How Refugees Power a Grassroots Aid Movement

At the height of refugee arrivals to Europe, Greek and foreign volunteers plugged vital gaps in the aid response. Two years later, relief groups are increasingly dependent on the volunteerism of refugees and migrants themselves, writes author and volunteer Dana Sachs.

Written by Dana Sachs Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A migrant volunteer works at a multicultural centre for migrants and refugees on the island of Lesbos on March 15, 2017.LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

“I need someone who speaks Farsi.” Early one day at the Humans4Humanity community center on Lesbos, the voice of the center’s Syrian cofounder Rafat echoed through the main lobby.

I poked my head out from the grocery store. “Ali can do it,” I said.

My volunteer job put me behind the counter in the store at H4H, as people call it. Our “customers,” displaced people living in the squalid Moria Camp, visited the center to stock up on free supplies. The “staff” included around seven international volunteers, but the bulk of the operation was run by a team of between 30 and 40 long-term workers, also volunteers, all of whom were themselves displaced.

Ali, an Afghan colleague in the grocery, is a gentle plumber from a town near Ghazni. People in his region speak Dari, and Dari speakers can get by in Farsi, too.

I first joined the relief movement in Greece in 2016 and I watched as refugees came to play a central role in it. Their involvement bodes well for the long-term sustainability of the grassroots effort. At the same time, it illustrates the continuing challenges that people face in achieving their dreams of resettlement in Europe.

Their involvement bodes well for the long-term sustainability of the grassroots effort. At the same time, it illustrates the continuing challenges that people face in achieving their dreams of resettlement in Europe.

A few minutes later that morning, Ali was patiently leading a puzzled Iranian through our shop, which offered staples such as cooking oil, rice and diapers, plus occasional odd items like canned artichokes and borscht – overstocks, I presume, from donors in Europe. The process took a lot of time, given the Iranian refugee’s unfamiliarity with German shampoo and British baked beans. In addition, Ali had to explain the H4H checkout system, which allows each guest an allotment of points to spend on groceries, as well as clothing in the facility’s downstairs shop.

This kind of distribution is a far cry from soup lines and handouts. It instead allows people to make choices based on their individual needs. But it’s labor-intensive, and H4H couldn’t function in this way without its staff of refugee and migrant volunteers. In the grocery, around six people stock shelves, tally points and divide bulk sacks of staples, such as lentils and pasta, into smaller bags. Downstairs, another 15–20 people fold, stack and sort donated clothes, then arrange them on shelves and hangers. The goal is to allow the community center to function as a boutique, complete with dressing rooms in which guests can try things on.

According to Rafat, who founded H4H with his Syrian-American wife, Neda, around 45 volunteers keep the operation running. Some, like me, are foreign or local visitors. The vast majority, however, live in Moria Camp. At night, after the community center closes, they return to their tents or container housing. In exchange for time spent working, the center provides a daily meal and regular opportunities for them to shop in the facility’s stores.

When I first became involved in the grassroots effort two years ago, Greece’s northern border had recently closed, trapping thousands in makeshift camps. The Greek government, with funding from the European Union, worked with established aid organizations to provide emergency relief, but enormous gaps remained. A volunteer community, mostly foreigners and Greeks, worked to fill those gaps. On my first visit, I handed out bowls of soup. I boiled water at a “baby washing tent.” I sorted through boxes of donated bras for the Kurdish moms, Syrian teenagers and Afghan grandmothers who had to suffer the indignity of having an unknown American woman stare at their bodies in order to figure out their size.

Back then, some displaced people were already contributing to the effort. I met a Syrian teacher running a language class in a tent and an Iraqi chef chopping vegetables in a mobile kitchen. A refugee who had worked as an aid professional back in Damascus guided me on how best to spend the donations I’d brought from friends back home. They offered invaluable help, but they were exceptions. For the most part the grassroots effort adhered to a predictable scenario: local citizens and international volunteers provided aid; refugees accepted it.

These days, to a large extent, refugees themselves power the aid movement. A number of factors, both positive and negative, account for this shift. First, as the situation in Greece has evolved from emergent catastrophe into chronic predicament, media attention has declined, funding has grown scarcer and fewer international volunteers arrive to help. At the same time, many of the refugees aren’t going anywhere. Thousands remain on Greece’s islands. They are forbidden to travel to the mainland while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed. With little to do but sit and wait, some step forward to volunteer.

At the One Happy Family community center (OHF) on Lesbos, a team of around 60 refugee and migrant volunteers called “helpers” staff a vast array of projects, including a gym, kitchen, children’s space and library. From the start, founders of the center declared that they would “work with the people, not for them.” The organization operates on the premise that refugees once led productive lives, and it recognizes the value of their participation.

The group’s public relations coordinator, Rike Bittermann, says that the refugee workers are looking for “a meaningful task” to fill their time, which helps explain why the organization has a waiting list of 60 people who want to volunteer. As Mahmud Talli, a displaced Syrian doctor and OHF coordinator, puts it, “For me [OHF] had a different way to deal with the refugees [working with them] and they give trust.” That trust serves as a powerful motivator, he says. “All this makes me strong and happy.”

A few months have passed since I last left Greece. Back home, I watch the short videos of the Humans4Humanity community center that Rafat posts on Facebook. One day, Rafat uploaded footage that converted 15 minutes of life in the grocery store into 24 superfast seconds. As I watched the customers shop at hyperspeed, I spotted a familiar face. Was that Ali helping out near the hygiene products? I hoped it was Ali but I also hoped it wasn’t. Maybe he had finally gotten off the island and made his way toward a better life.

Dana Sachs is a cofounder of the U.S.-based aid group Humanity Now, which has helped to support Humans4Humanity and One Happy Family, the two Lesbos Island community centers described in this essay.

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