A day in the life of a volunteer at Eleonas

the entrance to Eleonas Refugee Camp is on the left, right by the yellow-rimmed structure

*Edit 18/04/2017: Eleonas has around 2000 refugees, not 2300+ as previously posted. Source: UNHCR

Eleonas Refugee Camp is host to around 2000 refugees. As the first refugee camp on the mainland to be opened by the Greek government, it opened in August 2015. Eleonas is in an industrial area about a 10 minute walk away from the Eleonas metro station and roughly a 15 minute walk from my Airbnb in Kerameikos.

this roadside, seemingly-impromptu market is just a few minutes outside of camp. I pass by it on my walk in the mornings

As I mentioned in my first post, I am at Eleonas volunteering with Project Elea, an NGO tasked by the Greek government with providing basic services and creative engagement in the camp. Elea (Ελαία) means ‘olive tree’, and Eleonas (Ελαιώνας) means ‘olive grove’. Other NGOs in our camp include the IRC, SOS Villages, and Metadrasi. Although I can’t provide any photos from within the camp, please see photos posted on Project Elea’s Facebook page.

There are three camps: Camp 1, 2, and 3. Camp 1 and 2 are run by the Migration Ministry, while Camp 3 is run by the Greek military. Project Elea is only allowed to operate in Camps 1 and 2, but, as residents are free to go where they please, Camp 3 residents are always welcome at our activities.

While I’ve only been volunteering for six days, so far I have already been a part of a range of activities and thrust into the ‘organized chaos’ of camp life. Everything runs on Greek time (as in, everything starts late), which, while initially being a bother, I now sometimes view as a blessing when preparations for an activity still need fine-tuning.

A sample day (in this case, my Day 2):
13:00 — arrived at camp for the daily team meeting and signed up for the day’s activities
14:00 — little squirrels: preschool-type activities for the younger children
16:00— women’s self-expression time: provided tea and snacks in a safe space for women to freely chat
17:00 — helped paint a wall in preparation for the next day’s art activity, then pushed kids on swings at the playground
18:00 — one of the camp residents makes falafels and charges just one euro per, so I had one with another volunteer. We sat in his home and chatted with another man from Iran
18:50–21:00 — dinner shift: Project Elea is in charge of food distribution for Camps 1 and 2. Dinner shift involves distributing both dinner and breakfast. Most residents take only the bread (pita), the day’s vegetable/fruit, and sometimes the breakfast… the day’s hot food is not always taken
21:30 — left camp and headed home

on day 4, I went to the outskirts of Athens with another volunteer to buy bamboo for our kite-making activity and spent much of the afternoon splitting bamboo with a knife and hammer

In between activities, volunteers assist with miscellaneous tasks, play with the kids, socialize with adults, lead private language lessons, and/or are invited into residents’ homes. On my first day, one of the kids dragged me to her home, where I was graciously treated to a home-cooked Pakistani meal. After yoga class on my third day, I was again invited/dragged into another home (this time of a lovely Kurdish family) and treated to tea. Although I was aware of how hospitable Middle Eastern families can be, this is my first time personally experiencing that hospitality — it truly lives up to its reputation!

We have people from not just the Middle East, but North and West Africa as well. A range of languages are spoken at camp: Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Dari, Urdu, French, English, and perhaps more. In terms of us volunteers, I‘m one of two Americans and the only Asian female (there’s one Korean male). The rest of the ever-rotating crew are Dutch, Spanish, English, Irish, Scottish, German, French, Danish, Norwegian, Canadian, Greek, or Middle Eastern. Although many are long-term and committed to staying for at least a couple of months, there are those like myself who are only here for a few weeks (that could change, as I am considering using all 10 of my weeks here in Eleonas).

While life as a volunteer can be hectic, it’s immensely humbling and fulfilling. We work hard to engage the community; no matter their age, nationality, or English level, we seek to involve them in activities that hopefully bring joy to camp life.

Topics to come in future posts:
- Being an Asian-American volunteer (boy do I have stories to tell)
- Comparing my experience volunteering here to volunteering on mission trips to rural Taiwan (spoiler alert: it’s similar)
- Camp design from an urban planning perspective (if I can find more information!)

"You are 27 or 28 right? It is very tough to live at that age. When nothing is sure. I have sympathy with you." - Haruki Murakami