart from the ‘Voluntourism’ that is recently receiving such bad publicity. We were not building orphanages or saving babies – just carrying out the basic and fundamental tasks necessary to keep the camp running, the camp residents fed and clothed, and the children occupied for at least a little while each day.

Each morning, we operated the camp ‘shop’ – serving customers and restocking the shelves, as the camp residents came to spend their allocated tokens on basic food, giving people the autonomy to choose the food they wanted.

After lunch, we would run an activity for the camp children – with no schooling, this was the only structure in their day, much anticipated and often a test of ingenuity. Trying to cater for all ages from toddlers to teens, with only the most limited resources – usually just paper and crayons – was often a challenge! Especially so in the rain and storms that appeared with astonishing regularity each afternoon…

On many days, volunteers would also operate the clothing ‘shops’, – where camp residents could come on a rota basis to choose from racks of carefully sorted and arranged items of clothing and footwear for themselves and their children. Most afternoons, after children’s activities, we would travel to the warehouse to continue the mammoth task of sorting and organising these donated goods, in order to be able to supply the camp residents with seasonally-appropriate clothing and shoes.

In between, there was always sweeping, tidying, cleaning, bulk food shopping etc. to be done – all mundane but essential activities to keep things running smoothly.

At weekends, we would travel to the remote Doliana camp, where we would deliver food and essentials, as well as spending time running activities with the children there. As far as I know, Refugee Support is the only aid agency working in this remote camp, and the weekly visit was always warmly welcomed. This was the camp where the children had nothing, and I will never forget their faces as we delivered bags of goodies and a knitted teddy to each child! It was extremely humbling to see how so little can give so much joy…

In response to previous posts, I have had several requests asking how people can help, and so many kind offers of purchasing supplies to send to the children in the camps.

I have had several conversations about this with John, the co-founder of Refugee Support and Dan, the volunteer co-ordinator at the camp. Both, unfortunately, have reached the same conclusion that the logistics of getting goods to the camp at a reasonable cost are extremely difficult. The cost of a shipping container is about £2000, as well as the fact that things are moving so quickly out there that they never know how long the camps are going to be in any location. The other consideration is that Refugee Support like to buy locally as far as possible, in order to support the local economy; which in turn, helps the local community to view the refugees in a more positive light. They both emphasised the ongoing requirement for fundraising for basics at the camp – including food, nappies etc. It’s not glamorous, but there is an ongoing, everyday need for supplies, all of which come from donations. Any help with fundraising for these basics will always be most gratefully received – and I think it is possible to sponsor things like pallets of flour, sugar, oil etc. from their website.

The other issue with the donation of toys/supplies etc. is the element of fairness. When a group of children have nothing, the concept of absolute fairness to all is extremely important. If one child gets a basic set of 8 pencils and another gets a super deluxe set of 50, it can cause so many difficulties. Whilst trying to get the bags together for the children of Doliana camp, I had to be so careful to ensure everyone was treated equally and had similar items in all the bags.

My experience is a far cry from the popular vision of volunteering – no dramatic, frontline, headline-grabbing activities, just fundamental daily tasks: trying to ensure that basic necessities are delivered every day to camp residents with respect, compassion and dignity. This work is continuing day-in and day-out, with little or no publicity, and I would very much like to raise awareness of how much this tiny charity achieves. I have been genuinely impressed with the organisation of Refugee Support – they have minimal overheads and are working on a shoestring budget, doing fantastic work on the ground, always with integrity, optimism and enthusiasm. Other than as a volunteer, I have no connection with them, so I am simply speaking from my experience. Please bear them in mind if you are considering any fundraising activities – I know how much they would appreciate your support.

For me, this has been a transformative experience, and one that had made me reflect on my priorities, as well as making me so very grateful that I, and my family, will never have to experience the horrors that these people have had to endure. What I will remember is, overwhelmingly, the resilience, optimism and positivity of everyone I met. Almost without exception, and despite their horrific circumstances, people were kind, welcoming, cheerful and grateful for the very little we could offer them.

I feel I have gained far more than I have given to them…You can donate here