mother and young child

How do you begin to organise a refugee camp?

Gwen Wilson has seen it all. After retiring as a nurse, she worked in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. Now Gwen has swapped her life in Sheffield for a refugee camp in northern Greece.

Writing to you from Thessalonica, Gwen gives her impressions of life on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis.         

Me again,

For a whole lot of reasons the situation is getting even more frustrating and difficult.

There is a group of dedicated local people who help the refugees. They are continuing to identify and fill the gaps left by official organisations that are now getting established in the camps.

One of these local men, Stephanos, has a database of everyone in the camp, even down to shoe sizes. Provision of shoes is a major issue.

Children are walking round in adult shoes and most adults are walking round in shoes that are the wrong size.

girl plays hide and seek

Vermin, ants, scorpions and snakes

Many families have now set up their own makeshift showers and toilets from old tents.

Some women have been put off using the showers altogether and have matted hair under their head scarves. We set up a place for them to strip wash using a bucket and some shampoo.

Everyone has some sort of fire outside their tent and they heat water for their tea or coffee in old tin cans.

They are scouring the countryside for discarded settees and chairs and making tables and chairs from offcuts.

Disposing of rubbish is a real problem and we now have vermin, ants, scorpions and snakes. People are really frightened. A young boy brought a viper (fortunately dead) for me to see the other day.

A man approached me yesterday for help. The tent he was allocated has 10 people living in it (seven adults and three children).

The tent size is about half the size of my living room so it will be very cramped. They weren’t even his family.

I often catch myself thinking: how can all this be happening in Europe (or anywhere)?

man shaving

A four-week-old baby

On the brighter side, new showers and communal toilets should be installed within two weeks.

I have been working my way around the camp identifying people in wheelchairs or with severe health or mobility problems.

These are the people who would benefit from an adapted shower and toilet.

I met a little girl today who has not spoken since the bombing of her village and appears to be deaf. Another family told me of their house in Aleppo being destroyed.

There are many more instances now of people being openly distressed, especially women who have probably lived fairly affluent lives until recently.

They are finding this such a difficult and alien environment. It is so hard to know how to make it easier for them.

A four-week-old premature baby came to clinic today. He had been in hospital for the four weeks and had to be bottle fed, so his mother has no breast milk.

Such a tiny baby to be bottle feeding in these conditions and living in a tent when it is so hot.

Stephanos (from the local village) said the mother and child could be accommodated in the house of a nurse.

Then he asked if I felt she was more of a priority than a woman who just had a caesarean section or a woman about to have twins! Every day there are hard decisions to make.

Bye for now,


Images © Mirva Helenius and the Finnish Red Cross.