We love this testimonial of Zuriñe, a Spanish lady who went to Athens, Greece, for a two-months period of volunteering with migrant and refugee families, and then decided to settle there for at least one year. It is a very honest account of how getting in touch with different realities can open your heart and minds to unexpected discoveries that change the person you are.
I must confess that it wasn’t easy to write this article: in my present circumstances, it’s difficult to talk about myself as a sort of protagonist, when my firm belief is that every person with whom I work deserves the honour of being centre stage.
My first taste of volunteering can be summed up in two separate months during which I worked with migrant and refugee families in a busy building in Athens. I felt that each experience was so brief that it didn’t really have an impact on the project, and in certain cases, it seemed that I may be doing more harm than good to the people I was supposed to be helping: this was because it was impossible to follow up each case properly, and also because the constant coming and going of volunteers resulted in severe emotional strain for families who had formed attachments with them and then had to watch them move on.
These factors were added to the shock of landing in a European capital and finding in its streets a horrendous social reality of the kind that, through ignorance, we generally associate with developing countries, but never come face to face with in our own neighbourhoods.
And so, during those two month-long episodes, what I learnt led me to change my perception of voluntary work: I stopped thinking of it as being founded on a sentiment of altruism, and shifted to considering my activity as a moral obligation, taking into account my privileged existence which is a simple consequence of my place of birth and my family’s economic possibilities.
Following these reflections, I decided to pack my bags and move to Athens. I planned to stay for at least a year. And that’s how I started working with the Elna Maternity Center, a project that houses pregnant refugee mothers and their families. The project is funded entirely through donations from private Spanish civil society donations, which are managed through various NGOs and organisations.
The objective of the project is to offer a safe haven to families who have fled their countries of origin because of war, terrorism, violence against women, and so on. In addition, it offers holistic care, such as help with administrative and legal procedures, and all healthcare matters. Everything takes place in a space specifically designed taking into consideration the values of empathy and respect. It’s a clearly intercultural environment, welcoming families from very different backgrounds: Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iran, Palestine, Kurdistan and Pakistan.
In the bleak context of refugees living in Athens, our centre is a place that offers security and care. We can offer this stability because basic needs are covered, and from this foundation, people can progress and plan a future. Although everyone would agree that healthcare is a basic need for a pregnant woman, this is not provided in many of the Greek islands, nor in refugee camps on the outskirts of Athens. Healthcare in these places has come to a complete standstill, and there is no political will to change this: on the contrary, there now seems to be a policy dissuasive of healthcare.
On balance, my personal experience has not been very positive. The reality is overwhelming, and volunteers are not in a position to change it. The origin of the problem is abstract, but day after day, its consequences arrive on the doorstep of the place we call our home, and sadly, we have to deny people help because of a lack of resources.
Finally, and perhaps a little selfishly, what I will retain from my experience is the affection and warmth of the families who have managed to get this far, and who, after hours of working together, I can claim as a part of me. I also treasure the opportunity I’ve had to meet women who carry the weight of their entire family on their shoulders, and struggle each day to improve their situation, with their characteristic strength. I have learnt to stop seeing vulnerability, to stop re-victimising, because what is really at the heart of these women is an incredible capacity for resilience. In the end, I owe everything I have learnt to them and to the experience I was lucky enough to have of working with them.