Agreeing to drive a 7.5 tonne truck full of aid, in convoy, across Europe wasn’t a decision taken lightly. It was always going to be a challenge, considering that none of us had ever driven anything that size before.
Life on the road isn’t for everyone; I knew sleeping in the back of the truck, amid mountainous piles of banana boxes, night after night, wasn’t going to be easy. If anything was going to test my mettle, this would be it. I needed to be sure I had the heart to follow through when things got tough. And it did get tough.
Driving hours, per day, were extremely long; we would be on the road most days from 7am and not parking up till maybe 9pm or 10pm, sometimes later if we were behind schedule. We passed through nine different countries, had issues at border controls, numerous mechanical problems and adverse weather conditions , but we remained positive; exactly one week after leaving the UK, we finally made it to Athens, where the real work would begin.
Maria driving truck
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At the end of April we travelled to the Greek Island of Chios where we had sent vital aid in readiness for our arrival. This was our 12th overseas aid trip, since embarking on this venture in October 2014. We have previously visited mainland Greece, other Greek Islands and Serbia to provide aid to refugees, but as this was our first trip to Chios, our aim was to establish where we might be able to make a difference and forge relationships with people on the ground to enable us to support them in the best way possible in the future. We distributed aid and met with other volunteers and we visited the only official camp on Chios where we found that the aid available to those living there was woefully inadequate. We feel that what we do is never enough but people are so very grateful for what we do and most of all they are so pleased to know that they are not completely forgotten. Even though they have lost everything, they still try to maintain their dignity and hope.
During the trip, we visited The Hope Centre, now renamed The Iris Centre to avoid confusion with another group on Lesvos. This volunteer run space offers refugees some time away from the camp and provides a few hours of tranquillity for refugees, giving them access to showers, toiletries, toothbrushes and toothpaste which is all very precious in these circumstances.
Morning meeting with the 1st Response volunteer team (CESRT) in Chios
We were met in Athens by Negia who runs the Pampiraiki warehouse, a local refugee group working tirelessly round the clock to help refugees, many of whom are sleeping rough in the City. Negia’s warmth and compassion shines out despite the constant daily demands on her operation. So, with temperatures soaring we quickly got to work unloading necessities like blankets, which are desperately needed by those sleeping on the streets. No sooner had we finished unloading than we reloaded the trucks with winter aid, earmarked for CESRT, as they now start to prepare for the coming winter months. Finally, we were ready to leave, making our way to the port for the overnight ferry and the next leg of our journey.
Truck arrives in Athens
Arriving on the Island of Lesvos was a poignant moment for Carole, Julie and me; it’s a sobering reminder of where it all began. However, two and a half years later, times have changed dramatically: where once the trucks rolled off without anyone blinking an eye, now we were met by hostile authorities who insisted on questioning us, checking all the vehicles, pouring over our documents until – with all the necessary documentation in place – they finally had no choice but to let us go about our business.
As always we received a warm and grateful welcome from the Attika Human Support Team, a team of ordinary people going to extraordinary lengths to provide some comfort to thousands of people waiting in hope in overcrowded camps. These people are trapped, with no official status, not knowing what the future holds, unable to move forward, unable to go back. They are proud, respectful people who have had the courage to escape war only to now find themselves stripped of their dignity, living in desperate conditions in bleak camps, where they feel unwelcome.
Attika actively provides more than just aid; they treat people with kindness and understanding and are a constant source of comfort for the rising number of refugees still arriving on the Island.
One of my most memorable moments came courtesy of one refugee, Omar (17), who volunteers at the Attika warehouse because he wants to ‘give something back.’ The smile on Omar’s face when he was given a bicycle donated by The Ripple Effect Team was humbling. It now means his daily commute to the warehouse from camp will be much easier. A simple act of kindness from one person to another can make a world of difference.
Unloading the truck
Our final destination was to the Island of Chios, where we were greeted by Toula, founder of CESRT, and her brilliant team of volunteers.
CESRT play a major role in the lives of the refugees by providing an emergency 24/7 service for boats landing on the island. They liaise with medical teams and the authorities and are a major donor to the Vial camp, which currently is home to over two thousand refugees. Toula’s energy and devotion is admirable. Her passion and drive to make life more bearable for those less fortunate speak volumes; her love and devotion know no bounds.
However, Toula isn’t alone on the island. Many, many volunteers are working incredibly hard all year round, all hours of the day, to make life just that little bit more bearable. Kostas & The Chios People’s Kitchen, Irini & The Women’s Centre, Hanne & The IRIS Centre, Ruhi Loren, Hasib Hotak & Brothers - to name just a few – are all very much a presence on the ground; all showing kindness; all going above and beyond; all making their voices heard.
On any convoy, you constantly find yourself navigating a range of emotions, which are not always easy to contain. We all have our stories that attest to this fact and often it’s the smallest act of kindness or a brief encounter with someone that can tip you over the edge. Like a small, sad child who poked his tiny hand through a hole in a fence to give us a little wave as the trucks trundled past. Or the group of young boys sat on the roadside, all wearing the same donated t-shirts, whose faces suddenly lit up as they spotted the trucks with ‘Humanitarian Aid’ emblazoned across them. Unable to contain their excitement they waved and jumped for joy. I have never felt so small in my entire life. Thank goodness I was in the truck, because there was no holding back my tears at this point; I broke down, giving way to the tiredness, the exhaustion and the emotion of the trip.
Life in Greece continues to be a struggle for tens of thousands of refugees. Refugees, who, having fled war and persecution, now face discrimination, prejudice, unprovoked attacks and insults on an almost daily basis. Whilst life for them is a constant battle – the look in their eyes tells you that they are carrying the weight of fear on their backs – you will not meet a more respectful, proud group of people whose only ‘want’ in this life is to be safe.
All they need is protection and assistance. All they ask for is understanding. People only leave, because they are forced to by violence. Fleeing is the only option they have to protect themselves and the lives of those they love, and unless you have ever had to choose between life and death – until you have walked in their shoes – you can never fully understand the horror of their daily reality. Graffiti on a wall sums up their feelings: ‘With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism… we need education. No more war.’
They also have an outdoor play area for children and an indoor learning environment offering educational activities where children can feel safe for a few hours, which sadly is a very rare occurrence for these children. The trauma the children have already experienced often makes this an overwhelming experience for them. This is one of the organisations that we plan to supply aid to on an ongoing basis.
Our charity relies on donations from local businesses and the public; clothing, sleeping bags, large supplies of toiletries and women’s hygiene products and we also require cash donations for transporting supplies. We are very grateful for the continued support we receive throughout the year. Donations and any fund raising are vital if we are to continue to make a difference to the lives of those living in appalling conditions.
Children's outdoor play area