Athens Trip 2019

Posted on in Life

I’ve just returned from a week of volunteering in Athens. Nine of us joined a team from a church helping refugees in the city, giving some of their volunteers a well deserved week off. This is my rambling account, mostly written for me to look back on in the future.

Flying is not my first love. I was roped into the trip very late, so didn’t have much time to worry about the trip, nor the air travel. Fortunately it was only when I arrived at the gate that the nerves really kicked in. My heart rate reached stratospheric levels when we taxi-d, but after considerable focus, prayer and kidding myself we were in a large train, we took off. 10 seconds later and I was feeling absolutely fine! The journey home was great and I didn’t even feel nervous. It feels like the fear of flying has been slain!

On the subject of fear, this trip was well outside my comfort zone. When Lauren asked if I’d come, we both knew it was a long-shot. I rarely go abroad, I’ve never worked with kids, and spending nine days in close proximity with eight others isn’t my usual go-to. But it was an amazing trip. I’m so glad to have gone. I threw myself into everything (with some encouragement at points), and had a marvellous, enlightening time.

The overall takeaway was one of perspective. It was a humbling and levelling trip. Growing up, my parents regularly reminded us just how lucky we were, but it’s difficult to truly appreciate till you’re with people who literally have nothing.

I don’t want to focus on web things, but the latest round of React drama and Twitter fighting paled into such insignificance after last week. We don’t know how lucky we are to even have the opportunity to rant about JavaScript, nor know how futile it is. I didn’t think about work or the web once out there. Despite working pretty hard, my mind actually got a proper break. The trip did more good for me than the week of staycationing I had last month.

Our apartment was in a pretty rough area of the city. After landing at 9pm, we headed out for dinner at about 10.30pm. Let’s just say it made Brighton look chilled, safe, drug-free and tropical. Perspective once again. The tourist area of Athens isn’t huge, and most visitors won’t venture far out of the old town. But once you get even a few ft. off the beaten track, you see the city in its true light.

Two of the days were spent in a warehouse, mostly sorting donations. There wasn’t a great deal of ‘process’ or ‘order’. For a developer that thinks in systems, this was very loose! On the second day, one of the leaders arrived back from the island of Samos, one of the ‘holding areas’ being used for new arrivals. We were commissioned to gather bare essential supplies for a group of 100 people on the island. They have nothing. We were picking out clothing, wash supplies and shoes. This isn’t happening in the far corners of the globe; it’s in Europe, a short plane ride away. With concerns of being ‘the Westerners swooping in to save the day’, it was so good to offer practical help in the form of packing boxes. No frills or glamour, just genuine work that would genuinely help others.

We took a trip to a gypsy camp forty minutes out of the city. I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. We didn’t know what sort of reception we’d get, nor exactly what we’d be doing. We drove until the roads turned to dust tracks, and wound our way up the foothills; both sides of the road surrounded by construction fly tipping, till we arrived at the camp. 2000+ people living in a handful of shacks, with no running water and no sanitation. Children sent out to do unimaginable things at any age. No chance of reintegration into society. It was a desperate scene.

We did some colouring, played some games, sang some songs and kicked a football around. They were all incredibly welcoming; you could see how happy the kids were when the group leader arrived. I got to play some guitar and sing a song, then let some of the kids have a strum. We played a game involving water, I don’t think they’d ever ‘played’ with it before - seeing a boy cover himself in water finished me off. I can’t fathom how it must feel to be that thirsty. Looking into the shacks, you got the impression you might’ve lasted a few days, a week perhaps. But a lifetime? This camp has been there for several generations and there’s no sign of it moving on anytime soon. It was a sobering journey back into town.

Thursday and Friday were spent at the port in Pireaus. There’s a nondescript government building hidden up one of the side streets. Every day, dozens of refugees queue up for hours to gather paperwork and apply for asylum. If they don’t get seen, they do it all again the next day. The waiting room was a truly bleak place. The desperation on the faces of the families sitting there was unbearable to see.

With the rise of nationalist governments and closing borders/minds, Northern Europe doesn’t really want refugees, but they really don’t want young men. So they’re forced to split up families, sending the women and child into Europe and leaving the men in Greece (if they can get the paperwork). It’s heartbreaking to think what long-term damage is being done with these short-term decisions. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to leave everything, trek across your war-stricken country, then risk your family’s life crossing the sea. You land in a country with nothing but the family members who survived, and then that gets split apart.

Our role was to provide childcare in a playroom there. From 8am to 1.15pm, we offered a space for the kids to play in while their parents were waiting/being interviewed. The room is tiny. I’d heard about it from the group that went last year, but I didn’t it expect it to be that small. It was 10ft by 12ft, but with a TV cabinet, chairs around the edge, drawers and a changing unit, the working floor space (to include a table) was about 8ft x 10ft. At one point we had 28 people in there - it was bedlam.

I’ve not worked with kids all that much, and always thought I was too socially awkward to be useful in a situation like that. But I threw myself in, and to my surprise it went really well. We had a proper laugh playing with the toy cars, animals and games. We coloured & watched DVD’s, we made crafts (binoculars, fish, octopus and crowns), we played a lot of Uno. Being asked by one of the mothers to make a pair of binoculars for her son, then seeing his face light up when he placed the strap over his head and held them up to his eyes, is a memory I will hold onto for a long time. Such a simple thing bringing joy. I doubt it would’ve been as memorable day for the kids as it was for us, but I hope at a minimum, it wasn’t a ‘bad day’. Lord knows they’ve had enough of those fleeing their homes and getting across to Greece. Yet again, I spent that evening pondering their lives and future. I’d love to be able to fast-forward 30 years and see what they get up to, and what sort of world they live in.

We generally finished work at around 3pm, spent a couple of hours resting at the apartment, and then headed out for dinner. It certainly felt a trifle disingenuous to be eating out after meeting those we did. It’s felt particularly odd being back in the UK. Perspective.

We hit the Acropolis on the final full day, wandering up the gusty & toasty hill to see ancient ruins. We stood on the Areopagus where Paul spoke two thousand years ago, then wandered through the flea market where I came dangerously close to buying a small Bouzouki. Our final night was spent in the old town, surrounded by great friends, great music and great food.

On the first day, we headed to the church and had a great morning there. We were briefed with a rough plan for the week and began splitting up the tasks. After a spot of lunch, we headed down to the coast for a swim and saunter along the shore.

Sleep was problematic. I didn’t sleep a wink the night before the flight, nor the next night in Greece. I got six hours over the next two nights, so was pretty drained by mid-week. Fortunately the rooms were air-conditioned, so sleep was, at least in theory, possible.

The climate change memo doesn’t appear to have reach Athens, nor news on recycling. The impression is with the effects of the post-Olympics economic depression, and the migrant crisis, Greece has had to put the brakes on just about everything else, just to keep its head above water. From chatting to folks out there, the government is at capacity and has run out of ideas. Individuals, churches and charities have had to step up. Seeing how they quietly and humbly serve their city was so inspiring. That’s true national pride; stepping up and fixing things, not clinging to the past glory days with rose-tinted spectacles.

Despite the sombre moments, we had a really fun time as a team. We laughed a lot, pulled together, walked a lot (perhaps too much at times, but that’s another story) and learned a load about each other. Spending nine days with Lauren was a colossal treat too. 😊

So that was the September 2019 trip to Athens. I would love to do it again and get really stuck in now I know whats’s what. It’s given me a fresh perspective on how lucky we are. The problems in this world are so vast that individual actions may seem negligible, but we should do what we can, without grumbling and with joy.

Posted on in Life