OneYearReport

 

Dear friends,

 

Here is an overview of the work the refugee crisis team – independent group of volunteers (SCI and likeminded) – has been doing the last year.

We will add in Italic some examples inside the text to give you an idea of things we were doing. You can always refer to our blog to read further volunteer observations, see pictures and more:
volunteer blog

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Since summer of 2015 we have been intensively monitoring the refugee crisis. We started collecting first aid equipment and driving it up and down the “Balkan route”. We connected to many other independent groups doing similar work and networking became one of our main concerns. Especially to independent information groups and with volunteers starting up transit centers and initiatives at the border-crossings and along the route.

 

It is past midnight, September 2015, we are driving with 3 volunteers towards the Serbian border.  Our car is loaded with rain boots, umbrella’s, rain jackets, dypers and first aid. The load is intended for the Macedonia transit center, this is one of the many trips we already made on our “camping trip”. At the last petrol station before the border I check updates from a Zagreb based independent information center that monitors the “Balkan route”.

We see an urgent appeal for Sid (Serbia-Croatia border crossing). “Thousands of refugees arriving in busses, strong rain, lack of rain gear” with a telephone number. We call and get coordinates.

Arriving in Sid we find our way trough dark country roads that don’t show up on our GPS.  In distance we see busses and road blocks. We park car, exchange emergency plan and numbers and while 2 stay with the car I go scouting on foot.  I find 4000 refugees, tired volunteers, an overrun emergency tent and lack of shelter, they expect thousands more refugees to arrive that night.

I go back to the car with the update. Running in front of the car we pass all road blocks on good luck, convincing authorities only with behaving like we “own the place”.

We find few volunteers and refugees to take all things to the distribution tent.  Babies sleeping in full rain, camp fires everywere and mud, endless mud. 

We continue our trip to Macedonia with an empty car.

 

With few volunteers we based ourselves at Tabanovce, the train station at Serbia-Macedonia border, were most refugees pass.  In the first months we slept in cars mostly, and drove aid material all around the Balkan and Europe. Thanks to financial support from SAVA working group, a volunteer from SCI Italy managed to rent a room in Shutka, the great Roma community near Skopje.  Many volunteers stayed there, some shorter, some longer time.  The room also served as a warehouse for aid material and rest place for moving volunteers.

We rented this room from october 2015 until january 2016.

 

I have not slept for 48 hours. Trains have kept arriving and I have walked the distance from the train station to the border endlessly, informing refugees how to proceed, to keep their children together, to avoid the rail tracks,…
In a moment of silence sitting with a UN employee and 2 red cross logistics I learn that in the last 24 hours passed by me 16 thousand people.  I go and sit in a good friends car, to rest untill the next train arrives.  I wake up and notice I missed the train, slept trough it. With a slight feeling of failure guilt and a strong need for a good sleep I text the volunteers in Skopje to get me out of there asap. Few hours later they wait me at the gate.  Under a rising Balkan sun I meet them, take a seat in the back of the car and the lights go out.  12 hours later I am back on post, trains keep coming this period and there is no one to help these people but us, volunteers.

 

From this room in Shutka we drove up and down to the train station Tabanovce, that turned more and more into a camp during those months.  Often we did shifts of 2, sometimes 3 day-nights, and then went to this room to sleep. This unhealty rhytm was a reaction to a crisis situation.  We had an average of ten thousand refugees passing by daily, and no help from any official organization or institution.  We just had to keep on going day and night because people were suffering very bad.  Those days all our time and energy went in this work.  We also connected to many other volunteer groups, and with organizations that came to help us.  A volunteer from CID was the initiator of all the help there at the border, and she helped us to become involved.  We also made strong efforts in networking with volunteers at the Serbian side of the border, and with groups all along the Balkan route.  We established communication channels and contacts to take over extremely vulnerable cases at the border (such as very old people, sick, pregnant woman, wheelchair patients,…).  Thanks to the CID volunteer we always maintained a good relation with the police and authorities in Macedonia, what was very important because life’s depended on that and sometimes we had to go close to the border. It was especially challenging when new volunteers arrived who did not understand this delicate balance with authorities and sometimes tresspassed agreements we made.  By the end of 2015 red cross, UN and other big NGO’s started appearing and Macedonian government took over much of our work. But we still did long shifts to fill in the gaps. Also the cooperation between officials and volunteers was challenging and we learned a lot.

