Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Irisa R.
“To acknowledge privilege is the first step in making it available for wider use. Each of us is blessed in some particular way, whether we recognise our blessings or not. And each one of us, somewhere in our lives, must clear a space within that blessing where she can call upon whatever resources are available to her in the name of something that must be done.”
– Audre Lorde.
International aid can be harmful when exploitative practices dehumanise refugees, and place their needs second to an NGO’s desire to promote their own agenda. To combat this dangerous power dynamic, Refugee Support Europe (RSE) has created a system that successfully shifts the power away from the volunteers and to the refugees. The Pvblication was given the incredible opportunity to interview RSE co-founder Paul Hutchings who, along with John Sloan, built RSE from the ground up as a grassroots NGO, operating in the larger playing field of international aid.
Find out how RSE, amongst the growing clamour of international organisations and state governments, found their voice and learned to contribute in a meaningful and sustainable way, keeping ‘Aid with Dignity’ at their core.
Re-Writing the Rules
What is ‘Aid with Dignity’?
Paul: I quickly realised that there was no dignity in lining up in a queue. [When I worked in] Calais they would load up a van with jackets, then drive into the camp and distribute them along with food to people who were standing in queues for hours. It was a freezing winter; some people were injured and others were old or very young and they struggled to stay on their feet. There was such a high demand for resources that it would usually break into a fight. So ‘Aid with Dignity’ grew from that, we wanted everyone to feel like they had choice and control.
When I walked through the large, grating doors of the old WWII army warehouse that had been repurposed for RSE’s services, I found myself standing in front of a small shop, where fresh fruit and vegetables filled plastic crates and the shelves were stacked with staple ingredients, from flour and sugar to biscuits and tea. The market wasn’t large by any means, but it was comforting that even in the corner of this rusty metallic shed in the outskirts of a small rural town, was a brightly painted and warmly decorated shop where refugees could come in from the cold, shop in peace and let their children play.
Can you explain the ‘points system?’
Paul: When we first came to the camp, it [the need] felt urgent. The shop meant that volunteers became gatekeepers, and it gave the volunteers a lot of power. What we always struggled with as a volunteer organisation was the white saviour complex, which is when people go in feeling like they are doing good just because they have the power. When you give a volunteer in a shop the right to say no, it gives them the power. What we want is to give the power to the people we are serving. The point system [opposed to the rations system] gives people choice, and we don’t want any arguments with the refugees saying, ‘well you can only have one litre of oil because your ration is also one box of tea,’ and they [the residents] respond, ‘well I don't want tea, I want two litres of oil.’ The system stops the volunteers from being a powerful person in that relationship.
Tokens are handed out to each resident over the week so that they can shop. These slips of paper may look like Monopoly money, but they are the gateway to choice. The food is not rationed; the residents can choose their own groceries and walk away with change if they please.
What was it like when you started?
Paul: The first camp we operated in was in Alexandreia. They were in tents with very little resources. A lot of other agencies came to help, so we had to focus. We realised that we are about food and clothing and distributing it in the most dignified way. Then the UNHCR told us about Katsikas and asked us whether we could set up there as well. John and I asked ourselves, do we have the capacity to do this? If we do, how can we best serve these people? Will it be sustainable? Can we do it consistently? Are we able to do it with dignity? So as long as we are able to tick these boxes we will go. We have never gone to a camp and tried to set up and been like, ‘Oh shit, we've run out of money or volunteers.’ We plan so that we know we will be there for at least a few months. We commit to the people there, they have had enough loss and we don’t want to add to that.
What is your recruitment process?
Paul: There have been 700 volunteers from 40 different countries. We always knew we needed a process. In Calais, you say you need volunteers and people just turn up. The problem was that they turned up with their own agendas, and they did all kinds of crazy shit which they thought was helping. It all came from a baptism of fire where some of the volunteer’s behaviour was low level and humorous but others were abusive and difficult.
RSE’s recruitment process was the reason I stopped scrolling through aid organisations and decided to investigate further. My sister and I had spent months trying to find an organisation that didn’t ask us to pay to volunteer, a la 'voluntourism,' which is when you pay large sums to an organisation that absorbs most of the payment in so-called administration and very little would make it to people on the ground. I would see overzealous offers promising that you could 'make an undeniable impact.' RSE simply offered us with an opportunity to serve the residents at the shop, sort boxes at the warehouse and help with distributing clothes.
TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK
Greece has seen thousands of refugees and asylum seekers flow in from mostly Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. The Greek government has refused to create a strong, national framework that can support this influx of refugees, and instead chooses to deter them through violence and detention.
