Giving everything and nothing

Hello T,

We have had a packed week here in northern Greece. Many things have changed on the ground with the closing of the unofficial camp in Idomeni, and government policies on what volunteers can and cannot do keep changing. We practice patience and flexibility, and I find plenty of opportunities to combine my inner with my outer work when confronted with the paradoxical situation of trying to help people who don’t want to be in the position of needing to receive it.

On Tuesday morning we had planned to go to Idomeni to help with the food distribution, but this proved not to be possible as police went into the camp and started the process of relocating the refugees. Instead we stayed in Thessaloniki and sorted donations in the warehouse. There is an overwhelming amount of clothing there to go through, and it is rather like a lesson in fashion through the decades. A friend of mine followed me around that day and made a little film, you can see it here.

A few of the Greek volunteers did go to Idomeni though, so we could get live updates on what was happening. They managed to get in (but only with a police escort), give out some bread, and were made to leave 20 minutes later. When they came back they said some 25 busloads of refugees had left the camp without violence. The camp had been very quiet as the refugees had been told to stay in their tents awaiting evacuation. Later we have heard stories of people being very confused as they were not told where they were being taken to, and many of the new camps are in very questionable conditions. Even conventional media is picking up on this. What beats me is why the authorities decided to first empty Idomeni and then build up the infrastructure in the new camps, instead of vice versa.

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So now we see the abrupt end of the infrastructure built up by volunteer organizations in Idomeni, the containers, the kitchen, the distributions, the volunteer transport and rotas… It will all be reincarnated soon somewhere else, when we figure out which camps the refugees have been put in and which help is needed where. For how long our next structure will be operational is impossible to tell, so we’ll just have to be flexible. At the moment we are mostly working with a camp in Lagkadikia, close to where we live. It is home to about 900 people, out of whom many are children and about 50 are unaccompanied minors. It has been a slow and tricky process to get as far as working in the camp. To do so requires official permission, and that means sitting in meetings with the NGOs in charge. And finding the right person at the right time is almost impossible. One day we spent over five hours waiting for someone (who in the end never turned up), looking at the squalid conditions in the camp without being permitted to do anything.
The UNHCR have closed down all self-organised activities by refugee volunteers in Lakgadikia and don’t permit any external volunteers in, all with the intention of waiting for another NGO to come in and organize things properly. No school, no activities, rubbish was piling up, and we could just stand and watch, waiting for our meeting. It is understandable that frustration has been increasing within the camp population lately. Fights have been breaking out, creating even more work for the NGOs, and even less time for them to meet with us so we can get to work to improve the conditions creating the frustration in the first place…

But finally we managed to have our meeting, get the right permissions, and we are now busy trying to sort through donations, make a plan for how to distribute them, and survey what the needs and resources are within the camp. It is fascinating how difficult it is to just coordinate such a simple thing as checking which shoe size people have when it’s almost 1000 people, we don’t share a language, and we have not yet understood how the population of the camp wants to govern itself and disseminate information, if indeed there is any agreement on that at all.

But I am learning to be more at peace with the slow pace of all organisation here. Most of the NGOs and their employees seem to spend innumerable hours in meetings with different ministries and organisations, and come across as completely overwhelmed by any practical task such as sorting clothes, or, the biggest issue of all, doing a distribution. This, I am quickly understanding, is something most refugee workers are nervous about. How do we give out clothes for example (which is a very personal thing after all), to so many people, with bodies of so many shapes and sizes, without discontent and fighting, when we only have a small container to use for storage? What makes me most nervous is that the UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council, who we work mostly with, come to us and say: “Why don’t you come up with some ideas – you are the experts after all.” We’re still thinking about that one – but maybe a refugee distribution permaculture design comes out of it.

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I am also learning to daily be the witness of and accepting discontent and misery. For me it is a very powerful experience to only meet people who would rather be somewhere else, doing something else – it doesn’t happen very often in “normal” life. This is teaching us a lot about the art of giving, and about how to do it with an open heart. Both in Idomeni and Calais I saw the tendency within volunteers to close their hearts in order to give to someone else. It is definitely understandable, and probably very natural. Imagine giving time and energy to cooking a meal for example, spending stressful hours in a sweltering container making 3000 portions of potatoes and peas, putting it into individual plastic containers, and giving it out to a crowd of people already complaining that the food is late. And as the distribution goes on, it transpires that people are not satisfied with the food, abuse the system, jump the queue, take many times the amount of food they can eat to then just throw it on the ground, or lie straight into your eyes just to get more bread than the next person. It is easy to close down, not meet the individual but treat everyone in the same systemic way, and answer pleas or threats by ignoring or disregarding their owner.

How do we continue to stay open, generous, and well-wishing? How do we still access our emotions and intuition on what we believe is right for the world, and not just get stuck in a pattern or habit of working, in which we might ultimately burn out and get cynical with aid work? Because this is our new reality, and it will not go away sometime soon. How do we live with it, rather than despite it? These are questions I spend much time considering. All this ultimately means that the greatest task in working with refugees for me is my inner work. How to stay calm, centred, and understanding in the face of all this confusion and frustration.

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This is also a reason that I have chosen to work with RefuGEN. We are exploring what sustainability means in many different aspects. Not only do we need to find good, holistic, long term solutions for refugees, but also for all the volunteers that come through. One important part of this work is the place we live – Skala Ecovillage situated about an hour’s drive from Thessaloniki. The volunteers take turns staying at home with the others living here, working on the land, cooking, and doing all the other exciting things that make an ecovillage go round. We also take part in the social side of community life, with sharing circles and other trust building activities. So to live with open hearts we’re also making sure we have a good life, growing our own food, drinking water from the stream, plenty of time for yoga, meditation, and sharing. It really is a good life, in all its tragedy. At least it gives a welcome break from the often challenging and contradictory work with refugees and is a good opportunity to breathe, reflect, and integrate all our experiences.

So in a way we are giving everything we can, as honestly, openly, and non-violently as we possibly can, but it is nothing. Nothing that the people want to have to receive. And all I can do for now is learn how to hold the discomfort of that, the paradoxes and the contradictions. I hold it in the hope that acknowledging its existence may lead to understanding.

With love and a full heart,



One thought on “Giving everything and nothing

  1. interesting to hear what you’re up to. Volunteering with refugees must indeed be quite challenging. I wonder if it’s natural for us to get into routines and do things without thinking. I think to a certain extent we all do this – we need to in order to function properly.
    It’s easy to forget about the tragedy of millions of displaced people all over from here in Scotland. We are certainly living in interesting times


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