A rewarding experience that lasts a lifetime

Since 2015, 6000 volunteers from 60 different countries have travelled from their own countries to work with A Drop in the Ocean in Greece. These volunteers are the backbone of our operations, and without them in the field the work of A Drop in the Ocean would not be possible. While most volunteers travel alone, Lars Bremnes chose to take his whole family, and in autumn 2018 he and his wife Mari and their two children made the journey to Greece – Lars as Volunteer Coordinator and Mari as a volunteer field worker. They worked for A Drop in the Ocean while also being full-time parents and acting as teachers for their children. They were there for two and a half months, but it was an experience that will continue to make its mark on the whole family for much longer than that.

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The desire to help

It came as no surprise that Lars Bremnes should choose to help people on the run by working as a volunteer for A Drop in the Ocean. It has always been important for him to have a job that involves helping other people. For the past seven years he has worked with people addicted to drugs, and before that he worked in a reception centre for asylum seekers. Both he and his wife Mari feel frustrated by what they perceive as xenophobia in Norway and other European countries. However, the thing that really triggered Lars’ decision to work in Greece was Mari’s determination to give their children the chance to experience something similar to what she had experienced when growing up in Africa. After Lars had calculated carefully whether they could afford it, and after they had all examined every aspect of what A Drop in the Ocean stood for and did, the four of them decided to take the plunge.

“We travelled to Greece fully aware that nothing we could do would actually save anyone, and that perhaps our most important task would be to return to Norway and tell people about the conditions in Greece. Even though we sometimes feel powerless against the hopelessness of what we saw, we can, after almost two and a half months in Greece, say quite definitely that we have no regrets. It has been an experience that has influenced us in many ways, and will continue to do so,” they say.

Powerful encounters in the field

They chose to work in the Skaramangas refugee camp, one of the largest in Greece. About 2700 people live there today, mostly in containers, and they have electricity, water and toilets. A Drop in the Ocean organizes a range of activities for the camp residents: children’s activities, sewing room, mother and child centre, dignified distribution of clothes through our DropShop, and English teaching. Lars worked as a Project Coordinator and Volunteer Coordinator. This meant he had to coordinate different projects, ensure the materials and equipment needed were in place, and buy supplies when necessary, and he also had responsibility for coordinating the work of the volunteers and in supporting them when they needed it. Mari, for her part, worked as a volunteer for a two-week period, but her time was primarily taken up by acting as teacher for their children.

It is obvious that working in the camp made an impact on the whole family. “The biggest single impression came without doubt from what individuals told us about themselves,” says Lars. Mari adds that Lars developed a good relationship with some refugees who themselves worked as volunteers for A Drop in the Ocean, and got to know them, both as colleagues and friends.

Volunteers from A Drop in the Ocean and camp residents work side by side as volunteers. “This is important because the people living in the camps have become our most important human resource. They speak the language. They know the culture. They are close to everything that happens in the camp – and this includes things that happen when we are not there. Without the contribution of this particular group of volunteers, it would be difficult to reach out effectively with the services we offer,” says Trude Jacobsen, Secretary General in A Drop in the Ocean.

Keeping a focus on dignity

The job of having responsibility for the volunteers in the refugee camp meant that Lars met a large number of people and had countless very hectic days.

“Each week some volunteers left, and others arrived,” he explains. “Every new arrival had an induction session, during which I told them about their work, the camp and the situation for the camp residents. And on leaving, everyone had a departure interview. I took my responsibility for the work and well-being of the volunteers seriously. This coordinator role was extremely exciting and rewarding, but also tiring. The days were long and the responsibility heavy.”

When Mari’s mother was on a visit to Athens, she took the chance of working for a fortnight as a volunteer in the camp, mostly in the mother and child centre. For Mari herself, it was working closely with mothers and their children that made the deepest impression.

“Being a parent oneself gives an extra dimension to this kind of work,” says Mari. “I frequently asked myself what I would have thought or done if my own family were in this situation.”

