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How Volunteers Are Feeding Refugees in Greece, One Makeshift Kitchen at a Time

What it takes to provide a meal during a humanitarian crisis

Fleeing unspeakable violence, refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Syria boarded boats from their home countries, most destined for the Greek islands of Chios and Lesvos. Since the beginning of 2015, more than one million people have flooded onto the shores of these picturesque Mediterranean isles.

As the crisis worsened and some European countries tightened restrictions on refugees, Greece quickly became an attractive destination thanks to its proximity to Turkey and easy entry points into Europe. Most migrants are ultimately bound for other countries, like the U.K. or Germany, where they can join family or apply for asylum. But once the refugees disembark from the boats in Chios and Lesvos, an important, fundamentally human question lingers: What will they eat?


At the onset of the massive migration, there were no government or international organizations providing food to refugees, a reality that spurred thousands of volunteers to pour into Greece to build safe structures, provide dry clothing to drenched refugees, and prepare food to be served at the makeshift camps where refugees are housed on the islands. In Lesvos and Chios, where the majority of immigrants have landed since July 2015, an ad hoc collective of volunteer groups and non-government organizations (NGOs) have assembled to provide basic needs: clothing, shelter, and food.

"If there were no volunteer kitchens there, people would not be fed at all."

"If there were no volunteer kitchens there, those people would not be fed at all. The United Nations runs four camps there, and there were no outside groups feeding them," says Gary Capshaw, an American volunteer from Denison, Texas, who spent two weeks in January serving meals with the People's Street Kitchen, a food service operation founded by a U.K. volunteer. "If they got any food at all, it was from the local people," he continues. "Nobody is offering to pay for the food or provide the food. If those volunteers weren't there, the people just wouldn't have anything to eat."

And so, an entirely self-motivated coterie of independent volunteers, each hailing from different parts of the world, set out to feed them.

Volunteers distribute hot meals in Athens, Greece. [Photo: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images]

Building Makeshift Kitchens

Joost Rentenma, a Dutch volunteer and head of Refugees Welcome Amsterdam, traveled to Lesvos after seeing refugees that made it to Holland being forced to sleep inside Amsterdam's Central Station. When he arrived to Lesvos in October, he realized that there was no hot food being served on the northern part of the island, where thousands of refugees were still arriving each day. Rentenma teamed up with a Swedish NGO, purchased a food truck he named the Giving Foodtruck, and headed back to Greece to cook.

There are an incredible numbers of factors that go into preparing meals for thousands of people in makeshift kitchens. As such, the feeding operations vary; some offer hot meals, others just tea and cold sandwiches. Rentenma's food truck uses a kitchen at the Pikpa refugee camp to peel and chop vegetables for the meals that he serves. From there, the food is packed into buckets and vats for distribution at refugee camps across the island.

Other operations were originally much more impromptu "We were located right on the beach where a lot of boats landed and had no kitchen facilities," says Etoile Smulders, a Czech volunteer who founded Philoxenia, a small serving operation that has since expanded into a multinational refugee feeding project. "We made up a kitchen by tearing apart refugee boats that crashed and used slabs of wood as a serving and preparation table."

Inside the camps, serving thousands of hungry, scared people is equally as challenging as preparing the food. Capshaw, a 66-year-old former drill sergeant, noted the difficulty of maintaining the flow of food service in the midst of the chaos. "I learned a lot about crowd control. At times, I had to put on my drill sergeant face and voice," he says. "It's a pretty complicated operation, but it's also relatively simple. Chop vegetables, put them in a pot with seasoning, take it to the refugees. But the logistics of getting it all in the right place at the right time make it difficult."

Volunteers distribute food in Kilkis, Greece, near the Macedonia border. [Photo: Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

Finding Comfort in Food

As soon as refugees have been pulled from the frigid waters after a long trip from their home country, feeding them is an immediate priority. Sandwich stands, like Smulders' operation, are set up steps from the beach to provide a small meal. In addition to brewing gallons and gallons of hot chai, Smulders and a small group of volunteers quickly prepared cheese sandwiches, fruit, and small bags of trail mix for refugees, some of whom hadn't eaten in days. Because there was no way to tell how many refugees would arrive each day — some days 100, other days 500 or more — food frequently had to be thrown out or wasn't plentiful enough.

