Earlier this year one of Empathy Action’s team, Chris Hix, volunteered in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Leros. He is now helping to research and design EA’s new refugee simulation. Here, Chris shares a few of his reflections on the current situation in Greece.
We have a crisis on our hands. Take Greece for example.
Greece has an estimated 57,000 refugees, most of whom come from Syria. In 2015 the European Union undertook to resettle 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece. Only 8,000 have actually been taken in. The EU is now planning to start sending back to Greece many of the refugees who passed through last year.
Greece has been slowly building refugee camps to accommodate the people who now seem likely to be in the country for an indefinite period. Initially these were tented camps but prefabricated buildings have now been set up in many places, sometimes surrounded by barbed wire.
Greece is struggling to cope with the numbers of refugees despite the help of many charities and aid organisations. Some refugees are still stranded on the islands on which they arrived, like Lesbos and Leros (where I volunteered), while others have been moved on to camps on the mainland. In the early days, the pressure was to cope with the continuing influx of people who were largely in transit to elsewhere. Now that onward routes are blocked, the focus has switched to what can be done to occupy the men, women and children who find themselves stranded far from home with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Children are often over the moon simply to be given a sheet of paper and a crayon.
The refugee camps meet basic needs but the International Rescue Committee has documented issues such as long queues for food and water, and lack of schooling for children and lack of opportunities for work for adults. Voluntary organisations are trying to alleviate the situation. Initiatives they are running include language classes, carpentry workshops, yoga and music lessons, joint drop in sessions for refugees and poor local people, and organised sports for men and women. The charities include local Greek people, expatriates living in Greece, and young and old volunteers from around the world with the empathy to have decided that something needs to be done. It is a strange mix of aid workers made up of everyday people and seasoned professionals.
It’s hard to see a resolution to these problems. Displaced Syrians seem unlikely to be able to be able to return home in the foreseeable future. Neighbouring Turkey may or may not choose to allow millions to remain there, and EU countries seem content to leave the burden with Italy and Greece. So refugees appear condemned to an existence in camps which will keep them alive, but do little else for them. Understanding the sheer complexities of the issues requires both a will to do so and an informed champion to help navigate how best to respond. The challenge is huge. We believe that, right from the start, there must be empathy.
Empathy Action is designing a refugee simulation to help build empathy and spark action – giving participants an experience (albeit symbolically) of what it is like to live as a refugee. It will offer insights into some of the challenges faced by the millions of displaced people around our world today, and allow participants the opportunity to reflect on their own response to this global crisis.
If you would be interested in getting involved with our work, or finding out how our simulations can help your organisation – whether a school, a business or other group – we’d love to hear from you.