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Spokane teens volunteer at Greek refugee camps

After graduating in 2015, Spokane natives Cameron Conner and Grant Gallaher packed their tent and embarked on a volunteer mission that would take them to refugee camps near the Greek-Macedonian border.

“These people are just like me,” Conner said. “I wanted to come and really help them and see what it’s like for them.”

What he found was a camp filled with hundreds of people fleeing violence in the Middle East. In that camp, people lived in rows of white tents provided by the United Nations and supported by wooden platforms that two teens from West Valley High School helped build.

Conner and Gallaher took a gap year – a year off from studies before starting college – to volunteer overseas. After their year abroad, they started their studies at Whitman College in late August.

“I’ve always wanted to take a concentrated amount of time to see what exactly 12 years of education got me. After graduating from high school I had been playing around with the idea of a gap year and was accepted to Whitman College, but decided to defer until this coming fall so I could be able to pursue my passion for seeing what else is out there,” Conner said.

He learned to travel internationally before he learned to walk. His parents, Denise Attwood and Rick Conner, founded Ganesh Himal Trading Co. in 1984. The business imports handmade art and crafts from Nepal using fair trade ethics. Conner traveled regularly to Nepal, so it was no surprise that when a massive earthquake struck in April 2015, Conner and his family immediately arranged for aid shipments and rebuilding projects.

The earthquake coincided with Conner’s graduation, and his plan to attend Whitman was put off for a year so he could travel to Nepal to help the victims.

Although volunteering overseas was second nature to Conner, it was something very new to Gallaher.

“Volunteering was a bit far off of my life plan,” Gallaher said. “I just wanted to go off to college and do the normal thing that people do after graduating high school.”

Ever since he and Conner were in middle school, Gallaher has seen his friend travel to amazing places and knew some day he wanted to join in on the adventure. He said after the Nepal quake that killed more than 8,000 people and left thousands homeless, he knew he needed to take a year and volunteer with Conner.

In Nepal, the two trekked into remote mountain villages to rebuild a clinic that Conner’s parents established years ago and to help the artisans and craftsmen their company has supported for three decades.

In May, the boys moved to Greece, where they volunteered at the Nea Kavala refugee camp on the Macedonian border. Working through a German organization called the Green Helmets, they built wood flooring for the refugee’s temporary tents. The 30 floors they turned each day helped keep bugs and rodents out, prevented flooding and made sleeping more comfortable for the refugees.

The two also built relationships with refugees, especially children. Communication was difficult, with broken English and a few phrases of Pashto, Farsi or Arabic, but the Spokane volunteers learned a lot from people whose future is so unsure.

“So many of these kids are so intelligent and so creative and really could do something great for the world, and they might not have the chance to, and that breaks my heart,” Gallaher said.

Life in the camps is not easy. The children have no classes other than makeshift “schools” created by volunteers, and shoes and clothing are scarce. The boys said they felt defeated every day because they couldn’t do more for them.

Gallaher and Conner received an education of their own at the refugee camp and said their deepest wish is that more people would realize how great life is in America. They said they’ve learned how difficult it is for people to live in the refugee camps, to eat strange food and be confined to tents no larger than a small bedroom. The teens don’t want the refugees to go forgotten by the rest of the world.

“I really want to spend the rest of my life working with people in difficult situations and help them get out of them, help them better their own lives,” Conner said.

Jody Barhanovich is a recent graduate from Washington State University. She visited Greece through the WSU Murrow Backpack Journalism Program in May.