T he refugee crisis has been an emotive subject for many in recent years. None more so than human rights campaigner Fidelma Carolan.
Fidelma is currently the Regional Organiser for UNISON and as well as a strong reputation in the trade union community has a prolific background in the voluntary, youth and women’s sectors.
Earlier this year she had the opportunity to go to Greece with the organisation Refugee Support and spend time in one of the many camps there working with refugees from all walks of life.
As well as give her a unique insight into the vital work being carried out at the Alexandreia Refugee Camp, which accommodates around 1000 people, she revealed the hardest thing to do was “leave people behind” when her time was up.
Although Fidelma had originally planned to send a few updates back home to let people know where their generosity was going, she very quickly found people wanting more and her casual Day 1 update soon became a daily blog.
“When I first got over there I had a certain amount of cash that I had to use to buy cucumbers and tomatoes and stuff like that to distribute in the camp and I took a picture to let people see how their money and their donations were being used right away” said Fidelma.
“Then suddenly people were waiting on the next instalment, but it became a really good way of showing people just what it’s really like and was an opportunity to show people just what life inside the camp was like.”
When talking about her time in Greece, Fidelma is modest, she’s keen to point out the “other” people doing much more out there than she did in her 12 day stay.
“Because of my job and other things I knew if I was going to go it would only be for a short time, so I wanted my time to count, I wanted there to be structure so that I could get straight into helping. I wasn’t there that long, I’d like to go back out. There are people who have gone out there for six months and more and have done tremendous work, I felt that doing something was better than nothing.
“I had an opportunity to help out on the group, albeit for a short period of time and whilst I was under no illusion that it was going to make a huge difference in the greater picture I needed to do it.
Fidelma traveled to Greece with St Vincent de Paul after saving and paying for her air fare and board and raising funds to buy goods to distribute when she was at the camp.
But her journey didn’t start with her decision to go to Greece. Last year Fidelma was one of the many people across Northern Ireland who felt galvanised to take action after harrowing scenes from the refugee crisis hit the headlines.
“As the visibility of the crises for refugees increased in the media last September, we decided to respond to what was then a collection for the camps in Calais. I co-ordinated donations of clothes, toiletries, tents, sleeping bags across every hospital in Northern Ireland through the local UNISON branches. We were overwhelmed by the response and I was liaising with others who had similarly set up collections in their areas” said Fidelma.
“However, word got back that Calais couldn’t cope with the volume of things being received. At that point we looked for other places the donations could go as each night the television showed desperate people on long journeys across Europe. UNISON organised a fundraising comedy and cabaret night in the Black Box to help ship what had been gathered. At the same time St Vincent de Paul President Aidan Crawford visited Lesbos to assess the situation for himself and was deeply moved by the plight of the people there who arrived often with nothing as they had capsized into the water.
“SVP set about fundraising for a container to go to Greece and link in with charities there. All of the donations which UNISON and many others had gathered then were transported by SVP. They took a small number of volunteers over to distribute the donations and to look at helping to develop some infrastructure.”
Since then there have been many projects Fidelma has been involved in, set up to support refugees and asylum seekers.”
During her time at the Alexandreia Refugee Camp, Fidelma had the chance to meet many refugees and take time to learn their personal stories.
“These were people who have houses and apartments, who had been going to work every day, going out with friends and suddenly their world was turned upside down because of the war and they were literally bombed out of their homes.
“Many had seen their loved ones killed, then they had to flee and escape across the Mediterranean during which time some don’t survive.
“People were really traumatised, it was an abnormal situation to be living in.
“The children just wanted to play and all the things that children here would experience such as school, normal discipline and playing with other kids is different for them.
“The people I met were no different to you or I, they may have spoken a different language, had a different religion, grew up in a different place and had a different skin colour, but instinctively they are no different to people here in Northern Ireland.
“The hardest thing was actually leaving, to leave and get on a plane to go back to my nice house, to be able to go out for a meal when I got home, that kind of thing was the hardest, knowing that of the people there, many of them they might still be there in six months or even years. It’s beyond comprehension in some ways.”
In the camps small everyday problems become epidemics, a simple case of head lice, chicken pox or scabies can run rife through hundreds of people and the operation to contain illness can be mountainous.
“All those small things go round the camp much quicker, but I would say the biggest problem when I was there was mosquito bites - not the malaria carrying type - and you end up with kids scratching and scratching because they are instinctively scratching and then they have to deal with big welts and sores” explained Fidelma.
“We brought over anti histamine tablets and cream to try and help but everything had to be divided equally.
“What the camp did was have a free shop and a free boutique and then they would have women’s week or children’s week or men’s week where each and every person would get to choose from a rack or selection of items things that they would like. Each group gets 10 minutes to browse and look around.
“If we wanted to give kids a sun hat and we only had 150 sunhats and 200 kids no one would get one until we had enough.”
Giving people back their dignity is just one of the many things each refugee camp aims to do and that’s something Fidelma is passionate about being translated back to Northern Ireland.
She believes more needs to be done here at home to support refugees and asylum seekers to engage and integrate with their new communities.
“Very few people want to have to flee terror and end up in a strange country, they don’t want to live on benefits. They want to work and create their own jobs” said Fidelma.
“Refugees generally set up more jobs because they tend to be entrepreneurial. DO they take other people’s jobs? Well, they have a right to compete, if they have the right to live here.
“What’s more important is that we have to engage more with refugees and asylum seekers, welcoming them into our homes and our communities. We should connect with them. They are in a difficult position to make the first move but what we can do is work to create opportunities to engage one on one, hear their stories and more.”
Fidelma volunteered in Greece with the organisation Refugee Support who can be found online at www.refugeesupport.eu.
There are also a number of other organisations in Northern Ireland that work with refugees and asylum seekers here such as:
Belfast Friendship Club
Presbyterian Church International Meeting Point
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