UWC Atlantic College alumna, Emily Wilson, recently gave an interview about her experience as a volunteer helping refugees in Greece with a project named ‘Project Elea’.
Project Elea is a grassroots volunteer organisation based in Athens, which is designed to improve the quality of life of refugees through activities, education, dignified food and clothing distribution.
More volunteers are needed as refugee numbers grow. If you would like to help, or would like any more information, head over to the Facebook page… https://www.facebook.com/projectelea.volunteers/?fref=ts
Q. Are there any particular moments that you wish to share?
A. Every day was full of ´particular moments´, however the more I grew to understand the faces and the stories of the residents of the camp, the more potent these moments became. Something that became a common feature of our interaction with the residents was how much they wanted to give the volunteers, often more than they actually had for themselves. Moments that really affected me were the moments when dignity and style shone through the crisis. The way that tea was poured for us in a ritualistic way into perfectly clean, chipped, mismatched glasses, resting on a kitsch tea tray which was found in a gypsy market, on a broken bedside table which was salvaged from a skip - the whole process echoing a former life of a gentleman - a 76 year old fashion designer from Kurdistan, who had lived for 12 years in Los Angeles, fluent in Spanish, English and Farsi. Everyday this man would be dressed immaculately, with the clothes that he had gathered over two years of running from war and political unrest. He spends 20 minutes a day cleaning his cowboy boots, his colour coordination is on par. We would be offered tea through his container window with a free story about how he once directed a fashion show in Egypt and how delicious the canapés were.
Q.Has your perception of the refugee crisis changed?
A. I went to Greece to help and to change my perception. I did not like the way in which the refugees were being represented in the media, I needed to see for myself and understand the situation in Greece and humanize the situation. From day one my perceptions were altered in a positive way, I was able to make friends with and connect with people who had come from very far away and from situations I could never even try to imagine. I was able to work alongside these people in projects and activities, and be witness to, and inspired by their unbelievable strength and adaptability to a situation that they do not want to be in. As a teacher, my passion is working with children, I have been lucky enough to work with lots of different types of children from all over the world, of varying ages, abilities and nationalities. Something that has stayed with me from my experience in Greece, is being with children of war, and learning about their wildness. This is an entire generation of humans who have known nothing but war and instability, often born on the journey, or during the unrest. There is wildness in their actions and eyes, a desperation for stability and trust in their touch. They are some of the most vulnerable children I have ever met.
Q. How did you hear about the project? And what specifically motivated you to take part in project Elea above other projects?
A. Before making any decisions I carried out extensive research into the different NGOs and what projects they were focusing on. I began looking before the EU Turkey Deal and I saw that there were numerous organizations based on Lesbos receiving the boats of refugees. I looked into different organizations on the island, and then decided due to political instability that I would look closer to the time I was going to fly (August) before I made any choices. After the EU Turkey deal was established many of the NGOs on Lesbos were closed down, many of them were not connected with the Greek government and were forced from the island. It was at this point that I began looking for different projects that were on mainland Greece. In Greece there are various camps of differing quality and organization, many of them are completely overwhelmed and rely heavily on short term volunteers. Whilst searching for the NGOs online that remained or were functioning in a different way to those that were put in place for the primary emergency situations in Lesbos, I came across Project Elea. I recognized that this project had a lot of potential and was also a project which had a more permanent working environment and therefore was able to put into practice ´long term´ and more sustainable solutions to improve the quality of the life of the residents in Camp Eleonas. I wanted my collaboration with the project to be something more ongoing and continuous. I was searching for a project that I could invest my time an energy into both while I was there working in the field but also afterwards when I had returned home.
Q. What impact does your work have on the lives of the refugees?
A. Project Elea offers the structure and stability necessary to introduce resident ran activity sessions and community meetings. It also allows for flexibility and autonomy. There are a few NGOs working on Camp Eleonas which also means that there is more opportunity to instigate initiatives and activities. Project Elea is put in place to improve the quality of live and use of time at the camp for the residents. The project takes charge of clothing and food distribution as its two core activities that are timetabled every day. Sport activities for men, women and children are offered, along with various others such as: Gardening, Construction, Yoga, Henna, Cinema Evening, Bicycle Workshops, Kite Making, Arts and Crafts for adults and children, Talent Shows, Machine Sewing, Storytime and increasingly more. The activities add structure to the daily lives of the residence allowing for some variety.
They also nurture communication between the residents and volunteers. It was evident when the project first arrived that there were racial tensions within the camp. The project has enabled conversation, joint projects, and has fostered friendships between many of the residents. The structure that the activities has added has alleviated some of the day to day stresses of the residents, such as allowing parents some respite from their young children during the children’s’ activities. The construction of two separate enclosed spaces for workshops and womens’ activities has nurtured a sense of community and friendship amongst the women who use them. Maintenance of the camps cleanliness and respect for the environment is something that Project Elea is working tirelessly to promote. We feel that if the residents are helping us to tidy the environment and maintain order and aesthetics they will in turn respect the camp and the environment more and more. A problem in this objective is that many of the residents feel that by maintaining the environment is almost an acceptance of their circumstances; they do not want to accept that they will be living here for a long period of time. For them it is easier to accept that Camp Eleonas is ´Limbo´ and anything done to improve the living conditions is not worth it because they will be moving soon anyway.
Q. How big a part did your time spent at Atlantic College guide you in making the decision to take part in the project?
A. Atlantic College has had a huge effect on my career direction and volunteering experiences. Atlantic College showed me just how achievable ideas and visions can be. Since graduating from Atlantic College 10 years ago, I have been heavily involved in volunteering projects and NGOs both locally and internationally. Atlantic College plants a seed in its students, it allows each student to see the potential they have to make a difference, making differences in small ways and big ways. My time in Atlantic college was simply just a starting point, a perspective in which I could take when looking at the world in which we live in and the world that we would all grow up, work in and contribute to. It is a spring board, it is not the end of an adventure when you graduate, it is simply a two year door opening process, and that door stays open. Atlantic College definitely gave me a stronger desire to travel to every corner of the world, but it also showed me the power and potential in the concept of Community and Communication, and this is something that I have carried with me ever since.
This is a concept that is being ferociously nurtured in Project Elea and a framework that functions. Since graduating, it has become a part of my nature and instinct to volunteer and help, I enjoy it, it makes me feel good. As it does for everyone that does it. It should not be a heroic act, it should not be something that needs to be rewarded within society. It should be human nature and intuition, this is something that Atlantic College gave me.