Podcast special: Volunteers driven to help Syrian refugees


Scottish television producer Uzma Mir-Young spent yet another evening watching the refugee crisis unfold and decided she had to try and help rather than be a passive observer.

Uzma Mir 1Soon she found herself in the Greek island of Lesvos, amongst a large international team of volunteers, reaching out to families escaping war.

It was a life-changing experience, and one which Uzma believes reflects our natural urge to care for people in need.

Weeks later Uzma has shared the experience with interviewer Derek Bateman (click audio link above). And below she has added her own written account for Newsnet readers.



By Uzma Mir-Young

AA Gill recently said: “It’s impossible to be anti-refugee once you have looked a refugee in the eye.” I would not describe myself as ever being anti-refugee, but I would confess to having been a bit helpless and hopeless, sitting on my Habitat couch watching images of dangerously over-filled boats crossing faraway seas, lurid orange life jackets washed up on distant beaches and bemused holiday-makers on Greek islands staring as locals pulled soaking Syrians from the shallows.

In July of 2015 these images just seemed to wash over me like the calm seas of a Greek summer. Five months later, standing on a freezing beach in Mytilene, Lesvos, looking out to sea in the pink half-light of a Grecian sunrise, I prayed hard for the first time in a while.

One of two dinghies, tiny black specks about a mile out on a choppy, wind-swept sea, had suddenly stalled. I, and three other volunteers and four lifeguards from Spain collectively held our breaths. Time, stood still, as our mouths grew drier and our eyes strained. After five long minutes of furious bobbing the dingy seemed to lurch forward and restart its three hour journey to salvation.


As the sun began to rise, the boats approached the beach. A crowd of onlookers had gathered – a strange mix of helpful locals, volunteers, refugees and, what I can only describe as shifty-looking individuals who fixed the boats with the expectant look of a starved bird of prey. As soon as one flimsy dingy began to scrape along the shingle, chaotic hands pulled out woman and children.

I felt useless, because I had not been through the requisite emergency training given by the charity I was working with. As camp cook, there was no need for me to receive it, so that morning, my job was simply to hand out towels so the wet refugees could dry themselves.

I took in the scene unfolding around me – as surreal as Dali’s finest:  The flimsy dinghy was stabbed and deflated, a weird whooshing and hissing sound filling the air; two of the shifty-looking guys grabbed the faulty engine and briskly marched away with it (I’m told, so it could be sent back to Turkey to be used for another boat); toddlers and babies whimpered in their babygroes in the biting cold; and, alarmingly a young, unconscious woman in a long, white jumper and headscarf, held high above the heads of two men, her arms and head flopping about, was dropped unceremoniously at my feet. Fortunately, I had done a First Aid course before I went out to Lesvos, so after a fleeting moment of blind panic, I knelt beside her to check for responses and breathing.

A few of the international volunteer team at Lesvos
A few of the international volunteer team at Lesvos


So what causes sofa–watchers like me to take leave from their jobs – as lecturers, bank workers, anthropologists, administrators, filmmakers – and head for a small Greek island at the frontline of the largest movement of people since the Second World War? Quite simply: Need. Since January 2015, 540,700 refugees and migrants have arrived on Lesvos’s beaches, and hundreds have drowned attempting the deadly crossing.

Right along the route from Turkey to Greece, through Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia and into Germany where most are headed, volunteers are taking the strain, attempting to help them on their difficult journey. Of course there are amazing NGOs at work too – the UNHCR, IRC, Human Appeal, Save the Children, the Red Cross and Oxfam to name but a few, but this is a crisis on such a massive scale that these NGOs need to be complemented by a small army of volunteers.

TV producer turned cook. Volunteers from all over the world are asked to help refugees escaping war in Syria.
TV producer turned cook. Volunteers from all over the world are asked to help refugees escaping war in Syria.

My volunteer job at Kara Tepe camp was to cook and plan evening meals for between 400 to 500 refugees every night. The charity was called the Volunteer Co-ordination Agency, but has since changed its name to the Humanitarian Support Agency to reflect more closely the work they are doing. Other volunteers organised and distributed shoes, clothes, and sleeping bags to newly arrived refugees, whilst those on the 24 hour emergency teams rescued them off the beaches.

The volunteers came from all backgrounds, and countries – Americans, Germans, Israelis, Danes, English, French, Spaniards, Greeks and a decent smattering of Scots, amongst others. They worked with a single-minded and focussed approach, which made it easy for a new recruit to fall into line. Although many, especially the emergency teams and the night shift volunteers, had to witness extreme situations and even death, every one I spoke to agreed, it was the single time in their lives when they had felt, genuinely useful.

For me, as cook, the greatest privilege was when refugees came to help chop the endless onions and garlic and told their heart-breaking stories of the homeland they had left behind. I looked them in the eye and knew the sofa-watching days were done – probably forever.

For more information find the HSA/VCA on Facebook.

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