A Drop in the Ocean in an Ocean of Refugees

Written by Bjørn Gunnar Saltnes Bjørn Gunnar, Cand.Paed (M.Ed), has worked in Scandinavian University Press and Aschehoug. After retirement, he volunteered as human rights observer and ecumenical accompanier in Palestine. He volunteered with a A Drop in the Ocean in Nea Kavala for three weeks. Escaping numbness Like most people I have spent years (!) watching the news

Written by Bjørn Gunnar Saltnes

Bjørn Gunnar, Cand.Paed (M.Ed), has worked in Scandinavian University Press and Aschehoug. After retirement, he volunteered as human rights observer and ecumenical accompanier in Palestine. He volunteered with a A Drop in the Ocean in Nea Kavala for three weeks.

Escaping numbness

Like most people I have spent years (!) watching the news reporting on capsized rubber dinghies and refugees fighting for their life in the Mediterranean. One paradox inherent in relating to reality through the media is this: for a few seconds (some times even minutes) you are drawn into the dramas in HD format, feeling the despair, listening to the sounds of catastrophes, even starting to wonder about if you could do something … … and then it is gone and your attention is taken to the chaos after a very much disputed referee decision in Premier League. Instead of being mobilised on specific issues you often end up vaguely numbed.

I’m lucky to have a wife who is not easily numbed, and who has a lifetime of experience with aid organisations. After seeing Drop in the Ocean founder Trude Jacobsen on Norwegian talk show Lindmo last autumn, Elsa just said: BG, should we volunteer for A Drop in the Ocean? The answer was surprisingly easy: Yes, of course. The numbing fog was instantly gone, and by 14 March we found ourselves at camp Nea Kavala in Northern Greece. The first day of the three week period was described in the blogpost On Becoming a Little Drop in the Ocean.

The DropShop

In addition to the distribution of veggies and dry food supplies, A Drop in the Ocean has built an impressive system for ‘selling’ clothes and shoes to the residents in the camp. Donated clothes of very variable quality from all over the world go to several storage rooms rented in the area where they are sorted and registered in an ingenious app developed by a former Dutch volunteer. When the DropShop in the camp is running out of specific items we just look it up on the app to find what is in store and where, and request delivery to the shop asap. I sincerely doubt that even the bigger, professional aid organisations have a logistics system even half as good as the one developed by A Drop in the Ocean.


The database contains an updated  list of all residents’ names, family units, home address (= container number) etc. Every week a list is generated, printed and put on the entrance to the DropShop. The list shows the day and time (30 minutes) the residents of a certain container will be welcomed to drop-shopping in the drop shop. When the residents from container B32 arrive on time (does not always happen!), they are met at the shop entrance by a Drop (nickname for volunteers belonging to A Drop in the Ocean) who does a formal check in and give them a card showing their current drop account. Confused? A drop is not only a volunteer but also the name of the currency used for shopping in the DropShop.


The clothes available in the DropShop are sorted according to product type, gender and size and placed in big plastic boxes. Every item has a price in very local currency Drops. After check-in you have 30 minutes to find what you want and go to check out for registration and payment (deduction from your drop account). Every time you do a drop purchase your account is refilled with a certain amount of cash-drops.


Photo: Lena Hellqvist

Having one’s life suspended

Why so much detail about the DropShop system? Because it goes to the core of one of the most difficult and destructive side effects of ‘handling’ refugees the way we normally do: having one’s participation in society (and one’s life) suspended and being forced (by smiling an well-meaning professionals or volunteers) into prolonged dependency.

Nea Kavala is not extraordinary. You will find numerous other refugee camps organised in a similar way. Let’s take a look at some of the features that simultaneously look like a miniature welfare state system and produce dependency, passivity and non-participation (the list is long but worth while reading).

