A Gordon woman is urging Borderers to support a charity helping ease the suffering of Syrian refugees languishing in camps in Greece.
Mary Innes returned to the Borders on Saturday after using her annual leave as a criminal justice social worker to volunteer at the Ritsona camp north of Athens.
With her friend Summer Millan from Fife, Mary, 52, registered with the charity Lighthouse Relief before flying out from Edinburgh on May 7.
“We’d originally planned to go to the Greek island of Lesbos having seen all the TV pictures of migrants who’d survived the dangerous sea trip there from Turkey and feeling, like so many people, utterly helpless,” said Mary.
“But the charity advised us when we arrived in Athens that, following the recent agreement to end irregular migration between Turkey and the EU, the need had shifted to the mainland where about 50,000 refugees, fleeing the horrors of war in Syria, were living, anxiously awaiting a decision about their futures.”
The pair hired a car in Athens and made their way north to the town of Chalkida.
From there, they made the 20-minute journey daily to the makeshift tented camp at Ritsona, controlled by the Greek army and home to around 1,000 Syrian refugees, around half of whom are children.
“You could sense the overall mood was low, which is hardly surprising given these families, many from the professional classes in Syria, had risked everything to flee the war in the hope of a better life in Europe,” said Mary.
“Yet here they were: stuck in a muddy camp in the middle of nowhere with virtually no sanitation, temperatures reaching 30 degrees and without the right to work, raise money, shop or have an education, and with no idea about what the future may hold.
“The women in the camp were so resilient, dignified and generous of spirit, but many of the children were quiet, sullen and had clearly been traumatised.
“I was involved in a child-friendly space at the camp where we played games, drew pictures, gave lessons in handwashing and hygiene and tried generally to engage with the youngsters and have some fun.
“It was tremendously rewarding over the three weeks to build up relationships with the children, but the sadness was always there.
“One dad of two beautiful young girls told me their mum had been murdered in front of them back in Syria and they were now seeking a new life with family members in Switzerland. It was one of many heartbreaking stories.
“You wanted to tell them everything would be all right but, of course, we don’t know that. We just have to hope their suffering will be eased.
“Collectively, the best we could do as volunteers was to try to support the refugee by creating some kind of meaningful community.”
Mary said her experience had been “harrowing, humbling, but ultimately very rewarding”.
“I know the Borders spirit for generosity and compassion and would urge anyone who, like me, feels we have a responsibility as human beings to help, to think about volunteering or at least supporting the charity which is doing such a terrific job.”
For details on volunteering with Lighthouse Relief go to www.Lighthouserelief.org