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A volunteer who studies journalism tried to obtain a press card, to come over and document our work.  We invited him to join the work, so he could get a first hand idea, and in case necessary take pictures.  Bureaucracy in Macedonia is a challenge and after few days running with us for dypers, blankets and wheelchairs he still did not obtain it.  He asked us if he could go to the police post at the border to announce his presence and start taking pictures.  We strongly adviced him not to do this, as the crisis was full-on and police allowed our presence under strong restrictions warning us to “lay low”.

After a visit with 2 volunteers and the student journalist to the Serbia camp, while crossing the official border by car, one of us was summoned into the office of the border police. These are unpleasant encounters in South Balkan.  She received a warning that all volunteer permits will be withdrawn if the student journalist would again set foot on the transit center.

We learned that he had ignored our advice and had gone to the police post to announce his presence without official press card.

 

Most important was the “human contact” that volunteers represent to these refugees, who are all very traumatized and really need a warm welcome and a friendly chat.  Often (but not always) official workers keep a distance and speak to those people seeking refuge from a professional, detached platform.  That really makes them suffer more.  When volunteers just sit with them like equals, welcome them, play with the children and ask them about their lives,…  that is really working, that can really put people on the right track again and help them regain dignity and hope for a future.

 

Although the donation by SAVA helped us to cover the rent of the room and house equipment, we had to buy food and transport with our own money. We also spend a lot on urgent donations, such as gloves and hats, while the temperatures sunk below zero and people sometimes arrived barefoot from Greece. Because of this many volunteers could not stay long. Also the distance between Shutka and the train station was too much. Shutka is an amazing world, like India, with Roma music day and night.  But combined with the tough work at the transit center it was difficult to “be” there.

 

Coming back from a long night shift, having caught some sleep on the bus, I meet the Italian volunteer who is just preparing to go out, he is dressed well and has a box of chocolates.  He begs me to join him for a visit to a friendly Roma family who helped us settling in, giving us matresses, pots and pans.  Apparantly the family has taken on a mission to marry the volunteer to their most beautifull and single daughter.  He really needs me to join his efforts for diplomacy while maintaining his freedom.  I am tired, but put on a clean shirt and join him to another “battlefield”.

 

So we decided to rent a house in the village Tabanovce, next to the border.  Thanks to some CID volunteers we found a house of locals, and rented that with our own money from January on.  GAIA SCI Kosovo and VCV Serbia came to help with idea’s to make fundraising.  They helped us write an application to a German organization that allowed us to rent this house for another 3 months and obtain small support for food of volunteers.

 

Here is a short impression by one of the many volunteers who benefitted from this house:

 