While they were working in the camp Lars and Mari reflected a lot on how they should relate to the people who had to live there.

“One of the things we were determined to do in our work in the camp,” they both say, “was always to conduct ourselves in a way that respected the dignity of the people living there – and that meant both our body language and the way we communicated.”

Importance of involving children

Mari with her two children in Athens

When Mari’s work in the camp was finished, she found she could contribute in other ways. A Drop in the Ocean is always interested in helping in individual cases, and this is something Mari experienced at first hand.

“Not every refugee finds their way to a camp,” she explains, “and sometimes the person in question is a child.”

Receiving clothes and equipment from another organization, Mari was able to distribute them to children: for example, to children completely alone in hospital, sometimes only three years old. Mari’s own children joined her on occasions, and she says this made a big impression on them.

But these visits to the hospital were not the only thing her children experienced while they were in Athens. Lars and Mari felt it was important that their children shared as much of their everyday work as possible. This is how they talked about this, while still in Athens.

“We have chosen to be very open with our children when it comes to what we have seen, heard and experienced. They have also participated in our work – they bought hygiene items for other children and distributed them themselves, and they also helped choose four hundred metres of fabric for the sewing room at Skaramangas. But the most important thing is that they hear us talk about the people we meet. Funny stories, sad experiences and everyday events. Although our children cannot go into the camps with us, we want them to get to know some of the people who live there and realize that they are all types, with every possible sort of background, but with one thing in common – they want a safe and good life for themselves and their families.”

Impact on the whole family

Travelling a long way from home to carry out humanitarian work has a value that extends far beyond the family’s own boundaries. The children have, for one thing, sent travel letters to their school classes back home about their experiences, thus spreading the value of their new knowledge.

“Their school work in this period has included learning about other cultures, about human rights and about people fleeing from their own countries. At the same time, they have had a lot of fun. They have been to practically every corner of Athens, visited countless museums and parks, been to the funfair and visited a hospital for sea turtles. We are sure it has been a valuable experience for our children to be with us on this journey, and we hope it will influence their values and the choices they make in the future.”

Mari and Lars’ two children in Athens

Many volunteers return home after work in the field and say they experience a deep feeling of frustration and hopelessness after helping people in a very demanding situation. Mari and Lars have also experienced this sort of frustration.

“On the one hand it is a general sense of frustration directed against a system which is totally unequipped to tackle the huge numbers of people crossing the borders and entering Greece, but in the last resort it is a frustration that goes deeper, and it is directed towards Norway and other European countries turning their backs on Greece and on millions of people on the run.”

To increase awareness of conditions in Greece and of the seriousness of the situation there and in neighbouring countries, Mari made sure she sent out updated situation reports on social media.

“Skaramangas is recognized as being one of the best camps in Greece; at first sight it can resemble a deserted motorhome park. And yet – once you are acquainted with individual life stories of people living there – nothing can hide the fact that living in a refugee camp is not a good life. Most people there are nearly always short of something they need, and they deeply appreciate the support and aid from organizations like A Drop in the Ocean,” says Mari.

Exploring Athens and Greece

“A Drop in the Ocean’s volunteers are in the thick of it doing invaluable work, and their contribution is significant in many areas,” maintains Trude Jacobsen. “The whole operative side of our organization could not exist if it were not for good ideas and initiative from our volunteers. They are also the people who recruit new volunteers and other supporters. In our view, the very diversity of our volunteers is something we can make the most of – we see they return to their home countries able to spread important first-hand knowledge of the situation facing people on the run. It is important that the world knows.”

For Lars, Mari and their two children this experience has made an impact on their lives in many ways. Their thoughts go back to the people in the camp, where many continue to live in atrocious conditions.

“We sincerely hope we shall one day meet some of the people we got to know in Greece here in Norway, and that they get the chance to make a good life for themselves,” conclude Mari and Lars.