During the christmas break Anna-Maria our German classmate from Generation 2014-2016 was volunteering with the non-profit organisation Soup and Socks e.V. in Greece. The team consisting of 8 people arrived on the 28th in Athens with two vans full of kitchen equipment, food, medicine and donations of many kinds. Anna will tell us more about their work and experience there.
Being part of EMTM does not only mean to have the opportunity to study in a multicultural environment, travel & live in different countries and create bonds & friendships all over the world. Most importantly it also strengthened my consciousness and understanding towards global problems and my desire to play an active role in our society. The current migration situation in Europe worsens every month and no solution seems to be found. Getting the chance to learn about many different perspectives on a personal basis without depending on news from media is one of the high values of our programme. Having these experiences in mind I felt an even stronger responsibility to actively do something.
That is why I decided to join the team Soup and Socks e.V. of some of my friends in Greece. The group consisted initially of only three people that shared the idea to drive with a van along the Balkan route to cook soups and distribute cloths for people on the run. Within a month the project grew enormously, more volunteers joined, a lot of donations were raised thanks to many generous people and a second van was mobilized.
Upon arrival and after talking with many voluntary organizations on the islands and other locations along the route we decided to set up our mobile kitchen in Athens. Most of the people arriving on Greek islands have to eventually pass through the capital to continue their way. We got to know that all the non-SIA refugees (SIA: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan) get stuck there because the authorities don't let them pass the borders anymore and they normally return to Athens after being denied at the border to Macedonia. There are a lot of people from Morocco, Algeria & Iran but also a few from Tunisia, Libya, Pakistan, Palestine and other countries. Most of them do not register in Greece because they want to claim asylum in other north European countries. Victoria & Omonia square are the two main spots in Athens where they spent their time. Buses leave towards the Macedonian border from Victoria square daily. For that reason many people are there during the day waiting for their departure. The ones who can't go anywhere or returned from the border sleep close to the squares on the street or in hostels if they can still afford it. We decided to start at those two hot-spots because many people could be reached there. A near camping ground became our cooking base where we set up our kitchen, stored our food supplies and prepared every day up to 5 enormous pots of soup.
On our first mission Jim from the UK supported us, he is part of a left-wing anarchist group that occupied a whole house in Athens to provide shelter for refugee families. He told us to bring some music and taught us the Arabic word “Zaf” which means queue . It turned out to be one of the most used terms during our mission. On some days we served up to 500 soups and it was important for us to keep the crowds of people in a relaxed, peaceful atmosphere. We didn't want to provoke any tensions between them. Our aim was it to create a chilled environment for everyone to have a warm meal while listening to some music and chat with friends. Just some normality! Everyone was welcome, not only refugees, but also other people that had to suffer under the difficult circumstances in Greece and lost their homes or other people that were just interested in what we were doing.
After a couple of days people already knew us and before we set up they “zaffed” up with a smile already on their faces. “Thank you my friend” was a sentence we heard often while shaking hands. We were even more thankful that they trusted us, treated us like friends and shared their stories with us. One evening a group of people put some money together to buy a bottle of cranberry juice and gave them to us as a present for our breakfast.
After a while we started cooking lunch and dinner for both squares, which meant we had to get up early to peel onions, cut potatoes, do dishes, steer soups, mash chickpeas and so on. While one group of the team was handing out lunch at the squares, the others started preparing the food for dinner already. Like that we were able to provide around 800 portions of food per day at two squares.
The best thing was that we became friends with many people and a lot offered us help. A former professor helped us to find the best places to buy food and negotiated for the best prices. A Greek doctor joined our team regularly. We got to know Omar, a young Syrian, and Ali, a young Iranian, who supported us every day when we were handing out food. These two are a good examples for the current situation for refugees with different origins. Omar is Syrian and will go to Germany soon, he is just waiting for his papers to get ready. Ali is from Iran and can not cross the border to Macedonia, he tried it already 7 times and had to return every time back to Athens along many others.
Many people spent a lot of money to pay smugglers to help them cross the border and only in a few cases it works out. We also met an Iranian family with two young children. He is christian, his wife Muslim. They said there is no future for them in their country. The woman has problems with her back and the children are too young to walk a long way. They are in contact with a smuggler now sleeping in a place organized by him and trying to find a way to cross the borders legally or illegally. He said he just wants to board a plane and arrive safely in Germany with his family, but it is not possible for them. I could do it, with my European passport I can go almost wherever I want to. I am free, they are not. That was a thought that I had many times during the 10 days I spent in Greece. How is it possible that some people on this world have so much freedom and others have to fight so much for their simple human right to be free and have a normal life.
On New Year's Eve we prepared as a highlight hot chocolate with cream and bananas. Later that night we had a party at the square, Jim and his team organized some music and set up a banner which displayed the call “Open the borders!”. We were dancing, drinking hot chocolate and chatting with refugees from all over the world and members of other voluntary organizations who joined the party. That night we also received so many donations that we could barely fit everything in our van when we went back to our camp. A family passed by and gave us special Greek New Year's Eve cakes, others donated cloths, one person bought 25 brand new sleeping bags. A van stopped, a man opened the trunk and got out 6 huge bags full with bread and other pastries. We were very happy and touched by the participation of so many people.
However we had to face some difficulties as well. The local residence and the shop owners who have their businesses around Victoria square are very frustrated about the current situation. Because of the large amount of people that are living on and around the place their restaurants have barely customers in these days. And it is understandable that they are very angry about it. Some days they called the police and the police tried to send us away. We were persistent and came back every day. But we also tried to talk to the shop owners and find a solution to improve their situation. They are also suffering from the economic situation and we understand their grief as well. Some of them think that all the refugees are criminals and only want them to return to their countries. They don't want any organizations to help them because they think that the people stay only for that reason. We were trying to convince them that they are only normal people, that have no place to go, are hungry, cold and scared about living on the streets and not knowing about their future. Not helping them is where the problems would start. If you leave a bunch of people just living on the streets without any support they eventually start to get criminal if they do not have any other chance to survive.
The situation is difficult for everyone who is involved and I believe we can only manage it if everyone is taking part in it and tries to contribute at least in little steps to a solution. It is our responsibility as human beings to care about others, not only within our borders!
If you want to know more about Soup and Socks e.V., what we did in Greece and how it will go on you can check it out here: https://soupandsocks.eu/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/soupandsocks/timeline.