These lives are in limbo. The least we can do is bring a little happiness into them

Volunteering in Skaramagas refugee camp, near Athens, is eye-opening and enriching

Skaramagas: boys play in a kindergarden at the refugee camp near Athens. Photograph: Panayotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto via Getty

Skaramagas: boys play in a kindergarden at the refugee camp near Athens. Photograph: Panayotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto via Getty

 

Shouts of Yassas koritsia – Hello girls – boom across the hustle and bustle, carrots tumble down sloped stands, potatoes stand tall in perfect pyramids and stray onions roll down the road. This is a snapshot of the laiki agora, the fruit and vegetable market that takes place every Friday in neighbourhoods across Athens. Since the November lockdown it has become the highlight of my social calendar.

I moved to Athens in early September 2020, initially to spend six weeks volunteering. My sister joined me in October, and we have since extended our stay in this fascinating city. I’m now working remotely as a freelance graphic designer, which is something of a dream come true, since I moved to London in 2014 to pursue a creative career following a business and sociology degree at Trinity College Dublin.

After doing an an intensive portfolio-preparation course in London, I spent five years working in London as an in-house graphic designer for a number of jewellery brands. Working in the fashion industry ignited a spark of something unexpected, a drive to offset some of the time and brainpower I spent helping a brand sell its products and funnel some of this energy into something beyond sales.

Covid-19 meant activities with the children were paused, but our daily interactions in the communal areas were standout moments. Full of laughter and playfulness, these little ones loved to invent games, braid hair or simply sit beside us

In 2019 I started volunteering weekly at Body & Soul, a charity in Islington in London that aims to heal childhood trauma – most of the children it helps have a family member with HIV – through play therapy and psychosocial support. As volunteers, we helped oversee the children’s evening schedule, which centred around activities and a shared meal.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed interacting with these little livewires, having spent hardly any time around children in my 20s. I began to form a plan to leave London in May 2020, and I signed up to Indigo, an international volunteering platform, hoping to spend a month at one of Europe’s refugee camps on the Greek islands.

The pandemic accelerated my departure from London by two months, and I flew out of the UK for the last time on St Patrick’s Day. I based myself temporarily in Dublin and worked remotely for my London employer. Little did I know how much my world was about to change in just under a year.

Aisling O’Connor
Aisling O’Connor

I handed in my notice midsummer, which coincided with an email from Indigo, informing me that volunteering placements were open again, with new Covid-19 precautions. I applied for a placement in Athens and was accepted. Six months to the day I left London, I started my first day at Skaramagas refugee camp, one of the largest on mainland Greece, a 40-minute drive west of Athens.

The camp has 2,700 residents, with the majority having fled Syria and Afghanistan. I was volunteering with Dråpen i Havet, or Drop in the Ocean, a Norwegian NGO that provides distribution and integration services, as well as psychosocial support. Our purpose as volunteers was to bring happiness into the residents’ daily lives while treating them with dignity and respect.

Every day at the camp was different, whether it was distributing donations of winter clothing, chatting to mothers while their children played in the Women’s Space or teaching informal English lessons. Covid-19 meant activities with the children were paused, but the daily interactions I had in the communal areas were the standout moments for me. Full of laughter and playfulness, these little ones loved to invent games, braid hair or simply take a seat beside us.

I did not see many children, however, as they spent most of their days in the camp’s residential area, which contains row upon row of “isoboxes”. These two-family spaces, made from repurposed shipping containers, are equipped with water, electricity and a shared bathroom, which makes conditions better than anything found in the camps on the Greek islands of Samos and Lesbos, for example.

Skaramagas: families eat at the refugee camp near Athens. Photograph: Eirini Vourloumis/New York Times
Skaramagas: families eat at the refugee camp near Athens. Photograph: Eirini Vourloumis/New York Times

It was humbling, eye-opening and enriching to interact with the camp’s residents through laughter, a smile or conversation. If we can make this period of transitional limbo a bit easier, as they wait for their asylum to be processed, then it is the least that we, as volunteers, can do. Some may stay in Greece; others hope for reunification with family in Germany, the UK or Scandinavia. We are all human, and all deserve a chance at life.

I realise how lucky I am to experience Athens as an EU national with all the freedom and sense of possibility this entails. Although the regional lockdown continues, I do not take for granted the simple act of walking in the sun to get a coffee or feast on halva from the local delicatessen.

I am back to designing for fashion and lifestyle brands, but with a renewed sense of purpose. I work now to fund future volunteering and to experience freelance life in cities across Europe.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do