Freshman spends February break volunteering at Syrian refugee camp

May 3, 2017 — by Michelle Lee
Photo by George Polychronopoulos

Freshman George Polychronopoulos plays with a child at the Syrian refugee camp in Kylini, Greece, during February break.

Last summer, freshman George Polychronopoulos and his family planned a vacation to visit Greece to spend time with family. At the time, Polychronopolous expected that the week-long vacation would be nothing more than a time to finally break away from the stresses of school.

Little did he know his trip to Greece would spark a newfound interest to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees.

When Polychronopoulos and his family landed in Greece, the news was filled with updates on the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and moving into countries like Greece, Germany and Turkey. Like many others in the West, Polychronopoulos was disturbed by the stories and gruesome images of many innocent women and children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea on a daily basis while trying to make the journey.

“Seeing the news every day made me wonder if there was something I could do,” Polychronopoulos said. “Coming back from the trip, I continued to follow the news.”

Inspired by his experience, he decided to spend this year’s February break volunteering at a Syrian refugee camp.  

Delving more into his interest in the refugee cause, Polychronopoulos started researching their plight. He found a refugee camp located in the city of Kyllini near the city of Patras, where Polychronopoulos and his family had stayed during their trip to Greece the past summer.

“What was very unusual about Kyllini was not the establishment of a Syrian refugee camp there, but that the mayor of Kyllini is a Syrian himself,” Polychronopoulos said. “He is the first non-Greek-born mayor in Greece.”

Polychronopoulos contacted the mayor, Nampil Morant, who was thrilled with Polychronopoulos’ interest and asked to meet with him and his mother during the week they spend there.

Morant is not only the mayor of Kyllini but is also the founder of the refugee camp located there, dedicating time and effort to help the hundreds of refugees there because he felt that it was the least he could do. The camp allows temporary refuge for the campers there until they can find a more permanent area to move to.

“Every day we saw the poor living conditions in the makeshift camps, the rain, mud and the cold,” Morant said in an interview with international news agency AFP. “I could not remain impartial, not when there is this facility that had been closed for the past six years and could be used to offer temporary shelter.”

When Polychronopoulos arrived in Greece on Feb. 18, Morant personally introduced Polychronopoulos and his mother to the camp and the resident refugees. It was there that Polychronopoulos said his “life changed in the matter of just one week.”

For Polychronopoulos, there were many emotional moments as he listened to the refugees’ stories of losing their homes, belongings and families to the war that has killed roughly 400,000 Syrians.

“It was tough listening to all the kids and what they have been through and about the brothers, sisters, parents or other relatives they had lost,” Polychronopoulos said. “It was very emotional to leave the kids I met, knowing that their futures were uncertain and that I will probably never see them again.”

Yet in these dark times, Polychronopoulos shared brief moments of happiness with the families at the camp.

Time and time again, the children there were able to prove to Polychronopoulos that staying optimistic during periods of extreme despair was possible. This unwavering hope and joy was the greatest lesson Polychronopoulos walked away with.

“The kids proved it to me through their smiles, their positivity and their willingness to accept me and befriend me, even though I never experienced any major adversity, let alone war and loss,” Polychronopoulos said.

Polychronopoulos was able to bond with the children at the camp by playing basketball with them; this connection allowed the children to open up to him. Even though Polychronopoulos was at the camp for only a couple hours each day, he was only able to provide the camp some supplies and moral support.

“The first day I bought them lots of food, which is the natural thing you think of when your mind goes to a refugee camp,” Polychronopoulos said. “Though after a couple hours of speaking and playing with them I noticed that basketball was the main activity that kept them busy. So I bought them some balls because I noticed that that's what they really wanted and needed as the camp was well equipped with other supplies.”

For Polychronopoulos, it was fascinating to see how a sport could bring people from different backgrounds together.

“Of all the great moments I had, the best had to be when the kids invited me to different places,” he said. “This really made me feel welcome and accepted, knowing that despite all they’ve been through, these kids trusted me.”

Seeing how carefully the refugees use all their resources, Polychronopoulos gained an even greater appreciation for his privileged life in the U.S. All of Polychronopoulos’ problems are trivial compared to theirs.

Although he spent only spend a week there, Polychronopoulos made friends and learned the life stories of people he would never forget. In fact, Polychronopoulos still keeps in contact with many of the children from the camp through social media or email.

“They call me their friend and have said things such as ‘I will never forget you,’ which moved me,” Polychronopoulos said. “I feel like I have touched their lives in a positive way.”

 

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