Voluntary project for refugees
by the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong and YMCA Thessaloniki
It was late October, when I received Ivy’s first e-mail (back then she was Mrs. Wong for me), after getting contact with Mrs. Kalivatsi, the Programme Secretary for refugee assistance of YMCA World. From the very beginning, we saw the will of a team who really wanted to visit Thessaloniki and get to know the refugee crisis and the work of YMCA Thessaloniki regarding this issue. I was delighted to hear from Mrs. Tzoni that this is the second time we welcome visitors from Hong Kong (the first one was three years ago).
Two and a half months later, when I welcomed our guests at the airport on Thursday 4th of January, neither they nor I could imagine that in such a short period of time we would have the opportunity to get to know so many and profound things. Those, a 15-member group of shy students, but very open and available to learn, showed great interest and attention to what they heard for the first time. On Thursday afternoon we invited them to the YMCA, where Mrs. Tzoni, Head of Department of Social Action, welcomed the team with an extended presentation of the programs and a guided tour at the facilities.
The very first contact with the refugees took place on Friday at Diavata refugee camp. We left early in the morning from the hotel, along with a team of YMCA Thessaloniki volunteers. Some of the Greek volunteers had been there before. But every time is something different. You can never be sure what you will meet. As soon as we arrived, the laughs and eyes of the little children waiting us made everything easy and beautiful. We also became children, and we played with them for so many hours that we almost forgot to take a break for food! Their parents approached us, invited us to their homes, treat us and showed us how to dance dances from Syria.
We left with our hearts full of emotions. The next day we would go to Eidomeni. When we were still planning the trip with Ivy, they asked me to arrange a visit to a certain exhibition at Bensousan Han. Unfortunately, this exhibition was off. But when one literally travels from the other side of the world just to see, hear and learn from your experience, you somehow have to make it happen. Luckily, Stelios from Bensousan Han helped me to contact Vasilis, who organized this exhibition. Vasilis Tsartsanis is very open-minded, full of inspiration and vision. We talked about it and we found a wonderful alternative to go to the shelter of the team in Polykastro to see the exhibition there, as it was not possible to arrange it again for Bensousan Han.
And this day came. A Saturday. Theofania day. Public holiday.
As soon as we arrived at Eidomeni, Vassilis was waiting us, accompanied by the police and the ministry, in order to go to the demilitarized area where the refugees were located a few months ago. We traveled to this place and we travelled back in time through the narrative of Vasilis. We walked on the same path that so many refugees had walked before us looking for a better life. The memories of place and time are very fresh and intense to be ignored. This place, the soil, was sucking our feet down in earth.
As soon as we completed our visit, we went to Vasili’s shelter. There were members of Pontiac Dancing Club. They were dancing Kotsari. After that, local pies and tsipouro were served. We had the opportunity to talk to locals, police and ministry officials. In particular, the meeting was the Counselor of the Ministry of Migration Policy, Mr. Iosif Alexandridis, the director of the health center and other locals. The exhibition, consists of original refugee paintings, photographs, videos, and documents-evidence-testimonies. It was clever organized inside the house and in the yard, in the basement and in the attic. The trip alongside the narration of Vasilis was an unforgettable experience for all of us.
Our experience at Edomeni was particularly touching and we were all very sensitive. Our visit lasted for several hours … We left at 2.30 and returned after 10.30. The next day we went to the city. A particularly interesting tour, which had as theme the refugee issue throughout the history of Thessaloniki.
The week was following the same thread. Every day we went to Diavata starting in the morning until 4.00pm. The students from Hong Kong had prepared a rich program of activities, which they performed with the help of the YMCA Thessaloniki volunteers. We are full of pictures and voices. The refugee children were so exited waiting for us each day and they did not let us to leave.
On the last day, the team came to YMCA Thessaloniki and met children from the REACT program in which YMCA as a partner provides creative activities for refugee children. Our guests have prepared a special program for the beneficiaries, which they implemented both with the help of social scientists and our volunteers.
Now that we have to say goodbye, it’s very difficult. We have a lot of beautiful memories. We worked together and we changed together. We feel a warm call that comes from the other side of the earth and awaits us back. Our friends. We exchanged gifts, impressions, promises … And we all said “see you soon” instead of “goodbye”…
Department Social Action
Social Action and Refugee Assistant