We are a group of international volunteers, since the summer active. After travelling & visiting several camps along the road, we decided to settle in transit-camp Tabanovce. We help refugees mostly in giving information. Next to this, we always tend to fill in the gaps, help were it is needed at that moment – f.ex hand-out donations or food. We talk with the  people in person, we ask if their familly is okey, if everybody is healthy and what they need. We re-direct them to the right places in case of need. F.ex. we identify vurnable groups and assist them to red-cross. We often work in the night shifts because this are often most critical times on the camp. Between shifts we write stories of our experiences to share on social networks, because we think it´s important to share information and make people aware of what´s happening.
During this work, we experienced that is was very taking & traumatic. And our energy got down fast and easily. This was because we didn´t had a decent place to stay. Some volunteers slept in their cars. We were staying at friends places which were sometimes far from the camp. After shift we still had to drive a long way. Then we rented a small place close to Skopje. Because we had low budget, we couldn´t afford much. The house was cold and had bad hygiene facilities. It took us lot of energy and it was hard to keep-up the work. We felt often exhausted and suffered from psychologically difficult moments. I catched a cold and was for some days stuck in bed. Because of all this i started to feel dirty, inconfident.  And after a week i mentally couldn´t manage anymore to go to the camp. So we felt a strong need for peace and rest between shifts to gain energy, a good warm shower, structure and support for volunteers. That´s why we decided to focus on this. Also we have some experience with volunteerwork and coördination through our long experience in SCI. So this is the perfect project for us to develope.
So beside our shifts in Tabanovce camp, our mission is to support volunteers who work with refugees (local, regional & international).
Me and Aharon took a break and drove back to Belgium. Yahu started renting this (Slobodan) house in december. Many volunteers (about 7) stayed here during this time. Merel, Aharon, Christian, Katya (SFERA), Janin, Yahu, Laura. F.ex. Me & Aharon came back to live here on 10 january. We brought in the same time a car full of donations from Belgium. We also made a trip to Serbia for donations. We plan to stay at least until March. Because we have good accomodation, we have the energy to work as long-term volunteers.
As foreigners it was not easy to get the house. Because of long process to integrate & National bureaucracy. Fortunately we know some friends in Kumanovo who helped us a lot. As volunteers we are very occupied with the refugee work. So we chose a house that we could rent imidiatly without extra work on it.
The house gives us opportunity to connect with other volunteers and locals. We are well introduced in the culture here through the owners, Slobodan & Mitze. We always spend some time together in the weekends. They introduce us to their culture and way of living. We had nice moments of intercultural learning. And through us they slowly understand more about the volunteer work we do and the situation with the refugees. This is really important for us. Because there are prejudices about refugees. Our presence gives them another perspective on the situation. Also neighbours and local children come to greet us regurly. We start to be famous in Tabanovce as ´the international volunteers who work on the border´. When we walk to village and greet people, they often ask about us in Macedonian language. We say that we speek Enlish. Then they react: ah! and point their finger to the station at the border. So we confirm & explain with sign language were we are from & were we live. We make efford to be very friendly, smile &  greet people. And often they respond with a smile & greeting back. Now i can say that we builded-up a good relation with the environment and locals, which is important to give a good image about the work we do. We truely believe that our presence helps to overcome stereotypes and prejudices.
Our relation with the owners is really good. But we try to find a house were volunteers can be more in peace. The work is very energy-taking & traumatic, so sometimes we feel low on energy between shifts and it´s too much to also give attention to the owners and take in concern their preferences, rules of the house. F.ex. our working hours are very random. Often we work in the night. We need to recover, so it is really hard to wake up at 8 on a sunday morning to have the expected breakfast together. We notice that it´s very important in the culture to eat together on weekends. Because we are their guests. It can be offending if we would prefere to rest. And other things we would love to do but lack of time & energy, f.ex. weekly cleaning the whole house & dayly to not keep our stuff around.
So, we continue searching and have 2 options on the sight now. One we can start renting from March. The other looks very beautiful in peaceful area of the volliage, surrounded by nature and view on the mountains. It would be perfect. And maybe we can start renting it earlier. But we are in negotiation about the renting-conditions at this moment, and all depends on that.

our mobile Finish office

The house also served as a meeting place for independent volunteers from all along the “Balkan route”. Thanks to a donation of a volunteer we installed wifi there, allowing us to spend more time on networking and building communication channels.

 

Mobile text message to Serbia, 24 December 21:00h
“Merry Christmas. Train just arrived.  About thousand people started walking, expect them in one hour.  Be prepared, many children.  People are hungry and cold. We ran out of gloves. MSF will take 5 wheelchair patients tomorrow morning, they sleep with us. See you soon. Tabanovce team”

 

Our volunteers joined a solidarity project that VCV Serbia set up, they started knitting winter gear for refugees.  We helped them drive those and other aid materials up and down Serbia-Macedonia-Greece.  Mostly, again, funded by ourselves (gasoline, sleeping places on the road, food, …).

You can find the project here:
scarfs not borders

 

While we were fore-seeing the closing of the Humanitarian corridor and the borders, we wrote an application to the SCI Hegenauer fund.  We received this fund at about the same time the borders actually closed and things were getting more urgent than they already were.

