In August 2015, as the first large waves of refugees started landing on the Greek shores and stuck along the border of Idomeni, I started this initiative of collecting and filling backpacks with first need items for refugees. At first, this has started very modestly, with a few friends organizing clothing donations through the Facebook https://www.facebook.com/%CE%A3%CE%B1%CE%BA%CE%AF%CE%B4%CE%B9%CE%B1-%CE%A0%CF%81%CE%BF%CF%83%CF%86%CF%8D%CE%B3%CF%89%CE%BDBackpacks-for-the-RefugeesSolutions-for-Homeless-148172338861553/?ref=bookmarks . At the beginning, I wasn’t expending such a big response to my call, but volunteers -known and unknown- started visiting my clothing shop in Thessaloniki, bringing clothes and helping out to fill in the backpacks.
Within two months, this action spread virally all over Greece. Over time, I networked with other grassroots initiatives active in refugee care, such as the Alternative Immigrant Centre of Thessaloniki (@To-Steki) and Oikopolis. In some cases, people followed our instructions and respected our philosophy of unconditional giving, but there have also been problematic cases because there were also people that tried to hijack the process for personal gain.
I have learned to live with the dynamics, and I started helping out at Oikopolis, to create a clothing storage, explaining an internationally used methodology of inventorying, so refugees were able to serve themselves on their own. This system still works, where refugees can come, try and take the clothes they need for free.
While continuing to work with clothes, I now focus on providing school items for children and the campaign has shifted focus. From just catering for refugees, we also provide care for native homeless people. Through a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/519478964902645/, we are trying to organize volunteers who adopt the schooling needs/items of children in need. These needs may be covered through a donation of items or money, and this is open to everyone. So far, the stock gathered so far through donations, is enough for about 250 kids. In parallel, I am organizing seminars and crash courses on repairing clothes and upcycling old objects to create, for example, pencil boxes.
There is another task, which is more time-consuming and complex, in terms of research. I’m in the team-building process that will eventually become a non-profit legal entity, to develop a Handbook for the Management of Material and Resources, in cases of emergency. For example, due to my professional background, I know how to sort and store thousands of clothing items. Somebody else might have other skills. This is also connected with the sharing of knowledge of alternative treatments, practices or hacks, that might offer cheap and practical solutions to people in need. For example, using cocoa powder as a shampoo, or other uses of baking soda, salt, etc.
I come from Thessaloniki, and my ancestors were refugees. Initially, the response from my immediate environment has been disappointing. My job is in the clothing sector, however, being an elected Municipal Councillor at the City of Thessaloniki, people know my public activity so it was easy to build trust. Furthermore, I am sitting at the Management Board to the Municipal TV100 station. Having many contacts with journalists helped to communicate the action widely. All this combined has resulted in the massive spontaneous response of a community of 1500 citizens from all walks of life. Including people from Europe and the US, who donated waterproof jackets and blankets.
As s municipal councilor, I am in contact with local authorities. Sadly the Municipality responded very poorly, compared to what it could do. Same goes with the Ministry of Immigration Policy. We talked to the consultants, they appreciated our effort, but there was no practical result.
Unfortunately, the public sentiment is negative. Mass media shape the opinion that the refugees stopped crossing borders, so people believe that they stopped coming. Others falsely believe that refugees are to blame for anything wrong. And since the beginning of the summer, most volunteers disappeared. This has, inevitably, resulted in a fatigue in the area of refugee care.
Nevertheless, I have no other option but continue. I wish to launch a crowdsourcing campaign, so the venture can continue. I imagine of a list of people with different skills, who -in the case of need- will be ready to take up a certain role. A type of inventory of what human assets exist and what everyone can contribute.