A Shorewood couple spent part of August volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece, and sharing their story – and the stories of the refugees -- with everyone back home, day by day, on social media.
It's become known as a "volunteer vacation." People plan trips to far away places around volunteer opportunities. Shana and Todd Davis did just that. They planned a summer trip to Greece around the opportunity to serve at a refugee camp. Shana began documenting their trip as soon as they arrived.
The Davises were destined for a place called Thessaloníki. There is a camp there called Softex. Shana says it's called that because many of the refugees there live in tents in an old Softex Toilet paper factory. She says the camp is sweltering. The temperature hovers around 95 degrees. There are no trees.
The temperature inside the factory isn't much cooler. There are a few fans, and the people who live there "make do" with what's available. Life at Softex can be grim. The Davises discovered how grim as soon as they arrived, as they were registering as volunteers. There was a disturbance outside, and Shana says they were told a resident had died.
The residents began protesting what they saw as a preventable death, and the Davises were asked to leave and return the next day. They did, and they got to work.
The refugees in Greece have come from many war-torn countries, including Syria. According to a recent count, Softex has a population of 1,400 people, with an estimated 60-percent of those being Syrian. They’ve left everything behind, pouring into Greece, hoping to make a new start in Western Europe. But once they get to Greece, many of them find they are crammed into improvised camps, unable to legally work, with no way of knowing when, where, or if they’ll be allowed to go to their next destination.
Shana says many of the refugees are separated from their families. One family member typically goes ahead to set up the household, while others have been left behind…waiting. One man told her about his wife and five children who are stranded in Turkey while he is stranded in Greece. He hasn’t seen them for more than seven months. She asked to see a picture, and he obliged. Then, he dissolved into tears.
Davis says she never asked another refugee if she could see a family picture. "It's just is such a bad situation where so many innocent people are caught in this international catastrophe, and it’s just really hard," she says.
There are so many stories of separation and struggle at Softex.
But Shana also posted stories of humor and hope.
Many of the people who live at Softex were people of status in their home countries. Shana says she met nurses, and there is at least one doctor. There are police officers, farmers, and even a Syrian law professor, who is a big fan of a certain U.S. Senator from Arizona.
Though Softex has a reputation of being one of the more dangerous refugee camps in Greece, Shana says she never felt unsafe there. She says she heard there were guns, but she didn’t see any. She knows there were drugs, but she didn’t see that, either. She addressed concerns about her safety in a post.
Shana says the people there are no different from anyone in Milwaukee, struggling to take care of their families, though the circumstances in Thessaloníki are more difficult than most people here can imagine. The entire cycle of life is playing out in these camps, from the death that greeted the Davises when they arrived, to the babies born into such humble circumstances.
"It’s beyond my comprehension that people are giving birth…and they’re bringing newborns back to a camp and living in a tent. It’s situations like that that really break your heart."
Davis says sharing her experiences on Facebook – and the stories of those who are living in this frustrating limbo -- helped her process these emotions. She says, "This is the first time I had traveled when social media and high speed internet was so accessible, so it really helped me to be able to sit down an share what had happened that day with people back home."
As Shana left Softex behind, she visited the coast where some of the people she met - the lucky ones - may have come ashore, and reflected on their arduous journey.
If you are interested in volunteering, Shana says you can start your search for the right opportunity with the International Rescue Committee.
To help the babies of Softex, the Davises are hosting a virtual baby shore. You can get more information on that, and contribute, here.