I had been reading headlines about refugees for so many years, and finally the headlines stopped - but the refugees kept coming. When CCS announced its new program in Greece, volunteering inside a refugee camp, I immediately wanted to go. Because CCS wasn't yet permitted (?) as a nonprofit within Greece, it had to work in partnership with an existing NGO. You can go directly to that other NGO and volunteer, without paying anything, being responsible for your own room, board, and transport. But having volunteered with CCS in the past, I like the CCS approach of handling the main logistics while also giving cultural training every day. I wanted that. The cost for a week was about what I'd pay on my own for hotel, food, and transport. I thought it was a GREAT value. CCS's home base is in Chalkida, a resort town. The van takes you to the camp 30 min away every morning. So you get this lovely town to stroll morning and night, and working hard in the camp by day. It was our taste of Greek culture, after spending all day with mostly Syrians inside the camp.
Food was also a highlight, I should mention. During my volunteering, meals were in a mom-and-pop restaurant where we ate family style, each choosing whatever entree he/she wanted - fish, chicken, beef, vegetarian, really great Greek food. This was fun time with the other volunteers, sharing stories of the day or of lives back home. We were free to dine at any hour, but our group coalesced and chose to dine together.
Accommodations were in a basic hotel, unlike most of CCSs locations where you stay in a residence similar to how people in that country live. CCS is just getting started in Greece, so doesn't have a home base yet. The hotel had some advantages - it was cushy compared to sleeping in bunk beds and showing with a bucket, as I've done at other volunteer gigs. The whole thing was almost too much like a vacation, outside of camp hours, to feel like we were properly sacrificing in our volunteer work!
Now about the camp. A previous reviewer mentioned the rough situation with the licensed NGO partner. By the time I arrived, that relationship seems to have ended. CCS had fully taken over directly running a few aspects of the camp - the "distribution center" for clothes, water, and staples that are handed out daily on a regular schedule, and the laundry room. Unlike most other CCS gigs, this one had little opportunity for working closely one-on-one with refugees; our work was mostly transactional, helping them at the "check out" counter when they selected clothes with their monthly points from the boutique (like a second-hand clothing shop). But I had the feeling if I stayed longer than a week, I could get to know some of the residents and understand more about the life of a refugee. Little separates us from them - they had the bad misfortune to live in a country that was falling apart, and had to flee for their lives, often without family members who were killed in the conflict. It was heart-wrenching, yet heart-warming, to see the humanitarian support and know that at least they are physically safe, and on a path to progress.
As with many CCS programs, volunteers are given some good cultural training, as in "here's what to expect and how you can be a good volunteer", but not a lot if time is left for training for the particular task. Volunteers have to sort of work it out on the fly. I felt that we could have done a much better job with the boutique had we stayed another week or two, to improve the process and make it even more smooth and friendly for the residents.
The unruly and borderline dangerous pack of "naughty" kids were mentioned by a previous reviewer made their appearance during my stint as well five months later in January 2018, about 5 ten-year old boys with mischief on their minds. There are safeguards, but indeed we learned to keep eyes out for those guys and not give them free access to the boutique etc. Yet this too was a real part of the refugee experience. What had these kids seen in their short lives? Could the camp and NGO efforts begin to reform them? It was great to see a daily soccer game breakout full of seemingly all ages and nationalities, good cooperation and sportsmanship while I watched. I did miss seeing any girls join in though. The camp is keeping people fed and safe from bombs. But there is room for more humanitarian help as they anxiously wait a year or more to hear if any nation will grant them asylum.
Another benefit of CCS is that they generally work with you to give you the experience you seek. I was assigned to the boutique/distribution center, but after a few days, felt I wanted to experience other parts of the camp. So I was allowed to spend a day at the laundry, and a day in a totally different camp doing vision testing for kids. This enriched and filled out my picture of refugee life, thanks to CCS staff efforts to work with me. Much appreciated.
I loved my experience volunteering with CCS at the Ritsona camp in Greece. And I treasure the CCS values of doing no harm, and connecting on a human level, when volunteering. And what a great geographical launching point for adding on travel days afterwards! Several of the volunteers did Athens and Meteora and enjoyed each other's company in the off hours.