“It is what it is, it’s still better than war,” says a Syrian father of four. They have just arrived Chios, the Greek island that currently receives most of the new arrivals of refugees. On my first day as a volunteer for A Drop in the Ocean it was cold with a freezing wind, but it was not the weather that gave me goose bumps and tears in my eyes.
(Written by Ingrid Mee Hushoft, printed in Norsk tidsskrift for ernæring no. 1 2017)
As a Norwegian student, there were many strong impressions and fates that awaited me when I worked as a volunteer in the refugee camp Souda. There are currently more than 65 million displaced people in the world because of conflict, war, persecution or climate crises. Of those, about fifty percent is children. It may be easy to just look at this as numbers and statistics, here we live in a safe and secure Norway. Media touch upon the issue now and then, and we get to see atrocities from a war-torn Syria in the news, a place where people starve and aid organisations don’t manage to reach the population with humanitarian aid. Yet it is so easy to forget, so easy to look the other way, since we are living so far away, having a life so very different.
Fortunately, A Drop in the Ocean exists, an organisation that shows the refugees that there are people outside who care. A Drop in the Ocean’s purpose is to provide immediate and direct assistance to refugees. This is done by volunteers who are working for the organisation in Athens, on Chios and in northern Greece. The whole organisation is made up of voluntary contributions, and tasks may vary according to what’s needed the most at the time. As volunteers in the refugee camp Souda on Chios our main task was distributing breakfast, lunch, dinner, hygiene articles and clothing. A big part of the task was to keep peace and order during the distribution of meals, as it sometimes can become a little tense when a lot of people are waiting in line. As long as the weather allowed it, we also organised activities for children every da. Yet, perhaps the most important task was to just be there for them. There are around 800 people in the camp, so we are unfortunately not enough to meet everyone’s needs, but it is something – it is a drop in the ocean.
The food situation
As dietitian student, I was curious about the nutritional status of the refugees. A Drop in the Ocean had already done a lot, and I was told by refugees that the situation had improved. In fact, it had become so good that refugees who lived in the camp Vial chose to come to Souda to get food there instead. The refugee camp Vial is militarily controlled and A Drop in the Ocean has unfortunately not been allowed to work in this camp. This gave me the impression that there are even fewer that are seen and heard in Vial. In Souda the presence of volunteers gave us the opportunity to facilitate for pregnant women and those who are ill so they do not have to wait in line for food distribution. The food was mostly a fine nutritious with beans, vegetables, bread and rice for lunch and dinner. Breakfast could however be improved with a higher protein content, but it strikes me, however, that it is not the food itself that is the problem, but the whole situation around it.
Many of the refugees are highly educated and have had good jobs – just like me and you. It is therefore very understandable that the situation they are in, and have been for a long time now, is stressful. Think about how you and I get annoyed by having to wait in line at the local supermarket, or how annoying we find it when people cut in line getting on the bus. Then think about standing in line for two hours outdoors, in all kind of weather, having to accept an allotted portion of food, without having any influence over the menu, and this have been your life for the last nine months – since you have no other choice? They know that they deserve much better, we know they deserve much better – but they have no alternative. “It is better than war,” said the father. He just came from Syria with his four children, where he worked as a doctor. Is this what will happen to them? A Drop in the Oceans volunteers da a fantastic job, but it is not intended that people should have to stand in line for food for several months. Not in Europe. Not in 2017.
Hard fates create strong people
Many of the refugees come from war, and some of them have lost everything. I meet a 25-year-old boy from Syria who spoke excellent English. He had studied law for two years, was engaged to be married – before everything unravelled. His university lay outside the city, and one day when he returned from school he found his city in ruins. He lost his home, his family and his fiancée that day. He has been in the camp for more than six months. He does not show anger or sadness associated with this. He just wishes that he could do something, anything – he applied for a position as a volunteer translator, as he unfortunately did not get. All he says to all these unimaginable experiences is that he has been “an unfortunate man.” His courage to continue is unstoppable, which is admirable, but also so upsetting. When can this man get an upturn?
A dignified childhood
I see children who are no longer allowed to be children. They do not get a proper follow-up, with good routines and schooling. Many must take care of their younger siblings because their parents are so traumatized that they are unable to do it, or because they don’t have parents. The children learn that they must yell or scream the loudest to get heard, and that they should take things to get something. They were brought up differently, but the reality in the camp teaches them that this is how the world works. The youth has nothing to do or care about, so to change the monotony of life they drink and “play” with knifes. The grownups look on in disbelief, but they cannot really do anything else than wait.
Fortunately, there are flashes of light in the darkness. Back in Norway I get the wonderful message from one of my friends that he has been granted asylum in Norway. He has been alone in the camp for more than three months, his only 16 years, but he has an aunt in Norway, and now he will be able to get here in two months. A boy who has been through all too much, now see hope again. It gives hope to know that things can change.
If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one
A Drop in the Ocean are doing great work to improve the overall health and general situation in the camp for the refugees. It is not possible to help everyone and it is not possible to provide everything they need – but it is possible to do something. The camps residents need positivity and joy, someone to talk to, a good hug and someone who can keep organise the ques. Families has to live in tents, many without hot water and with unstable electricity. Despite the low standard of living and that the basic needs are not covered, it is the uncertainty and waiting that is the toughest to deal with for many of the refugees. I got to see and feel how much it means to have someone to lean on when you weather a storm.
Living under these circumstances, with traumas from what you have been through, is a fate lucky Norwegians may have difficult to grasp. People in the camps are much more susceptible for illnesses, both physical and mental, and it worsen the longer they have to stay in the camps. One thing’s for sure, and that is that it is important to erase the distinction between “us and them”, and help when you have the opportunity, in the camps in Greece but also in Norway when you meet refugees here. For it is not just about making a charitable work, it is about showing solidarity in an unjust world.