These are the goals we set for this project:

“To support and empower grass-root volunteers working along the “Balkan route” with our movement’s (Service Civil International) expertise and to create time and space for those volunteers to meet and exchange.
This project is a first step in this effort and aims to bring together those volunteers (SCI and like minded) who have proven over the last months to have made effort in coordination strategies. Then together we can explain each other about our efforts and come up with a united approach.
Following objectives we envision:
-To monitor the presence and activity of independent volunteers along the Balkan route.
– Identify key figures along the route who started making coordination efforts and help them to build networks.
– To empower grass-root volunteers along the Balkan route and connect them to SCI.
-To exchange practice and establish a method of coordination.
– Develop methods of volunteer support and collect best practice.
– Identify and promote refugee aid projects initiated by SCI branches and volunteers, and combine efforts.
– To build a social inclusion strategy for including refugees in our projects
The project was very successful and you can read more about it here on our blog:
scouting
This project was made possible thanks to the volunteers of VCV, GAIA Kosovo, Building Bridges team and our group.

 

Around March 2016 the borders closed and the humanitarian corridor was canceled with the EU-Turkey deal that hurt us all a lot.  Over 20 thousand refugees were stranded in Greece with most of them at the Greece-Macedonian border.  The situation in Tabanovce became very difficult for us independent volunteers to work.  Few thousand refugees were stranded in the camp.  Police put up fences with barb wires. We were not allowed (and are still not) to bring matrasses, games, … Even football games are forbidden events, while almost thousand people are stuck there for months with nothing to do, in a very small area, fenced in. Volunteers needed specific permission to enter the camp, what we managed to obtain thanks to the good relations we had build with all actors.  But then volunteers started to be arrested and treathened.  The CID volunteer who initiated all the work since the beginning, working day and night without pay, was banned from the camp and certain people started to make our good work specifically challenging.  This in a time when the refugees stranded needed our help more than ever. Diseases started to appear once the constant moving stream of refugees was congested, and I more often saw aid workers with a unhealty yellow shine in their faces.

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This is a testimony by one of our strongest independent volunteers, one of those who started everything when not one institution was present.  One of us who does not remember holidays or a normal night sleep.

 

“Not that it is my first of the kind, but I was just forcefully removed by police out of Tabanovce, without particular explanations except I’ve been forbidden access to the site (no official doc exists for this). Even though I have regular valid pass. And the salary I still haven’t fully received from the INGO I worked for the last few months was thrown to my face by a female police officer as if I’m the devil that after leaving my job and volunteering for 6 months decided to try to make a living out of what I do best for almost a year now – work w refugees. They really wanted to make a show.
I am so sorry for the police officer, who I know very good since June 2015, when it was just us there in the fields, handling up to 12000 ppl passing daily, this guy who I used to respect, that had to act as instrument for someone’s interests and frustrations. And frustrations are the worst kind of feelings that come out of chronic inability to achieve smth. So I cannot judge them, or hate them.
And while I am writing this, there are approx 750+ ppl there, staying for weeks now. Sleeping on floors and blankets, planning hunger strikes and protests bc they cannot stand the conditions they are in and the inability to continue, the future w/o prospects. People in wheelchairs and with different disabilities, 9 months pregnant women, families with babies and small children, old people that cannot move. Most of them were standing in line at the borderline for hours the last days, out on the cold with pouring rain. They were all sent back bc they didn’t speak the “right” or enough Arabic(which is very regular with Kurdish people for example). Or they were in Turkey for too long. Or for whatever reason. So now the “humanitarian” corridor has turned into humanitarian disaster. Everywere along the route. And we are back at stone age since few weeks ago.”

 

 

Here is a link to our youtube channel, were you can find many interviews from that period:
RefugeeFree Youtube Channel

 

Seeing the high risk for volunteers, combined with our relative small impact in this disease ridden “turned residential” transit center, we decided to end the contract with the volunteer house and not search for additional funding to prolongue it, even tough that was offered to us..  Safety of volunteers is always our greatest concern. Second we aim to make an impact and be usefull, not to become charity workers for other officials. Our group scattered and all became active in different parts of the world, still connected, still cooperating were necessary.  Now more than ever we all (all independent volunteer groups all around the crisis) felt a strong need to network and unite efforts.  Many groups started organizing meetings and seminars.  Also we continued this effort, focussing on the link with SCI, that we have always concidered very important in our work.