  1. Camp management is executed by the military. Their basic competence is security, ID checks and basic ‘law and order’. They also provide ready made food delivered on polystyrene plates with plastic wrapping. All residents are given this food and all they have to do is eating it.
  2. The local municipality is responsible for technical assistance, electricity, entry and exit registration, cleaning, and social work.
  3. The Ministry of Migration Policy is responsible for management of the site, and for decision making. Whether they operate through visits or have a permanent representative in the camp, I don’t know. Residents are not involved.
  4. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides site management support and shelter&infrastructure support. The tents used until November last year were provided by UNHCR. Residents are recipients and otherwise not involved.
  5. Water, sanitation, hygiene (WASH) issues are taken care of by
    1. Samaritan’s Purse: Cleaning and Maintenance of WASH facilities. Lavatories and showers are placed in separate containers, each one shared by a specific number of container homes. These are cleaned regularly by crews from Samaritan’s Purse. Residents are not involved. Management of drainage system, cleaning of laundry and tap stations, chlorinating the water and doing lab tests of the water.
    2. Austrian and British Red Cross: Hygiene promotion, distribution of hygiene articles and assisting Samaritan’s Purse in Water and Sanitation.
  6. Health and nutrition issues are handled by several NGOs
    1. German and Finnish Red Cross: basic health care like minor injuries and illnesses, medicines and vaccination, maternal and child health, and psychosocial support.
    2. Praksis: Counselling, psychosocial support and therapy for adults.
    3. Save the Children: Assessment, counselling, advice and support for infant and young child feeding, safe space for breast feeding, and providing blenders for complementary food.
  7. Child protection is handled by
    1. Save the Children and local NGO Arsis: Case Management Services for vulnerable and at risk children and families, psychosocial interventions and referral pathways.
  8. Distribution of food and non-food items
    1. A Drop in the Ocean: non-food items, clothes, shoes, supplementary food and vegetable packs.
    2. Save the Children: Provision of two feeds of UHT milk to young children (12-24 months), pregnant and lactating women. Mothers can bring their own food and use blenders to make it appropriate in texture for babies 6-12 months.
    3. UNHCR: Distribution of non-food items.
  9. Protection and information
    1. UNHCR: Information on asylum and legal procedures, counselling, case management and referrals
    2. Greek Council for Refugees (GFR): Legal aid
    3. International Red Cross: Restoring family links, case work, restoring contact between family members, tracing and messaging.

While writing this my cellphone lights up showing a new Facebook entry linking to an  article in the Guardian titled ‘Horrific’ levels of child abuse in unsafe refugee camps. All of a sudden the miniature welfare state appearance of Nea Kavala seems like a much preferred reality and should be praised, not evaluated in a critical perspective! I go through the same process of watching the news as described in the first paragraph of this blogpost. The new entry knocks the former one out and the fragile development of an understanding, an argument, is at risk of being wiped out. The physical act of writing makes it easier to retrace the former chain of thoughts: while appreciating the necessity and value of securing a working welfare system in the refugee camps, like the one in Nea Kavala, it is also of the utmost importance to recognise and identify the pacifying consequences of the system, and ask: Is it possible to involve the residents in a way that would make them actors and participants in their own lives, however intermediate the current situation may be? The question is not a trivial one. Nor are the answers.

Empowerment and participation in a drop format

Let’s have a second look at what A Drop in the Ocean (DiO) does from the perspective of empowerment and participation. Distribution of vegetables and dry food appears to be a passive handing out of green and red bags to people lining up waiting to have their camp IDs checked and given the correct amount. Twice a week. On the other hand, compared to being given ready made and luke warm chicken and rice on polysterine plates, the veggies and chick peas provided by DiO give the residents a possibility of making their own meals. An inconsequential detail? No, on the contrary, a very important detail. A drop.

The DropShop system could be described as similar to playing democracy through student councils in primary school, or shopping with Monopoly money provided by the system. Seen from another perspective, the nine element camp management list above is, regardless of its much needed welfare qualities, mostly non-involving, non-empowering activities: services given to the residents. Shopping clothes in the DropShop with fake drop-money does provide an opportunity to go from plastic box to plastic box, making decisions on what you like, what you want, and what to actually buy. It is a miniature, but significant difference from only being given things. Another drop.

From participant to recipient

The late great Norwegian philosopher Hans Skjevheim wrote an iconic essay in 1957 titled Participant and Observer (Deltakar og tilskådar). A parallell text from the perspective of a volunteer in a Greek refugee camp sixty years later would have had the title Participants ans Recipients. In our European welfare societies, all the services provided by the state, are funded by the accumulated amount of tax money. Our contribution to the collective is a result of having a paid job. This is the major element in a healthy, well-functioning welfare system. In a refugee camp, whether in Greece or in an asylum reception centre in Norway, there are no jobs, no work, no possibilities of becoming a participant. The refugees and asylum seekers are doomed in the sense that they are being made recipients, passively waiting and waiting for a decision that will take them out of a limbo situation most of them don’t know the end of.

