In November 2016, Music Tastes Good talent buyer Jon Halperin traveled to Chalkida, Greece for a month to volunteer at the Ritsona Refugee Camp. Jon worked with families displaced by the Syrian Civil War. He volunteered through Lighthouse Relief, an NGO that provides a Children’s Friendly Space and a Female Friendly Space.
Through fundraising, Halperin was able to raise over $8000 to purchase toys and badly needed supplies for the camp.
“Rather than just bring toys with me, the idea is to purchase them here in Greece in order to support the local economy,” he wrote on a GoFundMe page “As you may or may not know, Greece’s economy is very poor at the moment, and yet they have embraced these refugees and provided them shelter.”
His trip was entirely self-funded and he paid for his own flight, hotel, car rental, and food with 100% of the funds raised going “directly to purchasing these toys and providing them straight to the kids in the center.”
Halperin chronicled much of his journey in an online diary, hoping to inspire others to take the trip to Greece and help support the Ritsona Refugee Camp. Below, are some select excerpts from Halperin about his trip. To learn more about the Ritsona Camp and Lighthouse Relief, visit lighthouserelief.org.
Day 2 — Arriving in the Camp
Every day, some new families arrive, and some leave. They are having interviews in Athens and family by family, are granted asylum in one country or another.
We spent this afternoon walking around the camp passing around flyers for a “nature walk” we are doing tomorrow with the three-to-six year olds.
The kids are so awesome. So energetic, playful, and sweet. The parents are incredibly welcoming. We got invited a half dozen times for tea/coffee in their tent or isobox (those just arrived this week since winter is approaching. they are sort of like production trailers, but can be quite cramped for larger families). The four of us took them up on tea several times and enjoyed spending time with the families and the kids.
Day 5 – Getting Out and Enjoying Nature
On Thursday we did our nature walk with the kids. We brought activities for them like crayons to do outlines of the leaves, buckets to collect pinecones, and bananas for them to snack on (those kids FREAKING LOVE bananas…like LOVE LOVE bananas like i LOVE LOVE chocolate).
Afterward, the staff got invited into a family’s home to eat flatbread, a chicken dish (which I passed on due to not eating meat), and the most delicious grape jelly I had ever had. The mother made everything herself. Remember these people do not have kitchens or stoves at their access. They literally make fire pits to cook over.
On Friday, we went back to camp and passed out flyers letting them know that since the Child Friendly Space was still closed for “winterization”, we were going to do organized activities at 2:00pm near the trailers this Monday. A few of the residents I spoke too touched my arms and couldn’t believe my tattoos were real and permanent. They had never seen colorful tattoos and thought they were fake. They said they were very beautiful and said they would like to get tattoos but can’t due to their religion.
Last night, I had an hour-long meeting with the head of the operation Darius. Great dude. Used to play in hardcore/metal bands in NYC and even played Hellfest once. He’s at Russian Circles tonight in Athens (thanks to Merrick at Ground Control). Anyways, we discussed the generosity you guys have shown and how the money is going to be best spent for immediate and long term needs for the Children, Mothers, and Families. Clearly, $3720 worth of Legos was not going to make sense. We came up with a game plan to help out each of the facilities, and even help out ECCO who is distributing food and clothing to the residents.
Darius and I walked to a store up the street and ordered a video projector for the Female Friendly Center. This may sound mundane, but they desperately needed one. There used to be one in the Center, but it disappeared into the camp and was not recovered. This one will be bolted down. Anyways, the projector will be used to teach the women yoga/movements while pregnant, prenatal and general health, and how to manage their safety. Weekly, it will be used for a movie night for the women. No men are allowed in the space. The space is open 24 hours for the women as they need.
Day 7 — Winter is Coming
Hey everyone! so woke up early this AM and went shopping with Jose who is in charge of construction at the camp. There is a lot going on since Winter is quickly approaching and it gets a bit cold and rainy in this part of Greece.
We went to a lighting/electronics store and bought a ton of lighting including a heavy-duty motion sensor light for the Female Friendly Center. This will allow females to enter the area at night and feel safe.
After my Children’s Friendly Space weekly meeting, we headed to camp where I dropped off the donations to ECHO. They were thrilled. The residents REALLY NEEDED body wash, talcum powder (for baby rashes), coffee, children’s pants, and olive oil.
