Humanitarian crisis

WWU students spend summer volunteering at refugee camps

In summer 2019, Walla Walla University students Andrew Ruud, junior business administration major, and Emma Tucker, junior business administration major, were called to serve on the Greek island of Lesvos, where they served in two refugee camps. They spent the month of July and first week of August 2019 working with Refugees4Refugees. Ruud recounts the experience to WWU and shares his hope that others will get involved.

WWU: Where did you spend your time working with refugees?

Andrew Ruud: I took this trip with my girlfriend, Emma Tucker, and we were located on the Greek island of Lesvos, Greece, in and around the capitol city of Mytilene. There are three refugee camps on the island. We worked in two of the camps, the biggest camp being Moria Camp and another smaller camp called Kara Tepe Camp.

WWU: What drew you to this opportunity?

Ruud: I heard Professor Paul Dybdahl speak at a Vespers service and he mentioned how awful the situation at the refugee camps was. He told a story about a former WWU student who had volunteered to work with refugees one summer. Something dawned on me during the talk and I felt like helping this situation was something I needed to look in to. Throughout the days to follow, my girlfriend and I did some research on the situation and were struck at what these refugees were running from and what they were currently experiencing in the camps. We reached out to Professor Dybdahl, and he connected us with Bethani King, the same former student he spoke about who had worked with refugees. We met with her and she put us in contact with an organization called Refugees4Refugees. From there we found out that the organization needed volunteers during the summer and asked that we come out for a chunk of the summer. We then fundraised and bought our plane tickets.

WWU: How did you end up at this particular location?

Ruud: We chose to go to Lesvos, Greece, because Lesvos has one of the largest refugee camps in Greece and is constantly receiving new arrivals. The organization we volunteered with operated on two main Greek islands, Lesvos and Samos. We were told that Lesvos needed the most help at the time so we decided to go there. 

WWU: Where were most of the refugees from?

Ruud: The refugees are mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Congo. 

WWU: What surprised you about the camp and working with refugees?

Ruud: Unfortunately, the largest camp, Moria Camp, is horribly overcrowded and extremely unsanitary. We were told this before going in, but it hit especially hard when we started working in Moria every day. When we were there, the camp had a population between 7,000–8,000 people but was only built to accommodate 3,000 people. During the summers the climate is extremely hot and miserable for refugees, but we were told that during the winters it is even worse because of the seemingly non-stop rain. The camp is built on a hill and the sewer systems are not very sophisticated, often resulting in overflow. Many refugees are living in a sewer flooded tent throughout the winter months. 

I was also surprised at the number of children without parents in the camps. Of the total refugee population, around 40% are children. About 40% of those children are unattended, meaning they came without parents. Most likely, the children’s parents were killed or sent them with an escaping family to look after them and to seek a better and safer life elsewhere.

Another thing that surprised me was how few medical professionals were working with the camps. There are several medical organizations operating with the refugees, such as Doctors Without Borders, but these few organizations alone are constantly busy and most refugees only get seen by a doctor when they first arrive on the island and later struggle to be seen if they are hurt or need follow-up visits. An even more disturbing fact was hearing that there are only about two psychologists/psychiatrists for the whole camp of Moria (between 7,000 and 8,000 people). Working with the kids and adults revealed that most, if not all, the refugees have seen or been through some sort of trauma. You can see the effects of this trauma in the high suicide rates of the population and the unthinkable violence that occurs in the camps. 

Overall, the refugees I interacted with were extremely kind and genuinely friendly. Despite their extremely unfortunate situation, many refugees are doing everything they can to make themselves useful for the various volunteer organizations. Almost all the families we assisted and interacted with were beyond grateful for our service and showed their gratitude openly. Many times, while walking through the camps, I would be invited to share what little food the refugee families had made. 

WWU: What was a typical day like for you?

Ruud: A typical day would include an 8-hour shift, either from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. We would be assigned to several different projects that Refugee4Refugees was working on. Their main project was called Mandala. This project was located directly next to Moria camp. Refugees4Refugees had purchased a plot of land and was working on developing it into a place for refugees to escape the chaos and desperation of the camp. When assigned to Mandala, we would spend a few hours building things like volleyball, basketball, and soccer courts as well as other structures to serve as a library or shaded lounge area for the adults. The rest of the day was usually delegated to playing with the children who flooded the plot of land every day. Kids of all ages loved to come to Mandala and we did our best to create a peaceful space for escape. Adults would also come and socialize away from the camps. We often worked with these adults to teach them English. Sometimes we would also go into Camp Moria and pick up trash.

