BY: BECKY WADDELL
During our first day at the Piraeus Port a ragtag group of eighteen emerged over the course of the morning – including three Syrian refugees. We spent the entire day sorting and cataloging endless piles of clothing. Two Afghan refugees, M. & S., joined us in the afternoon – young men that we would later find out were only seventeen years old. Their experience on this journey gave them a level of maturity that most people never reach in a lifetime.
After the organizing the warehouse, the moment had arrived to distribute the donations. Word had spread among camps across the port that our warehouse had been gearing up.
The warehouse door remained locked from the inside as we worked to prevent a flood of people entering. M. & S. stood guard to manage the lines at the front door the entire day after I’d proven myself too spineless for the task.
Rat-infested and devoid of sunlight, that same warehouse was where we convened the next day to plan for our second distribution. The first distribution had some major kinks, and we were in serious need for some creative thinking. The group of volunteers had grown significantly and we all had ideas and suggestions for how to improve the logistics of distributing. Naturally, everyone liked their own idea best.
Omar, a refugee who had the thankless job of translating for hours on end, listened quietly as the volunteers discussed the merits and faults of different queuing strategies. Eventually the group reached a consensus – we would distribute to women and children in the morning, take a break, and distribute to men in the evening. Armed with a foolproof plan and inflated egos, the group started to mill about when Omar broke his silence and politely asked if he could say something.
“This won’t work. For these people, tell the men four o’clock and they will get in line right now and wait until four. It’s better to do women today, men tomorrow.”
A hush fell over the volunteers - with a smile, we all acknowledged how little we actually knew about running a makeshift distribution center in a refugee camp and immediately agreed on Omar's plan. Distribution that day was run like a military operation. We were able to serve hundreds of refugees with shoes, clothes, and other items with a fraction of the issues.
As much as we tried to help, the contributions of volunteers across the camps would have been significantly less impactful without dozens of refugees that volunteered alongside us each day. Without their tireless help we would have never been able to understand exactly what people needed while also hoping to help hundreds of people in a day.
It’s rare to encounter people who, despite their own horrifying circumstances, feel such a strong sense of duty to their fellow refugees and volunteers. If we continue to paint an entire group of people – migrants, refugees – with a broad sweeping brush, we will miss the important details that shed a brighter light on who these individuals are.