Belgrade, Serbia.

Our forecast for the week showed rain and thunderstorms the whole week.  We woke to

IMG_6405 (1)
View from my hotel window.

a blue sun filled sky!  Our task today was to collect a list of items for a new youth center one of our partner NGO’s has recently opened 4 hours south of Belgrade near to a new refugee camp.  Currently Serbia is high on the list of European countries less than hospitable to refugees.  The camps are not accessible to NGO’s typically.

In January Amanda and I were here in Belgrade delivering baby carriers and yesterday we returned to meet up with Edin who has opened another center near this new camp.  He needed some items to set up:  work table for 5 computers, a storage unit that can be locked (for games, computers and items of value), a child’s table with 6 chairs, a white board, an A/C unit and baby beds.

So Amanda and I ran around all day.  The hotel told us of a mall that they thought would have what we needed in their top floor which was all furniture.  We didn’t find anything to buy for Edin but I found something little I wanted- there was a guy and his daughter checking out ahead of us and he had a “Michigan” sweatshirt on, obviously one of my people.  Struck up a conversation and he proceeded to tell us of 5 other places to check out and come to find out he is the head master at the lower American School here in Belgrade.  He has desks and maybe other things to donate to Edin.  The Universe is all giving!

We were able to find everything on the list and bought diapers to give to Eden to handIMG_6406 out for siblings of the kids that visit his center.

Tomorrow and the next day are a National holiday here in Serbia so all of the store will be closed- our timing really is perfect!

We are tired but got to bed early last night and slept in today- we are semi-recharged and will take our time driving to Pirot, Serbia tomorrow.  Everyone we tell where we are going say they have never been there and that they make beautiful rugs.  Guess we will know tomorrow.

Amanda and I are excited because we will be less than an hours drive to Sofia, Bulgaria.  If we have the time we thought we’d scoot across and have lunch or dinner – check it out!

Greece to Serbia. Team 28.

The last time Amanda and I were in Serbia it took us almost 2 full days to drive the 10 hours between Thessaloniki and Belgrade.  Between customs delays and snow!  This time we flew from Thessaloniki to Belgrade in less than an hour.

It was a bitter sweet breakfast today, we were dropping off 4 of our teammates at a hotel they were going to stay at for 2 nights while we went to the airport to head up to Serbia for a week.  It was such a great team!  Always sad to say goodbye but I know we will be catching up on Whats App for the next months.

We dropped the extra baby beds we had made up but not distributed to the warehouse near Alexandrea then headed to drop the rest of our team off at their hotel.  The road leading to the hotel was sketchy at best, Monday is a(nother) holiday in Greece, so everyone seemed to wanting to be in Thessaloniki as literally ALL the hotels were full.

Their hotel and “spa” was down a dirt road, surrounded by green fields and what looked like a sludgy creek.  All of us have to carve time out of our already full schedules to make these trips.  Our villages at home fill in the gaps where family cannot.  It is nice they will have 30 hours to relax and reflect before re-entry into their lives.  It is never easy.

Amanda and I headed to Thessaloniki to go back to the meringue restaurant we’dIMG_6384 stopped at a few days earlier- the town looked like it had swelled to 3X its usual population.  There were people EVERYWHERE!

I may or may not have eaten 2 amazing meringue cookies, just saying- you could never prove it!

We arrived at the airport 3 hours before our flight- Serbian Air would not let me  check in yesterday and their website said to get there 3 hours early.  Well the ticket agents weren’t there for another hour.  But thankfully we were the 1st people in line, the agent said Amanda did not have a ticket even though she had her receipt, and relevant numbers and codes.  It took an hour for the agent to figure it out.  To reserve a seat when you checked-in cost $3.00USD.  The flight had maybe 30 people on it, our row had 3 people, when the gentleman in our row tried to move, the flight attendant said “no, you have not paid for the other seats”.  Right out of United’s Customer Service Manuel.  Crazy!

