Image: Sue Vile, SSI Volunteer
“In March 2016 I was working for an aid organisation named Starfish, on the island of Lesbos in Greece,” recalled Sue. “The island was among the first stops for thousands of refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece as they fled the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the town of Molyvos in the north had become a hub for humanitarian services.”
Sue was among the first aid workers to have contact with these refugees as they entered Europe, spending a month providing them with food and clothing for their indefinite stay on the island.
“We’d arrived in Lesbos on the day the EU/Turkey Deal was enacted, so we saw first-hand as the tide of refugees began to slow when NATO and coastguard boats started patrolling the sea.”
As the numbers of arriving refugees dropped from thousands to none almost overnight, Sue joined her fellow volunteers in sorting through warehouses full of donations, testing tents and preparing food for the Moria detention centre on the island.
“Soon after we travelled to Athens and worked within a pop-up city of refugees at Piraeus Point. We pretty much just turned up and started working with a group called ‘Drop In The Ocean’, preparing and serving food to thousands of people living out of tents.”
By February 2017 Sue was back in the northern Aegean Sea on the island of Chios, working with another group called the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT).
“CESRT was run by a local Greek woman who was working with volunteers from over 15 countries!” noted Sue. “Again our primary goal was to meet the boatloads of refugees, provide them with dry clothes and hot food. As before, they were often arriving by night to avoid the sea patrols and we often had to stay with them until morning, until they could be escorted inland by authorities to the Vial Refugee Camp.”
Right in the middle of the town of Chios, at the Souda camp in an old moat, Sue helped serve tea to the refugees in the afternoons, a social occasion where the refugees could voice any concerns they may have. In addition, she was involved in running the Children's Centre where mums and children could shower, get clean clothes and play. CESRT also assisted with the maintenance and cleaning of bathrooms in other places where refugees were housed, a less-than-glamorous job! On top of this Sue would often assist in sourcing and sorting donations that were needed, and working with multinational organisations to provide fresh food.
“We couldn’t always rely on the food sent by the Greek government,” said Sue, “Often it was really poor quality or spoiled by the time it reached the camp.”
All these incredible experiences in Greece have left Sue with a unique perspective of refugees, and a deep understanding of the situation faced by the Yazidi families settling in Armidale.
Here in Armidale Sue has been working at the International Hub at the University of New England, assisting mother’s groups and international students as they adjust to their time studying in Australia.
When we asked Sue why she registered her interest to volunteer with SSI, her reasoning was simple.
“I wanted to work directly with the refugees coming here, and entering into the volunteer program with SSI was the best and fastest way for me to do that,” said Sue.
“I found the volunteer training to be quite comprehensive, and I was very appreciative that SSI was able to acknowledge specific parts of my previous qualification and training which really streamlined the induction process for me,” recalled Sue.
Meeting and working directly with the newly arrived families has been measured and careful process for SSI volunteers. Those volunteers with a wealth of experience in humanitarian services, like Sue, are at the forefront of assisting the new Yazidi families in Armidale when they need it.
“I’ve mainly had contact with 1 family, but I’ve met many more of them. At the moment I’m primarily assisting with school pickups, soccer practice, sports games and attending medical appointments whenever I’m called; often this’ll happen at short notice and all the calls come through SSI,” said Sue.
“I’ve mainly been focusing on offering friendship and taking it gently so I don’t impose too much on them, there’s no benefit in trying to call every ten minutes, and the key goal in my mind is to encourage independence,” noted Sue.
Sue also recognised how hard working and busy the Yazidi families are as they adjust and prepare their new lives in Australia.
“During the week the kids are at school or sport practice, while the parents are avidly working to improve their English at classes during the day; their English is improving exponentially but the local interpreting service is still invaluable,” said Sue.
To finish off, we asked Sue what her hopes and expectations were for the Yazidi families in Armidale.
“I hope that they all feel safe and secure,” she said matter of factly, “there’s still a while to go before they feel comfortable and that nothing is going to happen to them here.”
“I also hope they enjoy being part of this community and want to mingle to become long term members. I have hope that their English will become good enough for them to find jobs and study and that their kids will continue to be welcomed by groups like their local sports teams; Locals have already put on some great welcome BBQs and picnics by the way,” she added with a laugh.