Trip to refugee camps in Greece a sobering experience for local volunteers

Team member Cameron Calmere, 14, of Atascadero, shows some of his skateboarding moves to Afghan refugees in Athens, Greece. Calmere was part of a nine-person team volunteering in the city to help refugees as they seek safety in Europe.
Team member Cameron Calmere, 14, of Atascadero, shows some of his skateboarding moves to Afghan refugees in Athens, Greece. Calmere was part of a nine-person team volunteering in the city to help refugees as they seek safety in Europe.

The Greek airport terminal was filled with more activity than Tom Gaddis of Atascadero could believe, but it wasn’t the normal hustle-and-bustle of travelers scurrying to catch their flights that caught his eye.

It was the masses of tents clumped together, in a range of colors, filling the gate rooms and spilling out across the airport’s hallways. People of all ages sat clustered inside and in front of the tents, anxiously awaiting asylum in Europe.

Gaddis and a group of eight other San Luis Obispo County residents were seeing something few other Americans have had the chance to see: the conditions that hundreds of thousands of refugees are living in as they wait to be let into the continent while fleeing from their turmoil-ravaged home countries.

“There’s 2,000 people living in this building,” Gaddis recalled after returning to the United States from his two-week trip to one camp in Athens, Greece. “If you’ve seen these tents, I always think of Yosemite — they are two-man dome tents? — some organization in Norway provided all of these tents, and families are just packed in there. It’s hot; it smells. There are no showers. They do have a toilet. It was pretty heartbreaking to see their conditions.”

The phenomenon has been referred to as the Syrian refugee crisis, though as of late, the refugees filling the camps have come more and more from countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Jordan. The crisis came to light last year, after hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war began flooding into Europe from neighboring countries, worrying many within the European nations that the influx would strain the countries’ resources. In response to the influx, many European countries have tightened their borders, restricting the flood of refugees.

They are like an unwanted people.

Lori Barrow, Atascadero

In response, massive refugee camps have popped up in airport terminals, abandoned buildings, open fields and other areas where the refugees can wait, sometimes for months on end, for passage into the rest of Europe.

Team leader Lori Barrow said she was compelled to organize the trip after reading a blog about the refugees.

“They are like an unwanted people,” she said. “Just to imagine that on top of everything they have just left, now all the borders are closed to them, and Greece is overrun. They can’t keep up with them, they don’t have the capabilities to care for these people in a good way, so they are just feeling very unwanted everywhere.”

Barrow organized the trip for March 22 though April 4. The group included Barrow and Gaddis, five members of their Atascadero church, Father’s House, and a couple from Arroyo Grande who worked with Barrow through the religious group Youth With A Mission (the couple also brought their 8-month-old baby).

Members of the team included Lori Barrow, Jordan Benham, Cameron Calmere, Carrie Calmere, Tom Gaddis, Leslie Garner, Nancy Hobson, Aaron Ortega, Sarah Ortega and baby Stella Ortega.

One of the first things that surprised the group was the condition the refugees were living in, and the feeling among many of the individuals that their plights were being ignored by the rest of the world.

“There’s that sense of, I think, desperation there,” Gaddis said. “It’s like, ‘Please tell somebody we are here, this is not right, we hate this.’ 

The group spent the two weeks volunteering with a variety of organizations around Athens to distribute food, toys and needed goods among the refugees, including smuggling teapots and tea into one of the largest camps for a group who said they missed having tea.

“They were just so grateful,” Gaddis said. “They just kept telling us they were so apologetic that they didn’t have food to serve us, because that’s the way their culture is. That was very touching to me.”

They also spent a lot of time just sitting and talking with the immigrants, he said, learning their stories and why they fled their countries.

Both Gaddis and Barrow said that while there, they were surprised by how easy it was to relate to the refugees, despite their outward differences.

4.8 million The number of registered Syrian migrants and refugees, according to the United Nations.

“These people are from all sorts of different backgrounds,” Barrow said. “They’ve left businesses, they’ve left their homes. It hit closer to home than I expected, because it was so much easier to imagine myself as them. In some cases, they left the same sort of circumstances that you or I live in.”

Now that they are back, both said they will continue to find ways to help the refugees who made such an impact on them.

“It’s bigger than any one group,” Gaddis said. “None of us can do it all, but all of us can do something.”

One thing stuck with Gaddis more than he thought it would as he recounted the trip: a request from the group’s translator to tell people about the camp and the refugees living there.

“They were asking when we were in the center if we were journalists, ’cause they really wanted to get their story out,” he said. “They feel like ghosts, they feel like they are invisible. But I told him, ‘I give you my word, any way that I can share your plight, I will.’ 

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie