As part of ‘Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees’ three committee members organised a solidarity mission to support refugees through raising money and campaigning. The delegation consisted of Margaret Woods, Pinar Aksu and Amal Azzudin. Over £6,000 has been raised through a crowdfund. All the money raised is used to support refugees in Greece. The delegation paid for their own expenses. The visit was split between Athens and

Lesbos. I am Amal Azzudin and this was my experience.

Day 1

We arrived in Greece in the afternoon. After we settled into our accommodation we set out to meet the first organisation called ‘Migrants Social Centre’ in Athens. The taxi dropped us off at a main street and we had to make our way to the centre by using google maps on my phone. When we arrived we were not sure that we were in the right place. The building was run down and some of the windows were broken.

The atmosphere outside the centre was lively and busy with people chatting and socialising. The entrance to the building was open so we walked in and I climbed the stairs to find out if we were in the right place. I was then greeted by Nasim who runs the centre. Nasim is a refugee from Afghanistan and has been living in Greece for many years. The whole centre is dependent on volunteers and donations to function.

Nasim explained that they centre helps refugees by delivering projects that aim to integrate refugees in Athens,

teaching languages such as Greek and English and running a collective solidarity kitchen where locals and refugees cook and eat together.

In addition the centre organises anti-racism demonstrations well as community discussions regarding refugee issues.

Day 2

On the second day we visited the Greek Refugee Forum and we met Younis who manages the forum. Younis informed us that the forum was founded by refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. The work they do is mainly to advocate for refugee rights and liaise with other refugee networks all over the world to highlight concerns regarding the people they work with. The forum was initially founded to tackle racism.

Younis told us that he was attacked by fascists in the past and the office was vandalised numerous times as they opposed the work that the forum was doing.

When we entered the office I noticed stacks of boxes filled with clothes, food and toiletries. It was obvious that they were collecting items for refugees. While Younis continued informing us of the work the forum undertakes I noticed what seemed to be a couple of local people donating bags of items such and clothes and food. I remember feeling really touched by their kindness. I asked Younis where do the donations go to and he explained that they go to a refugee camp nearby. Younis told us that he was going to drop the donations after meeting us. I asked if it would be possible to go with him and after checking with the camp if it was ok he agreed to take us.

I have never been to a refugee camp before. I only saw pictures of camps on the news and the internet.

After a 10 minute drive we arrived at an excluded area surrounded by factories. Eleonas is a refugee camp in Athens which was opened in August and it can accommodate 750 people. Refugees from Afghanistan and other countries can stay up to 30 days then have to move on either to sleep in the streets or travel to another country. However Syrian refugees are given priority due to the current situation in Syria and can stay in the camp for up to 6 months.

As soon as we arrived, we saw refugees sitting on the floor outside the gate and when I asked Younis why was this, he said that they were waiting to get a place inside the camp as it was full.

The entrance of the camp was managed by police. This is for security reasons as fascists demonstrated outside the camp demanding refugees to be deported.

When I entered the camp I thought to myself I cannot believe that I am visiting a refugee camp in Europe 2015. The first thing that caught my eye was a huge tent that seemed to be filled with toys. As I walked into the tent I saw children playing with toys and with each other. I saw some of their mothers sitting watching their children play. I noticed so much sadness and despair in their eyes.

Some of the older children were playing football outside the tent with one of the support workers. I then noticed this wee boy in the green t-shirt called Mohamed from Afghanistan. I will never forget his wee innocent smile. I smiled back while trying my best to hold back my tears. I was overcome with sadness and sorrow as I kept thinking that this wee boy is in this situation because he happed to be born in a war zone. His future along with all the other children is uncertain. I wondered what will happen to him and if he will ever have a normal life like other children.

Looking back I remembered something Younis said to me which was refugees may have physical safety in Europe but not mentally. This is not the first time I have heard this. The same thing was expressed by the asylum seeking and refugee women I work with at the Mental Health Foundation in Glasgow.

Day 3

When we asked some of the project workers we met about places they would recommend for us to visit, a couple of them mentioned Victoria Square. The square is a small park where many refugees sleep for a few nights before continuing their journey to Macedonia or other European countries. The people in the park rely on donations from locals and community groups. While we were there, we saw some local people providing food and sweets to the children but it was not enough for everyone. In order to use the toilet the refugees had to pay 2 euros each which I thought was shocking and shameful. Most of the people in the park were families. One of the children had a bag of sweets and while we were talking to her she offered to share it with us. The wee girl was sleeping in a park along with her family who had nothing but offered us her sweet which was given by one of the locals. That little girl had more humanity than some of the world leaders who choose to do nothing about what has become the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Day 4

We left Athens and travelled to Lesbos. I was already saddened and upset about what we heard and saw in Athens but nothing could prepare anyone for what was to come next. I tried to prepare myself mentally as I could see from the pictures and scenes from the news about how horrific the situation is but nothing compared seeing it for my own eyes.

Lesbos is the Greek island which is close to Turkey where thousands of refugees travel by dinghy boats. Some of the boats do not make it to the island as the dinghy boats capsize and many people drown.

The taxi journey from the airport took us almost an hour to get to our accommodation. Once we got closer to where we were staying we started to see refugees walking the opposite direction to where we were heading. I was confused as to why people were walking and not using any method of transport. Among the people walking were unaccompanied young refugees. We were then told that people were walking to a bus stop designated for refugees. Taxis and local people were not allowed to take refugees in their cars as they would be charged with people trafficking.