We then went and set up an area near the Child Friendly Space with mats and did a building block activity with 21 of the children ages 3-5. While some of the children played with the blocks, others played with soil that was purchased and planted little seeds.
Day 12 — All or Nothing at Ritsona
We did a play dough activity Thursday which the kids loved. Some of the kids just molded and squished the play dough and a few engaged in playing catch with me with little bits rolled into balls. They kept the play dough to play with back at their homes and when I saw them a day later, they still had it in their hands.
Friday, we did a coloring book activity, which really engaged the kids. They had a lot of fun.
Anyways, I got a Whatsapp message from the Echo Warehouse that they were completely out of mens socks. Like anything, its all or nothing. You either have enough for EVERYONE or there’s no point (in other words, if you don’t have enough flip flops for every resident, then you can’t give any out until more are donated or purchased with donations). So YOU guys bought 400 pair of men’s socks. Then, I got word that an ex-camp resident (who has polio) that needed a wheelchair and had no means of getting around without it. This resident is now in Greece awaiting asylum somewhere, so it was needed now….and of course YOU guys made it happen.
Today, I am heading into Athens with a shopping list of craft supplies for the kiddies for next week’s activities.
I’m half done here, its been two weeks. It feels like I just arrived and yet in some ways, it feels like I’ve been here forever. Sounds like a sappy Hallmark card I know…but the truth.
Day 16 — Athens and then Back to Business
Hey party people! How are you guys doing? Getting ready for Thanksgiving? Yeah, they don’t exactly celebrate that here in Greece. I guess it will be falafel and some tasty desserts. The bakeries here are insane!
Well, on Saturday, I hit Athens by myself and went record shopping. Picked up some really great Bowie bootleg records, and lots of Greek 1980’s new wave comps. On the way back to Chalkida, I swung by Jumbo and spent 82.14 on much needed crafts for the kids this week. On Sunday, myself, a girl from Spain (who is volunteering at the camp cafe which serves Syrian food to the residents, all through donations), and a German volunteer drove the 90 minutes to Delphi. Whoa. It was freaking awesome. Never seen ruins like that before, especially without thousands of tourists. We ate at some small town on a cliff on our way back. Gorgeous. I could live here for sure.
Monday was back to business! We did movement games with the kids. Tuesday was my day to pick the lesson plan and I chose painting. Seemed like a good idea, except the kids got paint all over themselves. Despite how cute they looked, that doesn’t work when there aren’t extra clothes for the kids to change into when they get home. We decided that any further painting would require rain ponchos. Regardless, the kids had a BLAST and didn’t want to stop when it was “clean up” time.
I also went back to Medi Plus, gave them back the original wheelchair that was purchased, and spent an additional 150 on an upgraded one that was aluminum and can be used outside. The original one i bought had tires that could puncture outside and was too heavy. The new chair was delivered today and brought to the resident. He was absolutely thrilled, as he has polio and had no previous way to get around.
I should also mention I THINK I saw Air Force One on at the Athens airport, which was next to the hardware store. Obama was in Greece yesterday and today. Luckily, we didn’t get stuck in crazy traffic driving back.
It is getting cold here. In the 50’s during the day. I love it. Sweater weather 4-eva. But we are noticing the kids aren’t all appropriately dressed, so we are making notes of the kid’s sizes to buy jumpsuits the kids can wear while at the Center this winter.
The Children’s Center staff all conferenced tonight as to how we will be saying our eventual goodbyes to the kids. It will be hard. I am in week three….next week is my last.
Day 18 — Dear Jon….
I got a thank you email from ECHO for the donations we made to the warehouse. I wanted to share it with you guys:
Thank you for your generous and thoughtful donations to Echo100plus and to the residents of the Ritsona camp. Your donations of olive oil, over a full week’s supply of coffee, 400 pairs of men’s socks, 200 bottles of hair conditioner, twenty bottles of talcum powder as well as many women’s underwear have been amazing for this month’s distribution capabilities and have helped us to fill in several gaps in our supply.
Thank you again!
Arielle Stein and Josh Stepputat
Last few days at the camp have been really interesting (and somewhat challenging). The older kids haven’t had school due to Greek holidays, so yesterday’s session with the kids was VERY crowded, 35 or so kids. We played with big pieces of tissue paper, which the kids LOVED. They ran around with streams of it, like a bird, decorated the camp, made headbands, it was fun. Also, we played with empty boxes and let the kids draw, cut, and create.
