Hope through Education Refugee Trip

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Total Raised: $2,125

10 days. Over $2000  raised. 1,945 meals distributed and more. Below is a list of the distribution of funds:

  • $250 – Car rental + gas for a week’s worth of transportation between camps
  • $750 – 1945 meals distributed
  • $300 – Enough school supplies to last until the end of the year (234 notebooks, 200+ erasers, 200+ pencils and markers)
  • $300 – 18 Economy pack diapers for 12 newborn + PTSD children (744 diapers)
  • $525 – Dry Goods + misc ($350  = 127  cans of tuna, $125 = 162 cases of spices), $150 = 375 lbs of sugar)

In early September I took a week off of work to embark on a cause of great importance to me. I wanted to help the refugees who have been displaced by the Syrian War. Not long ago, my parents shared with me their story of fleeing Vietnam as refugees, and this led me to seek understanding and to give back. As I was preparing for the trip, Josh, a friend who was currently in Thessaloniki, Greece called me three days prior to my departure and shared with me the need for funds to help the refugees. With my limited time and understanding of the scope of the need, I created a fundraising page with a stretch goal of $2k for the 10 days I would be out there. Happy if I’d raise $500, I was touched by everyone who contributed in a short period of one week to raise a total of $2,125, which exceeded my expectations.

For anybody who knows me, I’m someone who is pretty optimistic and goal-driven, so I headed into this service project expecting quantifiable results and to feel a huge sense of accomplishment. The truth was I returned slightly changed and how I felt was unexpected of the experience I thought I would have on this trip. Hopefully as you follow along, you’ll understand as you read how the money was spent and will get a glimpse of my time in Thessaloniki and Athens. Once I arrived in Greece, I was able to best utilize the funds raised to help the current situation, alleviate the emotional burden and contribute to something sustainable.

Meals for Homeless Refugees

When I landed in Thessaloniki, I thought I would spend my time cooking and distributing meals to refugees in the camps. I quickly realize that there were two types of refugees. There are those who reside in camps and ones who are considered homeless living on the streets. As I was being introduced to the many non-profit organizations, I found that working with the smaller organizations was more effective as it was easier to hit the ground running. Through word of mouth and good references, I was introduced to a man name Pixi who runs an organization called Soul Food Kitchen. He cursed like a sailor, smoked like a chimney and had dreads like an Eastern European Bob Marley. An ex-soldier of the Croatian War, I quickly learned he’s a man of order, heart and was dedicated to helping the homeless refugees. He sleeps on the floor everyday as he works on building more kitchens to feed the increasing number of homeless refugees coming into Northern Greece. Intimidated but determined, I told him I wanted to help but also wanted to know every detail of how money was spent. Without hesitation he invited me to spend a day with him and to witness his involvement in the community. The next day we went into the countryside to meet the local farmers and distributors who supply produce to his program and who benefit from the work he does.

Once we collected all the produce and supplies (tins, spoons, etc), we headed back to the kitchen which looks more like a huge warehouse. The volunteers who contribute to cooking the meals come from various international non-profit organizations. They look like twenty-something hippies, gypsies and fresh-out-of-college Peter Pans. I instantly took a liking to them and we bonded over reality TV shows, world affairs and of course we all had our opinions on the upcoming elections featuring Hilary & Donald. Together we cooked between 300-400 meals per day. Each meal consisted of a hot entrée (stew and rice), a piece of fruit, a slice of bread, an egg and a bottle of water.

Pixi was able to leverage his reputation and negotiation skills, such that each wholesome meal cost no more than .35 euros. Pretty amazing considering the meals in the camps is known to be rather unappetizing. After prepping and cooking, which took a whole half a day, the meal boxes were prepared and loaded into big white vans, which we drove out to the parks in search of refugees in need of a hot meal.

Many of the homeless refugees are Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi or from other neighboring countries who won’t resort to the camps because of fear of being deported to Turkey or back to their country. So they live on the streets waiting to get smuggled out of Greece or hope to sneak their way through the border. Sometimes they face hostility by local citizens and police for loitering, making the situation more discouraging as it becomes a waiting game until their next destination. What we buy them is time. We buy them time for them to figure out what they can do next as they rely on people like Pixi and his team for sustenance, and a gesture of kindness in the face of fear and uncertainty.

