volunteering with refugees at the We Are One women's centre


Day -1: departure via overnight bus journey from Tirana to Athens

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

What should you take with you?

Smart packing usually takes more time than I’m willing to give it. It’s like doing tidying plus laundry with some weightlifting thrown in. I leave it to the last minute and then bundle in still-damp washing and resolve to buy more socks at the airport.

But packing for my fortnight supporting refugees on Samos was harder than normal because I was poignantly aware of the other rucksacks that have been put together so recently by people like those I am going to meet on Monday. For every tremor of uncertainty I felt (would there be a washing machine in the We Are One Center by Glocal Roots’s volunteer flat? Should I take a passport holder to keep my valuables safe?) I tried to imagine the questions you’d have as a refugee packing your rucksack as you set off on a far more uncertain journey, leaving the Turkish coast in the company of the people smuggling you to what they told you would be safety.

I packed sensible trousers and comfortable shoes and wondered what clothes I’d have packed if I was one of the women making the journey from Afghanistan or Syria. What clothes would be more likely to thwart sexual assault? I patted familiar things in my kitchen and bedroom, knowing I would miss them over the next two weeks, and tried to imagine leaving this home if I knew it could be forever, and that the next people in it would be the looters who follow a successful bombing. I packed a passport holder so I could keep my precious documents close to my skin, and wondered how you keep your papers dry when you know you’re going on an inflatable raft.

For the overnight bus journey to Athens with which my journey would begin I bought a slice of raspberry pie from the vegan bakery and downloaded a Malcolm Gladwell audio book. And I realised that no, my packing can be nothing like that of the people I’ll meet on Monday. I will be meeting them in almost complete ignorance of where they’re coming from and just what they faced to get here.

So what can you take with you?

Despite my ignorance at least I will be meeting them with something to offer. With thanks to generous and thoughtful friends I will be meeting them with some stuff that will hopefully be of use. The ‘We are One’ women's centre offers free condoms and disposable menstrual products, and a friend gave me a bag of these to bring with me. The centre asked for cotton and thread for their sewing workshop. and I was donated a bag of these by another friend. I was told that nail varnish was something the women really appreciate being able to use when they drop in, and thanks to a friend’s kindness I have 5 bright (indeed in some case completely sparkly) jars to share. The organisation is developing a library of picture books for mums to share with their children and I’ve been given 15 beautiful books to contribute to that. I was given English teaching resources for the English classes run every day, I have battery-operated lanterns for when there are power cuts, and warm clothes. I also have £400. Huge thank you to all these people who ensured I won’t arrive empty handed. And to Indigo Volunteers for matching me with the center on Samos.

In my next post I’ll be able to share my arrival in Greece, and I hope I’ll also in coming days be able to share the stories of the people I meet. Some of whom are probably, as I shoulder on my rucksack, hefting the weight of their own baggage somewhere on the borders of Europe, and preparing for a far more perilous journey to where we’ll meet in Samos.

Elizabeth Gowing is a storyteller for those making positive change in the world. A writer and presenter who shares her stories on BBC Radio 4, she also offers training and consultancy. Use the contact form if you know stories that need to be told and want her help in telling them.

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