nstead of feeling like you’re missing out on life, you feel you are benefiting from your time here.’’ It was this line from a young person at Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece that inspired Papatowai teacher Keith Olsen to see whether he could also help make a difference to the lives of the 900 refugees encamped there.
‘‘I want to help people who are stuck, to have a chance at a future, and education is key to changing those dynamics.’’
Next month, the Catlins man will be travelling to the camp, about an hour and a half‘s drive north of the capital Athens, to work as a volunteer for humanitarian organisation Lighthouse Relief.
He takes with him a lifetime’s teaching experience in art, music and outdoor education to the camp’s Youth Engagement Space, to give young people the opportunity to learn new skills and express themselves. They recently started a magazine, the Ritsona Kingdom Journal, about their experiences at the camp and in the creative space.
In 2015, the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Middle Eastern countries, in particular Syria because of the civil war, brought thousands of refugees across the sea to Greece, which was viewed as an entry point to Europe.
However, the 50,000-plus refugees can no longer legally travel further into Europe, and despite Greece’s continuing financial crisis, the only solution for many is integration.
That is where volunteers come in, to help them overcome language and cultural barriers. Olsen and wife Diana Noonan have a long association with Greece. They’ve been going there for years and have a high respect for the generosity of Greek people and the help they are prepared to give refugees, even when their own country is in economic turmoil and they have little themselves.
Lighthouse Relief is particularly focused on the psychological effects of being a refugee, and the high boredom factor for young people with few options.
Although the camp is unusual, in that people are free to come and go, they are largely isolated. The nearest town of Chalcis, also known as Chalkida, is about 7km away with no public transport.
‘‘I was attracted to Lighthouse because they were very well organised, and in fact the interview [over the phone] was incredibly rigorous,’’ Olsen said.
‘‘They want to know that you are going to be self-sufficient and you will be able to withstand the rigours of the place. Camps can be pretty stressful places.’’
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