Belgrade was cloudy and raining- what the Weather App says will be the forecast for the

Not all aid delivery and squishing people into the back of vans- aid work also means LOTS of waiting!

next week we are here.  It took an hour to get the van, and when we went outside in the rain to pick it up, it was way to small for what we needed so we waited another hour for them to bring in another 9-passenger van.

Everything was settled and we headed into town with a large rain storm ahead of us.  We were quickly checked into our hotel before the down pour started-thankful!

Dinner tonight was in the hotel restaurant.  We are tired and in need of a good night sleep.  Tomorrow we will do the shopping for the camp we will be working at on Mon-Wed.  But tonight we will try and get to bed before midnight!

Last full day as Team 27.

This week has flown by- I have been so blessed with amazing teams every time I travel to Greece and work.  This week was great in so many ways.  It was not a “usual” trip as in delivering aid everyday, but a combo of delivering aid and exploratory.  In this week

Literally buried in aid.  

alone we have seen such movement.  Camps opening, closing, people being moved, we’ve seen the busses dropping off new arrivals.  It’s like a big card game right now.

We did what we were sent to do, not always the “fun” part of this work (getting to love on babies) but we made some excellent contacts for future CTF teams.  The 1st camp we went to was located along the sea in 2 buildings.  We made contact with the NGO’s working there and delivered beds to the 3 pregnant women- we wait until the mother is 6 months or more pregnant to give them the beds.

We were invited into one couples room.  These were 2 bedroom/1 bath apartments with a shared kitchen.  A larger family would have both rooms, but most shared the apartment with another family.  As we sat on the ground on covered mattress (this is where the family sleeps,eats and hangs out-1 room) as the 9 month old girl was passed between us- SOOOOO cute!  Her father was a barber and her mother an esthetician.  We were served sweet tea.

One of our contacts was in the area and needed to deliver some art refugees had done to our leader Sara who was bringing the artwork back to Lincoln for an art show in May.

This is a camp we went to earlier in the week when some artists had just arrived to start painting and a week later this is what they had done!

This woman is a flight attendant who has rented an apartment here in Thessaloniki and is 2 weeks here, 2 weeks flying.  She focuses on families and pregnant moms.  Identifying them and making sure they are supported to the best of her ability.  She is a powerhouse of love and action.

When Amanda and I were here in Jan we met a nice family from Aleppo who were living at Veria camp.  The family saw that we were in the area on social media and reached out to Amanda to come to their apartment in Thessaloniki.  This is the 1st step out of the camps.  People are put into apartments from the camps, they wait for a phone call (this can take up to 11 months) they are then transferred to Athens for a couple months then they are resettled.

We know they are on the path to resettlement but they do not know where they will be sent.  Imagine, not knowing where you will spend the rest of your days.  This sweet

Mom and Dad.

Syrian family has 6 kids, the oldest 21 and the youngest 15, 3 boys and 3 girls.  When we arrived at their apartment we were met outside by the 15 year old.  We all followed him up to the 2nd floor to his families apartment.  We were greeted like long lost relatives.  We sat for 2 hours around a big table, the older children translating for us and mom and the sisters floating in and out refilling tea cups and bringing us biscuits and the most amazing huge bowls of rice pudding.

The father who was 48 had the weary look of a man much older.  He showed me photo’sIMG_6358 of his house in Aleppo before they left for Turkey and eventually Greece.  And then a photo someone sent him while the family was in Turkey of the house blown up.  Gone.  Forever.  The father is a mechanic and machinist and the mother an OBGYN.  The closeness of the family was palatable, we knew that America was out of the question so we hoped that they would get settled in Germany as this was their 1st choice.  Good people, fine people.  People I am proud to call friend.

“Our van smells like we have been transporting livestock….”

