Nfld. & Labrador

Volunteering in refugee camp unforgettable experience for Memorial University student

Courtney Figler hopes she helped at least a few refugees during her two and a half weeks at a camp in Greece.

Courtney Figler spent two and a half weeks at camp in Greece

Social work student Courtney Figler helped out with day to day operations of the camp, just outside Athens. (CBC)

Memorial University student Courtney Figler says she has returned to St. John's with experiences she'll never forget, after spending two and a half weeks volunteering at a refugee camp just outside Athens.

"With the refugee crisis that the world is in right now, I kind of just felt I wanted to do a little bit more," said Figler, who signed up for the trip in December with A Drop In The Ocean, a Norwegian volunteer organization dedicated to helping refugees.

A Drop In The Ocean runs the day-to-day operations in a camp of about 1,500 people in the port city of Piraeus, where refugees have congregated after first arriving in the country via its many islands in the Mediterranean Sea.

Some of the tents in the refugee camp. (Submitted by Courtney Figler)

Figler helped out with everything from food preparation to children's activities, and put her nearly-complete social work degree into use by talking to as many people as she could.

"They're very eager to tell their stories, to let people know what they've gone through. And it was honestly hard for me to hear some of the things that they were saying."

Desperation and fear

Figler said while the refugees may have found some safety in Greece, it's far from a permanent home.

"It's kind of turning to a different kind of desperation. People aren't afraid necessarily of crossing the sea but they're still afraid of what their future holds, because it's so uncertain," she told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

The tent where food was served by the Norwegian volunteer group, A Drop In The Ocean. (Submitted by Courtney Figler)

Figler said the personal stories arising out of that uncertainty left a deep mark on her, especially when a man approached her, speaking Arabic and broken English, asking for two Euros.

When he saw that I was giving him five Euros, and not two, he started sobbing.- Courtney Figler

"I pulled out a five Euro bill, and when he saw that I was giving him five Euros, and not two, he started sobbing. Sobbing uncontrollably. He put his head on my shoulder, and he was saying 'bless you, bless you'," she said.

"That was definitely a moment that I'm not going to forget."

Another refugee, a 19-year-old from Afghanistan, shared his story of fleeing instead of being drafted into either the Taliban or national army.

"He said, 'I don't want to fight, and I don't want to die,'" she recalled.

"That would never even be on my radar, as a worry. And the things that people are forced to endure at such young ages — it's just... wow."

Hoping to return

Figler plans on putting her social work expertise to use by focusing on the needs of immigrants or refugees, either in Canada or abroad.

When she finishes her degree in 2017, she hopes to volunteer again at the camp, if it's still in existence, a journey she's recommending to all her friends.

"If you have the time and the heart, if you're willing to help, they need your help," she said.

A welcoming mural decorates the side of a shipping container in the camp. (Submitted by Courtney Figler)

"Whether or not people remember the contribution that I made, they're definitely going to remember the contribution that the volunteers as a whole made, and there really is a need for volunteers. And I didn't do it for personal recognition."

With files from The St. John's Morning Show