What Does It Mean to Be a Humanitarian? Reflections from my Work in Greek Refugee Camps


Written by Zihan Jin

What does it mean to be a humanitarian? King’s College London Department of International Development alumnus, Zihan Jin, reflects on his work in Greek refugee camps and how it inspired him to start his own humanitarian organisation.

The backdrop

The refugee crisis in 2015 sparked the worst humanitarian catastrophe that Europe had seen since the Second World War. More than one million refugees fleeing war and persecution arrived on the continent’s shores. As a result, national governments and the European Union were overwhelmed with the task of resettlement.

When the refugee crisis struck, I was completing my final year of university. Given my passion for social justice and previous experience working with transmigrants during an internship with a Mexican NGO, I decided to volunteer in Greece’s refugee camps immediately after my graduation.

The front line of the refugee crisis

When I arrived in Athens, I immediately joined the front line of aid workers at Port of Piraeus. I started working at a refugee camp hosting more than 3000 asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. When I first entered the camp, I was struck by its pandemonium and despair. Families, children and pregnant women were housed in cramped, temporary UNHCR tents, which exposed them to blistering heat. What’s more, food and essential sanitation were lacking.

The nature of humanitarian field work

Working at the Greek refugee camp, I quickly learned the all-encompassing nature of humanitarian field work. As an aid worker on the front line, you become people’s only support system. You live by the minute, as situations and emergencies could break out at any time, demanding your quick judgement. One day at the camp, a heavily pregnant refugee woman developed severe stomach pains. While it was difficult to understand her exact symptoms, I rang the Hellenic Ambulance to report a medical emergency. However, a shortage of available ambulances and possible latent resentment towards refugees meant that no services could help for at least an hour. Unsurprisingly, this long wait would have put the woman and her child’s lives at risk. In response, I decided to drive the patient to the hospital in our food delivery van, accompanied by translators and female volunteers.

As a young academic fresh out of university, this experience transformed me. I became more resilient and more able to thrive in highly stressful environments.  The humanitarian duty not to look the other way when people desperately need help also became ingrained in me.

Translating idealism into concrete action

While I had written my dissertation on universal human rights and the theories of enforceable global social justice and ethics, my experience in the Greek refugee camp made me realise the gap between theory and practice. I saw that local NGO actors played an instrumental role in bridging policy and implementation. They contributed in areas which national government and international organisations could not reach.

With this in mind, I returned to the UK and began the process of registering my own NGO, ICOARM (International Collective Operations Aiding Refugees and Migrants). At the same time, I organised fundraisers and conducted field research on refugee camps, which lacked vital services and resources. ICOARM quickly opened for business, and with the help of my partners, we have lobbied the UK government to uphold fundamental human rights. Meanwhile, we implemented a Transportation Service Programme (TSP), which provided isolated camps outside of Athens with vital services.

To be a humanitarian, it’s not essential to help absolutely everyone. If you can make a small positive impact on one suffering person’s life, you have served your purpose.

About The Author

Zihan Jin holds an MSc in International Development and Emerging Economies at King’s College London. He is the co-founder and director of the humanitarian NGO ICOARM. Zihan is also doing an internship at the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations.