AUBG Exchange Students Help Refugees in Thessaloniki
Mathilde Brachet, Garance Mathieu, and Alex Clary are three AUBG exchange students coming from France and the U.S. Like every other student, they go to classes, feel anxious about midterms and exams, and have tons of homework. Yet, what is extraordinary about them is that instead of catching up with sleeping and going out over the weekend, they spend their time as volunteers in “Help Refugees,” a small-scale organization in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Clary is a third-year student from the University of Denver, USA, studying international politics. He wants to be more active in the refugee crisis, applying real-life experience to what he has learned.
Brachet and Mathieu are both second-year students who major in political science in the University Sciences Po Bordeaux, France. They both envisioned themselves being “more and more involved in helping refugees” once they come to Bulgaria.
Brachet has been wolunteering in a refugee camp back in France. There she spent three weeks doing multiple things – from cooking and serving coffee and food through cutting wood and distributing clothes to helping in the health center. During that time, she had the chance to talk to some of the refugees even though “it was complicated to get to talk to them about their lives.” Brachet said that most of them wanted to go to the U.K. which they thought was “a paradise.” Now, when she looks back on the experience, she says her work in Thessaloniki differs from the one in France given that now she has less direct contact with the refugees.
The students said that there are about 23 or 24 refugee camps around Thessaloniki. The camps are located on the outskirts of the city or in smaller cities nearby. There are refugees mainly from Syria and Afghanistan as well as Kurdish people. According to the three volunteers, there is a shortage of people willing to help right now as most of them left at the end of the summer. With winter coming, the need for helpers is even greater.
Regarding the job they do for the organization, the three students commented that they have been mainly occupied with tasks in the warehouse. They help with preparations for the winter by sorting the clothes brought by “Clothes for Hope” in boxes. According to Clary, hundreds of people donate clothes, yet many of the donations serve as a “trash can” as they consist of large amounts of useless clothing.
“If you decide to donate, actually donate. Refugees are people, too. There are some things they are not going to wear just like you do not want to wear,” concluded Clary.
Furthermore, he said that so far they have managed to provide enough warm clothing for 3, 000 people. The problem still remains, though, as there are 60,000 refugees in Greece, 15,000 of whom located in Northern Greece.
Apart from clothes allocation, the students also deal with food distribution, a job Mathieu said she “really wanted to do” since going around and giving people food for breakfast, lunch and dinner allows her to get to talk to them.
“There are two families with young kids who have very good English and they are very polite and nice to us, always saying ‘thank you’ and making jokes. They act normal and they never complain. I respect them very much for that,” she then added.
Brachet also shared her observations about the impact of their actions. She elaborated that working in the warehouse does not allow them to see the actual progress the way interaction with the refugees does. An example of the latter is the food distribution during which the volunteers sense that the refugees “are people like us.”
Clary also helped in the building of tents and setting up for the winter. He said there is a big issue with getting resources such as money and labor. Currently 2,000 more tents have to be built given that the construction rate is only 32 per week. According to him, there is “a very weak communication” between different NGOs which makes it hard to manage the crisis efficiently.
According to the three students, the refugees feel afraid about the future. The students said this is going to be the first year in which Greece has ever had refugees over the winter. Refugees are waiting to be relocated but they are in a state of “indefinite suspension” as Western Europe is overburdened and a ceasefire in Syria is unlikely to happen soon. The students said that the last relocation happened two months ago.
The three students are going to continue helping the refugees in Thessaloniki with the hope of doing as much as possible. At the moment they are even planning to go for two weekends per month since in their opinion the organization needs more “hands to be able to help,” no matter whether short-term or long-term. In their own words, the process of finding and contacting an organization is not difficult as there is a Facebook page and a website for this type of NGOs in Northern Greece.