In the degradation of muddy, dark camps situated in Greece and France, St Vincent de Paul Northern Ireland volunteers, including Bryan McLean from Dunloy, have been at the frontline of assisting desperate families in need.
As part of a team of volunteers, Bryan has recently returned from refugee aid missions, which took them to camps in Athens, Lesbos and Dunkirk. He explains: “What we saw in these camps is unfathomable. People are in need of basics that in this day and age no one should be without. Images of Greece and France may conjure up sunny, happy holiday destinations, however, where refugees are living is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to this. The camps are best described as cold, dirty mud baths and any of the tents we visited were filthy as families have no way to keep the mud outside of living areas. Pallets are laid on the ground to try and provide a barrier between homes and the mud but this is futile as it just spreads everywhere. It is so bad that once-loved and cherished teddies and toys are hung on trees as the children can no longer cuddle them and keep them clean due to the never-ending mud. We did what we could to help in each camp. In Lesbos we helped out at the Hope Centre and I was able to do some plastering and joinery to make it more welcoming for families and in Dunkirk we worked on levelling the ground and building a distribution tent that could be used by volunteers giving out food and clothes, which was really appreciated by the people in the camp. It has a profound effect when you experience the suffering these people are going through first-hand. It really is very emotional seeing children in such a vulnerable situation.
“Life is very difficult for the people in these camps each and every day. There is little food and what there is just isn’t enough for everyone. We bought supplies each day with money donated by people from Northern Ireland and the refugees were so grateful for the items. Hundreds queued for a van full of eggs and these were all handed out within 20 minutes.
“I would like to pay tribute to SVP’s Regional President, Aidan Crawford. He is a remarkable man who leads from the front and by example, in some of the bleakest and most harrowing circumstances and has touched the lives of refugees and volunteers alike. Without his leadership we would never have achieved so much and his work on the frontline and behind the scenes has inspired both myself and many other volunteers to continue this work on behalf of SVP.”
Numbers are growing in each camp and with the displacement of refugees from Calais’s notorious Jungle camp, there is an expectation that other camps across areas, such as Dunkirk, will see an influx of refugees, all of whom will need to be fed and sheltered.
Aidan Crawford, regional president of SVP NI, who was also part of the volunteering team, adds: “There are already more than 3000 refugees in the Dunkirk camp, mostly Iraqi and Syrian, and the authorities are trying to discourage more refugees from arriving here so are only letting in food, clothes and medical supplies. Jungle cough is a major problem in the Dunkirk camp and while ‘Medecins Sans Frontieres’ has a medical facility at the camp, its team is limited in what it can do.
“The winter is extremely harsh, however, the cold temperatures are doing their bit in keeping a number of diseases at bay but once the summer arrives, an explosion of illnesses may be unleashed, which will bring with it even more problems.”
As well as supplying food and clothes to refugees, the Society is committed to ‘Shoe the Children’, collecting pairs of shoes specifically for the younger camp members whose feet are continuing to grow. The organisation is also ‘adopting’ families through a support programme as well as donating a kitchen to the new Dunkirk camp, which is nearing completion.
Aidan continues: “All of the volunteers who took part in this aid mission have been affected greatly by what they saw and the experiences they had. The refugee crisis is escalating and we want to be able to support these people, who have been displaced from their own lands through war and terror. We are appealing for people to donate money to SVP so that we can purchase and distribute supplies to families, who are living in the most desperate conditions imaginable.
“We understand times are also difficult at home here in Northern Ireland and there are many strains on household budgets, so whatever support that you can provide, whether monetary or some outgrown children’s shoes, will be much appreciated in our quest to improve the provision of basic necessities to refugees. “
To support SVP and their work with refugees, please contact the regional office on 028 9035 1561 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.