By the beginning of the new year, on Saturday 5th January 2019 a group of volunteers from the University YMCA HSUHK arrived in Thessaloniki for a Refugee Service Trip to Greece. This is the second service trip from the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong in Thessaloniki (click here to read about the first trip!)
When they arrived it was really snowy and it had nothing to do with the beautiful sunshine and blue sky that they all saw in brochures about Greece. When I picked them up from the airport they were all so enthusiast about the snow! For most of them this was the first time to see such a phenomenon as it never snows in Hong Kong. We walked from the Hotel to Rotunda, we passed by Kamara, the Gallerian Complex and Navarinou Square. After that we had a beautiful night view of the snowy White Tower and the YMCA Thessaloniki building. It was late in the evening, we decided to try some local food at a tavern nearby.
The next day, Theofaneia bank holiday, the team followed Claire and Kyriakos’s advice, our two interns in Hong Kong, about the traditions of Greece and attended the Theofaneia custom. They watched the priest throwing the cross in the cold waters of Thermaikos gulf and young people diving in order to catch it! This was a life time experience as customs and traditions are very important aspects of life, which introduce you straight to a country’s culture. Shortly after, they followed the ancient walls’ line up to Kastra and Pyrgos Trigoniou. The view of the white city for up above is just fantastic… And so are the games with the snow…
In the evening, we had our first introductory meeting with our volunteers and staff members at DIADRASIS. There we had the chance to introduce ourselves, got to know each other and break the ice! The Hong Kong volunteers had prepared a presentation about the University YMCA HSUHK and the refugee programs they run. Also, they talked about the current refugee situation in Hong Kong. After that, the staff of DIADRASIS had a short presentation of the center. We discussed about the similarities and the differences between the refugee issues in the two cities and the way we see things as residents. Before we left, the team from Hong Kong had prepared some impressive cultural activities for us including traditional dancing and martial arts show! After that we danced all together Greek traditional songs like Zorbas, Zeibekiko and Kalamatiano. We had so much fun!
The days that followed were straight to the point of the visit. The team accompanied by YMCA Thessaloniki staff members and volunteers when to Diavata refugee center every morning in order to implement a creative activities program for children. Science, arts and crafts, music and dancing activities were some of the activities that took place.
All the volunteers worked as one team, helping each other and giving ideas. The result was more than sufficient. Every day we had more and more children coming! In the last day the children were more than 60 and they didn’t want us to leave! The smiling faces and the bright eyes of the children was the best gift to the volunteers. Their social action had a straight impact to their hearts, and you could see that easily. Leaving them the last day, was the most difficult part…
On the afternoons, the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong volunteers were hosted at the YMCA. On the first day, we prepared a short presentation about YMCA Thessaloniki. They met our General Director Mr. Ioannou, the president of the YMCA Thessaloniki Refugee Committee Mr. Voucharas, the YMCA World Secretary for Refugee Assistance Mrs. Kalivatsi and the Head of the Social Action sector Ms. Tzoni. We visited the premises, the athletic center and the basketball museum. They were all impressed by the variety of different activities provided! Also, they had the chance to get involved in the other two refugee programs that we run: REACT and React for Life.
They met volunteers and staff members of the programs and took active role in the teaching sessions. In this way, YMCA Thessaloniki provided them with a holistic experience on the current refugee issue in Thessaloniki: they met people who live in the camp of Diavata, people living in apartments at the city center, a preschool educational center for refugee children and integrating activities (DIADRASIS), children 6-12, adolescents as well as adult refugees.
We spend our evenings mostly walking in the city, trying different tastes, buying souvenirs but mostly playing with the snow, which was a more than pleasant surprise after all! We also explored our talents in the YMCA premises! We had the chance to sing ourselves at the theater, play the piano and sing all together. We also played table tennis! Chinese people have a different way to hold the racket, as Eftihia (the coach) told us. It was really fun!
YMCA Thessaloniki hosted them for five days and after that we contacted YMCA Athens, the branch of NIkaia in order to continue their study trip in Athens, visiting the Schisto camp and the YMCA Nikaia premises and refugee programs. We had our last dinner together on Wednesday, we exchanged gifts and wishes to see each other soon either in Hong Kong or Thessaloniki!
We were all emotional about them leaving… The positive effect of this experience is multiple: not only we met new friends, exchanged experiences, knowledge and views but we also worked together on a very fragile social issue such as refugees. We dived into the depth of it and we cooperated in order to contribute with pure warm emotions to help and assist those people. We have our hearts full of love and our minds filled with smiles!
Social Action and Refugees Sector Officer