Notts abroad: Meet the Raleigh fresher tackling the refugee crisis first-hand

He’s organised a Take Me Out fundraiser this Thursday

Burning tents, tear gas and demolition in the Calais refugee camps serve as a fatal reminder that the refugee crisis has not gone away, nor is it likely to anytime soon. Industrial Economics fresher Nico Swanepoel has witnessed the continued plight of the refugees on a very personal level and intends to help in whatever way he can.

Nico (right) with a group of Syrian students who have all fled ISIS

How have you been helping Syrian refugees?

“We see stories on the news every day, photos in newspapers and there’s huge controversy over this ‘refugee crisis’… we can’t escape it. So, over the Christmas holidays I decided to go and see for myself and help first hand. With two weeks to spare, I had a flight booked and 90kg of baggage filled with kids toys, warm clothes, toiletries etc ready to be delivered on the Greek island Lesvos, where thousands of refugees arrive on rubber boats every day.

“There were no ‘set shifts’ in the camp, instead volunteers did what was needed at the time as conditions were constantly changing. I’d usually spend 18 hours in the camp each day, finding a safe place for families to sleep, handing out warm, dry clothes to wet arrivers, distributing food, picking up rubbish, making sure queues remained orderly… anything that helped really!”

What were the conditions like? 

“You would never want to experience them. You wander around at night and you just see sleeping bodies wrapped in thin blankets on the muddy ground, families crammed into tents, rooms filled with hundreds of people. Honestly it’s awful, but the amazing thing is, they don’t even think about the conditions, for the vast majority of people, it is one of the first nights they are able to sleep without worrying about the safety of their families.”

What was the most rewarding moment of the experience?

“The whole experience was incredible. Being a friendly face for so many people was amazing. Being able to sit and listen to someone all night and hear their story is something I hope I never forget. We forget that for the past 5 years so many Syrians have lived in fear. Being able to make someone feel at home in possibly the worst place imaginable was amazing.

“Every night hundreds of people would arrive drenched from their dangerous journey and freezing. I remember seeing a young girl who arrived without her mother, she must have been 3 or 4 years old, unable to move because she was so cold in her soaking wet clothes. Making sure she was going to be okay is definitely something I smile about.”

Do you think Britain could be doing more to aid the refugee crisis?

“It’s amazing how we already have preconceived notions about the refugee crisis, even I did. We truly forget the terror these people have been through and continue to experience. Before we start questioning whether they should be coming to Europe, we should remember that if we were in their shoes we wouldn’t want to spend our lives in a refugee camp, we would want to have the chance to watch our children grow up in a world that they can truly live.

“Starting small, changing our perceptions and being more accepting will make a huge difference to many lives.”

Have you heard from any of the people you helped out?

“Yes I am in touch with so many and we speak often! The majority of them are in Germany excited to be able to start living again! Before my trip I often dismissed the living conditions they have been through. One person I met told me that in his home town, an area controlled by ISIS, practicing sport is an offence, and being caught doing so can be punishable by death.

“You’re either fighting for ISIS or for the government. I am excited for them to be able to live in safe and peaceful Europe and start living like humans again. I’ll definitely be visiting them soon!”

Do you have any plans to continue volunteering in the future?

“When I was in Greece I met a group of guys who ran a charity, which I am now involved with. They have been focusing on the refugee crisis and we are currently raising money for our next project which will be providing for refugee camps in Jordan.

“On March 3rd, I have organised a ‘Take Me Out’ event on Jubilee Campus. All the proceeds are going towards supporting the refugee crisis. There will be a collection point where people can drop off donations of aid, mainly dry foods which will be sent to Madaya, Syria later this month. It should be a great evening all in the name of charity.”

(If you’re interested in attending Nico’s charity event then you can buy tickets for £3. For more information, click here.)