Life on the ground in Thessaloniki

It’s been a while so you may think that things have stopped happening. On the contrary so much has been happening that I haven’t found time to write a proper update. I’ve just taken some time off to spend a couple of weeks with my family at the Bodensee as well as attending my cousin’s wedding and so finally I’m having some time to catch up and update.

Leaving Lesvos

After the EU Turkey deal on 20th March everything changed in Lesvos. We waited a while to see what would happen but after a few weeks it became clear that the services we were offering were no longer effective so, with a heavy heart, we left. To get an insight into that time I recommend watching this: Elaiónas: Refugees of Lesvos.

It is a great amateur documentary filmed during the week of the 20th July. It was filmed by one of the volunteers on his i-phone and thus he manages to capture an incredibly authentic portrayal of that turbulent time.

The last thing we put in place before leaving was a legal project together with a few other organisations that offered legal aid to those due to be deported back to Turkey under the new deal. Since starting the project over 100 cases have been represented. Not a single Syrian has actually been sent back against their will yet, if they had access to a lawyer.

The EU Turkey deal was successful in reducing the numbers of people crossing to Greece but the smuggler network has not really been affected. They’ve just changed routes with more and more people now coming across the Mediterranean to Italy, which is a much more dangerous route. Since the beginning of the year more than 3,000 people have died trying to cross that stretch of water.


Yes that’s a big number.

Poem written by a refugee friend I met in Moria

As I was lucky enough to be born inside this place called Europe, following Lesvos I was free to spend two weeks travelling and visiting friends and family. I gave a talk at my old school in Edinburgh, spoke at a conference on refugees in Hamburg and joined the launch of a refugee integration project in Switzerland. In May I moved to Thessaloniki and started on our new project there: Elpida.


In Lesvos we ran an independent camp next to the official registration camp in Moria. We filled the gaps left by the system but as we were not a part of it we could do nothing but watch when Moria became a closed detention facility and our friends were locked into prison (in the meantime conditions have improved slightly, however thousands are still trapped on Lesvos awaiting their fate.)

Refugees protesting the conditions inside Moria

Elpida is a joint venture in collaboration with the Ministry of Migration and is one of the official camps in Greece. We are now working within the system and together with other partners we hope to make this a model camp that can be copied many times over until all refugees in Greece are living in conditions that meet the basic humanitarian standards. Currently the camps don’t meet the EU standards for keeping prisoners and some don’t even meet the EU standards for keeping animals. This is the problem we’re currently trying to solve.

All our residents have 5 options.

  1. Apply for Asylum in Greece
  2. Apply for family reunification (if they a have a parent or child already in another EU member state)
  3. Apply for the EU relocation programme where, if successful, they are sent to a European country at random.
  4. Return to Turkey or their home country
  5. Pay smugglers to cross the borders. We hear that those who pay well (upwards of €2000 per person, make it all the way. ‘Cheap deals’ are often more dangerous and many run the risk of ending up in the hands of traffickers.

For options 1–3 everyone must apply for asylum in Greece first. It is expected that the full process will take a minimum of 6 months and could be years. We expect Elpida to be around for 1–2 years but the only thing we can be certain of is that the situation will keep changing.

To find out more about our project as well as seeing some of the pictures of what has been achieved, you can read our Elpida newsletter here.

Elpida volunteers and Greek contractors group photo during the construction work.

The last 2 weeks I’ve spent in the UK and Germany have given me some time to reflect. I am concerned by the fear that is growing in Europe towards a people who are fleeing a life of fear and looking for peace and happiness. I am concerned how the crisis is no longer front page news and people are starting to forget the people stranded on Europe’s borders. I’m concerned because I see so many problems and understand people’s worries but don’t have the solutions. What I do still have is hope. Elpida is a drop in the ocean but it is a rainbow drop. We are working within a very chaotic and difficult system on one of the biggest problems our generations will face and we don’t have all the solutions but for 800 people we are making a difference. We are still completely staffed by volunteers and donation funded and yet we are still able to make such a big impact. It shows that there are still people that care and new impulses for change and improvement are still being born.

The team I work with is incredible, fantastic and inspiring and I’m also really excited to meet the first 140 residents who moved in while I was away. The Elpida family is growing and I feel so privileged to be able to be a part of it.

Financial Update

Thank you to everyone who has supported me and the project so far! I couldn’t do what I do without your support and it means the world to me. For the sake of transparency here’s a rough breakdown of my monthly costs:

- Accommodation rent: €200
- Car rental: €450 (the car is well used by many people and tends to be packed full of people and things — it is an expensive but vital addition to the budget)
- Fuel: €150
- Expenses (around €15 per day): €450
Total monthly budget: €1,250

I also regularly use ‘my money’ to buy things for the camp as in the end we are all in this together and all the money goes towards the same cause. Be that balloons and bubbles, bin liners, fuel for the van or treats for the volunteers when the going gets particularly tough. It is often the little things that make the big differences.

After 7 months of volunteering my personal money has now run out. I am completely reliant on you lovely people and support from family to continue doing my work here.

Thank you to everyone who has set up a monthly standing order. So many of you are sending me €10 — €50 per month that it makes a huge difference and helps me plan in a more long-term and sustainable way. Any extra money is given directly to Better Days. We are still all volunteers and none of us get salaries so thank you so much for keeping us going!

Bank details are in the footer if you would like to become one of my monthly donation heroes. One off donations are also incredibly appreciated. Either bank transfer or via if you are interested in sponsoring in a bigger way or know someone or a company who might be interested in corporate sponsorship, please do let me know! We need all the help in fundraising we can get as setting up and running a camp is incredibly rewarding but also expensive work!

Lots of Love to you all and remember:

“If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito”

Trust me, I know.

Originally published on August 1st 2016 at Mailchimp email newsletter