It was late evening and the sun was setting over the Greek island of Evia, just across the water. I settled down on the balcony of the volunteer house to collect my thoughts from the day in my notebook when my reflection was obtrusively interrupted by the roaring of an army fighter jet passing overhead. The noise, although thundering from our house halfway up the mountain, would be deafening in the refugee camps lower down in the valley. The majority of the camp residents (many of them children) have fled from war torn countries, and so the sound of these booming engines would be all too familiar. These apathetic training sessions always seemed to echo a moment of note, whether we were cooking with members of the community in one of the camps during the day or when I was documenting the happenings in the evening. It was terrorising situations such as this that I was worried about before my departure from Scotland. After being constantly exposed to dehumanising images of vulnerable, helpless refugees, I was scared of being faced with human suffering like I had never experienced before. The reality, however, couldn’t have been more different.
I spent six weeks volunteering with foodKIND in two refugee camps just outside of Athens. Having campaigned on refugee rights since high school, I wanted to experience the crisis first-hand. As a student of Social Anthropology, I was interested in the power that food has to facilitate social interactions and overcome cultural barriers. I was not disappointed. I experienced some of the most beautiful moments cooking with members of the community who shared ingredients (such as the tahini pictured above that was “made by Syrian hands”), recipes, tips and tricks with us. We chopped, laughed, cried (mostly while chopping tens of kilos of onions), and even helped each other with language skills (I left with a very limited knowledge of some phrases in Farsi and my friend now has the app Duolingo downloaded on his phone). Engaging in an act which is so universal has the power to break down some of the barriers which may previously have stood in the way. It breaks down the social/cultural walls that may be up between people from different backgrounds/ethnicities/genders and living situations.
Probably the most important lesson I learned is that human beings are so incredibly resilient. Even when displaced from one’s home and arriving far away with pretty much nothing, people create a life for themselves. Where there is no work, they make work for themselves inside the camps. People have set up fruit and vegetable markets, bars and even a stand where one man made the most wonderful fresh falafel wraps. I arrived in Greece with a vague idea of the path I wanted to take. I came home with a feeling of certainty that working in communities such as these is where I want to be, and now I have a goal to aim for.