 

Trough the whole period we also build sustainable bridges with SCI and the Building Bridges group.  There was a very strong presence of SCI in the meeting in Novi Sad that was funded by Hegenauer. We received a lot of moral and practical support from the International Secretariat thanks to Sara’s care and interest in our work.

 

Here are some impressions by volunteers of the Novi Sad meeting:

The main purpose of the meeting in Brussels was  to improve communication among activists working with migrants all over Europe.  We also met MSF (Doctors without Borders) and some MEPs of the GUE/NGL group at the European Parliament, were we had the opportunity to represent some of our work at a public event and to have a discussion. In overall, the best moment of the meeting was to meet the people whom we already communicated online or whom we are planing to do things together in the future. And I can say it was very useful. I would avoide to mention concret outcomes of the meeting, because most of it is still in progress (working groups for internet platforms). For me it was very useful and inspiring. 
What I think we could do in the future…connect more. Even it seems like spending resourses on the meetings, sharing experience and making direct contact can be a very useful thing while working on the field, without the support of legal structures (institutions or NGOs). To be more specific, it is very useful to know were to send help ones you don’t need it were you are, to move elsewere if more help is needed, to have more accurate information from other people on the field about the situation. All this, you cannot do if you don’t make conections. 
About the MSF, we had a meeting with them, we had some ideas, like focusing more on psychological help for refugees and even volunteers, and we had some ideas about better communication with them. More things were discussed, but we were devided into small groups so I couldn’t follow everything. 🙂
I can’t really tell you how it connects to the meeting in Novi Sad, because I could be there, but for sure, the circle of people that are connecting is growing bigger.  
Hugs,
Ida
 Dear all, 
my experience about the meeting in Novi Sad. I do not have any bad comments, critics or else about the meeting, just several suggestions. It was very, very usefull meeting, on all levels, But I needed more, maybe the short tie frame was the moment the did not allow more. 
The volunteers need basic training about the first approach to the volunteers who does not have any volunteering experience. Specially with refugees from Midle east. Different cultures can be a base for conflict. 
Psichologycal service for refugees and volunteers because of the shocks they are facing with.
These are my suggestions, for now. 
Greetings,
Sonja
Hi everyone
the meeting in Novi Sad was a very good one in my view. Considering that its main aim was to network activists working with people on the move along the Balkans, it proved to be very successful. If I hadn’t attended your meeting, I would have hardly been invited to the other meeting I had in Brussels last week, which was again an excellent one and an excellent opportunity to connect with activists from all over Europe and Turkey. 
Thanks to Helena and Sonja (Solidarnost), I also connected with Ida and Gabriela respectively, suggesting their participation to the meeting in Brussels to Elodie (the organizer). So again, at least in my case it was a success and I do think we should have more of these meetings. 
I am sure that other people, inside and outside SCI, will benefit from the bigger network that both these meetings established. Hopefully many people on the move will receive some of these benefits through activists’ stronger cooperation
The meeting in Novi Sad was not only a good opportunity to get to know other volunteers and activists, but also to get inspiration from what they do. It helped me see the bigger picture of what some people call “the refugee crisis” and get to know the different situations in the different countries. Before the meeting I knew very little about what was going on on Greek islands and in Macedonia, for example
I also appreciated very much the location close to the fortress and the hostel.
As I said at the end of the meeting, I wish we had more time to work together on concrete proposals/projects/initiatives, but to do this maybe we would have needed one more day. But considering that it was the first meeting we had all together, it was reasonable to spend more time  getting to know each other and the work we are doing.
I hope this feedback will help you, if you’d like me to answer some other/more specific questions don’t hesitate, just let me know and I’ll answer
Hugs, hope to see you soon,
Daniele
hey

first, of all thank you for making the meeting possible!

My feedback in short:

was super good:
-very diverse and interesting participants, nearly all coming from the
field!
-nice hostel, good ambiance with the park around etc.
-tasty food!

could improve (from my point of view):
-clear goals of the meeting could be communicated before the meeting
starts (participants had very different expectations)
-smaller thematic groups (3-5 persons together, short time period 1-2
hours, than changing)
-clearer time structure of the meeting
-more typical seminar methods (not always big open group discussions,
also small games)
-strict moderation, with a focus on the discussed issue

For me, as I just decided from one day to another to replace a friend
(Kostis) and to go to the meeting, it was a very enriching experience
and i met hugely interesting people!
Thank you again.
Greetings

leonard

 

We shifted our focus in this period to mobile field work.

