Have you ever ridden a wheelie-bin in a roaring gale?

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 reflections on supporting refugees in Greece.


I’m here to promote health and hygiene in some of the refugee camps. A big team (32 at last count) with a big job and we are based on the outskirts of Thessalonica.

At present we are responsible for health care and hygiene promotion in two camps and there is going to be a health care unit in each camp.

The health care unit came by truck on Tuesday and the team spent all day putting it up and getting it ready – nurses, doctors, everybody. The next day they opened! Very impressive.

Up until now the doctors who work for the Greek military have been providing 24-hour care from a tent.

The Greek military is responsible for setting up the camps with basic emergency facilities only – rows of chemical toilets, showers and taps, tents. They prefer to build small sites (for 1,500 to 3,000 people), rather than large ones. But it is a rapidly changing situation.

The camp by the border with Macedonia, Idomeni, the one you have probably seen on the news programmes, is an unofficial settlement. There are about 10,000 people there.

Conditions are dreadful, especially when it rains. There are few toilet facilities and little piped water.

Panic is setting in

You probably know more about the conditions of the agreement between the EU and Turkey than I do.

There seems to be no clarity about what will happen to the people who are in Greece now and panic is setting in.

There were major demonstrations in Idomeni, and two people set themselves on fire. Apparently about 2,000 officials are being brought into Greece to help with the process.

All everyone really wants to know is when is the border going to open. Forty per cent of the migrants are children. There are disabled people and unaccompanied children.

Most people have been living in such basic conditions for so long that there is widespread head lice, body lice and scabies.

The support and help offered by the Greek people is humbling, especially when you consider their own difficulties.

Even just today, as soon as the shop assistant realised we were buying things for the camps she arranged a large discount.

Local people are donating clothing, shoes and toiletries. Some employees haven’t been paid for the last three months because of Greece’s economic problems, but are working tirelessly.

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Riding a wheelie bin

One of the camps is on an airstrip and today there was the most incredibly strong wind. People were filling bags with stones so that they could weigh down their tents. Many of the showers and latrines were lying flat.

Walking back down the runway I had to hold onto one of the women so that she wouldn’t get blown back.

But some of the children were having fun. They took one of the large bins (on wheels) and held on as the wind blew them down the runway!

New recruits

We have been busy forming a plan to help people. We have made contact with other organisations to see what they offer (interpreters, hygiene items, etc).

Today we ‘recruited’ people from the camp to work with us. They were very enthusiastic and a lot of fun, despite everything. The added advantage is of course that they speak Arabic.

It is a very comfortable team to work with and I already feel as though I have been here for weeks.

So I think this more or less brings you up to date.

For now I will say goodnight,


Images © Maria Santto & Mirva Helenius / Finnish Red Cross.