In March last year thousands of refugees had arrived at the port of Piraeus after being ferried over from the eastern Aegean islands. The “Balkan route” had just closed and they were looking for a plan B. Among the volunteers helping them at the port were Natalie, Rita, Lily, James and Haley. They were rookies when it came to volunteering, who’d found themselves far from their homes on the other side of the Atlantic. “We did not know each other and all worked for different NGOs at the time,” says Natalie Feulner, who is from the US and is one of the five co-founders of Allied Aid, which works as a bridge for American volunteers wanting to come to Greece.
“Until then, I’d never volunteered in Greece,” says Rita Continakis, the spokesperson for the organization in Athens, where she relocated in 1987 from Canada. “I’d first gone to Piraeus in 2015 after being convinced by my children, who were then at university. I saw people getting off ferries carrying their entire lives in one suitcase and I thought about how many things I’d carried with me when I came here from Canada,” she adds. She began spending every weekend and every evening after work at a refugee center, often with volunteers who had just arrived from the US. “I get two to three inquiries a week from people who want to come to Greece and volunteer,” says Rita. “It’s touching, but I tell them if they can’t come for a week at the very least, then it’s better for them to help from afar with an information campaign or to start a sponsorship.” She continues: “Our aim is distributing humanitarian aid, small constructions such as gardens, activities and excursions for the refugees, as well as fulfilling any other needs. We are supported by foreign donations.”
“We had been hearing about the refugee arrivals on the Greek islands, and the human suffering, but that’s it,” says Sara Gostenik, who works at a refugee center in Colorado and has been on two self-funded trips to Greece, with another planned for next May. “I may not spend much time on the ground in Greece whenever I’m there, but I try to make the most of it,” she says. From May 5 to 13, the team of Allied Aid volunteers took refugee children to the Athens Planetarium and a fun fair. They planted a garden in the courtyard of a hostel. They set up a kitchen at the Skaramangas refugee center, made possible with donations from the Rotary Club. They put together an art project there as well and distributed clothing. Allied Aid’s next goal is to set up a beauty salon in Skaramangas and hire refugees with experience working as barbers and stylists in their home countries to run it.
“I was amazed by the Greeks’ efficiency,” says Natalie. “I remember ladies who would arrive in Piraeus and emerge from their cars with big pots full of hot food.”
Their experience at the camps was an excellent opportunity to educate themselves against certain myths and stereotypes. “In the West, we all imagine a refugee as some strong, young man, but here we see many families with small children, especially in Skaramangas, where half the people are under the age of 18,” Sara notes. “I don’t have a sense of the situation on the islands, but on the mainland, where I’ve been to many refugee centers, I’ve seen a big improvement in the quality of life,” says Natalie. “When I first came, people were sleeping on blankets in the port or in small tents, but now I see them in containers and even in buildings.”