Day 20 – Hard to Say Goodbye
I feel like the most selfish person the in the world.
Over the weekend, on my day off, I got a message from a friend who works at Cafe Rits (the cafe that provides free Syrian and culturally appropriate food to the residents) that they were making pastries with the kids and asked if I wanted to join. Armandine (new volunteer from France) and I jumped in the car and headed over. It was really, really fun. See a quick video here that they posted.
Later that night, I had an epiphany of sorts. I really didn’t want to come home. I wanted to stay for another week. Four weeks wasn’t enough.
I called Julia and basically she said, “you do you” and that she would hold down the fort.
I emailed my bosses at LA County and late Monday, I got word from the big cheese that another week would be okay.
Last night, after going to a goodbye/birthday dinner for some volunteers, I came back, worked on the festival, and eventually called American Airlines. Because the change of flight was not due to a death of a family member, I would have to pay, and unfortunately, only business class was left, which would be $1500. It would also be another $500 or so between additional hotel, car rental, and food, so like $2000 for another week. Between what I’ve spent to be here and matching the donations, I am in around $4000 for the month. What’s another $2000? I can afford that no problem.
For no reason, I woke up around 5am. I called Julia. She said she misses me. Harlow (the dog) misses me. We talk. I have reports due for my day job. I have the festival to book. I have a life I should to get back to. We hung up.
I started sobbing. I haven’t cried (outside of someone’s death) since I was very young. I recently got misty eyed when The Specials confirmed the fest, when I watched the TV show This is Us, or when I was reminded of the movie Life is Beautiful. This wasn’t misty-eyed. This was straight up sobbing.
I think about selling everything and just volunteering for a few years (like others here are) and then (my) “reality” sets in. I have a retirement. I have a beautiful condo. I have art, and records, and cars, and vespas. I have Pizzanista, Long Beach Cafe, and Fresh Kabobs. I have Netflix, cable, Hulu, and Kodi….Julia and I have our life.
I think about the kids here. I think about how much they will miss me…and then I realize just how narcissistic it is to believe a word of that. Sure, the kids had fun with me. I am the bearded, tattooed guy who likes to hold their hand and skip back to their homes after we play. But there is also Alisa from London, Mike from Germany, Armandine from France, Linnea from Sweden, and when we are gone, there will be other volunteers from around the world. The kids will still have fun. They will still skip. One month of volunteering did not change anyone’s lives. Nothing will be forever changed.
On the other hand, the donations definitely changed lives. I met 30-year-old Mohammed at the camp the other day and he thanked me profusely for the wheelchair. The women have conditioner and new underwear. The babies have talcum powder. Last week, the women in the Female Friendly Space did Zumba thanks to the projector. Construction projects that would have not been possible are now completed. There are now tools the residents can borrow. There are tumbling mats being delivered next week. And of course, the thing that started this all, there are building blocks for the kids. We used them yesterday.
Saturday, I return to my life.
I know you guys have said such nice things to me on Facebook, through text, and here on this Gofundme page. Telling me what a “good egg” I am, but as I type this, I unsuccessfully try to hold back tears and just feel that I am the most selfish person in the world. I am going back to everything these people have lost. My home, my family, my things.
If there was anyone you know that had expressed an interest in donating, ask them to do so by Wednesday evening (California time). I will do one last run Thursday. If no more donations came in, just know we done good everyone. Real good. No one comes here and does this. Not to the extent we did.
Day 25 — And then it was done.
Let me start by saying I cannot thank you guys enough for everything you did. We moved mountains. We really made stuff happen. Sounds trivial, but it is 100% true.
Hope your Turkey day was good. I ended up going out with the Cafe Rits folks, both the employees and the Syrian refugees that work at the cafe. There were probably 30-40 of us there and it was really fun. It was great to hang out with the refugees and their kids in a social setting away from the camp. Just all chat and have a good time. And Greek food on Thanksgiving? I’ll take it.
The last few days have been awesome in the Children’s Friendly Space. On Wednesday, Mike from Germany put together a rad obstacle course, which the kids thoroughly enjoyed.