So said one of our team members as he stepped into the van, over bags to get to his seat.  By the door…….the door was open………it still smelled.  Such is the current situation.  As of today we have driven over 1300 miles and still have a day and 1/2 to go.  We basically IMG_6305live in the van and I suspect a Greek cheese pie is wedged under the 2nd row seat…we have been know to stop at bakeries daily in search of cheese and meat pies.

We started the day driving back to the warehouse in Alex to put together more beds and to finish up counting items for inventory.  We met up with a volunteer at the hotel we’d stayed at earlier in the week.  Their team was eating breakfast- the front desk people are not to pleased with me.

Somehow I used the room key to get INTO the room, but lost the key after that.  Upon leaving last week I told them it had to be in the room-seriously how does this happen?

We finished packing up beds and putting everything back in order for the next team- there are going to be some VERY happy babies soon.

Part of our job this trip is to explore newly formed camps- the situation is very fluid here in the North.  One of the camps we heard about earlier in the week had just moved out this afternoon.  We were able to give 2 beds to 2 moms in a camp that will be moving at

the end of the week.

We next headed out to a Yazidi camp that used to be housed on the side of Mount Olympus- i’d visited it during all of my previous trips and knew they had been relocated, just didn’t know where.  One of our team mates works with 2 refugee families in Lincoln, NE and the cousin of one of her families in NE was at a camp in this area.  It ended up being where Petra Camp was relocated!  In a small town, on the side of the lake this camp now has taken over the whole of the town!

Our welcome was not very welcoming by the camp director- we will try and return tomorrow.  But so happy to see these lovely people off the side of the mountain.  The camp is very isolated, but the scenery is beautiful.

Next we went to another camp and it too had moved this week!  We worked our way to a sea side town to spend the night and had a nice dinner at a sea side restaurant.

Warehouse work.

Warehouses are the heart center of every refugee crisis.  Without warehouses (like we saw in Serbia in January which where completely void of any aid) people would have nothing.  When you flee bombs raining from the sky, you often leave with just the clothes on your back.  Imagine.  Nothing else.  Which means that you need EVERYTHING.  Shoes, socks, pants,underwear,shirt,coat…….if a refugee is in a camp they most likely have used up all of their money to get to this point- everything else must be given to them.

The camp we have been working at for 2 days in Northern Greece is truly the the best run warehouse.  At every twist and turn the residents feelings are taken into account.  Instead of handing someone a bag of clothes, the clothes shop opens 2X a month for people to shop.  Some days men, some women and children.  Today the clothes shop had sports clothing for men- a pair of shorts, a soccer shirt and a track shirt.  Last week the women got to pick out Zumba outfits.

While some of our team baked 2 huge cobbles and made waffles, the rest of us worked unpacking 2 HUGE

pallets of food.  There are about 6 other NGO’s working at this camp, everyone from the other NGO’s got out of their offices, took photos in front of the big pallets of food then went back to their offices.

Our work began- each box had to be opened.  The pallets had to be unpacked, everything had to be put away (bulgar, beans,tuna,sugar,tea,oil) and the area cleaned up.  The residents of this camp are always willing to help and soon a human chain of helpers made the work go that much faster- many hands make light work.  Days are VERY long when you are not permitted to work and the children still are not attending Greek schools- they are going to the camp school where teachers in the community hold classes 5 days a week so any activity is a welcomed one!

Once the small boxes had been unpacked we had to break some of the bags of goods into smaller bags.  While some of our team and the volunteers did this others were preparing for a distribution of some of the items that had just come in.  Tomorrow is grocery day- but they wanted to get this new food out to everyone as soon as possible.  While we

loaded everyones bags with the 8 items each we were distributing, the rest of our team was handing out the cake and waffles they had made- so many smiling faces.   A little dignity- tomorrow on the right hand of the shop residents will shop for 1 each of the items on the shelf and get fresh fruit and veggies.  On the right side of the shop are personal care items that people can take as they need them.

Another full day.