So, what do you do when you are a resident in a refugee camp in Northern Greece? I depends. Of course there will be tensions between members of different groups depending of their prospects, or prognosis, as the doctors would say. The majority in Nea Kavala come from Syria. They know that they will be granted asylum somewhere. They don’t know where and they don’t know when. Others come from local desperate situations in Kongo, Nigeria, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia og Afghanistan. They keep on hoping, but most of them know that the risk of being returned is overwhelming. This realisation has of course an impact on who you are in the internal hierarchy of a refugee camp. All are equal, but some are more equal than others. Some become victims of their own despair and develop destructive behaviour. When despair is taking control and hope jumps ship like rats in a rotten vessel, destruction is a tempting reaction. I have seen this when cleaning containers before new arrivals where people have left their home in the camp in search of irregular and illegal loopholes into other European countries.

img_5031 img_5034

I have also met others with very little hope of being granted asylum who stick to their integrity and dignity. One of them is Irfan (read the text on his T-shirt) and his mother, father and little sister. Irfan’s father showed me how to make an Afghan fighter kite. He knew just a few words in English, and there were no-one in the camp who could translate from Farsi. Still, we connected and I will always have a place in my heart for Irfan and his family. They had lived as refugees in Iran for six years, but had fled to Greece after Iran had started to return Afghanis. Just as we do in Norway.

irfan-and-bg building_afghan_fighter_kites

A Drop in the Ocean has on its agenda to develop projects that involve the refugees, the residents in the camp. But intentions are not facts. A well known aphorism says The way to Hell is paved with good intentions. A more positive angle would be to say: Hell is full of good meanings, but Heaven is full of good works.

The Art Project

One such project was decorating the outside walls of the house used by DiH in the camp, the Drop Shop. The plan was to have two young artists working for another volunteer organisation to invite residents to a men’s and a women’s meeting to discuss ideas for the decoration. I went to the men’s meeting, full of enthusiasm and anticipation. What happened was a rather harsh reminder for myself about the simple fact that the life-world of the one you intend to help is not necessarily equivalent to the one you as a helper imagines it to be. This is what happened: When the eight residents joined the meeting for the men, I had already chatted with the artist suggesting that a blue colour baseline could signify coming out of the Mediterranean, as a majority of the refugees had done. The artist seemed to like this idea.


He explained the project to the men and asked them to come up with associations to the word HOPE, as he wanted the decoration of the walls of the Drop house to convey exactly this: HOPE. The silence that followed was awkward. The men did as they were told and started to make drawings on the papers they were given. But there was no enthusiasm, no smiles, no nothing. After ten minutes with repeated attempts from the young artist to extract visualisations of HOPE, one of the men raised his hand and said what everyone was thinking. “The word hope reminds us of the desperate situation we are in, every day, of the terrible situation in the country we fled from. The word ‘hope’ just makes us more depressed. We want to think of something that makes us happy.” All of a sudden my idea of a blue colour reminding them of ‘coming out of the sea’ seemed grotesque. The artist also, after a few minutes of taking in the changed conceptual basis, managed to ask the group: Fine! Give me your thoughts about what makes you happy! There was laughter for the first time in the meeting, and I will never forget the three first inputs: 1) Mickey Mouse!, 2) Money!, 3) Nice cars! The energy level in the group of refugees was surging, and totally deflated inside the artist and myself. This was a very valuable learning experience. How easy it is to fall in love with your own ideas about what other people need, and how destructive this can be if you are in a power position, for instance as a volunteer in an NGO wanting to help. An aid worker, a helper, a volunteer and the person(s) receiving aid, help, assistance are not equal. ‘The power of the gift’ is a difficult reality in most aid work. The recipient is put in a position where he/she has to/feels obliged to show some form of gratitude, for instance accepting ideas about painting a house in a refugee camp according to the visions of the ‘giver’ even it feels very wrong. I feel thankful to the man in the art project group who dared to name the elephant in the room.




The project ended well. Quite a few children and young men helped out in putting colour and joy to the patterns the artists ended up with. The idea of letting refugees express their hopes is not necessarily a bad one, but belongs to another project, another setting. I feel a bit wiser after this. Now the walls of the Drop House express joy and energy!


The evening of 20 March also turned out to be a massive expression of joy and energy. I had no previous knowledge of Newroz, but noticed that a huge bonfire was being prepared. Asking around I found out that the busy refugees were Kurds preparing for their New Year celebration.


A group of six men were totally absorbed in the process of making a Kurdish flag. It had to be painted on a bedsheet. In order to get a perfect, round sun in the middle, a bicycle wheel was sacrificed. The spikes were  cut and Voilá, a perfect template for a perfect Kurdish sun! The men were all smiles when they could fly their colours between two container homes.


As the real sun was setting and the evening approached, people started to gather around the big bonfire that had been lit. The military loudspeaker system was clearly not dimensioned for the volume level fitting a Kurdish newroz. All the most popular Kurdish songs were played, all of them with painfully distorted sound.




And then there was dancing, and dancing. And singing. And dancing.