Kitchens must also carefully consider the ingredients they purchase. In addition to the logistical concerns, the vast majority of migrants flooding into Greece are Muslim, many adhering to strict dietary codes. As a result, nearly all meals served on Lesvos are vegetarian, though halal meat can occasionally be procured.

Serving thousands of hungry, scared people is equally as challenging as preparing the food.

Volunteer organizations on Lesvos purchase as much as possible from local farmers and vendors to support the local economy. "It was quite idyllic, actually," says Smulders, who notes that shopping was an activity she always looked forward to in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances on the front lines. "A nice wooden cart being pulled by a donkey with the scenery of the hills in the background. The vendors would always give us a nice price because they knew what we were trying to do." Fresh fruits, vegetables, and dried grains are among the most frequently used items, along with canned tuna and cheese.

At the People's Street Kitchen, which operates on Chios, just a few kilometers away from Turkey, head chef Ifty Patel prepares massive batches of vegetable-based soups that can be easily adapted to the produce available. "He would use spices that were familiar to the refugees, and I never saw anyone turn it down," says Capshaw. "They would keep a pot of ‘gravy,' or base, going, and start a new pot of soup with the base for flavor. They had it all spiced up, add some of the base, and fresh vegetables."

The Giving Foodtruck also focuses on providing comforting, familiar meals. Rentenma's crew prepares chickpea curry, lentil soup with potatoes, and mujadara, a Lebanese dish of lentils, onion, and rice. Syrian spinach and rice and rice porridge are also on the menu. "Our food is all vegan so that everybody can eat it, no matter which religion or culture," he says. "You don't need water to make these meals, just tomato paste or the juices from beans, which is really good. Besides that, it actually gets better if you keep it for two days because of the spices."

Volunteers distribute baklava to migrants near the Greek-Macedonian border. [Photo: NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images]

Preparing for the Future

A November agreement between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flow of refugees into Europe has resulted in a standstill for thousands of people in Greece, no longer free to move across the border. In the aftermath of these caps that limit the number of refugees that can enter a country in a given day, experts estimate more than 70,000 people have been stranded in Greece in March. Thousands more are forced to stay in Turkey, where conditions are decidedly worse than Greece.

Volunteers are following suit. Etoile Smulders has since moved her operations to Turkey after the beach her kitchen was based on was washed away with the sea's winter swell and she ran out of money. She went back to the Czech Republic from Greece to raise funds, and then set up Philoxenia in Istanbul, providing one meal each day to more than 400 orphaned Syrian children at a local school.

Thousands of migrants are stranded in Greece awaiting deportation to Turkey, and they need to be fed

"By providing them with a meal in their place of education, we meet the immediate needs of hungry children and encourage them to go to school everyday to gain an education," she says. "We are just here to implement food systems, then we get the local community to take over our job and keep the project running in the long term."

Back in Greece, the situation has become more fraught over the past month. On average, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 1,000 migrants per day enter the country, but the November agreement between the European Union and Turkey, finalized in March, is attempting to limit this influx. As a result, thousands of migrants are stranded in Greece awaiting deportation to Turkey.

Retenma estimates that the Giving Foodtruck still serves between 1,000 and 2,500 meals per day in Lesvos, but notes that the number has declined sharply in recent weeks as migrant movement in and out of the country has been largely stalled. The agreement does, however, allow for some asylum-seeking refugees to stay in the country, and they will have to be fed.

"The situation changed because of this stupid agreement with Turkey and Europe, so right now it's pretty quiet since all the people are locked up," he says. "We will wait to see what will happen the next couple of days or the next few weeks before we decide if we continue on Lesvos or move it to another place."

Lead photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images


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