Thursday, January 14, 2016

Volunteer Spotlight - Refugee Crisis

We are very proud and happy to announce the first individuals for the Volunteer Spotlight! Congratulations, to Amy and Colin Pappajohn, whom are also a part of the iHeartVolunteers team.

Currently, Amy and Colin are on hiatus from iHeartVolunteers and have been volunteering for an ad hoc group of independent volunteers. Better Days for Moria is an informal organization formed to provide volunteer coordination and to fill in the service gaps in Moria Camp - the main refugee registration camp in Lesvos, Greece. Read below to learn more about their important volunteer work in Greece, helping the refugees.

"They're just like us. They have the same basic values. They have the same fears. They have the same ambitions. They each have their own story. Listen."

Amy & Colin at a local eatery in Molyvos on Lesvos island

What is a typical day like for you two?

11:00AM - Wake up, shower, make breakfast, read news about Balkan Route (the main route for refugees from Turkey to Germany).

2:00PM - Drive from Molyvos (a village located in the North of Lesvos) to Moria camp - it's an hour drive but we rideshare with volunteers who are also on the north of the island.

3:00PM - Arrive at Moria registration camp and do a walk-around (gather information). We talk to refugees, volunteers, large NGOs, the police doing the registration, in order to determine where volunteers are needed.

Amy&Colin_Refugee Camp.png
This is the camp where the Pappajohns spend a lot of their time

4:00PM - Lead a short meeting with volunteers who signed up for the evening shift. Pair volunteers who have experience with new volunteers and send them to the areas of the camp that need volunteers. The needs change everyday and every hour.

4:30PM - After the new shift has started, we do workarounds every 1-2 hours answering any questions. Moving volunteers to areas they might be needed.

The camp is huge, but we have volunteers almost everywhere. We have volunteers who greet refugees as they come off the buses, volunteers who distribute and help to get refugees who are wet into dry clothes, volunteers who distribute hot food and tea, volunteers who help manage the lines for registration, volunteers roaming around ensuring the general well-being of refugees and at night, volunteers finding places for refugees to sleep. We also have regular blanket and sleeping bag distributions. Our job is to ensure the proper coverage of volunteers in each area and to circulate up-to-date accurate information.

A big part of our job is to handle some of the special cases. If there is a separated family or lost child we refer them to The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). If there is a fire, we put it out (literally and figuratively). If sleeping spaces run out, we improvise. If there is a suspected trafficker or someone selling fake papers, we are the ones who help deal with it. Whatever can happen, does happen.

8:00PM - Volunteer Dinner - Mmmm

12:00AM - Share information with the next shift coordinator. Wrap-up any last minute tasks.

1:00AM - Drive home.

2:00AM - Grab a snack. Unwind. Facebook.

3:00AM - Sleep

What are the biggest challenges?

Lack of Coordination, Communication, and Collaboration. The Moria registration camp is huge. There are so many organizations involved everyday and no one entity oversees the camp. The Greek Government and Greek Police change their policies and procedures everyday. A handful of large NGOs such as UNHCR, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Doctors Without Borders, and Save the Children are all present in the camp. There are hundreds of small NGOs and independent volunteers. The large NGOs are buried in bureaucracy and lack the overall manpower. The small NGOs and the independent volunteers are not adequately coordinated, so duplication of services and service gaps are inevitable.

All organizations and individuals have good intentions but without the proper information or training, people can cause more damage than good.

A life-jacket recycling project. Straps = belts.
The rest of it = padding and insulation under the tent.   
When you're down, what keeps you going?

Everyone around us keeps us going. It's such an ugly atmosphere - the registration camp is surrounded by razor wire because it was previously a detention center - but it is filled with the most amazing people. The super-motivated short term volunteers. The long term volunteers who quit their jobs to be here. The refugees.
The man from Afghanistan who gave his tent and blanket to a family who needed it. The 16 year old Syrian boy who helped us translate. The man who gave me his gloves because I had none and refused to accept them back. The elderly couple who came all the way from Syria. The man with perfect English who translated for the US Army only to later be targeted by the Taliban.

