My first presentation at Rotary is a reflection on my volunteering with a UK Humanitarian Aid charity – Hope and Aid Direct. HAAD sources everyday items that we all take for granted, such as clothing for men, women and children that is right for the weather – be it winter or summer, shoes and boots, bedding, toiletries like toothpaste shower gel and soap, children’s toys, nappies, food – and just about anything else needed to keep body and soul together. This is what we call humanitarian aid.

These items are things requested by NGOs working to help people on the margins of society lead as normal and dignified life as they can. In 2018 the recipients of that aid were refugees in Greece.

In December, I went to help a 3-truck convoy taking aid to the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios and mainland Greece. There are 50,000 refugees in Greece, and the system that is processing them is so overwhelmed it can take up to 2 years for some people’s applications to be processed. In that time many refugees are forced to live in inhumane conditions in camps totally unfit for purpose. They have no choice but to wait, and that wait is becoming more desperate as time goes on.

There are 7000 refugees living in Moria Camp on Lesbos, originally set up to take 2,500. Another 2,000 are in Vial camp on Chios and the boats keep on coming. Families forced to leave their homes in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq seek asylum in Europe. They reach Greece via Turkey, travelling the last leg of their journey in inflatable boats, arriving cold, wet, scared and with nothing. The only winners are the people smugglers.

Thankfully there are many small NGOs doing what they can to distribute the aid they receive from HAAD and from all over Europe. Over 8 days we made 10 drops in Lesbos, Chios and mainland Greece, helping to stock distribution warehouses run by fantastic volunteers from all over the world. We unloaded and loaded countless times, helping to move supplies where they were needed the most. We met so many kind-hearted people who have given up their restaurant, their warehouse, their building, their job, so that they can help the refugees – often suffering abuse from Greek nationals because of what they do. But every aid worker respects every refugee, believes in the dignity of humanity, and gives 100% of themselves to the task in hand. That of trying to give hope to displaced people, the practical aid is essential, but it is he kindness and care, freely given, that gives the hope.

Hope and Aid Direct is a brilliant charity, that in the words of its founder, Chas Stoner MBE Takes Aid – Not Sides. I was privileged to go with them, and very much want to go again. The work is emotionally draining, but immensely satisfying. Seeing some-one being wrapped in a knitted blanket that we brought from the UK, or a child playing with a new toy, or the enormous grins on the faces of the charity workers when we bring them new supplies makes it worth the effort and is something I will never forget.