During June, I was able to spend three weeks volunteering in Greece with the charity Happy Caravan, which runs a school near the city of Lamia and Thermopylae for refugee families who have been placed in the nearby camp. As children make up half of the camp’s population, the school is an understandably important resource for both the children and their parents, providing a sense of structure and familiarity, as well as being a place to relax and engage with other children. It was because of this focus on providing an access to basic education for those who have been displaced by conflict that I chose to work with Happy Caravan, as while researching the charity I was struck by their dedication to cultivating positivity and hope in a situation and setting that often seems hopeless.
As the UNHCR reported in 2016 that the Syrian refugee crisis now constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis – with the highest displacement of people – since World War Two, I feel that spending a proportion of the summer in an environment where I witnessed first-hand the experiences of refugees ultimately helped me to better understand the crisis on an immediate and human level.
Refugees in the camp are entirely reliant on the support provided by the onsite NGOs: Happy Caravan and UNHRC. Before I arrived in Lamia, I was worried about how seeing the reality of life in a refugee camp might impact me emotionally – although I knew that this camp was located in an abandoned hotel rather than tents and emergency shelters, I was still conscious that the only real impressions of refugee camps were those I’d seen on the news, such as in Calais. The reality was both what I was expecting and entirely not: while there was tension, the children were, first and foremost, children. They loved learning, they loved playing, and they loved not always doing what they were told. Often the older ones knew exactly what they wanted to do with their futures – I spent a lot of my time around aspiring doctors, hairdressers, break-dancers, and lawyers! – and it was inspiring to see how determined they were to follow the English language classes provided by Happy Caravan.
Despite this, their situation in Greece seems to revolve around a “lottery of luck”: some of the children come and go within the space of a couple of months, while others have found themselves in a limbo that may have already lasted two or three years, with their parents still waiting to hear approval from the Greek government as their friends move on to Germany or other European countries.
I am thankful to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund for giving me the opportunity to volunteer with Happy Caravan, as this experience has greatly motivated me, and I am now eagerly looking to the future in the hope that I can continue to volunteer with refugee-focused NGOs.