Another project we would be assigned to was called Habibiland. This was a warehouse that Refugees4Refugees rented and where they would periodically receive donations. These were usually donations of clothes and supplies. We would work to sort the clothes and catalog them in a warehouse inventory app. These donations were then sent to Refugees4Refugees’ other project, The Shop. 

The Shop began during the time we were on the island. The goal of the shop was to create a way for families to receive the donations and get to choose what they liked. Refugees4Refugees noticed that refugees do not often get a choice in what they are given by means of clothing and supplies. They wanted to find a way to allow the donations to be handed out efficiently while also giving the refugees an opportunity to choose what they like. We operated The Shop just as one would operate a retail store, but instead the refugees were able to “purchase” items for free.

Additionally, every other day, we would hand out icepacks at Camp Kara Tepe. These icepacks were provided to help people keep and preserve their food despite the heat of the Greek summers.

WWU: What did you learn from the experience?

Ruud: The main thing I gained from this experience is a greater understanding and awareness of the refugee crisis mainly in Greece but also other Mediterranean countries. I am now very aware of the desperate need and plight of these people. I also learned that in cases like this, I do not really need a whole lot of experience or specialized skill in order to be of help to desperate situations. The main thing this crisis needs is for people to show up and be willing to lend a hand.

One thing that really stuck out to me was that the situation is an extremely complicated mess. I see the problem the Greeks are dealing with and why many of them despise the refugees. The Greeks are struggling themselves and can barely support their own economy. Then, for the past five years, they have been bombarded by the largest humanitarian crisis of our generation. Additionally, they have been largely left to deal with it seemingly on their own. And it is the common people who suffer for this, leading to the majority of Greeks, disliking the refugees and finding them an unnecessary burden.

After working with them, I also see more than ever the refugees’ plight. Contrary to what some sources portray them as, most refugees I was in contact with were hardworking, kind, and generous people who are simply trying to keep their family safe. 

I learned the situation is more than it may look like at first glance. After seeing the situation, I understand that it is much more nuanced and convoluted than just providing simple solution that only satisfies one side or the other. 

WWU: Has the experience changed your perspective or focus for the future?

Ruud: This experience has definitely changed my perspective. Besides from just seeing how big the world is, I think this experience has opened my eyes to the amount of human suffering there is in the world and how fortunate I have been to be born and raised in the United States. Coming back from Lesvos has been difficult since I get to come back to a comparatively pain-free life while many of the people I got to know are stuck in awful conditions and may be stuck there for a long period of time. I know I will never forget the camps and will go back to help any chance I get in the future. Additionally, I hope to keep helping the cause anyway I can here in the United States by raising awareness about the issue and sending resources any way I am able. This experience has also shed some light on how the problems I thought I had are so small in comparison to what so many people around the world are dealing with every day.

WWU: Is there anything in particular you would like to share with our readers?

Ruud: I would just like readers to know that this crisis, as well as the many other forms of human suffering around the world, is happening to real people. Before I left on this trip and even at times after I have returned, it is so easy for me to be numb to the tragedies occurring all over the world. Unfortunately, I think this is how much of our society operates. It was, and still is, much easier for me to just send up a quick prayer about a situation than it is to actually do something about it. Given the size of the problem and the amount of time I was in Greece, the difference I made was quite small; but I believe that my involvement can be turned into a voice to champion these people and help spread the word about their cause. I hope any person reading the article will find the opportunity to raise awareness about the refugee crisis and maybe even contribute some of their own time or resources in assistance. 

To learn more, volunteer, or donate to Refugees4Refugees, visit their website

Posted Jan. 20, 2020.

Two adult volunteers crossing a playhouse bridge with a child following close behind
The Shop was the place the refugees could go to pick out the supplies themselves, and was run like a retail store, however the items were all free.
Rows of tents made with tarps and rope for the refugees on a dry dirt ground
The largest camp, Moria, was originally built to accommodate 3,000 people, and is currently housing 7,000-8,000.