Full day!!!  We stayed in a great hotel in Athens, it kind of recharged our batteries!  We were up and out the door early we had a full schedule so needed to get started early.IMG_6140

We headed to the big warehouse on the former Olympic site- Ellininko.   We were going to put our baby baskets there for Team Athens member Rita to pick up later in the week. There were 2 in our group that saw the warehouse for their first time.  It really is breathtaking how much aid there is in this space.  Unfortunately the same issues that have always plagued distribution remains- not enough of the items really needed, no means to deliver to the camps (aside from camps sending little cars out to collect items) and tons, literally tons of undeliverable aid.  The latest was someone sent a child size bee keepers outfit.  Really…………..

Our 1st stop is a fantastic project Amanda and I had visited in January.  The HOMProject works with unaccompanied minors and pregnant and young mothers.  In January they had 1 house open and today 5!  Unbelievable to be working that fast in Athens.  They were in need of some food so between getting some at the warehouse and the grocery store they were good to go for at least a week!

They currently house 60 kids in 4 houses and the girls house will open next week with 2

teenage mothers.  Sexual assault and exploitation is a reality for many in the camps.  Both girls and boys.  The house we toured in Jan housing boys has been refitted to receive the young mothers- cribs, playpens and high chairs dot the family like home.  There will be 16 children in the home with 12 supporting staff members.  This group is making a real difference in these kid’s lives.  The work is very difficult and wrought with many back steps, but in 5 short months they have seen the changes in the kids that have been with them for the last 5 months.  A beam of light.

At the warehouse we had also loaded up with items for the camp we’d visited yesterday- they actually had requested items that they were supposed to have picked up by Easter.  4 pallets of shoes and clothes.  We were able to take a pallet and a half of goods and

squish them into the van.   The girls had to drive the 2 hours with boxes on their laps, well, sit and sleep.

We unloaded the vans- Devon had printed up some of the photo’s she had taken

yesterday.  The kids were excited to receive pictures of themselves.

We could not spend much extra time at the camp as we still had a 4 hour drive ahead of us.  These days get so long!  Every night we have dinner starting at 11:00pm- 11:30pm. IMG_6143 We remind ourselves we are here to work- the drive North was beautiful.  Watching the sun set over the sea is never tiring.

Dinner was at a Russian restaurant a 10 min walk from the hotel.

We were tired but still managed to talk about the day, the highs, the lows and to laugh.

A quick run to Athens….

Team 27 is seriously on fire……..we were able to do 2 days of camp visits in 1 day, which freed up our schedule to do a quick run to Athens.  Of the 6 of us, 2 had never been to

Sulphur Springs picture with our leader Sara represented!

Athens and well, it was so close and there were baby beds that could be delivered so we decided to do a quick 2 day/1 night trip down to Athens.

The drive down went super fast (less than 5 hours)- previously there was a 10 mile section that was thru a mountain pass, 2 lanes and always backed up.  Since January they have opened the tunnel that takes at least an hour off the trip.  The roads in Greece are beautiful- with 10 tolls between northern Greece and Athens are a small price to pay for pristine roads and amazing views.

We stopped at a camp about 2 hours north of Athens.  This camp is located in an old holiday resort that now houses refugees but also has sulphur springs that tourists come to take the waters in.  Such a juxtaposition to see the modest head scarf wearing refugees next to the eastern European people in 2 piece suits and Speedos.  I will not be providing pictures of this, you can use your imagination.

If there was a theme to this trip it would be “diapers”.  This is what every camp needs and is desperate for.  If the camp is luck enough to have Red Cross or Red Crescent representation 7 diaper for a week are handed out.  For.a.week.  Imagine a new born- with only 7 diapers to last the whole week.  No hot water to wash clothes in, no wipes.

Thankfully CTF is literally on the cutting edge of what is happening and has been holding diaper parties around the world where people can come to bring diapers for local refugees resettled in country, and donate to CTF for trips like ours which can deliver these diapers in almost real time.


