It’s an item of clothing the majority of women take for granted, but if you are a homeless refugee even the humble bra becomes a luxury item.
Speech therapist Donna Greaves, 29, has come to the rescue of thousands of refugee women having spent the past two months collecting more than 1,400 bras that will be sent to Syrian refugees in Greece.
Fed up with the UK’s unwelcome response to those fleeing war and persecution she began reaching out to volunteer organisations, keen to get to Greece and do whatever she could to help them.
Donna said: “I remember feeling frustrated by the way our government was dealing with [the refugee crisis], I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I just wanted to do something, I felt a sense of responsibility.”
In April she finally got to Eko camp, an informal refugee centre based at a petrol station in northern Greece, housing between 2,000 and 3,000 men, women and children. Having travelled there on her own, she joined others to deliver aid projects co-ordinated by a Syrian refugee called Aslam Obade.
Driven by a need to make things better he’d secured a warehouse for collecting and distributing the thousands of donations arriving each day. The camp was basic and Aslam’s distribution network was one of the only services available to help residents.
Donna learned that not far from Eko was a state-run camp built to house 10,000 refugees but it was unfinished and families were living in unimaginable squalor. Buses would turn up unannounced at Eko camp and take people away to the other camp without warning. She said this forced migration of already displaced people felt “sinister” as they would be there one day and gone the next.
The second camp was vast and overwhelmingly male. Women told Donna they did not feel safe going to the toilet on their own at night. They could hear incidents of violence against women. “It was really, really frightening,” she said.
There were further ways both camps were unsafe. At Eko, children would run across the functioning motorway either through play or boredom. Also, the weather in the region is changeable. There can be searing heat during the day, big temperature drops throughout the night and torrential rain and winds can strike at a moment’s notice. Those lucky enough to have makeshift tents were at the mercy of the weather. Their meagre shelter and possessions could be swept away when the weather turned leaving them with nothing once again.
Being on the camps was a challenging experience for the volunteers. Giving basic handouts to those who had nothing felt like a small gesture in comparison to the enormity of their needs. Donna said: “The conditions were dehumanising. It was difficult to watch.”
Returning home after two weeks in Greece, Donna was haunted by the memory of a woman approaching her as she headed to Aslam’s warehouse. She recalls: “The woman whispered in my ear, ‘While you’re there can you get me a bra?’ They were like gold dust.” Fuelled by a desire to do something positive for the women she met, some of whom have remained friends, Donna decided to ask local women back in Lewisham to donate their unwanted bras.
She approached local businesses to become collection points and they agreed. She set up a Facebook group called Lewisham Bra Brigade, got over 600 likes and a network of women who would give donations and spread the word. In just two months Donna received more than 1,400 bras – significantly more than the 1,000 she hoped to. The money she raised to cover postage can now be used to buy more underwear thanks to another charity, GRACE that will send them free with their donations.
Was Donna anxious about setting up the project? “Of course. I hadn’t done anything like this before but when I asked people for help they said yes. One of the best things to come out of this is meeting other women who want to change things.”
So what next now that Donna has completed her mission? She’s not sure but her next meeting is with her local MP about the living conditions in young offenders institutions…
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