Have you ever wondered what it might be like to travel in a camper van to Greece, find refugees squatting in derelict buildings and in parks, set up your field kitchen, and cook hot meals for them?
This is what Sarah Berry and her friend Jane did in August. We posted about them earlier as well: Food for Refugees: Frontline Volunteer Sarah Berry
Their first stop after arriving in Greece was at the army-run camp Alexandreia (link) where they dropped off a van full of donations they had brought with them from France. They then drove to Thessaloniki where they met with volunteers who were helping refugees living in the streets and parks. They set up camp and intended to cook there for three weeks.
Now imagine you’re doing this: In the morning you go to a large METRO Cash & Carry (an international self-service wholesaler) and you buy as much food as you think you’ll need to feed a couple of hundred hungry people. You take it back to the camper van and start prepping, cutting, chopping, organizing the cooking area. Then you start cooking using the van kitchenette and the cook tops you’ve set up on a table outside.
Honestly, I can’t imagine doing this for so many people, in the heat, with so little equipment. But Sarah and Jane managed it. Within two days the number of refugees queuing for food had more than doubled. They were now cooking for 400 people and they were beginning to worry about having enough money to keep buying supplies. Besides, it was an exhausting job to prepare so many meals in the blistering heat.
A few days later they arrived at the park to start work to find the Greek police waiting for them. The refugees had been forced onto a bus and taken away in the early hours of the morning. The police questioned Sarah and Jane and checked their passports. They were told in no uncertain terms to not come back to the parks and cook for refugees again. (Many refugees will come back because they want to stay near where the contacts and the ‘handlers’ are who might help them cross borders.)
Deflated, Sarah and Jane wondered what to do and searched their contacts throughout Greece. As luck would have it, they were asked to cook for the people at Camp Alexandreia (their first stop in Greece where they delivered aid donations), which shelters around 750 refugees.
They happily said yes. And so they cooked that Saturday for 750 refugees. Can you imagine this? Here’s what Sarah wrote:
“We were not just providing hot food but salads as well which needed prepping and then putting into the individual packaging. Emotionally our job was also tough – the feeling that whatever you do is not enough. We were extremely lucky to have help from other volunteers. We would have been there for many more hours if we were to do all the distribution of the food on our own as well.
The refugee kids were great though –always helping us to wash up, dry up – it was such fun for them and invaluable help to us.”
They took Sunday off because the shops were closed and buying food ahead of time was not an option as the van had no food storage capability. They went to Thessaloniki and checked into a motel for Saturday and Sunday night and enjoyed showers and air conditioning, which I’m thinking they well deserved.
Then disaster struck. Arriving back in the camp on Monday morning they found their van’s window smashed and their possessions stolen, including the toys they’d brought for the kids and most of Sarah’s clothes.
It took the rest of the week to sort things out with the police and to get the window fixed in the van. In the mean time, Sarah and Jane slept in the cheapest motel they could find.
So what would you have done at this point?
Sarah wrote: “This was a serious test for us. At different times we both toyed with leaving. We had faced so much already […] But then the stubborn me took over: No way was I giving in! We had come here to do a job and that was exactly what we were going to continue to do.”
And so they did. They were amazed and relieved by the financial support that arrived from friends and people they’d never even met. There was money now to pay for the van window, to buy toys for the children, and clothes for Sarah.
So they cooked. Sarah wrote they were so busy buying food, chopping food, cooking food, serving food that for most of their trip they did not get past smiles and handing food out. Sarah told herself it would be better not to get too close, to hear the stories of these desperate people. She needed to come home and be able to sleep. After her work as a hands-on volunteer in the camps in Calais and Dunkirk she’d always come back and be unable to sleep, unable to not re-think the many heartbreaking stories she’d heard and the horrific scenes she’d witnessed. But in the end, in Greece, Sarah could not distance herself, either.
A few days before they left Greece, they headed back to the parks in Thessaloniki and found many refugees there again, many families and children, one a baby of just 20 days old.
Sarah wrote: “It was soul destroying. We literally bought every packet of pampers, every packet of wet wipes, all the water and large ‘euro’ chocolate coins that the local shop had and we went in search of a pharmacy for many different medical needs. That day I felt distraught but also that I was doing my ‘thing’– talking, supporting and just listening. Being asked for items and being able to find a shop and buy them, making a difference if just for one day…
“I met a lady on my last day in the park who sat on a blanket with 2 children, a little girl of around 2 and a boy about 8 years old. I asked her if there was something she needed that I could provide and she just welled up and then cried – no words – no need – the desperation and hopelessness in her face was all the words I needed. I established the nappy size she needed, left and returned with nappies, wet wipes, hand cleanser, tissues, chocolate, water and a hug….. I couldn’t leave her immediately and we just sat together saying nothing, I handing her tissues, tears coming down both of our faces. I screwed up money so it was not obvious I was singling her out and made her take it. I left the park and returned two hours later after a mad taxi ride to get more aid from a different store….. she had gone…. ”
Sarah has more heartrending stories, stories that may not make it easy to sleep at night, but she feels this work is what she is meant to do.
Ask yourself, could you do this?
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Would you like to talk to Sara yourself? Sarah will be with us in Pézénas at the Journée de Tous Humains Ensemble avec les réfugiés, Saturday 8 October from 1o:30-18:30, at the Foyer des campagnes.