As my taxi pulled up to the Athens airport this morning, a storm raged out the window and a single tear fell down my cheek. I paused for a moment, breathing in the humid air, a bit of Greece and all that 2016 has brought. I will be back, but in the meantime I want to give a sincere thank you to my on-the-ground team – Laura Flandrick, Rita Continakis and Christa Hobart. Thank you for being not just teammates but therapists, comedians, personal chefs, first aid response team, drivers, navigators, negotiators, and so much more. But most of all, friends. I am proud of this team and what we accomplished in one short week and you should be proud too. This work is not for the faint of heart and you all face it head on with passion, humility and determination. The world needs more beautiful, loving souls like yourselves and I am so grateful to have shared this journey with you.
We spent the day doing what Allied Aid does best – shifting and molding as the needs change. We hit the road early and stopped at Veria camp where we delivered the rest of the #GiveWarmth donations and a special donation of puffer jackets from Patagonia. Because we didn’t have enough of these jackets for everyone, we asked Sam James, an enthusiastic, big-hearted volunteer from Bridge2 to bring us door-to-door to the most vulnerable families. Veria is situated at an old army base overlooking a deep, blue lake high in the mountains. Families are housed in the former barracks and while some large NGOs operate at the camp, Sam, his mother Sarah and a small team of volunteers do most of the distribution work as well as keeping tabs of families with serious needs. This particular family had lost twin babies just a few days before, born early but unable to survive. We sat for a good few hours chatting in broken English/Arabic/Greek and shared a simple meal of sweet bread, thick coffee and canned peaches. It was a beautiful few hours. Somehow language was not necessary and in the moment almost felt it would have been a barrier to the connection we were all sharing as we held hands, showed off family photos and laughed at the children’s antics. After a few more stops to families – all who wanted us to stay for tea or a small meal – we loaded up the van with extra supplies from the Veria warehouse and headed to a new camp located in a nearby hotel.
These families – 27 of them – are Yazidis, recently relocated from Petra which sits at the base of Mount Olympus. Without proper shelter, the conditions were becoming unbearable and unacceptable at Petra so the ministry is in the process of moving the residents to new locations. However since this move had just happened, many supplies were lacking. We delivered diapers, baby food, packed tuna and hygiene supplies. The basics. We had some extra time so we asked if they needed anything else and the answer was simple and humbling – bananas and cookies. So off we went. Three boxes of bananas and several boxes of cookies later, we left knowing we’d help tide them over until the larger NGOs were able to get there. Our final stop of the day was to another apartment/hotel building, home to less than 20 families. Since there was already another grassroots group there distributing coats, we again went door-to-door delivering applesauce, baby food, bananas and cereal. A few families invited us in, and it was fascinating to see what they’re doing to make ends meet. One man from Aleppo has taken to making intricate jewelry and sculptures out of wire and beads. An Eiffel Tower replica, a violin and even a motorized truck were displayed proudly throughout the small room. According to the family, the items will be sold throughout the area to help the family purchase food or other needed items. It is incredibly inspiring to see how creative people can be despite the hardship and overwhelming needs and we all left grateful for the full day spent sharing stories and love. — Natalie
Natalie’s journal entry on the road to deliver aid to camps in Northern Greece.
#AATripJournal: Thanksgiving was spent on the road and at the Fiat station getting Hermie fixed. He had been shaking to the point where by the time Rita pulled in, we knew we wouldn’t make it to Thessaloniki unless we got it serviced. And go figure, they had a part we needed on hand for the door (only $3!) and didn’t charge us for the axle service after learning about where we were going and why. He still needs some work and new tires in a few months, but it was a Happy Thanksgiving miracle indeed. We finally made it to the Serres warehouse around 8:30 pm delivering in the dark, then swapped turkey dinner for feta and olive pizza before collapsing in bed, grateful we were “home.” — Natalie
Flexibility is key to how we as aid workers respond to this ever-changing crisis. Needs change almost daily so while our primary focus for this trip is winter distribution, we’ve tried to work in a few days to be flexible – help where we can, doing whatever we can.
For a few members of this week’s team, that meant remodeling a bathroom so the young girls at Oinofyta School have a safe and private toilet space. Previously, they had to walk all the way across camp and use a squat toilet. Now, there’s a playful space right at the school that’s also functional and so needed.
With the help of Oinofyta principal and resident Faiz Mohammad Khanzai, we also built out a teen center that will provide a private and fun space for the many teenagers living at camp.
These were all projects suggested and inspired by the camp residents. There is a sense of pride in these spaces and we are happy #AlliedAid was able to hear about a need and meet it. It’s what we do.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to these projects financially (specifically friends and family of Christa Schmidt Hobart, Laura ‘Halbauer’ Flandrick and Natalie Feulner.)
We were able to provide new furniture, equipment, yoga mats for the new dome where women’s yoga will start soon, hula hoops and jump ropes for the students and so much more because of you. — Natalie
Today we worked. We work every day of course, but today was spent in the warehouse unloading, sorting and packing donations. Located at the site of the 2004 Olympic Games, the Elliniko Warehouse is a site to see. Donations have poured through its doors for over a year now from all over the world. But before it is distributed, the aid must be sorted and inventoried. It isn’t sexy work, it doesn’t make for great pictures, but it is incredibly important. Without efficiency and warehouse volunteers who willingly spend hours inside opening box after box, the aid within its walls wouldn’t be going anywhere. This is where our story as an organization began with a day in March spent unloading a container from Croatia, and the eventual the purchase of Hermie the distribution van. So it was heartwarming and rewarding to see less aid today than nine months ago because that means it’s going to the people who need it most. — Natalie
This is my last trip to Greece for 2016, so it is only fitting that I was swept back by a smell to what first brought me here – the port of Piraeus and the thousands stranded there as the last border closed. It’s the smell of people, of humanness. It’s the smell of unwashed bodies, sticky fingers, laughing children eagerly pressing up against you for “a selfie friend” and somber parents sharing their stories – a reminder that while it’s designed as such, a refugee camp is not transient. These families will be here for awhile. Years perhaps. It’s gut wrenching, yet incredibly inspiring. After our field trip and few stops to deliver aid to individuals at the camp, we ate dinner at the refugee-run camp falafel stand (one of three). We danced and shared hookah, laughed a lot and told stories in broken English, (my) terrible Arabic and a little Greek thrown in for fun. Our work is aid, but our why is this. Raw, human connection – the thread that unites us all and compels us to help. I fell into bed exhausted, grateful and inspired. Bring on tomorrow. — Natalie
While waiting at my gate in San Francisco, I struck up a conversation with a Spanish man standing next to me in line. We chatted about where each of us was headed and what lie ahead. He back to Spain, me to Greece. I told him about the refugee crisis, the work we were doing and before we parted ways, he handed me $100 thanking me for giving him a way to help. I promised to put every dollar to good use. The interaction was a reminder about how this current crisis is being “solved.” Not by the the huge NGOs or governmental agencies, but by people, individuals from all over the world, who stand up and say “enough is enough, I want to help.” Not everyone can travel to Greece, but all of our donors and supporters are proof that everyone can do something. You all play an integral role in this organization whether you collect aid from friends and neighbors, travel with us on a distribution trip, or are strangers at an airport asking how you can help. Thank you all for joining hands with us this past year and saying “yes” to creating a more humane, loving world. — Natalie