Less frightening than expected

The retiree Kristin Falkung (72) is not one to put much emphasis on the work she does for others. But she wishes to show that it’s not necessarily scary to work as a volunteer in the field. And she wants to inspire more elderly people to do the same.

en smilende kvinne med garn og id-kort

Kristin is sitting at her terrace at Nesøya, reading today’s newspaper. As usual, there is nothing in the paper about the inflatable boats that cross the Mediterranean every night, about the families fleeing, or about all the people that live in refugee camps for the second or third year.

Less than a year ago, Kristin left for Greece to see some of this with her own eyes. She is soon leaving for Greece again. This time her bag is filled with woollen clothes. The camp Nea Kavala is located at a closed down airport in Northern Greece. Nothing keeps the sun from heating up the camp during the summer or the cold wind from blowing through the camp during the winter. Kristin has heard that the cold is immense at this time of year.

The changed life of a retiree

On their way to Nea Kavala refugee camp in Greece, with 14 colli of winterjackets and warm winter clothes, December 2018.

Kristin retired after a long career at the child neurological department at Rikshospitalet, where she worked with children with disabilities. But her retired life turned out different that expected. Kristin’s husband, Arnulf, died six years ago, just after she retired from her job.

In addition to spending time with her children and grandchildren, Kristin started filling her days with volunteer work in her neighbourhood. Home-Start, and NGO working with child welfare, as well as Red Cross and the Asylum Centre at Hvalstrand, benefitted from her gentile heart and hard work.

– A friend and neighbour, which already had been in Greece, asked if I would consider going with for her next trip. I didn’t take me long to say yes.

Not so frightening

– Many were surprised that I dared. But I took a decision before I left – I decided not to go to the Greek Islands. I think that would have been too though. To receive families with small children directly from the Mediterranean and to know that they had a terrible time ahead of them would be too much for me. But to travel to a well led camp in Northern Greece turned out to be less scary that expected. There are many elderly that want to help. But few are actually going.

– What do you think are keeping them from going?

– I think many feel powerless; they think that the work they can do won’t matter. We often read about naïve people who believe that they can change the world. What drives the volunteers are however the wish to be fellow humans by making a small difference. Not to save the world. It feels good to know that one person can make a small difference.

– We live a comfortable life in Norway. And to travel to a refugee camp is everything but comfortable. But its meaningful and not as scary as one should think. I travelled with the organisation A Drop in the Ocean. We had clear tasks for everyday. The work was predictable and well organised. I travelled together with a friend who had already been through it one time before, which made me feel safe. Even in a well-organised camp, the impressions need processing.

To make a difference

– For those living in the camp, there are many people to deal with, and many who are coming and going. Most of them bear with them a traumatic history. At the same time, they try to maintain a decent level of dignity. It means a lot to meet them with equality and respect, and to be open-minded and display understanding. A smile, a hug, or a recognising glance can be all that is needed for those living in the camp to feel that they have been seen. They are normal human beings, like you and me. They have the same needs and you and me. They just carry with them a traumatic background.

Jwanna (5) serves Kirsten som Cherry Berries and homemade cake from her mother.

– Can you think about one moment that you won’t forget?

– As a grandmother, meeting children at the same age as my own grandchildren really made an impression on me. I remember two brothers who were alone. They had lost both their parents. The youngest one was probably around 14 years. He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t take him home with me. It’s hard to know that it probably takes a long time before he feels safe again. I see everything that my grandchildren have and the life they live. It makes me wonder what life he has in front of him. I often find myself thinking about him.

Sharing what they got

Kirsten (73) and Noor (33) – Dinner invitation from a syrish family, and after dinner they had some time to teach how to knit.

– I also met several families that made an impression. In one family, the father was a very unhappy man. His youngest child (5) has been fleeing his whole life, and the father often seemed frustrated about how his life had turned out. Nevertheless, he often invited us into his container and served us delicious meals. They shared with us the little that they had.

Kristin was born not longer after the Second World War. When she grew up, her family lived frugally.

– As most families at that time. But as the years passed, the welfare increased and life got easier. The same applies to the refugees that you meet. I can’t imagine how these people, who used to live like me, are left without anything. It’s heart breaking.

Some challenges

– How would you describe the other volunteers?

– I have to admit that I got surprised. Since A Drop in the Ocean is a Norwegian organisation, I though that most of the volunteers would be Norwegian. But, in addition to my friend and I, there was just one other Norwegian there. The rest were women and men from all over the world, and we all communicated in English. In the beginning, I found this a bit difficult. But everyone did their best to help, and it soon passed.

Kirsten together with other volunteers at Astro – a hotel in Polikastro.

– What about you age?

– I was the oldest one, which I think is a shame. Imagine everything that we elderly can help with! Many of the younger ones have their strengths and qualities, but so does the elderly! People might feel more comfortable talking to someone with a longer life experience. This especially applies to women with small children. You can take on the role as a type of grandmother. And that feels very meaningful.

– Among the younger generation, there were both women and men. But among us elderly, we were exclusively women. With all the competence that is needed in the camp, including both human relations but also physical tasks, I find this weird.

– Where did you stay?

– We stayed in a simple hotel close to the camp. The beds were confortable and the staffs were very friendly. Many seem surprised when I tell them that we pay for everything ourselves. I could choose to go to Rome for weekend instead, but this is more meaningful. Just by being born in Norway, I have received so many opportunities. I wish to give something back, but that doesn’t mean that I also would enjoy a weekend in Rome.