Ex-ICGer Peter Hutton shares his experience of volunteering for Refugee Support Europe in first Greece, and then very recently in Moldova. Refugee Support Europe was co-founded and is run by ex-ICG member Paul Hutchings (who we recently interviewed here). Peter and Paul worked together at MORI many years ago. Anyone interested in volunteering for RSE can find out more here.
I first became aware of Refugees Support, the charity set up by ICG member Paul Hutchings, in 2018 or 19. As someone who had drifted into semi-retirement, but had always been into volunteering – in my case through scouting – I was impressed by the initiative and thought I would like to get involved. A few months later I was in the Refugee Support Centre in Katsikas, Greece accompanied by my 19-year-old daughter.
The centre was in an old aircraft hangar on the site of a disused airfield next to a refugee camp consisting of converted shipping containers housing up to 1200 people altogether.
Our main role was to help run the shop and distribute tokens for the refugees to exchange for food and toiletries. However, this only took a few hours each day which normally left time in the afternoon to support the refugees, or at least the children, in other ways. The centre had three rooms as well as fenced outside areas that could be used for playing games, teaching crafts or even provide simple lessons in maths or English. Many of the children had missed out on years of formal education living in limbo between countries that had effectively rejected them and countries that were reluctant to accommodate them.
What surprised me was the wide range of countries the refugees came from. All, or most, had arrived from the Moira refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos, often having been trafficked in dinghies across the Aegean Sea. The camp was notorious for being one of the biggest and most overcrowded in the world. They were generally fleeing conflicts and persecution in countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan but also further afield in Pakistan and various north and central African countries.
Three years later I volunteered for a short stint in the Refugee Support Centre in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.
Here the model of exchanging tokens or points for food and hygiene/toiletry items was much the same, although the refugees were all from one country – Ukraine, though most would not really consider themselves refugees since they intend to return to their country when it is safe to do so. Moldova is a small and very poor country but has very openly supported those fleeing from the invading Russian forces. These are mainly young women with children and older Ukrainians including men who are ineligible for military service.
Sadly, there were fewer opportunities to interact with these displaced persons and to hear their stories. One had to imagine what they were fleeing from largely on the basis of reports in the media.
However, being in the city and close to the centre meant there were more things to do in the spare time. I never dreamt I would be going to a performance of Swan Lake at the National Ballet and Opera House, or touring the world-renowned Cricova winery, (where Putin celebrated his 50th birthday), with a food and (free) wine festival thrown in, or visiting a couple of other food and wine festivals in the city. There were also nice bars and restaurants as well as street food so one could feel virtuous about supporting the local economy while having an enjoyable time!
Overall, it was a worthwhile experience with volunteers from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, some with quite extraordinary stories of their previous travels and time working with charities in various parts of the world, which all enhanced the overall experience.