Offering Help and Hope

Offering Help and Hope

Due to speak at the Club next month, Member Angie Bell recounts her experiences volunteering with refugees in Greece.

Angie Bell did something unexpected a year ago.

“I’d just sent my daughter off to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, when I realized I wasn’t doing anything myself,” she says.

Like many, Bell had followed the worsening refugee crisis in Europe and donated to relief efforts. But it was the shocking photo of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a Greek beach that prompted her next move.

“I saw that and said to my husband, ‘I really need to go.’ He said ‘OK, let’s go,’” says Bell, a British elementary school teacher now living in Japan. On the day after Christmas 2015, the couple arrived in Lesbos, the Greek island that was receiving thousands of refugees a day. There, for 11 days, they managed one of three family tents at a refugee camp.

“We’d wake up around 10am and head down to Mytilene Port to buy supplies: socks, gloves, sneakers, in all sizes, and fresh fruit. We’d get to the camp just before 2pm to meet with the other volunteers and get organized before the doors opened at 3pm. We’d get the families settled and then, during the night, the boats would arrive. We’d keep going until about 3am, then go back to the hotel and try to sleep,” Bell explains.

Back in Japan, the mother of two continued to follow events in southern Europe. She decided to return, and last July, she arranged to help at a camp in Athens, which shut down soon after she arrived.

“I did a few volunteer tasks, but I didn’t really feel like I’d found my niche,” Bell, 48, says. “So I decided to go to the City Plaza Hotel and see what I could do.”

Abandoned after the 2004 Olympics, the hotel housed 400 refugees, including nearly 140 children. A coordinator mentioned to Bell that they needed activities for the youngsters. The suggestion struck a chord. “‘I’m a teacher, I can do that,’” Bell recalls thinking.

Bell and four other volunteers created an afternoon children’s program. “Our goal was to get these kids ready to go to school in the fall. They needed basic skills, and I mean basic. They needed to learn to share, to not fight, to not take the supplies,” she says.

The first few sessions were a challenge. “The kids took the paper we gave them and threw it off the balcony or at us and ran all over the place,” Bell says. “We were very consistent. We just kept showing up, and once we had a couple kids on our side, everything started to improve.”

When she left more than two weeks later, the program had 40 regular attendees and 15 dedicated volunteers. More importantly, it continues to run today.

“I’d never done anything like this before,” she says. “I always thought you needed specialized skills to volunteer in a crisis situation, but you don’t. No matter who you are, how old you are or where you come from, you can help.”

Monthly Program: Refugee Crisis: One Volunteer’s Story: Feb 2

Words: Joan Bailey