My story as a volunteer in a Greek camp in Ritsona

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

By Jelle Wassenaar


From the very first moment you – a stranger – enter the community of Ritsona, you feel accepted. People see an unknown face, I see all new faces, but no need for awkward silences or elaborate ice-breakers. Being part of an established and well-respected charity group called ‘ECHO100Plus’ is enough. They know why you are there, a guest in their home to help out a bit. Soon plenty know your name, with or without a name tag. Of course it helps if you have a name that resembles an Arabic word, especially one so frequently used to request someone to hurry up. As you can imagine it is a reason for laughter, yet very few need one to smile. Humans who have witnessed and gone through the worst continue to amaze me. Even more so as they are trapped in a place nobody wants to be. People are joking, patiently waiting while we assemble their food, which is not that good. I can best compare it to airplane food, but even that is a stretch at times. Admittedly it could be a lot worse in general since there is enough fruit, Arabic bread and water for everyone on a daily basis. People are grateful, kindhearted, courteous, warm and hospitable to say the least. Behind all of this there is of course anger, anxiety, frustration, helplessness, hopelessness  and indifference. It’s a mix of emotions and thoughts after being in this confusing little world far away from everything else. At times, the negative emotions come out as well and we just try to be understanding and hopefully not make it worse. This is hard sometimes, but we know it’s rarely personal and the reaction has little to do with what we did or did not do. I’d do the same if I’d get the same food almost every single day, get told I cannot have an orange for my child because the cutoff age is 3 or another salad because tonight you decided we can have only one per house. Most people understand we are not in charge, it is the army / air force and we hand out as much as we can but are forced to give out per person / child / baby due to the numbers. I’m still surprised though that people often accept our explanation. While our main task as Echo volunteers is food distribution, we also do hygiene and clothes distribution. In my first week we have had a few break-ins, which were frustrating but we did not let it get us down. People were upset about it too and of course agreed it was not right. We had it fixed every single time. We left the clothes for what they were since it was a mess every morning and they were clearly looking for something, at some point there is no point. This also counts for the perpetrators and what they took, which included some clothes but also nappies, diabetic bread, dog food, diapers and such. The items seemed random so it was almost funny. Luckily it stopped and we are currently in the process of getting a solid wall. Partly thanks to Lighthouse Relief and some of their amazing team members we managed to solidify the wall in the meantime. Aside from their carpentry skills, they run a child and woman friendly space. There is also I am You who run educational programs. Then we have the big ones UNHCR, IOM and Red Cross. The main differences is we are there on all 7 days, pretty much for 12 hours (9-21) straight and is pretty much front and center as you enter the camp. Just like on Leros, it seems that responsibility and cooperation between all of the parties involved is the biggest challenge to give the residents the best help they can get. Luckily, Ritsonians understand that we are limited due to politics and money. However, as this place was supposed to be temporary, some have now been here for about a year! That is unacceptable. Standing in line twice a day for your food, then waiting for that one day when you can get coffee, tea, some wet wipes – which are not to be handed out due to clogging of pipes – and waiting for opening hours to see a doctor. Ritsona is deemed one of the better camps, probably because they live in isoboxes (caravans / mobile homes) with heating, a stove, toilet and shower. Can you imagine this being your life though?  There is a good vibe in the camp regardless of what is going on. The 2nd or 3rd day after a tragic loss of life was probably on of the most positive and vibrant days yet. The sun was shining, people were up and about, children in the playground. People have probably already been through so much that the death of a baby is not that shocking. Staying positive is also a way to deal with it of course. I have no explanation for it and I know it sounds weird, but it’s the truth. Of course I mean no disrespect. The loss for me was a reminder of how fragile life is, how horrible living in a place like this must be, especially when going through something tragic as a family. Hearing other people’s stories about their lives in Syria and how they feel about living here is also a reality check.  Ritsona, a surreal and very real place at the same time. In the words of a young man: “If I was human, they would not put me in a place like this”. Most of my time here has been positive and it’s all because of the group we have and the residents of Ritsona. There is a ritual you have to pass before you can be fully accepted and you will not see it coming. See there is an old man in his sixties / seventies nicknamed ‘Baba’ who usually hangs around the warehouse before food distribution. The first time I saw him someone had already spilled the beans, but I was still surprised when he did the following. He signaled me over and pointed to my shirt. I looked down and of course he hit me in the nose. Then when you walk away, as soon as you turn your back actually, you feel something stinging your calve. He hit me with his walking stick! He does it to everyone and it’s hilarious. The man loves to pull pranks, also to pat you down for security reasons or for cigarettes. I recently grabbed a broom so he slowly extended his cane to increase his reach.  There are a lot of others who like to be silly and have fun with us. Two big men who always come early together just laugh at anything and take any opportunity to crack jokes. Then there’s people who prefer for certain volunteers to do their food order. Some children do likewise, one of them a girl who just says to everyone “you crazy”. There are a lot of cute babies and children who wave, say hello, blow kisses or just stand there with a smile, but there are definitely some little rascals as well. One boy just keeps saying “one, one, one” and wouldn’t stop. Then one day I was doing the tickets and this man at the window says 111. I look up and the resemblance is striking. That’s why the boy kept saying it! Not that he needs a reason, none of them do. Just shouting “my friend” – don’t try this with one of our founders though – for cups, water, a box, oranges, I want, give me, all night long..It can be annoying, but if you just have fun with it and stay positive, remind yourself they are just kids who are trying to have a normal childhood then it doesn’t really matter.  People in Ritsona try to make the best out of their situation and do it with such an overall positive attitude, that they’ve made this place into a community that is nothing short of admirable.

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