Long Term Volunteering At Ritsona Refugee Camp

Nestled among olive trees and factories, twenty minutes away from the beautiful city of Chalkida in Greece was Ritsona Refugee Camp. Formerly an air force base, Ritsona was funded by the UAE and Red Cross to address the needs of the influx of migrants that entered Greece in 2015. Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) manages a distribution center at this camp, where residents are provided with clean water, clothing, tea, and milk. I spent three months in Greece with CCS to help meet the needs of the camp. I was able to learn in-depth about the refugee crisis and see it through my own eyes.

When I was just twelve years old, I first learned about refugees through the Model United Nations program. We researched and debated international topics while seeking solutions to the problems that different nations faced. To be able to see the actual people and meet them face-to-face was incredible and gave the situation a deeper sense of reality. When you watch the news or read about these humanitarian crises— you are often inured to the reality; they are just facts and figures. What does the 62 million refugees that have fled their homes actually mean? To meet them face-to-face brings a deeper and almost painful sense of understanding. They are not just numbers, it’s Rema the 12-year old girl who dreams of being a doctor, Muhammad the 35-year old man who was a proud business owner, Fatima the 25-year-old mom of three that’s seeking a better life for her children. The pain that these people feel and experiences that they’ve had are real.

Ritsona Camp

Fleeing war, persecution, and seeking stronger economic opportunities, more than 60,000 migrants journeyed to Greece seeking asylum. The journeys that they faced are treacherous, and many do not make it. They risk their lives to cross borders, seeking a new life and safety. After long legal processes, they are moved from under resourced camps on the islands where they often live in tents, to better-established camps on the mainland. Ritsona is a mainland camp, where residents reside in a metal Iso-box, similar to the structure of a camper. The residents make the most of their environment. Many people decorated their Iso-boxes, and even added fences around the perimeter. Even though it wasn’t home for them, they made the most out of their situation.

Daily work at the camp consisted of helping to maintain and staff the CCS Distribution Center and providing laundry services for the residents. The clothing distribution center that CCS maintains is modeled after a typical boutique shop. Cross-Cultural Solutions is dedicated to meeting the needs of residents of the camp with dignity and equality. Working at Ritsona Refugee Camp was challenging, humbling, and rewarding. There were small victories in our work. Finding a pair of shoes for a child that was running around barefoot in the cold, helping a mother get clothing to keep her baby warm, seeing the look of appreciation in a family that you supplied with a week’s worth of milk. It was the small moments of positivity and gratitude that made the experience so worth it and brought me back to the present moment. It was easy to recognize the value of the work that we were doing as members of the CCS Team.

As part of the Cross-Cultural Solutions program, we watched the documentary, “4.1 Miles” to help understand the crisis more. Although only 20 minutes long with limited dialogue, it’s one of the strongest documentaries that I’ve ever seen; the impact that it left resonated even stronger after meeting people who went through the same situation. I saw the documentary for the first time a week after I visited the camp. I befriended a 10-year-old girl in passing, who loved to play with my hair and was always dancing even though there was no music. She told me that she wanted to be an actress, and she very well could have been. Although she always put on a cheerful demeanor, I could see the war and abuse that she encountered in her eyes. Watching that documentary, I felt the tears swell in my eyes. I thought about her and imagined her going through that journey. Despite everything that she’s been through, she still finds light and hope in the world to keep dreaming and works to have a better life. I knew that I was there to provide her and others who have been through that situation with a sense of normality and dignity, and any service and bit of light that I could shine to her, would be my purpose there.

Ritsona Girl

In a way, it was fitting that the camp was surrounded by olive trees, a universal symbol of peace. For most of the residents of Ritsona, peace was exactly what it represented. It was an escape from the wars that they faced, a light of freedom, but simultaneously a cage at the same time. Residents were glad to escape the war-torn countries that they came from, but at the same time, they were stuck. They were stuck waiting in their caravans for what could be years. The typical legal process to become a citizen of an EU nation could be around two years. Two years of waiting in a camp, two years of being unable to work, two years they are unable to live a normal life. Most of them were previously professionals, but because of their legal status, they are unable to work. The residents of the camp left behind all that they’ve known and now rely on the aid that they’re given.

In my three months at the camp, I had the pleasure of seeing a few residents leave because they received citizenship. They were filled with joy that they could finally move on with their lives, nervous about the resettlement process, and sad to leave their friends, knowing that they are left behind for an indefinite amount of time. Despite the few that I’ve seen leave, it seemed like the crisis was never ending. I also saw 100 new people arrive at the camp, nervous, confused, and unsure about what was ahead of them. The residents and volunteers who were there for longer, were happy to help the new people and provide them with information and taught them about how things were run. The sense of community was incredible, to see everyone helping each other through tough times.

On my last day of the camp, I sat in the falafel stand, where I’ve had lunch many times to reflect on my experience. It was run by a kind young man in his twenties, who was just two years away from becoming a pharmacist before his town was shrouded with war. A resident of the camp sat across from me, staring at me as if he wanted to ask a question. I greeted him, and I could see the happiness on his face that I was willing to speak to him. He asked me where I was from, and I told him New York. He said to me surprised, “You have such a beautiful life in the United States and people who care about you so much. What would make you leave that and come here to a place like this to help someone like me?" I thought about it for a second. There are so many things that I was grateful for in the United States. I had an incredible support network waiting for me at home, and there was no doubt that my heart was there, but I knew that I had a duty to help this planet and spread positivity in any way that I could. I’ve had so many opportunities given to me for the sole fact that I lucked out on where I was born. I was provided with so many more resources than other people throughout the world and it was because of that, that I felt the need to give back and do my part in the world. He told me that he was grateful that his plight was recognized by other people around the world and it made a difference in how he views and thinks about humanity. He has seen war and been through terrible situations, but seeing volunteers and people that care about him helps him to maintain his love for humanity.

Alicia

Although I completed small tasks at the camp and there is so much more that I wish that I could do—my experience volunteering with CCS was about being connected. It was about being part of a larger human network of people making a difference. It was being the kindness that others sought in the difficulties of their daily lives. It was being a light for a community that was experiencing darkness, even if it could only be a short amount of time. Every action that you take in this world is a ripple—it's up to you to determine what wave you wish to leave behind. My experience as a Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteer at the refugee camp in Ritsona will be carried in my heart as I continue on my journey through life.

All names have been changed, and faces removed from photos to protect the identity of residents.

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