The closing of borders caused refugees to travel illegally more often, and many came in dangerous situations, needing urgent help that institutions and NGO’s could not provide. This period we could help a lot of people thanks to different donations, especially one big donation from SEEDS Iceland who made a great fundraising effort. Having thousands of people stuck at borders and many more travelling illegaly, creates a huge need and a very difficult task to support this need.  It takes knowledge of the routes, of the places of crisis, of the networks involved and able to help.  This knowledge many of us have after all this time, so we had to move in this direction

It is late night in Thessaloniki.  I am walking trough the train station.  Everywere are refugees sleeping, waiting. The cheap night train to Athens will go in half an hour. I see a couple discussing with the ticket office employee. I stand close and overhear they are negotiating the price of ticket.  Of course they cannot have it cheaper.  After a lot of begging the man and woman give up and walk away.
I approach them and ask about their situation.  They are, of course, suspicious of someone approaching them in the night.  I explain them who I am and what I do.  I tell them I will be around for a while longer if they need help.
They go.  Five minutes later the whole family is around me.  They have a newborn baby. They are a couple from Afghanistan, been staying at Idomeni, the illegal camp at Greece – Macedonia border.  They escaped there because of the tear gas attacks.  Now they want to go to Athens because they know they can stay in a decent camp there.  They need some clean surrounding and security for their baby.
Obviously they do not want to beg for money and I also avoid the topic.  Begging is really eating your dignity and I seen it very seldom in the last half year working with people who lost absolutely everything. Often these people offer you what little they have in an attempt for hospitality.
But from overhearing their conversation at the ticket office I know they cannot take the night train (forced to sleep in a train station with a newborn) because they lack 20 euros.
We exchange telephone numbers, I tell them they can reach our group anytime in case of problems, I note their name and the camp they go.  Then, embarrased, I say good bye and I pass 20 euros.
They, also embarrased, go to buy the travel contribution to the Greek railway company.

 

We strongly agree among our group members that we do not want to be charity workers and we do not see a future for SCI in charity work.  So we started building solidarity networks.  Writing down contact details of everyone we met. But not just writing down contacts.  We spend many nights speaking people, from camp fire to camp fire, from tent to tent.  So contacts we wrote down, are memories, of friends, people we care and worry about.  Those contacts we contact regularly trough online channels.  Checking up on them.  Sending help trough our strong networks when needed.

 

After the closing of borders and goverment strategies leading up to the EU-Turkey deal, we have noticed another painfull event.  Authorities and government workers started dividing the refugees per nationality.  There would be tents for Afghans, for Syrians and for Iraqi’s.  All separate, in different area’s.  This happened simultaniously, at one moment, in all the transit centers and camps.

The result – knowing that these people are tired, frustrated and manipulated – was I strong increase in conflicts between national groups.  This was something we did not see so often before.

And here we found a very important role for us volunteers with a background in the International Peace Movement, mediation.
In the camps we started searching for those refugees who fill in social community building roles, and then support them.  And we spend long nights talking with many people about conflicts, trying to give insight and finding non violent approaches to overcome obstacles.

 

Another interesting fact we observed was that in this Nationality based segregation approach, no account was being taken of indigenous goups within nationalities, who often don’t even speak the language of the country they are supposed to “belong to”.

 

Tabanovce is getting fenced in, the atmosphere is tensed, there was a terrorist attack in Belgium few days ago. The whole national security forces are here and I find myself on a kilometer long small corridor with 2 fences left and right, between Macedonian and Serbian border checkpoints.  A young boy, not 16 yet, is walking back.  I meet him.  He is crying.  We sit down, ignoring the robocops walking by with heavy armory set on active. He explains me that his family passed the border few days ago.  He is Kurdish, from Iraq.  The Serbian border police works with “cultural controllers” from Iraq to check on peoples’ background, using arbitrary interviews.  Since he never learned any other language than the one spoken in his village the controllers tell the Serbian police that he is lying about his nationality.  He has been trying to cross for 4 days already and his Greek issued papers have already many negative marks.
I take his picture, collect all data to locate his family and send that to our networks North of the borders.

