A volunteers perspective from the refugee camp in Idomeni

Waterman Structures were proud to support Graduate Charlie Bowles as he ventured to Greece for 3 weeks to aid an unofficial refugee camp called Idomeni in May 2016.

Sprawling around a train station at the Northern Greek border with Macedonia there were approximately 9,000 refugees consisting of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Kurds and Pakistanis, of which an estimated 45% were children.

Charlie was able to get involved with Team Bananas which was set up by 3 independent volunteers in February 2016 as they aimed to distribute bananas tent by tent every morning to all of the children and breast feeding or pregnant women of the camp as a filling and nutritious source of fresh food. Costing roughly €800 a day (£632), the project is funded and manned entirely by independent volunteers and the donations that they can accrue. Charlie describes his experience amongst the refugees.

idomeni-1I found that the project was very important to the refugees for greater reasons than banana distribution. Most other food outlets provided by NGOs or independent organisations worked using a line distribution system which can lend itself to unfair portion circulation where it is common for the weak or vulnerable to miss out as the strongest or most persistent receive more. Distributing bananas tent to tent allowed a routine for the children who would help us with the filling and carrying of the banana bags, and providing an interaction and relationship with the families which a line distribution would not.

After finishing our morning banana distribution we would bring out a donated Boom Box to play an assortment of German, English and Spanish children’s songs and nursery rhymes to sing and dance with the children from the local camps – my following of the lyrics was not always on point, but fortunately the dance moves were easily learned! My afternoons would then be dedicated to distributing other necessary supplies such as bread, clothes or solar powered lamps as well as regularly meeting with the volunteer coordinators to learn how to assist various humanitarian situations.

I spent a lot of time sitting in the tents of families that we met, drinking lots of chai and listening to their stories of home and their hopes and concerns for the future. I was absolutely astonished by the hospitality, warmth and kindness of the people I met, especially after the horrors that most had experienced. I heard about the awful journeys they had endured just to reach Europe’s closed borders, that one family paid €12,000 (£9,488) for passage by boat and lost all of their possessions, including their passports, when it capsized. They turned up to Idomeni with nothing and were given food and shelter.

Before I arrived there had been rumours that Idomeni would shut and its inhabitants be moved to official camps run by the military. Over my final week it was becoming clear that these rumours would soon be realised and I spoke with many of the refugees about how they felt being moved. The general view wasn’t positive due to the lack of volunteer presence and journalists not being permitted entry. Perhaps most importantly moving away from the border would feel like an admission of defeat and a loss of hope that the gateway to Northern Europe would open.

I visited one of the military warehouses to gather more information and help alleviate the shared concerns of the conditions with the inhabitants. There were mixed opinions but the general views from the families living there already were that the conditions and the safety were higher than that in Idomeni.

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The night before Idomeni closed I stayed with one of the families I had grown close to as I knew they had been resistant to the idea of moving. I was hoping to provide some reassurance that going to the military camps would be beneficial to them, but in reality it was their only option – it was an emotional day for everyone!

On my last day I had the opportunity to re-visit 4 of the families in their new military camps and it was so positive to see them still smiling however, they told me their concerns that these camps will lead to them being forgotten, that when pictures of sprawling camps cease to be posted on volunteers’ social media pages, they will be left in these warehouses, out of sight and out of mind.

Team Bananas solely relies upon donations in order to continue distributing bananas where they are needed most, whether it be at the military camps in Greece, other locations in Europe, Turkey or Lebanon. If you would like to learn more about this project or make a donation please visit:
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/TeamBananasGreece/
GoFundMe – https://www.gofundme.com/TeamBananasIdomeni