Over twenty one thousand refugees are stranded on offshore islands around Greece and the camps on these islands have been described by one refugee as a ‘living hell.' Another said ‘it's as if I never left [the conflict] in Syria.’ Once they have been processed, they are sent to onshore long term settlement camps, one of these being Katsikas.
When I first arrived at this camp a refugee said to me, ‘this isn’t heaven but it's heaven compared to Lesbos’ and he pointed to his daughter and explained that now she can sleep through the night. Katsikas camp is located in Ioannina, a holiday home for Greeks, a University town for others and a quaint, rural town for the locals. Most people don’t know that if they take a twenty - minute bus ride north there is a refugee camp enclosed within a wiry fence, where almost 1200 refugees live in four by two metre cabins that can be filled with up to 12 people at any one time.
What makes John and yourself such a great team?
Paul: John and I, we are different people. We both came together united in the idea of helping people and that's what has kept us together. There were moments where we would be shouting at each other over the phone, disagreeing, and it was pretty rocky. One of the reasons was that John is very impulsive and a risk-taker, while I'm cautious and a ‘let's think about this first’ person. Once we managed to resolve the personality differences we made a good team. John has really great ideas and I make sure they are followed through.
In 2013, Paul and John were working in the Calais Refugee Camp in France. The horror of seeing the refugees’ experiences acted as a catalyst to confront the enormity of the Global Refugee Crisis and motivated them to leave behind their long, illustrious careers in their respective fields. Paul had spent years running his own business whilst John had spent the last three years working for UNICEF, so together they had the necessary skills and experience to make sure they could build a sustainable NGO, one that could be fast moving and reliable.
What were you afraid of in the beginning?
Paul: If you spoke to John, he would say he wasn’t fearful. He always believed we were going to get bigger, better and do more. I’m much more skeptical, more doubtful and more concerned about that kind of thing. There’s that feeling of the money drying up, of the volunteers drying up, of us getting bored or it just falling apart. It never goes away. It keeps you on your toes. You know, in the first 6 months, [the fear] was much more existential as we were just in one camp, we were still trying to get systems in place, it was always possible that the government would come along and say, ‘you’re leaving.’
LARGER FORCES AT PLAY
There isn’t anything heroic in the actions of the co-founders and volunteers who run RSE and its success is a reflection of pure intentions to distribute aid without compromising the dignity of those receiving it. This aid isn't conditional or affiliated with a certain country or religion. They don’t attempt to imprint or enforce their own values on the refugees. They simply deliver food and clothing. They have also pushed for a community centre where people can congregate for Friday prayers, petitioned so the children could go to Greek schools, fostered connections with local businesses and established an empowerment fund to support businesses inside the camp.
Still, a refugee camp isn’t a home. There are areas in Eastern Europe that over the decades have turned from post-war refugee camps, to long-term settlement camps to ghettos. Dependency on aid can prevent healthier integration into the broader communities until the refugees become disenfranchised groups living on the outskirts of regional towns, where their standard of living, education and literacy levels always lag behind the national or state average.
Of course, any kind of integration and independence occurs at the behest of host countries where refugees often spend years in limbo waiting for their papers to be processed so they can settle permanently abroad. Just last Friday, on September 6th, RSE was forced out of Katsikas due to the Government’s unflinching stance. The cruelty of operating in camps is that the Government can choose to force any agency or aid organisation out, with no plan to replace their services. The refugees relied on RSE’s market to supplement their otherwise meagre welfare payments, that couldn’t even cover a week of meals.
What has been the government response?
Paul: Rather than recognising that refugees are an asset that need to be invested in, the Greek Government created a very hostile environment. They rarely make the argument that it's a moral obligation, and even though there’s an economic and cultural benefit from assisting refugees, they are mostly just fulfilling legal obligations very reluctantly.
How did you take on this global issue?
Paul: The problem is enormous and one of the first things that happens in a refugee camp is that there is a long list of needs and you can't solve them all. It’s really difficult to say ‘I can’t help’ to people who plead, I need medical help because my teeth are falling out, I need to fix my son's application, I need to travel to Germany, I need to be reunited with my family or I need an extra pair of shoes. You have to say, I understand your need, but I can't help you with it because right now I just don't have the resources to do it.
How do you combat the lack of awareness that comes with the Global Refugee Crisis?
Paul: There’s this phrase, ‘one death is a tragedy, 100 deaths is a statistic.’ People need to know individuals. Numbers just don't do it. You say 70 million people displaced, and they respond with, ‘wow that’s a lot of people!’ But what they will remember is Noor. Her husband died in the war and she had to grab her four kids and now she’s stuck in a refugee camp. It's that sort of individual story that hooks people, so it’s quite difficult, you need to have both. You need to really focus on the micro, and show what’s going on for the individuals, and how you can help. The thing with numbers is that it can paralyse people. It comes back to how all refugees need help but we can’t help them all. We can help the ones at the camp and hope we do the best we can for those lives.
