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On Becoming a Little Drop in the Ocean

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.


Pulling together happened quickly: young and old; all wishing to contribute in some small way to make life a little better for those who have fled an untenable situation. Three Danes, three Norwegians, two Brits, two Americans, a Swede, a Spaniard, a German, a Swiss – and Hamed from Palestine. Signe from Denmark is coordinator and in charge of the group. She has been here about one month, and will have her travelling expenses covered and access to a small car. Room and board is at her own expense. Everyone else cover all her/his own expenses. The desire to volunteer is obviously compelling. Meeting so many wonderful young people living their dreams in the refugee reality is an absolute joy. Dråpen i Havet is a small Norwegian organisation. Under its English name, A Drop in the Ocean, the organisation has quickly become well known in very many countries.

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The camp Nea Kavala is situated close to Macedonian border, about an hour’s drive due north of Thessaloniki. The camp can house 1500 refugees in UNHCR tents; just now 512 refugees live here, in so-called ISO boxes, small shipping containers resembling workers’ barracks. 243 families, including 152 children under the age of 12.

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The camp is located near an old airfield and run by the Greek military.

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As someone familiar with the military presence in the West Bank, I notice that soldiers here are nearly invisible. They do not carry weapons. Each morning when we arrive at the camp, we wave hello through the guardroom window, and they jot down our passport numbers. We also spot a couple of officers when new refugees enter the camp, ready to equip the new arrivals with local ID cards.

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The Greek military and a number of organisations run the camp in a collaborative effort; A Drop in the Ocean is among the smallest – and newest. The military provides food, such as rice and chicken in polystyrene trays covered with plastic wrap. Red Cross/Red Crescent and Save the Children are in charge of refugees’ health. A Greek offshoot of Doctors without Borders, called Practice, offers psychosocial services and therapy for adults. Another Greek organisation, Samaritan’s Purse, is responsible for water and sanitation in the camp. The young, new organisations have volunteers who work here for short periods, and their names reflect happy, youthful spontaneity, commitment and lack of self-importance. A Spanish organisation that operates schools and kindergartens is simply called We are here! Even less formal is a gang of young carpenters who helps refugees make small additions to the standard shipping container homes: Get the Shit Done! They are all here to contribute in their own way to make life a little easier for people who have fled war and hunger.

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A Drop in the Ocean is responsible for distributing “non-food items”: clothes, shoes, supplementary food and vegetable packs. Already on our first day, we get on with practical tasks: driving about an hour south, towards the outskirts of Thessaloniki, we arrive at a warehouse where we have access to a small shed for sorting and packing vegetables. Another team has been in the city early in the morning, to pick up the daily allotment at a wholesale warehouse. The veggies have been donated by another organisation and it is mostly third rate or worse. We pack in plastic bags, large, green ones, and small red ones.

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A blackboard at the sorting table tells us how much to pack in each bag. Today, we are packing for three different camps.

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The spinach is fragile and quickly becomes slimy. We tear off the edible bits. We weigh up units of 600 and 200 grams, used as templates for how much to put in green and red bags, respectively.

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After the packing is done, we are brought into the main warehouse, to an enormous heap of clothes and shoes of very varying quality, all received by the grassroots organisation here. The photo gives you an idea of the number of working hours needed to sort clothing by type, gender and size and store everything for easy retrieval later. The organisation has requested assistance from A Drop in the Ocean, and we step up of course!

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Elsa, Grete and I are rather tired after hours of hauling and sorting. When the car arrives to take us back to Nea Kavala, we look at each other and agree that we have been three drops in a vast ocean.

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In the next blog post, we’ll tell you more about the specific work Drop in the Ocean runs in Nea Kavala – and about how we celebrated the Kurdish New Year around a large bonfire in the camp.

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