‘We can make a big difference’: SIS junior volunteers at Syrian refugee camp
Jacob Kagon spent three weeks working with refugees in Souda, Greece
It’s 4 p.m. on the Greek island of Chios and the place is swarming with human activity. Parents sip tea. Kids jump rope and throw rocks at each other in the distance.
Yet, there is an overwhelming feeling of dissent, depression and impatience.
To these parents and children, this is just another mundane day at the overcrowded Syrian refugee camp in Souda, Greece. But for Jacob Kagon, it’s an opportunity to volunteer his help for refugees facing significant challenges after fleeing Syria.
“This was a very raw image of human beings,” Kagon said.
Kagon, a junior studying international relations, spent about three weeks this past June volunteering for the non-profit Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT) in Chios, Greece.
On this island just four miles from the shores of Turkey, Kagon distributed tea, taught English, cleaned up beaches after refugees landed ashore, distributed clothing and played games with the children to keep them entertained.
“One of the most important things we did as part of the organization was distributing clothing,” Kagon said. "We were the only organization in Souda that was distributing clothing."
Distributing clothing may sound like a simple task, but for Kagon and his peers, it was anything but simplistic. It required the effort of two different teams: one that assessed the needs of refugees and one that actually sorted through the clothing that would be distributed.
"We tried to assess the needs of new arrivals first," Kagon said. "It was really hard because you wanted to give them unlimited clothing, but there are 2,000 other people in the camp."
Along with the large responsibility of clothing distribution, Kagon and his team cleaned up the beaches after refugee boats landed ashore, removing life jackets and cutting up the refugee's boats by hand with box cutters.
"This was very physically demanding because these boats carried 70 people and we would have to take them off the beach," Kagon said. "It was also very emotional because you would see what people left behind, like pictures of family members or books."
During Kagon's experience in Souda, the NGO worked closely with Save the Children to distribute milk and formula to mothers of babies under the age of three.
"We would go around in the refugee camp with the local Greek government and they'd tell us which tents had a mother with a baby inside and we would go in," Kagon said.
During his time in Chios, Kagon was a member of the original crew that organized Humans of Chios, a program designed to attract more international attention to the refugee crisis in Chios and in Souda. Kagon interviewed refugees, volunteers and locals to gather stories about how the refugee crisis has affected their lives. He posted what he learned on Instagram. The goal was to engage with the refugees on a personal level, separate from the crisis.
"There were other reporters there but because we actually helped the refugees, they felt more comfortable talking to us than to a reporter," Kagon said. "I think because they knew they were comfortable with us and that we were there every single day in the camps, that they opened up to us a little more."
Kagon said he learned the true meaning of compassion from the experience and formed relationships with people he didn’t expect to have things in common with.
“Even the people I talked to who were coming from conflicts, such as escaping war and poverty, had so much in common with me,” Kagon said. “It shows how common everyone around the world is. We all have the same desires. Ultimately, we just want to be left alone and able to live our lives and not have to worry about issues and conflicts.”
Kagon said he and some of the refugees shared a love for American movies and the NBA Finals, which happened during his time in Souda.
“They didn’t have a TV so they kept asking me what the score was,” said Kagon.
Jackie Menter, Kagon’s family friend, also spent the same month of June volunteering for CESRT in Chios.
“The people I met are some of the most resilient people I have ever known,” Menter said. “They faced unimaginable tragedies and continue to do so living as refugees in a place where the government and the large NGOs [non-governmental organizations] do not seem to care or have much sympathy.”
Besides stumbling upon unintentional similarities and forming strong relationships with seemingly different people, Kagon said that he ultimately learned the true meaning of compassion during his time in Souda.
“They told me when I first got there that there is no way we’re going to fix this problem [the refugee crisis], but giving them a handshake or having a small conversation will brighten their day,” Kagon said. “If we can help one person, and another person helps one person, then we can make a big difference.”