School Supplies for Education

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One of the highlights during my trip was teaching English to kids between the ages of five through eleven. Teaching English was where I truly felt as if I could contribute to something long term as they can learn a valuable skill set they can use. The first class was for ages between 5-7 and the second was 8-11. Each class lasts an hour and over 90 percent of the students are girls. The disproportionate ratio is due to the boys sleeping in and wanting to play ball while the young girls are more eager to learn. It’s somewhat a challenge but the teachers strive to have more families understand the importance of education. Everyone is eager to sit in the front and participate. Sometimes they were so eager they would scream over each other to get the teacher’s attention. Structure and order were perhaps the first thing we tried to implement so that each student was able to participate and it allowed us to gauge their learning abilities. Since they have the option to learn English, German and Greek; they burn through notebooks pretty quickly. School supplies range from notebooks, sharpeners, pencils, pens, chalk, markers, and crayons to name a few. While IHA, a German non-profit organization is working to build more schools, there is a need for chairs, tables and chalkboards. Having lessons with the kids exerted the most energy yet it was rewarding when they can communicate with you in English using some of the lessons they’ve learned. Becoming attached to your students is a real feeling especially when you see how sad they get when they know you’re leaving. The girls there are full of heart and spirit, and without a doubt I know they will be strong women in their families.

Dry Foods and Miscellaneous for the Camps

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There are currently over 40 refugee camps in Greece and there are many NGOs working on the ground to provide shelter, food and clothing to keep up with the continuous influx of refugees coming in. Each camp is different and can house 100 to over 1,500 people. Most of the refugees who live in the camps are Syrian, and each family lives in a tent that house between 5-6 people. Most of them are young families with an average of 6-8 children living in a cramped tent with limited furnishings and lacking the comforts of a true home.

Initially I had thought that living in the camps is a preferred option for the refugees but whether you’re living on the streets or in tents; but pose a different set of challenges. As the homeless refugees worry about shelter, food and clothing, the refugees in the camps feel they are prisoners and don’t know when they can to leave as they seek asylum. It’s a waiting game for everyone and you can sense the restlessness and frustration. Everyone desires to share their story, wanting to connect and be social and many come from various social economic backgrounds. The women especially feel stripped of dignity having to share public toilets and don’t know what the future brings. So it made sense when IHA told me we needed to purchase dry goods and miscellaneous such as tea, sugar, tuna and spices. The big NGOs don’t focus on these smaller items as it’s not considered a necessity; however these little commodities are important for the emotional well being of women and children. It brings a sense of familiarity in their tents. These people want to share and hold onto whatever dignity they have; therefore, to invite you into their tent and offer tea from their country; it provides an emotional comfort. I instantly recognized this when I was invited by a family to have tea in their tent. By sharing their story, it was a way for them to remember who they are and where they came from and it allowed the process of grieving. Through tea, we gathered to cry, hug and grieve together. It allowed people like me to develop compassion, empathy and understanding as I sat on the floor, cross legged with a family of six to have a meal seasoned with familiar spices from their native lands and for me to experience a glimpse of what they used to call home.

Lasting Lessons

As one would expect to come back with ample gratitude, appreciation and a full heart; this experience was quite different for me. I didn’t necessarily feel a sense of accomplishment nor defeat. During the time I was in the camps, on the plane returning home or when I was getting acclimated to my daily routine was where I found myself being completely present. I mean truly being present.

Those nights where I would be awake until 4am because my heart was hurting for the families and when my thoughts led to fear because of their future, I realized it wasn’t alleviating these peoples’ suffering. Emotions evoked of worry only paralyzed my ability to be present and it distracted me from magnifying my service even if the efforts seem small.

That was the biggest take away from this trip as I have seen how this affects my personal life. As a person who strives to live a purposeful life, I have seen how anxiety over the future can hijack my mind. We all have fear of uncertainty. If we have goals and priorities, we have an expectation of what an ideal life looks like. And yet sometimes our thoughts, feelings and expectations we create of ourselves prevent us from being present and taking action that is completely uninhibited. Instead we don’t take action, and that inaction leads to complacency. Being present and truly accepting the unknown creates the space that allow us to take risks and live with purpose drawing us closer to an extraordinary life.

As I  recall my overly ambitious efforts of going to Greece to help the plight of the refugees, the moments that were most precious and valuable to me were those small moments, even unspoken, that I exchanged with those I met. Whether it was distributing meals and exchanging smiles because it was the only way we could communicate. I saw their eyes respond with gentle appreciation and saw the feelings of frustration instantly melt away turning to gratitude as they smiled back with the same sincerity.

On my last evening I sat down with Zahra, a mother of four at one of the camps. Despite our language barrier, I was able to share my parents’ story of sacrifice and their journey across the world towards a daunting and uncertain future. Even with our limited communication and hand gestures, she understood everything I said and her initial feelings of sadness and resignation became one of hope. At that moment I saw the difference it made to a family. I may not have solved the Syrian crisis but I was present to provide enough hope to allow her to endure through her journey, hopefully leaving a positive blueprint in the future. There’s a quote, “One person can’t do everything, but everyone can do one thing.” With everyone’s effort and involvement, even if we feel our efforts are small, I truly believe we’ve left an impact. Thank you again, for your amazing contribution.

xo – Judes

If you’d like to continue to help in contribution of meals to homeless refugees please visit  SOUL FOOD KITCHEN.

 

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