It looks like any other warehouse in the greater Thessaloniki area; drab, dreary and really quite dull. If you read Greek, you’d be forgiven for thinking you might pick up a bargain on your industrial furniture or carpets. The signage is outdated and it seems as if the building hasn’t had much love in a while. When you’re volunteering with refugees in Northern Greece, however, it’s possible that you’ll become quite familiar with the Help Refugees warehouse and that you’ll soon learn that appearances can be deceiving.
Once inside the doors, you’ll find that it is anything but dull. Help Refugees is a UK charity who fund and support organisations providing emergency or vital services to refugees in Europe and beyond. They have had a presence in Greece since the summer of 2016 after Europe’s borders were closed and the Balkan route no longer offered safe or easy passage to refugees and migrants. Tens of thousands of people found themselves stranded in Northern Greece, living in squalid makeshift conditions at Idomini, near Greece’s closed border with Macedonia. While there was an active volunteer community in the area, operations were a little haphazard and, well, Greek. Help Refugees expanded their operations from Calais and came to where help was most needed to assist with coordinating efforts, identifying gaps and supporting grassroots organisations in caring for the refugee communities in Northern Greece.
It’s a fitting place to start my time volunteering in Thessaloniki.
Volunteering at Help Refugees
My first day was spent in the Help Refugees warehouse, where donations made by the people of Europe are collected, sorted and distributed. I, along with the other new volunteers, spent my day sorting through clothes to make sure all were correctly sized and stored to make for more efficient distribution.
Before I left Ireland, my friends and neighbours came together to help with sorting and packing clothes for delivery to Calais, so many of you know that it’s not the most exciting job in the world, but it can be a lot of fun when you’re working with other people. My first day with Help Refugees was no exception. The warehouse may have been huge, but it was filled with chatter and camaraderie. After my less than impressive introduction to Thessaloniki (you can read about my First Impressions here), this was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits. Just like that weekend in Leitrim before leaving for this adventure, I felt like part of a community who were working together to achieve something that might actually be worthwhile.
It felt good.
That’s the general feeling that’s stayed with me. As time goes by, I learn more and more about the work of Help Refugees and the groups they support. It’s not all about unpacking trucks and vans and sorting through clothes. Beyond the warehouse, the charity provides aid by funding (or part funding) voluntary projects, by providing space to some based at the warehouse, by recruiting volunteers to help on those projects and by coordinating amongst a network of voluntary organisations to make sure that the communities they serve in Northern Greece are provided for as best as possible.
Volunteering with Refugees in Northern Greece
I’ve been spending my time volunteering with some of these groups. I’ve taught English to children in Filoxenia, a housing project for refugees in Thessaloniki. I’ve helped at a mobile library visiting various camps in the region, I’ve chopped veg and helped cook hundreds of hot meals, I’ve distributed food to refugee and local homeless communities. I’ve spent time learning about the asylum, relocation and reunification processes from a dedicated information team. I’ve gotten my hands dirty (or, at least, made some tea for the guys whose hands are really dirty) working in construction and carpentry for the camps and housing projects.
Over the next six weeks, I’m going to be telling you more about these teams, what they do and why it’s important. So check in here every Wednesday evening from 6pm (UTC) for latest posts. Or follow the Facebook page so you’ll never miss what’s going on.
If you are inspired to get involved as a volunteer, you can contact Help Refugees by emailing email@example.com and let them know how long you can commit for and what kind of skills you have so they can find a suitable placement for you.
And if you’re feeling super generous, you can donate on the Help Refugees website.
As always, I love to hear from you so if you want to know more, don’t be shy. Get in touch or leave a comment below.