In the old Olympic basketball stadium in Athens is a vast warehouse where donations for refugees are sorted by volunteers in a less than glamorous job. They make sure that the right supplies reach the right camps and the right time – a task that is incredibly overwhelming. There are boxes stacked to the roof in corridor after corridor of unsorted donations that must be gone through, packed up, and sent off.
One of the heroes who is volunteering her time to work here is Ash. Here is a short interview that I did with her.
How did you get involved with working here?
So, if we could go back a little bit, I was volunteering in Calais, the jungle. I was there for five months through just past this winter. It’s an unofficial refugee camp with 10,000 people and over 1,000 children. I spent a lot of time there and I did as much as I could, I put in 100%, but I knew that I wanted to get closer, not really the source, but to the “action.” So we decided that we were going to come to Greece and we reached out to a number of different charities to see what they were doing, the schools in Chios to see if they needed any support. I have friends cooking food in Idomeni. But, my experience in Calais was working in a warehouse and streamlining processes there and trying to get things out of the door as soon as possible. So when we learned that there was a warehouse here we were like, right this is where we have to go. And ever since I have been in Athens I have been here, in the warehouse, I have not been inside any of the official camps, I have not been to any of the squats, not to the parks I haven’t done any of that. My focus has always been in sorting out this humongous warehouse… Because as you’ll see there are boxes of mixed things everywhere.
One of the most soul destroying things is when I was in Calais and we were doing single item distributions, so we would say on a Tuesday we would give out shoes and you would turn up with boxes of shoes and you would open a box and inside it would be jumpers. And it was the most frustrating thing for me so that’s what I am trying to avoid from happening here because this warehouse it serves so many different regions that it’s absolutely vital that we get out the right thing to the right people at the right time.
What are the types of people really making a difference in warehouses?
Do you know what, its just people who are willing to put in 100% and get their hands dirty and do anything. You leave your ego, you leave your pride, you leave everything behind. I don’t care if you’re a doctor or if you’re a cleaner. I don’t care. That means nothing to me. To me, the most vital thing is that you come and you work you just put in all the effort that needs to be done. I don’t care what age you are I don’t care about anything as long as you’ve come with the attitude that you are going to work and that you are going to make a difference you are more than welcome in this club. I love it.
What was the calling for you to come and work in the Refugee Crisis?
It’s just so hard to avoid. Everyone talks about the picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach. But this issue has been going on for so many years, and it has not been covered by the media. A lot of people don’t know the situation in Sudan, don’t know about civil wars in Africa. A lot of people are focusing on the conflict in Syria which is incredibly important, but there are still refugees from Afghanistan which was bombed years ago. The Iraq war started 13 years ago, and there are still refugees coming from those situations. I had to do something. My degree is in computer science: I am fairly computer and technically oriented. I worked in advertising and marketing for ten years. But it didn’t mean anything. Nothing that I did was tangible. I can’t touch any of the work that I do; it’s all digital. And for me, I wanted to come and do something with my own hands. I mean, I am not in the best of conditions. (at this point she gestures to her wrists which are braced and covered with bandages) I have tendonitis. I have really sore wrists but it’s worth it. There is nothing like opening a box and seeing the kids faces when they get the things that they need or seeing a mother getting the jumpers she needs for her kids or shoes, or whatever it may be. But that small glimmer of hope that they have in their eyes… that’s what I do it for.
Who has helped you manage the overwhelming nature of working in this crisis?
I think that I am really lucky in the sense that when I went to Calais I made really good friends out there. Out there they are really trying to focus a lot more on debriefing when you come back, or just having psychological and support systems in Calais so you have people to talk to. We used to have one to one sessions with a peer to peer counselor or there are Skype sessions. So, I was kind of already prepared, and I had sort of worked my way up to coming here. Because I knew that things were going to be very very different.
But being here, it’s so funny because you make such good friends with the volunteers working here. You don’t necessarily need to come with someone. When I went to Calais I went by myself. My original group that I went with all went back home and I stayed. So I had to make my own friends, and it’s the same thing here some of the volunteers they have been here a couple of days some longer, but we all look out for each other. You just saw someone giving out food to everyone that’s my support system here. I can stop and talk to absolutely anybody and anybody can stop and talk to me and that’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to worry about these things it’s such a family vibe. It’s funny because when I think of Calais it was the same. Like, when people asked what you were doing you’d say “oh I am going out with Calais family.” And it’s the same thing it’s just the Greek family. It’s just how it is. Everyone shares the drive to do something. And when you see that in other people you immediately bond with them. It’s nothing but love for the people who come and help.
I was touched by the sincerity of Ash. Though it might be hard to get the full scope of her passion through just text, every time she spoke there was a sense of conviction that permeated her words. Though she was in a lot of pain, she still got up and boxed things with care because she felt such a strong sense of duty. And on a bigger scale, she revealed a system of support that runs through the volunteers that work in the Refugee Crisis. Her family, as she called them, really do look out for each other. As we were talking, food was being handed out and people were constantly checking in and making sure that everyone had the help they needed to get the job done. Because it’s an enormous job that they are being asked to do, there are boxes and boxes of unsorted clothes and shoes that do not have pairs. The scope of the task is overwhelming and decidedly unsexy. It’s not interesting or glamorous to spend eight hours every day going through donated clothes until you have tendonitis. But these people are quietly making a difference in the lives of the refugees. Every single coat is going to be worn by someone, every pair of shoes or pants is going to be sent off and used and the people in the warehouse understood that. They understood they even if they helped just one person that they were making a difference and that their work had purpose and weight.
Written by Kayla Fennell