In Greece, Private Groups Fill in Shortfalls in the World’s Response

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Volunteers with Hot Food Idomeni provide meals for refugees, northern Greece, March 2016. PHOTO: DAN HAIMOVICH

By DANA SACHS
June 10, 2016 3:29 p.m. ET

As Syria’s civil war worsens and Islamic State continues to hold on to large swaths of Iraq, Europe has been shaken by the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country, and Turkey alone has been struggling to cope with nearly 3 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Wealthy countries and international aid agencies have failed to mount an effective response to this humanitarian crisis, leaving private groups and individuals to try to fill the gap. That combination—of global shortfall and individual altruism—is on particularly vivid display in Greece, where limited relief funds, poor coordination, a shattered domestic economy and a now-blocked exit route into the Balkans have left some 57,000 refugees and migrants stranded in often squalid conditions.

In late May, Greece evacuated the final 8,500 residents from the makeshift Idomeni camp on the Macedonian border, moving its mostly Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan inhabitants into smaller, government-run facilities. The Greek government hopes that these new camps will eventually help ease the migrants’ suffering, but they still need lots of assistance. Much of that help now comes from an informal network of small groups and private individuals, including Swedish college students, Irish retirees, American snowboarding instructors, Greek entrepreneurs and British chefs. They feed, clothe, educate, entertain and console many of these people, who might otherwise assume that the world has forgotten them.

I spent the first half of May working with these volunteer groups in northern Greece. One morning in Polykastro, a town near Idomeni, I joined the improvised outdoor kitchen run by Hot Food Idomeni, which was distributing some 5,000 nutritious meals to refugees each day, at a cost of 34 cents a meal. The volunteers worked cheerfully, fueled by coffee and an improvised sound system blasting everything from Afrobeat to the Rolling Stones.

That morning, I worked with the onion peelers, perched on crates and chairs in the yard. A group of circus clowns in full makeup passed nearby. “Oh, that’s the British troupe,” explained Alex, an American volunteer from Florida, looking up from an onion. “They go to the camps to entertain the kids.”

The clowns drove off. Our pile of onions dwindled. Barry Fallon, one of Hot Food’s chefs, stirred pots of curry with a massive ladle. On a dry erase board at the side of the kitchen, someone had scrawled: “Garlic Onion Ginger: Good Things Come in Threes.”

That afternoon, Hot Food’s van pulled up in front of a locked storage container in Idomeni camp, about 15 miles from the outdoor kitchen, and the distribution team clicked into gear. One volunteer unrolled orange plastic netting and stretched it to create a barrier for crowd control. Inside the container, a serving area took shape. Dozens of cardboard boxes of Syrian flatbread got stacked against the wall. Volunteers moved into position. Someone switched on the dance music.

By now, hundreds of people—groups of jumpy, silly boys, fathers pushing strollers, women in head scarves carrying infants, little girls with ponytails and runny noses—had formed two long lines, men in one, women in another and children in both.

A team leader said, “Ready? Go!”

For the next three hours, we handed out meals in a whir of curry, rice, pickled pepper and bread, dished up and passed out in seconds. The process wasn’t entirely smooth: Two teenagers shoved into the line and caused a mini-riot, and many people tried to swipe extra bread. But what stayed with me was the joking, the words of thanks, the hugs among refugees and volunteers. The Hot Food team couldn’t end the war in Syria or give the refugees homes. They could feed them, though—and food is comfort, so they offered that too.

Similar scenes of person-to-person assistance are occurring across Europe, from language classes for refugees in Istanbul to winter-hat-knitting circles in London. Improvised and nimble, these small organizations can stretch a euro, a pound or a lira strikingly far, in part because they are fueled by volunteers. In Greece, these groups—including Team Bananas, which says it distributes thousands of potassium-rich bananas each day to refugee children, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers, and Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, which washes refugees’ wet, discarded clothes and blankets, then redistributes the clean ones—have become indispensable sources of food, clothing, distraction and solace. Their efforts help to keep refugees sane and alive.

With Idomeni closed and the Greek government doing more in the remaining camps, the volunteer groups are adapting. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, for example, Hot Food is now distributing food packs to accommodate fasting refugees. And after that? Mr. Fallon says, “We still hope to support the people in whatever way we can.”

—Ms. Sachs is the author of several books, including “The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam.”

Original posted in the Wall Street Journal.

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