/From Hell to Happy Caravan

From Hell to Happy Caravan

How Ala Eddin Janid, a former Syrian refugee, saw the severe lack of structure and educational options for children in Thermopylae, Greece. With international volunteers by his side, he decided to create a place where children could learn and play in a safe and fun environment.

Every day, hundreds and thousands of refugees are torn apart from their homes, forced to move to unknown lands, changing the course of their lives forever.

Reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicate that in 2017, the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide came at a record rate of 44,400 each day. There are 25.4 million refugees worldwide and more than half of them come from Syria, South Sudan and Afghanistan. Refugee children, who arrive in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Spain, number over 30.000 according to the latest statistics of UNICEF.

An arduous but inspiring story

Ala Eddin Janid worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria, and witnessed the displacement first hand. When Daesh [the Arabic phrase for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that ISIS militants do not favour] invaded his home country, volunteering there was a good enough reason for terrorists to want to kill him and his other colleagues. He realized he had to leave Syria behind, not because of the bombs, but due to the Daesh-fuelled bloodshed.

Ala Eddin fled to Europe. “I felt like we were some kind of animal, not humans. The police were horrible. We didn’t know what rights we had. Tired, alone, afraid… We were in a shitty situation.” This is how Alaa describes his experience in the refugee camp of Samos, Greece. Later, in the Dutch camp of Wageningen he thought of committing suicide. But the warmth, love and support from kind people he met helped him to overcome his depression and PTSD almost entirely.

Happy ending

Since May 2017, Ala Eddin has been the founder and CEO of Happy Caravan, an organization that aims to provide basic social, therapeutic and educational support to refugee children and their families in Thermopylae, Greece.

Audrey Bingaman, board member and public relations officer of  Happy Caravan, proudly explains the pursuit of Happy Caravan.“Our aim is to first of all, provide the kids with a safe and fun place within the camp. Secondly, to provide them with a basic level of English & Mathematics that can be useful wherever they go, and lastly, to provide various fun activities such as art, cinema, etc. which gives them the opportunity to be a kid and leave their rooms.”

The first day Audrey volunteered with Happy Caravan, everything changed for her.
“Back then, I was teaching English to men, women, and children and I was so humbled by their dedication to learn despite the trauma and circumstances they were living in,” she explains.

Now, Audrey advises volunteers willing to help in the NGO about the major challenges they would face, “The work on the ground is very emotionally and mentally taxing for volunteers.” says Audrey, “It is quite common for the work to evoke an emotional response in the volunteers. For example, due to the trauma they have experienced, it is not uncommon for the children to demonstrate behavioral issues and PTSD symptoms.”

The importance of intercultural competences

Intercultural integration is also a key point in refugee camps´ organizations. At Happy Caravan , for example, Audrey explains that they have hosted as many as 13 volunteers from different nationalities at one time. “While the extra hands are great, our volunteers find it challenging to work together since they bring so many different cultural backgrounds and ideas.”

María Luisa Sierra Huedo trained teachers in Kakuma, Kenya, where the largest refugee camp in the world is set, for 8 months through the initiative Teachers for Teachers. The professor highlights the importance of developing both cultural competences and intercultural skills before departing for a refugee camp. “Volunteering there is an extremely demanding, but life-changing experience.“

Despite all the difficulties, Happy Caravan has become a seed of hope in the Greek arena as Audrey passionately explains, “We aim to support the children to not just survive, but thrive and reach their full potential.”