Sometimes something happens in life that makes you stop in your tracks. Reading Stories from the Ground on Facebook was one of those times for me.
It was the daily Facebook update of a young Dutch woman on a Greek island during October and November 2015. I found the posts as confusing as I did shocking. Despite them being from the popular tourist island of Lesvos, they weren't about mojitos on the beach, or summer romances, or anything else I might have expected. No, these were stories of human trauma and pain, of wet babies and frozen children, of handing out socks and bottles of water and milk and little food parcels. Of boat arrivals and boats sinking and death.
The more I read on various Facebook Groups the more confused I got. It was like a parallel universe because none of what I was reading was being reported by mainstream media.
"Walking through the camp (Moria) was like a film, utterly surreal. Flashes of people around me, boredom, exhaustion, illness, hunger, disillusion. I actually saw a small boy playing with a piece of barbed wire."
Whilst I understood that many Europeans were worried about lots of people coming in. About the numbers, the differences of religion, of language and of housing and schooling and finding jobs for everyone. What I couldn't understand was how this fear justified what we were doing. Where was our humanity? It seemed we couldn't afford any dignity or kindness to people in need at all.
“I have only one dream. And that is for the rest of the world to consider us human. From one person to another, just consider us human." Abdulrazzak Hamdi, Syria (October 2015)
As Facebook introduced me to more and more people like Merel who were volunteering, I knew which side I was on. I wasn't going to stand by and watch this humanitarian nightmare play out in front of me without trying to do something to help people like Abdulrazzak.
In early 2016 I read about the very wonderful charity Refugees at Home and, with the willing support of my husband, we stopped wasting our spare room by letting it sit empty. We've been hosting ever since - welcoming guests into our home from countries including Iran, Ghana, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Vietnam. Guests who become friends and become family.
By spring 2016 I'd resigned my career to help refugees. I took a volunteering job with the Refugee Council, supported my local Refugee Day Centre and, by that summer, I was flying to Thessaloniki in Greece to meet up with fellow Refugees at Home host, Ingrid, to volunteer at Camp Alexandreia with resident UK grassroots charity Refugee Support Greece and Guernsey's Bridge2.
Camp Alexandreia was an ex-army helicopter base on the outskirts of the small town complete with army personal and lots of concrete. Between 400 to 600 people - families, the elderly, the disabled, the single men, the unaccompanied children - lived in tents. There was no kitchen, only portaloos and leaking outside taps.
UNHCR provided tents, emblazoned with their logo, but were otherwise seldom seen. Refugees weren't given any money and there were no official clothes or food distributions; just the unappetising army-issue food delivered to camp three times a day.
Refugee Support Greece and Bridge2 each raised donations and, along with self-funded volunteers like Ingrid and I from the UK, Germany, Spain, France, Netherlands and more, were the only providers of clothes and food supplies to the residents of Camp Alexandreia. And at that time this camp was considered among the best in Greece thanks to the services provided by Paul, John and Sarah running these two brilliant NGOs (non government organisations).
As a volunteer in Alexendreia I saw first-hand the enormous difference volunteers were making. I saw how much passion and energy went into helping human to human. How they did their best to fill the enormous gaps in aid to ensure refugee children, women and men were treated with dignity and respect and receive the support they most need. It was also clear how challenging it was to keep everything running and funded and how devastating it was to say no to someone because there wasn't enough.
I founded Donate4Refugees to help make the already inspiring grassroots response from the UK even stronger. I wanted to collaborate not compete and I wanted to help get the right aid to those refugee communities who most need it when they need it. We raise money because money remains the most flexible and responsive form of helping.