Pappajohns poking their head out of a kids tent

Everyday we meet the most amazing people this world has to offer. People who have overcome some amazing atrocities. In addition to all of this, we have an amazing network of support waiting for us back home. We consider ourselves pretty lucky.

How has your previous experience as Peace Corps Volunteers helped you with your current volunteer service?

Professionalism - Peace Corps does a great job teaching you how to be a good volunteer. We remember the phrase "own your service" from pre-service training but we didn't realize how important it was until now. The most effective volunteers in Peace Corps and on Lesvos, approach their volunteer service as a job. In any crisis situation, you need to have reliable people you can count on and Lesvos is no exception.

Flexibility - The most important thing that we took from our PC service is how to be flexible in an ever changing environment. Everyday procedures change, needs change, different problems arise and Peace Corps gave us invaluable experience reacting to dynamic environments. We use this skill everyday.

Is there a specific story that you would like to share, about your time in Lesvos?

One day, we ran out of blankets. It happens from time to time. Usually, we put a call out for blankets to all the groups managing the many warehouses located around the island. But this time, we couldn't find any in any of the warehouses. It was late. Many of the employees from the big NGOs had gone back to their hotels. The camp was almost full and when the camp is full, people are required to sleep in a huge tent that can fit about 200 people. It's more like a gigantic, drafty, plastic barn with particle board floors. It was cold. Refugees kept arriving on boats and then they were bused to the camp from the beaches. The only thing we could give them was an emergency foil blanket. Amy found three large blankets but it wasn't nearly enough for everyone.

Then we got a call. In one of the warehouses, they had thousands of brand new XXL fleece jackets, probably donated by some company as overstock. The large tent was completely packed with people, most without proper blankets. Three volunteers spent an hour opening the packages of comically large fleeces and draping two over each person without a blanket. The people who were still awake thanked us profusely. The three blankets that Amy found we draped over a very large extended family of over 20 people with babies, children and some grandparents. One elderly woman woke up in the process of being tucked in and thanked us repetitively in Arabic, in tears. It was so great to be able to help even in such a small way.

What do you want people to know about the people you're helping?

They're just like us. They have the same basic values. They have the same fears. They have the same ambitions. They each have their own story. Listen.

Amy&Colin_Some Laughter.png
A traveling clown group came to the camp to entertain the refugees

How can people get involved?

People often say that there is a shortage of donations and volunteers on the island but this is only half of the story.

Donations ARE needed but only the RIGHT donations. I know, I know, there should be no such thing as wrong donation but there is. Used, unsorted clothes would qualify as a wrong donation. There are currently warehouses on Lesvos full of stacks of used, unsorted clothes that probably will never be sorted (volunteers don't tend to come to Lesvos to spend time in a warehouse sorting clothes). Sorted, high need items (such as shoes, sleeping bags, gloves) are the right donations.

New items are also great because they are sorted by size, in nice stack-able boxes and unworn. But, money is the best donation. It supports the local Greek economy and can be used to purchase whatever is high need at that moment - gloves are our highest need right now, but by the time a container makes it's way to Greece it might not be needed anymore. Also financial donations can be used to cover overhead costs, like diesel for the generator to run the lights. If you want to donate to Better Days for Moria please visit the website (It is a work in progress, so please check back frequently).

Amy&Colin_sorting clothes.jpg
Amy sorting clothes in a warehouse. A constant need.

Volunteers ARE needed but only the RIGHT volunteers. Lesvos needs volunteers who can either hit the ground running and/or volunteers that can stay for longer than a week. The right volunteers are volunteers who treat their volunteer time with a high level of professionalism. This means being on time for shifts, being dependable and committing to one location (not bouncing around to wherever there is the "most action"). The right volunteers spend some time doing inglorious tasks such as sorting clothing in a warehouse or picking up litter - it’s all necessary. Better Days for Moria wants these volunteers on our team. If you are one of these volunteers please spend some time and read this document by clicking here and then contact Better Days for Moria .

Can't donate or volunteer? You can still be involved. Become more educated on the refugee crisis. Share what you find. E-mail your district representatives.  Educate those around you. Every little bit helps.

Colin & Amy Pappajohn
Volunteers, Better Days for Moria
Peace Corps Volunteers, Botswana 09-11
Washington State University Alums

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