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This conditions after leaving our base and becoming mobile demanded a lot of investment in travelling, and most is, as always, paid by volunteer money.  Often there are no sleeping places available, sometimes an expensive hotel is the only option, sometimes we slept in the fields or in abandoned houses by the highway.

 

We connected a lot with the independent volunteer groups and organizations gathering in Northern Greece, around Idomeni area. We joined coordination meetings in the famous “Park Hotel” in Polycastro.  This hotel became a coordination center for all groups and looked like an ant nest, day and night.  The owner makes great toasts, but complains about the business.  In the surrounding of Idomeni all hotels and rooms are always overbooked, and the streets of the villages are full of volunteers, UN workers and all cloured jackets with logo’s of NGO’s and institutes from whole world.

 

Refocus

 

Since the borders of the balkan route closed permanently, our focus has shifted.  We stopped the rent of the volunteer house.  Volunteers moved to Greece mainland and islands, Italy, Lebanon, … Some went home, some are still very active from home especially the belgian team, with awareness raising campaigns (they started the informal group of VIA Belgium named Refocus).  Some volunteers remained along the Balkan route.  Others found a job inside the refugee institutions, because of financial uncertainty of the volunteer life.  Many volunteers just came for short period to help us and are now back home in their normal life, but always supporting when we need.  Our groups changes always, but we are always connected to so many other groups of independent volunteers.

 

Our focus shifted from working in the camps to working everywere the refugees are and networking with them.  Our aim became to get to know as many refugees as possible and remain online contact with them.

 

We have a growing network of volunteers helping with this and one of our main projects is based on widening this solidarity network to Western people, schools,…

The aim of this is to prevent isolation of refugees in vulnerable conditions.  Refugees in military camps need someone to contact in case of human right violations.  Refugees travelling illegally need someone to contact in case of abuse, trafficking, …

 

And really,… refugees in general can use someone outside of their framework to just speak with, to know someone out there cares and is there for a talk.

We will explain further on a bit the strategies we are developing to do this.

We did not get a volunteer house in Greece yet because of two reasons: no resources and no time.  But it is necessary.  Other groups are very active there and if we can base ourselves we will be of great help to them.  We will also save a lot on accomodation costs and save our own health from sleeping outside in bad conditions.  And believe me, after a day and night awake and running in muddy makeshift camps, you want a hot shower and a safe space to recover!

 

In Greece many independent volunteers groups are continuing their work around the military camps, access is forbidden and often they have to meet refugees outside, in secret. Independent volunters are being creative and projects arise like cluster bombs.
NGO’s and institutions did gain access to the military camps and this is an opportunity for us to join them if we want to go inside.  Some of us do this, others do refuse to cooperate with military. The conditions in many camps is horrible, reports from big NGO’s, UN and indendent journalist confirm that.  Here are few links:
MSF report:
conditions in Greek camps

 

Aid Delivery Mission docu:

after Idomeni eviction

Most important observation we made is that closing of borders and EU-Turkey deals do not stop the flow of refugees, as long as the war continues they will keep running.  And now a huge obscure illegal economy is benefitting from this, with nightmarish results that we will not even mention here.  Volunteer protection is still our main concern, for this a volunteer house and trainings and seminars are very necessary.

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Our group is focussing on keeping contacts with refugees mostly, trough online tools, telephone, and visits whenever possible. And building a network of people to keep those contacts.

And we focus on networking with all actors (volunteers, lawyers, ngos institutions, police, goverment,…), so that we are able to act fast in emergency situations.

 

These solidarity networks with refugees are international. For privacy and safety reasons we do not keep track of them.  We use the established communication channels to get help when needed and speak to the wider network of independent volunteers and aid workers. This project is growing organically.

 

Out of this solidarity networks many new projects and ideas are being created.  The beauty of those is that they seem to start from the actual need and interest of refugees themselves, as opposed to many charity works that are not so sustainable and create consumer attitudes.

