Initial lessons from a lightning operation to lighten the load in Greece

Kids having fun

Around 50,000 refugees have become stranded in Greece after the decision to close the borders into Northern Europe. As part of the EU deal to return new arrivals to Turkey, Greece is now trying to settle those currently there in official refugee camps. Many of these camps are abandoned military bases that are struggling to cope with the unique demands of refugees at a time when their resources are extremely limited.

It was under these circumstances that my good friend John Sloan turned up to help and was lucky to find a sympathetic military commander who was willing to work with him to cater for the humanitarian needs of the refugees. From there, Refugee Support was founded. We then quickly secured the co-operation of the mayor, local MP, local volunteers and the UNHCR representative for the area. Working together, we are already beginning to make a difference.

Aerial photo of the camp

Our operation — Greece Lightening — has been just that. In less than one week we have renovated and fitted one of the rooms into a free shop, asked local contractors to prepare quotes to renovate the kitchen area, dining hall and social space, advised on the management of the camp, received several vanloads of essential items, implemented a dignified distribution system, identified skills within the camp, supplemented their daily food allowance with fruit, arranged for increased medical care, transported refugees needing medical treatment to hospital, been interviewed by the local media, set up a fundraising campaign and secured detailed information about the resident profile.

Three factors have been critical to all this progress.

1. Co-operation

Right from the start we’ve carefully built relationships with all the different stakeholders including of course the refugees.

Nothing is going to get done unless the military let us into the camp and allow us to operate. We need the local Greek community to accept the refugees who are suddenly among them so that there are opportunities to integrate and for both communities to benefit from each other. The UNHCR have powerful resources they can mobilise and we need to co-ordinate our efforts with them. Politicians need to satisfy themselves about the treatment of refugees and to be able to challenge any opposition.

This can be frustrating for an organisation that wants to work at lightning speed! We’ve identified malnourishment and that needs to be urgently addressed but the construction of a kitchen so that people can cook for themselves requires authorisations from distant decision-makers.

Some refugee needs are obvious — decent shoes, nappies, fruit — but we need them to tell us what they want. Kettles have been provided but we need many more — they drink a lot of tea!

We discovered much during our frequent walk-arounds and working in the shop but we plan to help form a group of accountable representatives to voice the needs of the refugees and enable them to steer the management.

2. Delivering on our promises

The key to getting permission to help improve the situation in the camp once we had a relationship was to get on and do what we said we would. And do it quickly. The shop was an easy win and allowed us to quickly get supplies into the camp in a fair and dignified manner. This eased the burden on the military and refugees understood that we were there to support them as partners.

From empty room, to fitted room, to stocked shop

But it’s been important to take things one step at a time. By delivering on smaller things like the construction of the shop or fruit for their daily food we build trust and demonstrate commitment to enable us to take services further such as regular deliveries for the shop, more nutritious food, a space for education and internet access.

3. Support from some amazing people

Delivering on promises also means hard work. Lots of it. We’ve been fortunate to have the support of capable people who have worked hard to get things done quickly, and done right. Thanks guys! There are many volunteers who want to help and it’s not always clear who is actually going to be helpful. They need to be people who are willing to listen, able to co-operate and keen to work hard. If they haven’t got all of those, they need to have a really specific skill.

It goes without saying the most amazing people of all are the refugees themselves who’ve survived war, made incredible journeys, suffered heartbreaking loss and still not been given the opportunity to rebuild their lives. I plan to tell more stories like this one.

It’s personally come as something of a surprise to find military officers who are willing to listen and who are so friendly. They’ve been great at recognising that they don’t have any experience of running a refugee camp and without that we wouldn’t even have got started.

And we also wouldn’t be doing this now if it wasn’t for the extraordinary John Sloan.

Father Christmas
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