A conversation with Maria Zigouri, a social worker from the Hellenic Red Cross

Published: 16 February 2016 16:36 CET

By Jessica Barry, freelance writer

During her recent emergency mission to Lesvos for the Hellenic Red Cross, social worker Maria Zigouri, 35, worked in Apanemo, a transit camp for people arriving by sea from Turkey. Packed into overcrowded rubber boats, the people in the camp risked their lives during their perilous journey. Many arrived traumatised. Caring for them requires sensitivity and skill, for which Maria – with 12 years of Red Cross work behind her – is well qualified.

Before returning to her base in Athens, Maria talked about the challenges she faced during her mission. 

“It is important to create an environment in which people who arrive can feel secure and comfortable enough to talk, so my personal approach is never to ask questions straight away. People need space and time before they can express their feelings and needs. Only once this has been achieved do I ask for more detail about the journey and what they need.

“It is often the simple things that count when someone arrives. For example, if a person’s mobile phone is not working, it needs to be charged so that they can call home. Charging mobile phones is one of the most popular services that the Red Cross provides in this camp. We have two stations, one in the women-friendly space and the other in front of our Red Cross tent."

This particular service - along with many others in Apenemo – is supported by The Danish Red Cross. Close cooperation is also maintained with the International Rescue Committee, which runs the camp, and with other organisations.

“We have a very strong team of Red Cross staff and volunteers”, Maria says. “Maintaining a good team spirit is important, and the spontaneity of the local volunteers makes for a very nice atmosphere.”

Migrants passing through the camp often help, too.

“A couple of days ago, our nurse needed an interpreter for a First Aid training. A young man who spoke very good English offered to help, and it turned out that he had been a Red Crescent volunteer at home. He showed us many photos on his phone of the humanitarian work he had been doing! He told us after the session that it helped him to feel useful, and that he would like to work for the Red Cross in the country where he eventually settles.

“He asked us whether we thought he could do it, and we replied ‘Of course you can. You have already done it here!’"

Maria admits that the contrast between being on mission and her regular job in Athens is like living two different lives. And the field work can leave strong impressions that take time to fade, if they ever do.

“You need to have a special personality and great sensitivity to do this kind of work,” she says. “But it’s part of our job to be exposed to experiences like this, and if you were to ask me, I would say that there is nothing else I want to do.”