I have to confess, I am not a volunteering kind of person. I think I volunteered once with meals on wheels years ago when I had first moved to town and didn’t have a job yet and didn’t know anyone. In the fall, however, I got tired of opening up my Facebook feed and shedding silent tears for a refugee crisis that I didn’t understand and was looking for a way to be a bit more proactive.
All in all, the main conclusion that everyone was arriving at was that “some one” should be doing “something”. The more I read, though, the more it became obvious that no one, at least no one in a position of power, seemed to be doing anything positive to help the waves of refugees. Borders were being closed, policies were being created, barbed wire fences were being erected, but these seemed to be government actions based on fear rather than a desire to help others. The first inklings I had of the humanitarian efforts were when I saw pictures of sympathetic Hungarian citizens handing out water, bananas and bread to a passing stream of refugees. No big name aid organizations, just regular human beings helping others.
Then I saw the picture that changed it all for me, the picture of a mother smiling a smile of relief as she was fitted with a baby carrier. This was something I could directly relate to, having two young children of my own that I would not be able to carry as far as the nearest metro/bus stop, let alone across continents. The more I read more about the organization, Carry the Future and checked out their volunteer organization page on Facebook, the more I was amazed by the outpouring of support. They had a huge volunteer response and networks collecting baby carriers popping up around the world. They had volunteers going on distribution trips and a sister organization, Operation Refugee Child, that handed out care packages of basic necessities as well. All because one woman saw people carrying their children on a 70 km trek across Kos island and decided that she could do something to help.I opened up trusty google maps to see where exactly this island was located and I stumbled upon a Pandora’s box of a map. The “refugee volunteer map” had little info points on every Aegean island with a list of the number of refugees arriving per day, the organizations on the ground and whether they needed volunteers and what kind. And they all needed volunteers, desperately. Volunteers to sort clothes, volunteers to distribute clothes, volunteers to prepare food, volunteers to provide hot tea and dry clothes as boats came in, volunteers to camp out and watch the beaches for approaching boats, volunteers to clean up boats and life jackets left on the beach. Of course they needed the sort of adventure super-hero volunteers trained in marine search and rescue and medical emergencies that first come to mind in this sort of situation, but what was really needed was regular people with a pair of hands and a willingness to work. Somewhat impulsively, I booked a ticket to Lesvos.
My knowledge of this crisis evolves like a child’s knowledge of the world around it. A lot of details come together in a completely illogical order before the puzzle is gradually fits into place. The news reports from the mainstream media in no way clarify the situation as they rely on sensationalist articles that read like snapshots without any background. “Refugee Rampage!” “Border Mania!” Without the context, all we see are the hoardes, and they do little to inspire our sympathy.
I liken the refugee crisis to an elderly maiden aunt who starts to grow old. Whose responsibility is she? Will the whole family chip in for her care? Will it fall on one or two people because the rest don’t feel that it is their responsibility? Or will she be left to perish alone on the floor only to be found weeks later because no one in her family could come to an agreement about sharing the costs because it “wasn’t their problem”. Currently our governments seem to be favouring the last outcome. And where do all of us “independent volunteers” fit into this scenario? Consider us the nosy neighbours, who see another human being who needs a bit of help, the occasional meal, and sidewalks shovelled in the winter, even though she isn’t our family and isn’t our problem.
Saying that you are going to Lesvos is like announcing a new relationship: all you have done is go for dinner and a movie and people are already asking you exactly what the future will hold in terms of when will you move in together, wedding plans, number of children etc. The situation in Lesvos changes so quickly that it can be very tricky to know what the important tasks will be in a month’s time. Everyone asks which organization will be “hiring” me and the truth is I have no answer. Most of it is co-ordinated on Facebook. (Yes, I am going halfway around the world based on a page I found on Facebook. Does that sound mildly crazy? It does to me somedays.) You put your details on a contact page and if you have desirable qualities: qualified doctor, fluent in Arabic, Farsi and Dari and coming for 3 months, for example, you will probably be snapped right up. If, like me, you are coming for a week, have nothing but basic first aid and 50 words of Arabic, you probably won’t be. That’s not to say there is no work, but just that most NGO’s aren’t going to make any firm commitment until the week or two before, depending on the situation. They don’t have time to coddle volunteers with feel-good talk about “hiring” and “positions” because they are too busy worrying about more important things. As of this week, the closure of the Balkan route means that there is a huge backlog of people in Greece. Ferries to Athens are no longer taking refugees because there is nowhere for them to go, which means that Lesvos is likely to start getting pretty crowded.
Even though I have no idea what to expect, the info document says “if you come even for a week, you will have a better understanding of the situation, and can then communicate it to your friends, who only read about this in the newspaper. And you can get real work done.” I probably wouldn’t be coming if I wasn’t already in that part of the world on a family vacation, but I have already noticed that simply by telling people I am coming to volunteer it has opened up countless people’s eyes to the reality of the situation and resulted in many interesting discussions. People who had never before heard of “safe passage” are incensed when they hear that there are thousands risking their lives to make an unsafe sea crossing when there is a perfectly good daily ferry service that is off limits for refugees. And people who are incensed are likely to be asking some harsh questions of their own politicians.
So, to conclude, I am a bit scared, a bit excited and a bit worried that I will never accomplish the long list of tasks to do before I leave in two weeks. I am eager to see what kind of volunteering this trip will bring and hope that it will be worthwhile. If there are no refugees left and no clean up to do (hmm, hard to believe) I can always have a quiet little island vacation. In short, I might be heading off into the wild blue yonder, but at least I am not doing it in a little rubber dinghy, willing to risk everything for the chance of being in a safer place.
Feel like donating? Here are some ideas:
(Actually not me, but to the organizations on the ground in Lesvos)
Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island
An amazing initiative that launders clothing and blankets discarded on the beach and puts them back into circulation.
Carry the Future
Happy parents equal happy kids. If you can’t lighten the load, at least redistribute it and make it hands free!
Images from the Ai Weiwei installation at the Berlin Kontzerthaus to promote awareness of the Refugee Crisis. Read more about it…