We were lucky to meet Eric, Philippa and Elleni Kempson who are a British family living in Lesvos for 16 years. Their house is near the beach where many refugees have been arriving daily for the past eight months. Eric took us around the coastline and all we could see were life jackets. He informed us that each life jacket costs 100 euros per person for adults and children even though they should only cost 40 - 60 euros. In addition the cost of securing a place on the boats is approximately 1,200 euros. I picked up a child’s life jacket which was not inflated and Eric told me that this is common as people do not know how to use them so if they fell off the boat or it capsized people would drown either way. I felt sick at the fact that profit is being made out of people’s misery and desperation.

Eric explained how an average 3,000 people arrive is Lesbos each day and that there are 440,000 people waiting to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey. He continued by telling us that support was mostly provided by an amazing, dedicated and inspiring team of volunteers from all over the world. The volunteers provide water, clothes & food every day. Once again the donations are from people all over the world.

Day 5

On this day we saw over three refugee dinghy boats arrive in Lesbos. We helped people get out of the boats and life jackets. Along with the other volunteers we directed them to the help station which is literally a table under a tree which had supplies of water, food and a change of clothes most of the people off the boats were wet. Each boat had 50 people in them. The people arriving in the island were so relieved that they made it to Lesbos while others burst into tears because of the traumatic experience.

A mother from Afghanistan handed me her child called Ilham to hold while she got out of the life jacket and looked for her husband and other kids. Non one has held on to me so tight before. The little girl was absolutely terrified and crying hysterically. We witnessed mothers checking to see if their babies were alive as they were frozen from being wet. It was an extremely traumatising and distressing experience.

One of the volunteers who was a doctor could see that I was shaken by what I had witnessed so he told me the best thing we could do when people get off the boats is to say welcome and smile at them. I can't imagine any human being witnessing this and not doing anything to help.

I heard a Syrian father phone his family to assure them that he is safe and that he survived the journey.

While some of the people were trying to make sense what they had just experienced there were some who were filled with hope and relief thinking that they made it to Europe so everything was going to be okay. They had no idea of the new set of problems awaiting them. We were told that to apply for asylum in Greece is through Skype. Thousands of people line up to apply but only less than 20 cases are heard daily.

Day 6

Our last day in Lesbos consisted of visiting a self-organised refugee camp in Pikpa which has capacity for a hundred refugees but previously accommodated over 300 people. The workers in the camp were all volunteers. The volunteers spend about 12 hours a day helping refugees. The food, shelter and clothing are provided through solidarity donations. I was stunned to hear that some of the money donations received was also used to bury refugees who drowned crossing the Mediterranean.

I spoke to a Syrian refugee called Samer in the camp who was also used as one of the camp’s translator for people who could not speak Greek or English. He told us about the issues people are experiencing but also the good work that the volunteers are doing. Samer said something that will remain with me forever. He said that "in Syria we may die once through a bullet or an explosion but being a refugee we die a hundred times".

When I asked him about his future aspirations he said he hopes to do a PhD as he has a master’s in accountancy. When I asked him to explain what he meant he said that the humiliation, desperation, loss, bereavement and trauma is a slow killer. A refugee has no guarantee of a safe and secure future.

We also met a Syrian couple who were sharing a cabin with the husband’s brother. The brother is disabled from the waist down due to a bomb explosion.

Day 7

While we were waiting for our plane to go home, all I could think of were the wee kids we met and the amazing people taking solidarity holidays to Greece dedicating their time to help traumatised and vulnerable people. It was inspiring to see that the support and aid for refugees was coming from a grassroots level due to the governments failing to come to a sustainable solution.

The crisis is only going to get worse and many people are going to continue to die. People will cross the Mediterranean even in the winter.

The Present

Since I have been back I have struggled to speak about my experience without crying. This experience is just a glimpse of what happens in Greece. I cannot help but feel a sense of helplessness, despair and sadness. But I also feel very lucky because I was able to come back to my family, friends and a roof over my head. I live in a safe and secure environment free from war, torture and violence. Not everyone has an opportunity to have a safe future.

No one leaves their country, family, culture and home for no reason. It is in a state of desperation where people flee to seek refuge, safety and a chance of some kind of future elsewhere.

The purpose of our visit was not only to support refugees through the money we raised but to also raise awareness of what is occurring on a daily basis. The support for refugees has been overwhelming and absolutely amazing but it also needs to come with those in power who have the ability to stop this crisis and save lives.

At the moment, Greece is going through a financial crisis therefore they are struggling to support their citizens let alone thousands of refugees.

Since returning to Scotland far I have given evidence to the European External Relations Committee at the Scottish Parliament recently. I am also part of the Scottish Government’s Refugee Crisis Taskforce which was set up by the First Minister. It is refreshing to see that the Scottish Government are supportive and welcoming towards refugees.

The money raised through the crowdfund is used to support the community agencies, Pikpa refugee camp and necessities for refugees such as food and water for refugees. We are aware that the money can only help people for a very short time as many thousands arrive every day and the situation will deteriorate in the coming months. Therefore we are still continuing to raise money for the people in need.

I would also like to say a huge heartfelt thank you to everyone who has or is taking action to support refugees. Regardless of how big or small, whether it is through a donation, collecting items, organising fundraising events, using the media to raise awareness, challenging myths or like Sofia (age 9) and Giulia (age 7) selling toys to raise money for the cause. Thank you for keeping hope and humanity alive.