A Richmond resident is back home after an inspiring but heartbreaking trip to the Greek-Macedonian border, where she spent 10 days trying to help refugees find their way to safety.

After graduating from university, Nicole So wanted to do something to aid those fleeing war in Syria and Iraq. She arrived in Idomeni, Greece, when Europe closed the nearby Balkan route that led to northern Europe.

More than 15,000 refugees are trapped in the camp, according to So, and the experience was overwhelming.

"It's a confusion of emotions. It was shocking , it was heartbreaking," she said.

"As volunteers, we can do what we need to when we're home, but when we're out there we have to keep a strong face for everyone around us."

idomeni refugee camp greece

The Idomeni refugee camp was never meant to be a permanent camp, said Nicole So. As a result, there are very few facilities there. (Nicole So)

So volunteered with Intervolve, an organization that distributes donated clothes to refugees, but she also helped Médicins Sans Frontières and Save the Children while she was there.

Vulnerable children

She told CBC Radio that she had not cried in front of any refugees during her time there until she came across three children alone in the camp.

"One night, I was at the camp since 4:00 a.m. trying to discreetly build larger tents to move families," she said.

Then, one of the volunteers found three unaccompanied minors. Their parents had either been separated from the children, or they didn't make it that far.

The children were unrelated but had found each other. The oldest was 12.

"They had no one left but each other," said So.

So and the other volunteer didn't know what to do.

chidlren idomeni greece refugee camp

Children are especially vulnerable at the Idomeni refugee camp, said Nicole So, a volunteer from Richmond, B.C. (Nicole So)

"We knew they wanted to stick with each other but at the same time, because the closure of the border, there are a lot of smugglers there which put them at high risk.

So and the other volunteer knew orphans had limited options at the camp.  

"It was the first time I broke down and cried that day at the camp."

Beautiful souls

Somehow refugees and volunteers were still able to find moments of happiness, said So.

"At nighttime it really looks like a scene out of Hemingway. It's a war zone but at the same time there's also laughter, there's music."

The hospitality and kindness from volunteers from all over the world kept her going.

"I met some of the most beautiful souls there, both volunteers and refugees, as well as the locals," she said.

"The Greek hospitality has been so amazing I really have to applaud them for what they're doing."

Two weeks ago, the EU struck a deal with Turkey, where European nations will send all migrants who do not qualify for asylum to Turkey, in exchange for a promise for EU nations taking refugees directly from Turkish camps.

With files from CBC Radio's The Early Edition

To listen to the full interview, click the link labelled: Richmond volunteer recounts heartbreaking experience in refugee camp in Greece.