We will purchase diapers tomorrow and deliver them on our way back to the North of Greece to this camp.

After we drove straight to an Afghan camp that I have visited the 4 previous times i’ve been in Greece.  I had a love connection with these people, families, now friends who occupy the 17 rooms the 1st time I visited a year ago.  We learned today that the building was originally used in the 1940’s to house refugees after the WWII.  Last year a man and his wife from Germany visited and the man had been a refugee in this very building when he was 3.

The children have all grown!  Most everyone is still here 1 year later.  One of the 110 residents has gotten job with an Athens based NGO as an interpreter.  The children have been in Greek school since October and while this is not home, a feeling of settling permeates the building and it’s inhabitants.  For those of us who have been to camps literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hay fields- miles from the closest small town.  This camp nestled in a little sea side town almost seems bearable.

We had a couple hour visit- everyone was able to sit for a cup of tea and coffee with different families.  The children were our interpreters and they would run from room to room telling us where the others were.  The sense of community is real here- parents working very hard to make this situation as bearable as possible for the 60+ kids who call this home.

We left with full hearts, but hoping that these lovely souls can find a home soon.  WeIMG_6072 stopped off at the Temple of Poseidon- so beautiful, perched on the sea side with views of the Mediterranean.

I could never get sick of these views!

Our hotel was buried in the bowels of Athens, we finally found the hotel after a couple of rough starts and stops via Map Quest.  We parked the van in a parking garage to keep the baby bed aid safe and loaded into taxi’s to go to dinner- Athens at night shines.  The streets are bustling and alive with voices from around the globe.  Dinner was IMG_6086beside some ancient ruin, illuminated and proud.

Back home Max had #1 of 2 proms he will be going to while I am away.  His girlfriend Nadia attends another high school and so they will go to both.  He was kind enough to send me some photo’s of the night-



Day 2- new camps.

The day dawned bright- our weather has been on the cool side.  Our goal today was to

View from my hotel room balcony.

visit as many camps that we can that are listed on the UNHCR maps in this area that CTF has lost contact with, or are new camps.  The situation in the past 12 months has been very fluid in Greece.  Camps opening, closing, people being moved from camps into apartments and hotels.  We were able to visit 4 of the 5 camps on our list for today.  We couldn’t find the 5th camp……..

As it was Saturday and many of the NGO’s working in the camps were not there, but we were able to get contact information for 2 of the camps and the 3rd camp we met with a Swiss NGO who works with mothers and children- they were thrilled to hear about the work that CTF does.  She wanted us to visit a near by camp they also support and we followed behind her car up and down and around fields of poppies to their “sister” camp.  It was one on our list!

We were to deliver beds, strollers and diapers later in the day so we said goodbye and went back towards town to find a Jumbo to buy the items.  Decided to stop for lunch- IMG_6019which was a bit of a walk to find a gyro place.  It was very good- the Jumbo did not have the size 7 diapers we were looking for, but they did have the magnifying reading glasses I needed to see since I lost my only pair this morning.  Somehow.  Somewhere in my little hotel room.

We found the diapers at a grocery store, but since they were on sale we had to have 3 people use 3 different credit cards to purchase the 1 month supply of diapers for 2.  It all worked out and we headed back to the camp to unload our beds, the strollers and diapers.

This camp was a little over a year old and housed vulnerable people- sick, elderly, pregnant…….they had so many wonderful programs available to the families:  playgrounds, class rooms, women center, tea room, places to shop with points

they get and can earn (the latest way to give dignity and a slice of normalcy),

gardening, sewing, kitchens to cook their own food in, inside soccer areas (it snows up here!)…….it was really beautiful.

