It’s been two weeks since I came home from Nea Kavala refugee camp in Northern Greece, after five weeks of teaching English, working in the Women’s Space, and meeting a group of people who have marked me as no other has in such short a time.
Settling back has been strange. The first week was very raw. The emotional jolt of leaving families I had grown to know and love was very upsetting and had me on the verge of tears often. Sometimes they spilled over. I hate good byes, but saying goodbye to Nea Kavala was the worst. “Good Luck!” “Stay Safe” -all those things we say to lift our goodbyes take on a different, poignant, colour when the people you are saying goodbye to are living in a metal container on a windswept airstrip, with no idea when they will leave, or where they will end up.
It was a shock to come back to affluence, to infrastructure works, to full car parks, and of course to the shiny, overconsumption of Christmas. Not because it all seems so trivial and commercial (as one friend thought), but rather because the refugees I left back in Nea Kavala would like nothing more than to have the luxury of being trivial. The families I left behind dream of a future where they can obsess about traffic on a day out shopping, or spend an evening arguing about where to go on holiday to escape the rain. It makes me grateful for what we have and breaks my heart in equal measure.
I also met some incredible – mostly young people – from all over the world who were also volunteering. In Nea Kavala volunteers provide bags of vegetables, clothes, bicycles, English lessons, medical and legal advice, movie nights, social events, football, childcare, music, and most of all friendship. The Greek government, the UN and other official bodies provide the basics like shelter, toilets and showers, food or money. Everything else is run by NGOs, most manned by volunteers. It feels very much like the problems that arise from the refugee crisis is being addressed by an unseen army of ordinary people, working to solve practical problems. There are thousands of people from all over the world who have got stuck in and decided to help in what looks like a desperate situation. Behind them are thousands more who have raised funds and personally donated to keep those NGOs going. As the world’s problems grow so does ordinary people’s involvement. In fact, a 2016 worldwide survey found that for the first time more than half of the world’s population had helped a stranger. It also found that generosity was higher in countries living through adverse situations, like Iraq or Myanmar. I’m proud that in 2015 Ireland ranked first in Europe according to the Charities Aid’s Foundation Giving Index. In 2018 it’s still in the top ten.
And that’s all there is to it. The power we all have to help each other is immense. Whether it’s volunteering, getting to know the people in direct provision in your town, or just calling in to check on a neighbor who lives alone – it’s in your power to make the world a better place.
Charity is a central tenant of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions. It’s one of the many things that they all have in common. I’m paraphrasing, but in essence they all say that once you have taken care of you and your family’s needs, you should look around and share the surplus with in those less fortunate. In other words, to share the gravy, whether it’s a smile, or your time, or a helping hand.
Since I’ve been home, the most common question that I get asked about the refugees I met in Nea Kavala has been: “Where do they want to go?” The answer is simple: They want to go home – except that they can’t. The new countries that they want to go to are those where they have family: a brother in France, sons in Germany, an uncle in Norway. What they want is what we have: a home, family and the peace to enjoy it.
Count your blessings this Christmas. Enjoy your homes and your family reunions. And remember to share the ‘gravy’.