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The following is part two in a three-part series on refugee camps. To read part one, click here.
Since my first article for Meridian on the refugee camps in Greece, a significant event has happened at the camp I called Camp #2. I had expected to write this second article about a refugee I met that I call Ahmar. However, the unfortunate events of Camp #2 are more important to share first.
A few days ago I received the following message from a volunteer in Greece that regularly tends to the needs of Camp #2.
“Our friends from #2 Refugee camp outside of Athens have been in a seriously toxic environment for the last 24 hours. The waste ground next door has gone up in flames, producing toxic fumes.
I could hardly stand it and I was only there 20 mins and there is babies and kids and they’ve been there all night and today.
They say the fire services came yesterday and refused to do anything and went away. They’ve just arrived now and trying to put the fire out.
The children and babies have now gone to the other Kurdish camp in town. But the men don’t want to leave the camp and some of the ladies are still there. They are scared that if they leave, the government won’t let them back in. They’ve been trying to move them from the camp for 8 months, but they’ve refused to leave! We tried to persuade them to leave, too, at least for a short while- but they said no. What a desperate situation!
One of the older men got ill from the fire fumes last night and was taken to hospital with exacerbation of a heart condition. We will check on him. We will move blankets and bedding to the people who have moved to the other camp.
They’re literally going to stay in toxicity. We’re going to stay too and provide masks and water, juice, food supplies. We will move people if they decide it’s too bad and take anyone getting ill to hospital. We’ll stay until things are better, even if we have to stay the night- we’ll stay!
If anyone can help buy supplies please do. We are short on funds! Firstly these people shouldn’t be here in the first place! Secondly they haven’t had any support? Where have the emergency services or NGOs been?!
Bless the local Greek family who helped move some of them at night. He came and spoke to us and said ‘we are here for them!’
Everyone is coughing with sore eyes due to the fumes! They didn’t sleep all night either and it’s not calming down anytime soon!”
I emailed her and asked if the fire was intentionally set, or did it spontaneously combust from the contents of the landfill. This was her reply-
“Yes, the fire spontaneously combusted. The fire started and they put it out themselves initially, as the fire services took a while to come. When they came they said it was fine and didn’t want to check it properly and left. I guess there was still fire inside. Then after a while they noticed a huge fire. It was like that all night and the fire services only arrived midday today. And worked there for about 6-7 hours to put it out.”
Something many people don’t know about me is that I’m a former firefighter and EMT. The very first fire I got called out on as a newbie was a dump fire. I can still remember it vividly. I was excited because the older, more experienced guys on the squad were more than willing to let me have “hose time.” So I stood there for as long as I could wrestling an active fire hose putting out that fire.
The rest of the crew used rakes and shovels to move mulch, stir the trash, and ventilate the mound of waste in front of us. They were smart enough to wear O2 tanks and face masks. I thought since I was 20-30 feet away I would be fine. I still remember how I landed face first in the mulch when the fumes finally overcame me. I passed out, the guys grabbed me, got some air for me, and I stood up, took a breath of the fumes again, and passed right out again. I was sick for hours, even though I was only exposed to the fumes for a half hour. I can’t even imagine staying next to a landfill fire for hours on end.
When I think of the families, with the babies and elderly, in that camp, it breaks my heart. Can you imagine if a massive fire, with smoke and fumes, broke out just a few yards from your home? And the emergency fire services took over a day to come help? Now picture if you didn’t have a car to help you carry your family to safety, and you didn’t speak the language, or know the area you were in. How would you mentally cope with such a situation?
A fire in the camps is thankfully not something that happens too often. But difficult situations that threaten their lives, families, and what little property they have, do happen with great frequency. Very few of the camps are set up in such a way as to encourage independence and stability for the refugees. The system that helps them also hurts them. It keeps them from being able to provide for themselves, to save up money, or to even get a job.
Since visiting the camps I get asked regularly, “What can people do to help them?” My answer remains the same. They need money. They need jobs. They need to get out of the camps. They need educations. If you want to really help the refugees, encourage your local community to welcome in the refugees, and create a transition program for them. Assist them in getting an education and gainful employment. Help them get their basic needs. Show them kindness.
I haven’t met one refugee who wants to stay in the camps. Every refugee I met wants to get a job or an education so they can get a job. Some wish they had a home to go back to, but most have accepted the reality that their homes are no longer there for them. Nearly every refugee I met expressed the same wish. They want to resettle in a new country, get an education, get a job, and raise their families. But when the time is right (after the war is over, after their family is raised, after they have money and stability), go back to their home country and rebuild. I never met one refugee who thought the world should give them a free ride. Every refugee wanted to give back and help others.
It takes a special kind of love and humility to have lost everything, and to have regained very little, and to still be able to say that your dream is to give to and help others.
I can only wish that more people had such giving and loving hearts as those of the refugees.
Please stay tuned for my next article about my dear friend Ahmar, a refugee with an amazing story.
Erin Ann McBride is a native of the Washington, DC area, but currently calls Salt Lake City home. She recently left her 15 year career in marketing to pursue her lifelong goal of a degree in social work. She has worked in humanitarian causes around the world, and is very interested and involved in the refugee crisis, international adoption, and fighting human trafficking. She is the author of 3 fiction books, 3 nonfiction books, and hundreds of articles. You can learn more about her at www.Facebook.com/AuthorErinAnnMcBride.