One example is a campaign we are now designing and has already started.  We will collect as much tablet computers possible to give to refugee families in need.  Children need those for education while they miss school for often years now. Adults need those for the asylum procedures that are all online and trough skype these days. And it is essential for refugees to be connected and communicate.  Especially in cases of human right violations.  This campaign is of course connected to our efforts to build solidarity networks.  Donators of tablet computers will step into these solidarity networks and for example keep in touch with the specific family that received from them a computer. At the moment we are shipping the first one to the family that put us on this idea and helped us realize it.

 

 

Here you can find a reaearch about the importance of online communication for refugees:

Your phone is now a refugee phone

 

The last months a lot of time went into writing reports.  Actually a lot of energy went into this, because we never find the time and it keep haunting us. And the offices who helped us in the first stage a lot all are busy with their regular activities of the season. It is a real problem and we will have to discuss it and build a good strategy on the next volunteer meeting. But while working in the field and not finding time to write reports, we cannot even schedule the organization of a new volunteer meeting.

 

Here we can maybe mention now the things we want to do but that we do not find the time for:

 

1)build communication channels for volunteers and make our work more visible

We do a lot, and it would take a book to tell about the challenges we are faced with during last months, the successes, failures.  The humanitarian drama’s, some that we manage to prevent, others that we have to witness with lack of resources to do something.

 

2)writing reports and projects

As said before, it is very difficult to keep track of reporting when active in the field.  Also many idea’s and necessary urgent projects cannot take shape for same reason, lack of time and resources.

 

3) finding funds for travel and food while working with refugees.

Often we need to travel to help in certain cases, especially since a huge amount of refugees now travels illegally and ends up in dramatic conditions, texting us, and we cannot go there because we dont have resources. Often we can rely on our solidarity networks but also those networks need for some volunteers to be mobile and attend all meetings and visit new projects.

 

4) preparing new seminars and trainings for volunteers.

After the meeting in Novi Sad it is clear we want to organize more of those, to share and unite people active in the field. And to build a stronger link with SCI and Building Bridges group. We have no time to organize and the last months no one was able to help us.

 

5) find volunteer house in greece.

Greece is crucial at the moment and it would be good to have a base there.  But we have no resources to do it and lack of time and people to implement it.

 

Some other  things that took up all of our time during last few months:

 

-We are setting up exchange project with indigenous peoples all over the world, who all have in common that they lost their native land because of war, imperialism and free market games.

 

-Communication.  As mentioned before, due to lack of time and resources we have not managed to take care of a well functioning mailing list to keep in touch with volunteers and inform the movement of our actions and needs. We do have a blog and a facebook group now, but little time to update and promote.

We do however build a lot of decentralized solidarity networks and that is were we want to put our energy.  So it remains clear that we need office support for our general communication strategy.

 

-Assisting in the refugee fund of sci as team member.  One of us is in this team and communicates about it to the local groups of volunteers in the field.  This takes time but is necessary to be involved in to share our field knowledge to develop this fund into usefull directions.

 

-We have been communicationg with SCI IS about a workplan for 2017.  Although not succesfull so far, we see a great oportunity in this direction.  Namely; Social inclusion of refugees in SCI workcamps and projects.  A lot of branches do this already.  There should be a full time officer to collect best practices, multiply those and work on funding strategy to work this out. There is a great interest with many big foundations and European institutions for such inclusion strategies and we must not miss that train.

 

-Connecting with refugee camps and volunteer groups who gained access to the camps.  This we need to do more and we need people and time to do that.  It is also connected to the need to organize more volunteer meetings. It needs again mobility, travel and accomodation costs to go there were the organizations who gain acces have their meetings and network with them.

 

We have kept tickets of all our expenses and they are in the VCV Novi Sad office for anyone who wants to check on that. Since we spend so much with own money we have much more tickets than we ever received funds. We keep collecting proofs of our spendings, even if that is very difficult in the current situation were we need to help out a lot of people in crisis situations.

We are always very aware of the responsability that comes with community funding and we try as much as possible to build relations with donators and the refugees, trough solidarity networks.

 

We apologize for this long and not so structured writing, as we mentioned, time is not on our side in this crisis situation.  We want to thank from the heart everyone who has been supporting us and welcome everyone who wishes to join our efforts.

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