Jul 11

The Reality of Volunteering at a Refugee Camp

I wish I could share with you all of the stories bursting from my head. I wish I could make you understand the energy and heartbreak that pulsates from a single rocky encampment in northern Greece. I wish that I didn’t have to want these things, that it weren’t real, that helpless tears didn’t drip down my exhausted face. I wish I knew how to process all the pain I’ve seen, and understood how to grieve for a reality that I cannot change.


The last four weeks have been a lifetime. Stepping into a refugee camp is like entering another dimension; it’s a lawless purgatory for those who sit awaiting others to decide their fate, while they languish in a makeshift prison for a crime they did not commit. Making the choice to volunteer in the camp was easy; collecting the shattered pieces of my heart when I left was not.

volunteering at a refugee camp

In May, I arrived to a beautiful town in Greece, nestled along a picturesque lake at the base of dramatic mountains. Just a few miles from town, where the road narrows and tall grass separates crumbling, abandoned buildings, you can turn right down a single, dusty track. All of a sudden, children will be playing in the road and a family will pass by you pushing a stroller. Their gaze will meet yours and usually with a smile, but the eyes will haunt you with their anguish.


A warehouse lines the road, the silver metal reflecting the hot afternoon sun, and then the city of canvas appears in front of you: rows upon rows of tents that house about 800 innocent people—people who have seen their houses bombed and families murdered but still continue trying to find a place and a life in this world.

volunteering at a refugee camp

The camp is run by the military so lazy soldiers sit in their building overlooking the people, adding to the jail-like atmosphere. To prevent a mud pit, the entire area has been filled with the cheapest kind of rocks, which are large stones that make walking both challenging and dangerous. There is no plumbing, and the only toilets are disgusting port-o-potties which are rarely serviced or cleaned.


There are a few hose stations on the outskirts of camp where people can fill up jugs of water to carry back to their tent. Some ramshackle huts have been erected as shower facilities but there is rarely any hot water. The weather in this town is unrelenting, vacillating from afternoon hail storms and flash flooding to searing hot temperatures and humidity; rarely is there an in-between, and the people must sit in their tents, remembering a time when their homes had luxuries like air conditioning—or, rather, remembering when they had homes at all.

volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece

A handful of NGOs operate within the camp, serving different needs such as food, infrastructure, community, distribution, etc. I worked with Lighthouse Relief, an organization that focused primarily on community development—things like school, children’s activities, a women’s center, a men’s gym, and the cultural epicenter of the community, a tea van. Don’t be misled by these titles, however; they were all still simply tents in which we put some mats on the ground and attempted to provide a decent learning environment or normal social atmosphere.


My first few days at the camp were chaotic, much like anyone else’s; it takes a while to understand how everything works and find your niche. Soon enough I found mine, and by the end of my month there I was running the majority of the women’s center activities. I spent the first half of my day prepping and running a group for pregnant and breastfeeding women. It was meant as a safe space for parenting women, and each day a wonderful group came with their babies and small children to socialize and bond as women. Getting to hold all the cute babies was just an added bonus for me.

volunteering at a refugee camp

In the afternoons I would fill in wherever needed, helping with things like cooking, warehouse distribution, children’s activities, or running errands. In the evenings I ran a fitness class and a knitting group. Now I’m no professional knitter—I can knit one stitch, and it’s in a straight line. But several of these women were highly skilled at knitting and crocheting and I was always impressed with their creations. Often times they gifted me with whatever they’d made, so now I have a crate full of bags, headbands, and other yarn-tastic things. The knitting class was about more than just crafting, though; I found it to be an important catalyst in bridging ethnic gaps.


The camp is made up of about 60% Syrians, and the rest from Iraq, Iran, and Palestine. But even amongst the countries there are several different ethnicities and religious groups, and they don’t always get along. Over time, though, as the women grew accustomed to each other’s presence in the tent, I witnessed people from different ethnic groups, different religions, and even different languages attempting to communicate and understand each other. They struggled, they laughed, and the most touching memory I have is when they each taught each other how to say “I love you” in all of their respective languages. They each faced every woman in the tent and spoke the words with a smile and conviction.

volunteering at a refugee camp

I saw some terrible things at that camp: fights among families, a pregnant woman I know stoned by her neighbors so badly she nearly lost her baby, and children whose eyes filled with more violence and rage than any child should ever know. But in moments like these in the tents, I found hope. I believed that despite all the horrible things we do to each other, there is still such a powerfully good streak to humanity, and maybe we can save each other after all.