Yesterday, we did lego activities which the kids LOVED. It was the first we used the little legos (that you bought). They had never really seen building block accessories like these. Their eyes lit up when they found out they could connect some of the more interesting pieces. The kids who don’t usually participate 100% were really into it. All the kids didn’t want to stop (which is rare, they usually eventually get bored of just one activity).
Today, my last day, as I checked in the kids and gave them their name tags, Veronica, the staffperson, had the children do little square drawings. One by one, they walked up and gave the drawings to me as goodbye presents. It was really, really sweet. Alisa from London then put together a dancing activity. I had downloaded Arabic children’s songs on Spotify and we just took turns doing a dance and the everyone would follow. We used the speaker you guys bought.
After the session, I went to one of the kid’s Isobox’s (home) for a late lunch that the mother prepared for me (see pic below). The spread was INCREDIBLE. Rice, fried cheese, spinach, chicken, lamb, pita bread, etc. She went out of her way to make sure there were non meat food items for me. It was just me, volunteer Amandine from France, the mother, and three of her children (one of which I had became really attached to, and vice versa). We ate, chatted, joked. It was really special and a great way to spend my last few hours at the camp. I was gutted saying goodbye to my 5 year old friend. She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.
I have a friend Megan who decided to come out in January for the month. She will be volunteering for Lighthouse as well. It’s such a double-edged sword because I want to pass along messages to the families and kids to say hello while she is out here, but on the other hand, hopefully they aren’t because that means they have found asylum somewhere and moved on with their lives…
As far as spending, it has been a whirlwind the last couple of days (in a good way).
A few days ago, just after I made my last post, I was informed that ECHO really needed socks for the children. It has been getting into the 40’s at night, and the kids run around in flip flops. You bought 400+ pair of socks for the kids.
The next thing that was needed (as decided yesterday) was shoes. Shoes can be pricey, but through the owner of the hotel I am staying at, I found a store that was blowing out their children’s shoes to me at 11 euros each (around $12). He sold me 100 pair and dropped them off at the camp late afternoon today. I went to Jumbo one last time and purchased every pair of children’s shoes and boots they had (64 pair). I also purchased another 37 rain ponchos for painting (and rain?).
Lastly, there is just over $11 left, so I am making a donation to Cafe Rits tonight…that will take us over the edge.
Jon’s back in the States. He is dealing with jet lag, and busy booking Music Tastes Good 2017. He loves being back home but misses the camp. Luckily, some of his friends have volunteered to go over there and he will get updates. If any of you were interested in volunteering at the Ritsona Refugee Camp, check out:
- Lighthouse Relief (the organization I volunteered for):
- Echo 100 Plus (the warehouse):
- Cafe Rits (the cafe making Syrian food for the residents):
- IAMYOU (working with the children and their school education):
Here is Jon’s final spending list while at the camp:
$8180 total raised. Jon added $1227 (to compensate for the dollar to Euro and gofundme %) so the real total raised was $9407. Not too shabby.
724 euros (on children’s toys/crafts)
789 euros (on the projector for the female friendly center)
204.35 euros (on puzzle mats for the children, shower gel for the residents, and talcon powder for the infants)
219.96 euros (on lego sets for the older children)
95.28 euros (on coffee and olive oil for the ECHO warehouse)
198 euros (on tools including an electric drill)
289.74 euros (on lighting and electrical)
177.29 euros (on women’s underwear and additional craft supplies for the children)
182.91 euros (on coffee)
561.12 euros (the last of the construction needs to complete the Children’s Center for winter including tools and lumber!)
320.95 euros (131 bottles of hair conditioner)
213.78 euros (74 bottles of hair conditioner)
262.55 euros (400+ pairs of socks)
180 euros (wheelchair)
82.14 euros (craft supplies for the kids at Jumbo)
150 euros (wheelchair upgrade)
729.05 euros (tool for the residents to check out)
29.95 euros (bluetooth speaker)
553.22 euros (three gym mats for the children’s center)
187.53 euros (47 rain ponchos for the children to wear while painting. This way, they won’t get their clothes dirty)
398.89 euros (400+ pair of children’s socks at Jumbo)
522.95 euros (37 more rain ponchos and sneakers/ugg type boots for the children)
150 euros (donation to Cafe Rits)
1096 euros (100 pair of children’s winter boots)