Jake and Amanda-T are a couple from the United States. Last spring, they made the decision to come volunteer full-time with HSA. They got rid of their possessions, left their occupations in DC and flew to Greece. “We were feeling restless in our jobs”, says Amanda-T.
The move didn’t come as a surprise to their friends and families: Jake and Amanda-T had been thinking about it for a while, but the recent election of Donald Trump sped up their initiative. “In the political climate, it was a good time to leave” remembers Jake. ‘We had a strong interest in the humanitarian field, but no practical experience”, he continues. Indeed, Amanda-T focused her college studies on refugee camps, and she now holds a masters degree in intercultural relations. So how did the theory meet the practice? Jake and Amanda-T assert that working with HSA in Kara Tepe solidified their desire to work with refugees: “We know now that we want to be in a camp.”
Stories of clothing
Through the course of things, Amanda-T and Jake ended up spending most of their time in HSA’s clothing distribution center. Together with the other volunteers, they make appointments for the camp’s residents, welcome them and help them choose the shoes and clothing they need. Amanda-T is now the manager of the center, and coordinates with the storage to make sure that the distribution center is well-stocked. Last week, she organized extra time slots in order to serve the new arrivals in the camp, whom have just crossed the sea from Turkey and are in urgent need of clothes, while keeping the regular appointments for the older residents, who also need clothes. Longer-term volunteers like Jake and Amanda-T can indeed undertake more responsibilities, because they have the time to learn everything about the job and take initiatives, and are therefore essential to the proper functioning of HSA.
Working at the clothing distribution center can be a challenge. HSA has to provide clothing for residents of all ages and sizes, from the newborn babies to the tall, massive grown-up men; they also provide for residents of different nationalities and cultures, who often expect very different styles. “Nothing worse than having one person that you don’t have their size”, says Amanda-T. If being picky on the style or quality of the clothing can seem superficial, it is in fact directly related to personal dignity. “There was a moment in the crisis where anything was appreciated. Now, we are trying to give people things that they actually want, in order to provide a sense of normalcy” explains Jake. The camp is a temporary home, but most residents have to stay several months, even up to a year, before they can leave. “It is then not just a matter of survival, it is a matter of comfort, and of dignity”, he adds.
At the clothing distribution center, every family get an entire hour for picking their clothes. This gives them space to try the clothes on, and often to relax and confide to the volunteers. Indeed, helping a woman to pick a bra size does create an intimate relationship! Especially, “some new arrivals are eager to tell their story”, Amanda-T recalls. Volunteers also take care of the children while the mother chooses clothes, giving her a well appreciated break. The best moments are when someone finds an item that they really like, and their face brightens, or a kid running around in his new trainers! Empathizing with the refugees, Jakes says : “They got turned away a lot and you have the opportunity to actually give them something that they actually want”.
That said, restoring this dignity as best as possible requires a lot of hard work from the HSA volunteers. “We sort the donations and try to pick the best for the clothing store but still it is hard because it is often second hand”, says one volunteer. “A shirt that would be stained or ripped is not helping, because it does not make the person feel dignified” explains Jake. Sometimes, the ambiance in the distribution center can also get tensed: the residents can become very insisting when they don’t find their style or size. When this repeats many time, it can lead to frustration for the volunteers. When that happens, Jake takes a step back. In the backstore area, he takes a breath and think : “I’ve got no right to be worked up right now. When you think about the last two or three years of the people that we serve… I can’t imagine what they had to go through. So yes, maybe, I can take one more minute to look for shoes that he likes better”.
On some especially hard days, Jake and Amanda-T can rely on each other for support “Having someone who knows you, who can check in on you is really helpful.” When asked about the HSA team, the couple talks about the selflessness of the volunteers. “There is no ego involved – people keep their head down, and just help”. It seems that this hardworking couple stands as the best example of that description they themselves provided.
Connecting to the rest of the world
What surprised the couple when they started working in Kara Tepe camp is how much the camp is open and connected. It is indeed only an half-hour walk to Mytilene, the main city of Lesvos island. Making friends on a daily basis with the residents, it is then easy to walk around town and you see many people greeting you: “Everyone knows you by your name!”, Jake exclaims.
Amanda-T and Jake also connect with their community at home in the United States, carrying the voices of the refugees overseas. When they decided to come volunteer, Amanda-T’s mother, who manages an after-school program, arranged for them to come and meet the school’s kids to talk to them about the refugees. “The kids ask such smart questions!”, Amanda-T says. They are now keeping them informed by sending emails, and are planning to go back at their return. Changing the world, one kid at a time!
“I know it sounds fake but I swear it’s not!” Amanda-T says, laughing, when she recalls her first time walking into camp. The couple had just got off the ferry and walked from the town to the camp location, exhausted and a bit disoriented, when, as they crossed the gate, as small child dressed with a bear costume ran to Amanda-T and hug her legs! “I had been so nervous, and then I felt like I was in the right place.” Well, she still is.
Update: We want to give a huge thanks to Amanda-T and Jake who just finished 3-months with us and the residents of Kara Tepe.