Can you really be a bad volunteer?

Thomas Pagliaro
Jun 27, 2019 · 5 min read

Katsikas Refugee Camp was built in March 2016. The camp is in the north of Greece, 15 minutes from Ioannina, Greece’s third largest city.

My sister Alex Pagliaro is a Manager with Oxfam and has been working at the camp since it opened. She says it is, “one of 40 or 50 refugee sites that has been set up in Greece to host the refugee waves from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, but mainly Syria.”

She says, “they are trapped in Greece because the borders are closed. A lot of people [refugees] move on to Athens to try and find better opportunities there or cross the border with smugglers.”

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Alex at the camp

While there are about 100 full-time paid workforce from the UN, large NGOs and the Greek Government, the work done by volunteers has a huge impact; from distributing food and clothing to providing classes and activities. Volunteers are in the thick of it and are fundamental to daily life at the camp.

Alex says that while most do a good job, many volunteers struggle to understand the dynamic of the camp and, “come here just to see it. And there is something really exploitative about that.”

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Tobi teaching Mohamad how to write code

It’s mostly short term volunteers or “voluntourists” that cause the most issues. They often come as small groups with pre-arranged 2 or 4-week trips to fulfill a particular project or simply to lend a hand.

Salim Mayati (26) is a tailor from Aleppo, Syria. He arrived in the camp over a year ago and has seen countless people (both refugees and volunteers) come and go in this time, leaving him somewhat bitter and cynical about the whole system.

Salim says that “other refugees, I am sad for them because a lot of them don’t understand what is happening because they don’t speak English.”

“In the summer, 100 volunteers came from Spain — I really thought they just came here to take photos. One person didn’t do anything but take photos. She didn’t want to work.”

He says that “some of the volunteers think they are bosses, and that we have to do everything they say because we are refugees and don’t know anything.”

“I always liked Spain, but now I hate this country. I’d rather go back to Syria than go to Spain. There are some good, but lot’s that are bad. They are not human.”

“When the war finishes in Syria I will go back — I won’t stay here. And maybe later if I have a son, I will tell him how all these people treated me. I don’t need help — just let me work, that’s all I want.”

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Mimi cooking lunch at Habbibi.works

Mimi is from Germany and is Project Lead with Habbibi.works, a German NGO at the camp. She has been there for over a year and has no plans on leaving.

She says people should be ready to do what is needed, even if it's not always fun.”

Mimi doesn’t blame anyone nor understate the difficulty in being an effective volunteer; a position she says needs to be taken more seriously.

Despite their best intentions, Alex says many volunteers lack respect in what is a very emotionally charged workplace.

Short terms volunteers at the camp receive no training, are not required to do background checks and most have no accountability to anyone but their own group or in some cases just themselves.

But just like every refugee, every volunteer comes to the camp with a different story.

Lucas Bertoldo, (25) a photographer from Switzerland, originally planned to follow a refugee from Turkey to Europe but soon realised he was “too poor to follow a refugee. So I stayed, I forget about my own project just to help.”

In the beginning, he confesses to being naive, not knowing how to make sense of the camp.

Lucas says that “many volunteers give special gifts to their friends — this is bad. With this 100 euro, you could give something more for everyone. I didn’t understand this before, but now I do — that you can’t really take on someone’s individual case.”

He says “it’s easy to be nice, it’s difficult to be fair.”

Muhammad Ali (28) is a photographer from Damascus, Syria and has been at the camp for over a year as he waits for his asylum claim to be processed. He regularly posts photos and videos from the camp on his FB page KatsikasLive.

“You have name, I have name”

Muhammad says, “I take photos of people here because I can feel what they feel. Not because it looks nice and gets many likes on Facebook.”

“This morning was very sad, his name was Kike (a volunteer from Spain), a great person in my life. He lived here for 6 months. He gave a lot, everybody in the camp liked him. And now he goes, everybody is very sad.”

I asked Muhammad if he thinks he’ll ever see Kike again.

“Yes, we will be friends forever. Forever.”

He says, “Kike didn’t see me like a refugee, just like a friend and a brother. Today I couldn’t sleep.”

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Andrea and Salim making clothes for the camp

Despite their overall criticism both Muhammad and Salim are very close with many of the volunteers in the camp. Whether a volunteer is in the camp for a week or a year, such is the intensity of the camp they can instantly have a strong impact on the lives of the refugees.

Mimi encourages people to come, but warns that “it’s a hard working day, both in time and emotional energy…they [volunteers] should not regard this as an adventure, maybe for some it is, but we really don’t appreciate it.”

“People should be ready to encounter those who have fled their countries on eye level, to come here in solidarity instead of being passive and [just] watch.”

This article was originally published in 2016.

Listen here to the podcast episode of “Can you really be a bad volunteer?”

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