What factors shape your decision to leave a camp?
Paul: When you are working in aid you have to recognise you bring benefits, but there is also a downside. As a philosophy, I don't think refugee camps are a good place for people to live in. They are a good temporary solution, but they are not a long term solution. There's a whole range of examples of refugee camps around the world that were set up to give people somewhere to live, but some of them have been going on for 30 years and have become ghettos. I could see in Alexandreia, it was becoming a ghetto on the edge of town. We had to ask ourselves; to what extent does our presence legitimise the presence of those refugee camps? To what extent do our services act as a buffer and stop the government from providing integration, housing, jobs and education?
When you reflect on the last few years, is there a particular refugee that comes to mind?
Paul: When we first started I collected some of these stories but they are upsetting and I became quite disheartened by listening to them and I've stopped wanting to hear those tragedies. Every single person on that camp has a similar story, and they're all tragic and they’re all awful, and part of being a refugee is friends and family who have either been lost or scattered around the world. Everyone has these unbelievable tragedies and we can’t do anything by hearing them so now, we focus more on our impact and it’s about smiles in the shop, banter with someone outside the shop, hearing from volunteers having a particular experience serving someone or playing with their kids.
Paul calls it agile business planning, we call it resourcefulness. Even after weeks of negotiations and support from the UNHCR behind the scenes, RSE was asked to leave Katsikas by the 6th of September, 2019. Moving out of Katsikas was devastating, but RSE have been very quick to adapt and have transferred their resources and energy to the new Cyprus 'Dignity Centre.' Setting up operations in a new city, building new networks, organising resources, renting a new premises and sourcing new volunteers. Real, grassroots, on the ground activism.
What has been your greatest lesson?
Paul: Mostly it's about this wider message that if you set your mind to something, put your heart into it and really think hard about how to help other people, there will be people who want to come with you on that journey. I find it hard to talk about volunteers without sounding like some weird, old man but I feel tremendous love and affection for all of our volunteers. We spend time doing a difficult job together, but it’s also heartwarming. I feel incredibly grateful, it looks like a kind of really crappy world out there and there’s this national conversation that can be quite frustrating and depressing. What we’ve created is a bit of a bubble, like an insulator and I see that now; I get frustrated but at least we have a community of really good people who really care.
How did RSE aid the Rohingya Crisis and Tijuana’s Migrant Caravan?
Paul: The Rohingya Crisis in August 2017 was a dreadful global humanitarian crisis. We were there for four months and we did find a way to help and I was very pleased with it but it was a kind of crisis where it was for the big guys. The Bangladeshi government was incredibly unhelpful, it was about four months and we wish we could've stayed longer but the barriers made it too difficult. With Tijuana [the migrant caravan] it was different, that was more of a solidarity mission. You know [Trump] was bragging about criminals invading America and we knew that that was a lie. You have every right to migrate because you are fleeing extreme violence and horrific poverty and we wanted to stand with them and say we support you.
What advice would you give to future aid workers?
Paul: Lower your expectations. People who passionately care want to solve everyone's problems. There’s a quote by Sadako Ogata, the Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, where he says, ‘there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.’ If we are going to be humanitarians, we have to tackle climate change, prevent conflict, improve employment rates, provide adequate housing and process paperwork quickly. Some of that is beyond a humanitarian organisation. They require political solutions. So lower your expectations, accept that you’re going to help but you’re not going to solve everyone’s problems and that you might come away realising that it’s a much bigger problem than you thought. Most importantly, remember, you’re doing the best you can.
These are two people who wanted to make an impact and did. Not by talent or luck but by rising to the challenge. RSE provided food and clothing at the Katsikas Refugee Camp for 20 months and last Friday was their last day after a long conflict with the Greek government. This news was gut-wrenching. Many of us who have volunteered there know how the residents relied on the shop to supplement their otherwise meagre welfare payments. During their time at Katsikas, they distributed over €95k fresh fruit and vegetables (thanks to Help Refugees UK), 180 000 nappies (thanks to Carry The Future) and 50 000 sanitary pads.
The Pvblication would like to give a HUGE thank you to Paul Hutchings for sharing his thoughts and experiences. We would also like to sincerely thank everyone who has donated! Together we have raised over AUD$10 000. If you would like to donate or are interested in volunteering please follow this link.
*This interview has been condensed for clarity.
*All photographs were taken with the consent of the minor's parents.
Lead Editor: Palwasha A.