Column: Women's Lives

Donegal woman puts her sympathy into action in refugee camps

When asked why she volunteers at a refugee camp in Greece, Brid Barr replied, ‘Because I could.’

Sally Neary


Sally Neary


Donegal woman puts her sympathy into action in refugee camps

Brid Barr with a woman refugee.

What is a draper’s daughter from Buncrana doing in a refugee camp in Greece?

Quite a lot, actually. The refugee camp in question is Elefsina, situated about 20 kilometres from Athens.

The Donegal woman in question is Bríd Barr. She lives in Rathmullan with her husband, Donal. They have two adult children. Bríd taught languages and worked in Learning Support in Loreto Community School in Milford. Now retired, she loves walking and gardening and enjoys a daily swim even if it is in the Swilly estuary on the coldest of winter days. One of Bríd’s other passions is travelling. She has visited much of Europe, USA, Canada, Russia, Thailand, Indonesia and India, the latter on two occasions. It was during her travels that Bríd became aware of the lives of those living in the Third World.

Her eyes were opened to the poverty, not only the lack of creature comforts we in the first world take for granted but also the poor health, educational and social services which contribute to reduction in life choices or opportunities. She was struck by the harshness of life for many in the developing world and wanted to make a contribution.

When asked why she volunteers at a refugee camp in Greece she replied, "Because I could."

Many of us have been moved by the desperate plight of the greatest, that is the highest number since the second World War, flood of refugees fleeing wars or persecution who land on European shores daily. Bríd put her sympathy into action. In March 2016 she and her husband, Donal, went to the Greek island of Lesbos, assisting a non-governmental organisation SAO (Save Assist Outreach), whose task was to keep a vigil on the coast for refugee boats and help rescue people from the water. She fundraised by texting everyone she knew here at home, raising money which helped provide refugees with food, clothes for men and women and children, toiletries, and rucksacks for their onward journeys to Athens.

In May 2016 she joined fellow volunteer and Donegal man, Aidan O'Doherty. They worked at the makeshift camp at Piraeus harbour called E1 and E2, and at a venue called the Stone House. It was there they heard about a Norwegian charity founded in 2015 by Trude Jacoben. Their manifesto states: "A Drop in the Ocean aims to provide immediate and direct aid to refugees. Our main focus is to help children and their mothers upon their arrival in Europe by coordinating volunteers and by collecting and distributing necessary equipment."

Brid returned in November with four others - her daughter, Celia Friel, Faith Brown from Belfast, Aidan O’Doherty and Michael Neary from Mountcharles. Working with Drop in the Ocean gave them access to two camps, Skaramagas, the larger of the two with 3,000 to 4,000 residents, and the smaller, less well equipped Elefsina with 300 to 400 residents. This camp is really an old school. Occupants in Elefsina are allocated bunk beds in what were once classrooms.

Families are kept together and separated from other families by a simple curtain; there is very little, if any, privacy. They have no access to lockers or cupboard space to store any possessions. Their food is provided. In our rushed lives we may think that this is a bonus. Not really. The preparation and celebration of everyday meals has deep cultural resonances. Take this away and people become disaffected and bored. Added to this is the uncertainty regarding their future. They cannot return to their homeland and they cannot travel further into Europe. They are stuck with little chance of change or better life.

But Bríd says, "There is still joy there. The women congregate, chat and support one another. The children play football or hopscotch. The refugee population in Skaramagas is made up of many distinct ethnic origins, among them Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds and Yehidis. They each keep to their own groups with minimal mixing."

On her last visit at the end of January 2017 with Aidan and Michael, Bríd spent days sorting through clothes which had been donated from all over northern Europe. Unfortunately when the clothes arrived at the camp there wasn’t any manpower available to inspect, label and categorise, so they were all stored in one large boiler house. It was tedious and unglamorous work, but entirely necessary.

Now the camp leader can access clothes when required. The experience of working in her parents’ clothes shop all those years ago must have come in handy. She is planning a return trip in April 2017. In the meantime she is learning Arabic so that she can better communicate with those living in the camps.

That speaks of dedication and true empathy, and rightly describes Bríd.