A year after being saved by aid workers off Greece’s Aegean islands as they fled war in Syria, some refugees were trying to return the favor by going to the fire-ravaged seaside village of Mati to help out in the aftermath of the inferno that killed 97 people.
They were also aiding in another fire-hit seaside town west of Athens, Kineta, where there weren’t any fatalities but where the blaze wiped out buildings and destroyed what was left of the summer season for visitors.
Four of the volunteers, identified by Kathimerini as Saddam, Yusef, Osama and Idris, said they knew of destruction after fleeing the Civil War in Syria that has razed whole cities and neighborhoods and is still going on.
They were among hundreds of thousands who fled to Turkey as a jumping-off point to get into the European Union through Greek islands, where many find themselves stuck after other countries renege on promises to help take them in.
“It’s extremely hard for human beings to normalize such images and procedures. We have learned this the hard way unfortunately,” said Saddam, recalling the “sickening” events they say after the July 23 wildfires.
They are among several refugees who contributed to the relief effort that got under way before the fires were even under control and as the government is reeling after criticism it didn’t have a disaster or evacuation relief plan and the response was confused and chaotic.
The refugees are working with SolidarityNow, an Athens-based nonprofit organization established in 2013 to host hundreds of refugee families, while also assisting thousands of asylum seekers with legal support and multiple accommodation programs.
When he arrived in Mati, what Saddam saw was “painful scenes, a war-like environment, with destroyed streets and firemen rushing about.”
“Syrians feel that they need to help in such situations. Greek people have helped us a lot and we need to help in return whenever we can,” Idris told Kathimerini English Edition at the Kineta mission as he arranged a collection of dry food into piles earlier this month.
SolidarityNow responded to the twin disaster by putting together small teams of volunteers to collect and distribute emergency supplies to survivors, rallying the help of the refugees under its protection.
“It was a spontaneous act of reciprocity,” explained Sophia Ioannou, the organization’s head of communications, going on to describe how the refugees were able to use their own experience of loss and disaster to support the wildfire victims.
At SolidarityNow’s mission in the Citizens’ Service Center (KEP) in the neighboring town of Marathon, project coordinator Danae Kapralou, who also led a team of refugee volunteers in the first week of the disaster, was there to help fire survivors with legal and financial paperwork, submitting their applications for relief grants. The center was busy, loud and charged with frustration.
“This initiative was a positive light in this endless darkness. Seeing that everyone was willing to help has sparked hope and kept those areas alive. All the volunteers wanted to help as much as they could, doing anything they could,” she told the paper.