It was in these group sessions that I developed relationships with the women and children and learned their stories. I also spent much of my free time visiting people’s tents, having tea and lunch when they offered their precious little food to me, and came to understand the true reality of a refugee’s life.

volunteering at a refugee camp

Syrians teaching me to make “yabra” (stuffed grape leaves) for the first meal of Ramadan

What struck me most, as I got to know many of the refugees, was how similar they actually were to me—the parallels in their lives that I, for some illogical reason, didn’t really expect to draw with my own. These people were doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, tour guides, hotel owners, managers, chefs, artists. They lived in what used to be an educated, wealthy part of the world and they had had healthy, normal, happy lives. Time after time, they showed me pictures of their homes—often bigger than my own. They showed videos of their children’s music recital or dance performance or wedding. They talked about the dinner parties they used to host and the vacations they’d take to Europe. I could see my own life in theirs—up until the war, that is.

volunteering at a refugee camp

Some of the braids Mona, one of the refugees, loved to decorate my hair with

I wish I could somehow share with you all of the stories that I now know, although to be honest it’s a heavy burden to bear. Sometimes when I’d leave the camp I’d look back over my shoulder and wonder how there wasn’t a visible cloud of doom hovering above– like a rain cloud that sucked up the tormented tears and showered them back in a relentless cycle of suffering. How so much trauma could exist in a single space seemed incomprehensible.

volunteering at a refugee camp

A painting on a tent wall of a family’s boat passage to Greece


Each day, a new history was translated to me or told in pictures or broken English. The family that had owned a fancy three-story house watched their uncle beheaded in the street, spent all their money to send their teenaged sons away to Germany with smugglers, saw their house bombed, were shot at by Turkish border patrol while they escaped their war torn country, and lost their only bag of belongings in the ocean when their inflatable boat broke down.


The woman whose 3 year old son has a rare disease where his body can’t process protein needs monthly blood testing and medication to monitor his health, but the hospitals in Greece aren’t able to provide the treatment he so desperately needs.


The man who was in his third year of law school when his home was bombed dreams only of finishing his degree so he can defend the helpless and try to bring some order and justice back into the world.


The woman whose husband disappeared two years ago, most likely taken by ISIS, wonders if her young children will ever see their father again.


There are just so many stories of people—people who are just like us, with sisters and children and grandparents—who didn’t do a thing wrong yet lost everything because of the heinous crimes of others.

 volunteering at a refugee camp

These people want to see their children grow up healthy and happy, and to get an education. These people want to see their grandparents comfortable in old age, not sleeping in a scorpion filled tent. They have hopes and dreams just like any of us, and if there’s one thing I can share, I’d like it to be an understanding of the humanity behind the issue.


I know these people are on the other side of the world; they have different cultures, different religions, different languages, and so it can feel difficult to relate to them, and easy to push aside the reality of their situation when it doesn’t directly affect yours. But look at your children, at the rest of your family, and imagine if the worst really happened: war came to your hometown and all you had was a little cash and a day to pack your bags and escape to another country while your home was destroyed.

What would you hope the rest of the world would do? How would you hope to be treated?

The reality of volunteering in a refugee camp is that we can’t change the scope of the situation. All we can hope to do is alleviate the suffering of their current reality and provide an environment of hope. The only way we will ever truly help these people is by ending the war; if we can create a global society of compassion and understanding perhaps we can take the first steps toward bettering the lives of refugees.

volunteering at a refugee camp

Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Relief

  • Martha

    I have been curiously awaiting this update since your first post in May. I spent 6 of the last 12 months volunteering in Nepal with All Hands Volunteers, a disaster relief organization. In the early months we worked on improving conditions in the IDP camps in Kathmandu that housed families whose entire villages were destroyed by landslides caused by the earthquakes. A handful of volunteers I’d met in Nepal went on to work in refugee camps in Greece last fall and I was interested to hear about your experience there. Thanks you for sharing and for your efforts.

  • Is this Ioannina refugee camp only it looks a little familiar?

    Just about to share your post at Europe Refugee Network on Facebook. Beautifully written post btw which brings back many memories.