We asked how often they receive new families and our tour guide said “not that often” but “last week we had a mother, father and 2 boys who where found near the Turkish border brought to us”.  With one days notice they were told they would be receiving 2 paraplegic twins (11 years old-hence the size 7 diapers) and a younger brother.  The rooms are located on the 2nd floor of an old plastics factory-thankfully an elevator was available to move people to the 2nd floor if needed.   Imagine their horrific story- finding their way from Syria to Greece carrying the boys- and because this is not awful enough, the younger boy is showing signs of paralysis as well.

I find myself at times being lulled into a false sense of security for the refugees we meet.  Thinking that the camps and all the supports are so wonderful, only to be reminded that no, this is not ok.  Even with 100’s of support these are people without homes and voices. Much of the world has forgotten about the conflicts that have displaced millions of people in this world.  Two paraplegic brothers are a grim reminder of the magnitude this holds for so many.


April-Team 27, Northern Greece

When I changed my clock on my phone to military time during my SEVEN HOUR LONG LAYOVER IN PARIS…….well, actually not Paris, Paris.  Rather the airport- my trip timer was somehow deleted.  It was supposed to be an 85 min layover and I did arrive at the gate while the plane was still there- but the boarding had closed so Jilly got to spend extra time in CDG.  This time it took me over 30 hours to get here.  A new record- more importantly lessons learned!

Arrived in the wee hours of the morning, was able to get 5 hours of mostly restful sleep before we hit the road running!  Team 27 has Amanda and I back together for our 3rd IMG_5962trip!!!  We are Ying to each others Yang- and I love traveling with her!  Plus she can pack a van like no one’s business.   Amanda and I met on our 1st trip with CTF- Team 8 a year ago.  Sarah was our team leader then and is this teams leader, except she had to go to Jordan to fit like 1000 baby carriers, but she will be back in a few days.

We all flew into Thessaloniki (and yes, Jill can finally say this cities name!).  Greece’s 2nd largest city located about a 5 hours drive north of Athens.  We met for breakfast, walked around the corner to pick up our rental van for the next 9 days then headed towards Alexandria about an hour away.  We needed to load my Greek phone with data (you pay for the data you use and it disappears after a month) this took extra time as my data was not working and the phone store was very busy!  But before we got to the phone store weIMG_5967 passed a really big Jumbo store so had to stop and buy items for the baby baskets.  Of the 5 of us, 2 have never been to Greece before!  It is always fun to see peoples reactions!

Last month the baby baskets from the UK were delivered to a warehouse in Alexandria.  Our team muled over the baby items in their checked baggage (onesies, hats, washcloths, pajama’s, blankets….) and in Greece we were purchasing at Jumbo diapers, wipes, pads for mom, baby shampoo and bra pads.  The funds for these items are raised with donations to CTF and also for all the diaper parties that have been being held around the world this last month.  Amazing.  We filled 5 carts of swag and started the hour drive to Alexandria.  Thankfully we stopped at the hotel first and got rid of out bags!  We spent

the next 3 hours organizing 30 baby baskets and taking inventory of all the items for the beds.  The warehouse was empty of their workers so we were able to make use of the whole sorting table, which we needed.  The 42 baskets (we also grabbed 12 baskets the

last team had assembled) were then loaded into the van.  It.Was.Full.!   There are going to be 42 very happy Mama’s and babies very soon!  Everything is all organized so that when we return to pack more beds it won’t take as much time!

Back in AZ Zabi (our refugee families youngest- a 2nd grader) had his 1st school

Zabi (10) with his brother Abdul Aziz (16)

performance.  Less than 2 weeks after arriving from Afghanistan by way of Pakistan, he sang in English and spoke in his native tongue Farsi along with his other 2nd graders from around the world.   The family is doing so well!  Typically the case worker has the kids start school a month after they arrive- we had them start 6 days later.  Between knowing that summer was coming in 7 weeks and our educational background (a former school Board President, a PHD in Education and a masters in Social work working in a school district that is 40% refugee ) we knew every day was precious time lost in language accusation and assimilation.