Grassroots Charities and the Refugee Crisis

by Abi Greatrex

In 2016, the UNHCR deemed the Syrian refugee crisis the largest humanitarian disaster in recent history. Three years on, and the mass furore this ensued has waned: mainstream media has once again turned insular, with public outrage driven to the side-lines as political squabbles and Brexit dominate headlines. But outside of this bubble, the crisis has not abated.

The conflict in Syria continues, with the UN recently reporting that around 140,000 people have been displaced from northern Hama and southern Idlib since February. Although the arrival of refugees into Europe has fallen, thousands of vulnerable people remain in camps across the continent, increasingly ignored by governments hostile to their situation. In response, many grassroots organisations have striven to fill the gap in providing basic support to those seeking asylum: this care is often informal, delivered by volunteers, and entirely dependent upon limited resources and donated financial support – but it is also immediate, and often capable of being more reliable and flexible than that which is offered by larger international aid agencies.

In Greece, which is often considered the “eye of the storm” for the refugee crisis, these volunteer-led organisations range from frontline aid on the country’s main islands – Chios, Kos, Lesbos, and Samos – to makeshift medical, legal advice, and food distribution centres in Athens. These charities range in size, purpose, and their capacity. I recently volunteered with a smaller, focused charity, Happy Caravan, whose founding aim is simple: to provide support and basic education to children living in a Greek refugee camp.

In Thermopylae, central Greece, the abandoned Aigli Hotel has been converted into a refugee camp for hundreds of refugees, most of them Syrian. Many of the people living in the tiny rooms are families, with children making up over half of the population. A slow reaction by the Greek government and the United Nations means that most will be waiting for months – or years – before they are granted asylum in Europe through a relocation programme.

In the meantime, they remain in limbo, all but lost in the system of an unfamiliar country and ignored by the majority of government officials. Although the camp in the hotel was opened by Kostas Bakoyjannis, the governor of Greece’s central region, it has been described by him as a “completely bottoms up project”, in an explicit comment intended to highlight the increasingly sluggish response by the Prime Minister’s Syriza government. Before the hotel was reopened to admit the refugees, they had been forced to instead live in the open public squares, or alongside busy roads with fast-moving traffic, with some attempting to walk the 200 miles to the northern village of Idomeni. Located on the Macedonian border, until 2016 (when it was closed by Greek authorities) this village contained the largest refugee camp in the country.

The hotel offers little to the people who are now living there: there have been many complaints about the poor living conditions, the overcrowding, the inadequate level of access to necessary healthcare (there are no permanent local doctors allocated to the hotel, which is situated around nine miles from the closest town), and the food. Rations are distributed by the army and overseen by the UN – but they are not enough, and families have to rely on a limited bus service into the city of Lamia for anything else they need.

But although the hotel itself went bankrupt years ago, forced to close its doors as the Greek economy flat-lined, the hot springs resort, framed by mountains, still remains a popular tourist destination. It is located close to where the ancient Battle of Thermopylae took place, and every day sees a steady stream of cars down the dirt road that borders the hotel’s grounds as swimmers come to take advantage of the heated waters.

The tourists often share the space with groups of children, who joke about the smell – the stench of sulphur is everywhere – as they splash each other, but otherwise the two worlds remain rigidly distinct. When the tourists leave, they occasionally slow down to peer curiously over at the hotel – which, despite the glass missing from its windows and dilapidated appearance, is obviously occupied – before driving away, their car raced by laughing children who want to see if they can beat it to the main road.

When the hotel was still in business, its secluded location was probably tranquil rather than isolating, peaceful rather than alienating: but in its past or present life it was never a place to entertain children – aside from the springs, the stretch of dusty road, and a single path that winds its way around the base of the neighbouring mountain, there is little to occupy them for long. This is where Happy Caravan comes in.

The non-profit organisation has transformed the also-abandoned restaurant building that flanks the hotel into a vibrant school, where volunteers teach classes in English and maths. The idea for the school was conceived by Aleddin Janid – a refugee from Syria himself, and now living in the Netherlands – who, when volunteering in the Greek Skaramagas camp, noticed the impact that the disruption and loss of structure caused by a lack of access to education was causing for the children there. Responding to this, he began to teach the children himself – beginning with the basics of the alphabet, and using English-speaking films as both entertainment and educational aid – and, when he returned home, the idea was developed into “Happy Caravan”. At first, he travelled around camps with limited supplies, using art and cinema as educational tools, until the unused restaurant in the Thermopylae camp provided the opportunity for the establishment of a stable, permanent school.

Now, the school provides an education and opportunity for social activities to around 80 children every weekday: there is a particular focus on the therapeutic power of play and creativity – throughout the week the school day will often begin with a session of painting or drawing. And on Fridays, the space is transformed again: this time, into a mini-cinema, chairs in rows, lights dimmed, complete with popcorn and laughter as a subtitled English film is played for the children.

Happy Caravan’s core values highlight a desire to provide as many children as possible with fun and stability through a safe, engaging environment. The focus is on giving the children the tools and opportunity to tell their own stories and build their futures, whilst still recognising the importance of their continued creative development. The children are encouraged to use the artistic activities to express themselves, and they have recently worked together to build a garden and playground outside the school, to further establish the space as a place for imaginative exploration.

The influence of the school on the camp’s environment is clear to see; it has provided a consistently safe and supportive space for the children, whose excitement to be a part of the community that has been formed there is evident – when the volunteers arrive in the morning to set up for the first classes, they are already waiting outside, eager to help. It is impossible to underestimate the positive impact that the school has on the children who pass through its doors: I only volunteered there for a relatively short period, but during this time I witnessed so many of the children I met begin to blossom with confidence.

Happy Caravan is a grassroots charity which largely relies on its short-term volunteers. However, that is not to say there are not issues created by short term volunteering – the impact of a constantly changing cast of volunteers on the refugee community must be weighed against the importance of the charity’s role. The welfare of the refugees must always be the primary consideration, especially when working with vulnerable children in need of significant support. Maintaining appropriate boundaries and an overarching sense of continuity is essential: Happy Caravan achieves this by having at least one volunteer on-site for prolonged periods of time, in order to maintain consistency within the classroom.

More generally, obligation lies with the volunteer to assess whether their physical presence on the ground is a help or a hindrance to the charity: it is important to ensure that they are not just “parachuting in”, and that the money spent on travel, accommodation, and living expenses, is balanced by the assistance that can be offered. Research is, of course, essential, and there are many social media groups and websites ran by permanent volunteers, local people, and refugees themselves dedicated to answering this.

For a charity such as Happy Caravan, the immediate support that can be provided by a team of volunteers remains fundamental to its operation. In the stress of displacement to another country and the isolated location of many camps, educational needs can often fall to the wayside. For the children of the Thermopylae camp, for example, the local schools are inaccessible – although a Greek-speaking teacher does visit the Happy Caravan classroom on a weekly basis to provide Greek language lessons, there is a pronounced language barrier, and little benefit can be gleaned from this sporadic style of teaching – especially as the vast majority of the families have no desire to stay in Greece permanently.

It is in these areas, which larger, holistically-approached international charities do not have the scope to cover, that volunteer-led charities can provide a meaningful contribution. In my experience working with Happy Caravan, the organisation was well aware of its limits and did not overstep its purpose: volunteers did not enter the camp, and we were constantly conscious of the balance that needed to be struck between building relationships and maintaining boundaries. In lieu of a coherent international response, it is these smaller charities that are sowing the budding seeds of hope in an environment that often seems inhospitable.