(Pt 1) Why volunteer in Greece to help the refugee crisis? To empower refugees in rebuilding their lives.

Why volunteer in Greece to help refugees? Because empowering refugees improves the lives of all involved

Lesvos, Greece by night.  Home of the refugee crisis, and the worst refugee camp in Europe

 

In the first part of my adventure of volunteering to help in the refugee crisis on Lesvos, I answer the question “why volunteer?”, I get honest about the risks of volunteerism, and I become acquainted with the island that is home to the worst refugee camp in Europe and the precarious situation it exists in.


More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis


Why Volunteer in Greece to help the refugee crisis?

In a tiny corner of the Agean Sea, closer to Turkey than the Greek mainland, lies a tiny Greek island. “Lesvos”.  Commonly known as “Lesbos” to English speakers, this island has changed hands between the Greeks, the Turks, and even the Romans a handful of times over the last couple of millennia.  However, this island isn’t the only thing passing between nations in this part of the world.  Refugees fleeing from crisis and hardship frequent the channel between Turkey and Greece as they take everything they own, and risk everything, climbing into tiny rubber boats in search of a better life.  I would assume that any person with that kind of fortitude would be able to do amazing things…if they were simply helped out of that boat and offered the intangible tools necessary to build a new life in western society. So, why volunteer in Greece with refugees?  Because foremost, everyone deserves an equal shot at building a happy, healthy life and I was more than happy to facilitate that kind of empowerment.

The adventure that ensued, the next adventure of my travels, would two months on Lesvos, attempting to help and learn from these people as I gained a firsthand perspective of the refugee crisis, and a new view on varied the “human condition” can be for each of us…through no fault of our own.

My Arrival, My Reasons

I was still wiping my eyes, trying to wake up, as I stumbled down the steps leading from my plane.  Three minutes.  That’s how long it took to get from the plane to the airport exit and pickup my rental car outside. That’s how tiny this island airport was.  The sea breeze that swept between the automatic doors was better than morning coffee.  Lesvos and I were going to get along well.

I had been awake off and on since midnight as I waited for and took my redeye flight from Greece, but at least I was in my car now and on my way to start something that had been on my bucket list for two years.  Volunteering to help refugees in Greece.

From my limited research and understanding of international affairs, many of the refugees were Iraqis (Kurds and Arabs), Syrians, and Afghans.  These were the primary groups I was interested in helping.

I felt a connection to the Iraqis.  Wrong or right, US activity in the country was part of a series of events that led to the current state of Iraq being uninhabitable for most civilians.  In a past life, I had spent so much time there and with the people, so I was intimately familiar with their culture and their struggles.

For the Syrians, I wasn’t certain of their situation – ISIS grew out of the Iraq conflict and (to my understanding) was wreaking havoc on Syria causing many to flee their homes, so based on my limited understanding, I was partially repaying a debt there.  On the other hand, Assad, the Russians, and the Arab Spring had contributed to the current situation, so I could be mistaken.  In any case, I’d met more than a handful Syrians in my travels – and none of them were leaving just because they wanted to see something new.  They were either leaving because they fought for a regime change (and more democratic processes) and were targeted, or unfettered violence and war pushed them from their homes.  Both, to me, viable reasons for offering assistance.

As for the Afghans, I was unsure.  I did not understand what the true situation was on the ground before the US showed up so I couldn’t say whether there was a “debt owed”. But, we were there fighting.  Being there to help in the aftermath seemed like a good place to start to find the truth.

Granted, I was on Lesvos to help anyone I could, but these three groups, Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians, were at the top of my list to help in any way possible.

As I cruised a stretch of road along the beach heading toward Mytilene, I could see the mountains of Turkey mere miles away, across a part of the turquoise sea.  This span of water that I stared beyond was the one so many people that I’d meet had attempted floating across, sometimes two or three times, in hopes of a better life.  If I actually had some sleep the night before then the gravity of that situation and view might have sunk in.  Unfortunately it didn’t sink in…at that moment. I just drove right on towards my induction brief.

 

The Induction and the Ground Rules

After a chaotic path to arrival, I met my new NGO’s coordinator at a café in Mytilene that belonged to the organization.  Little did I know that eventually I would run that café as part of my many roles during this part of my “global volunteer adventure”.

The first topic we discussed during the induction was the situation on Lesvos.

Moria Camp was overly crowded (7,000+ people in a space designed for 2,000).  Facilities provided were inadequate, leading to a Humanitarian crisis so bad that the Danish Red Cross (**KF** Check For Veracity) walked out because the authorities administering Moria Camp failed to improve camp conditions to a satisfactory level.  In the vacuum of the Danish Red Cross’ absence, no other European NGO would step up.  Now, Eurorelief, an American NGO, was “administering” the camp with no sign that conditions would be improved.  This name, Eurorelief, would come up a lot in not so polite whispers about how stagnant reaction to the crisis situation was on the island.

Entrance to Moria Camp Was Forbidden

Because of the conditions in Moria Camp, and other undetermined reasons, it was illegal for anyone that wasn’t a refugee, a Greek government official, or part of an approved NGO (we were not) to enter Moria Camp.  Refugees could leave Moria Camp each day but all refugees were expected to return to their camps by evening.  Any unauthorized persons entering the camp would be arrested…as I would find out firsthand later in trip.

With the formalities of knowing what I could be arrested for out of the way and a clear understanding of how horrible living conditions for refugees was, it was time to discuss what I would be doing on the islands.  My missions, according my new NGO…

Mission 1: Refugee Boat Spotting (aka staring at water)

Boat spotting, or “spotting” as it is more commonly referred to, is the act of waiting on the shoreline with binoculars while on the lookout for boats carrying refugees.  Though the Greek Coast Guard and a third party EU sanctioned maritime organization, “Frontex”, did a solid job spotting and retrieving boats in Greek waters, sometimes boats filled with refugees would float all of the way to the shores of Lesvos on their own.  In these cases, “spotters” would identify the landing location before the boat hit shore, call it in to Greek authorities, and show up to the site of the landing to assist refugees.  After the boats hit Greek land, the spotters offered assistance helping everyone out of the boats and administering first aid as necessary – usually just hypothermia related.  For approximately the next 45 minutes, the spotters would manage and take care of the refugees until the Greek authorities arrived to process the refugees and transport them to Moria.  Then, the spotting would continue for the remainder of the evening.

At night, the team from my organization would participate in spotting as part of a larger team.  Various parts of the team would post at locations along the coast while other members of the spotting effort drove constantly up and down the coast for signs of refugees.

In 2016, tens of boats arrived per day carrying 40 to 60 refugees in not so great condition, so having spotters, first responders, and people ready to do open water life-saving was integral to avoid having more bodies  than refugees wash up on the beach.

Here’s the catch.  In the last two months, there had been only one boat landing.  So, up all night to stare at the water?  This could be interesting.

Mission 2: Injecting English into Eager Minds – An Unexpectedly Worthy Cause

When asking myself why volunteer in Greece with refugees instead of heading to Asia, Africa, or South America, a major reason was the type of needs to be filled by volunteers on each continent.  From my limited research, I assumed that the needs on Lesvos would revolve around reception processing, during which my limited ability to speak Arabic would come in handy.  After reception, empowerment would be my primary goal – attempting to do anything that would enable long term success of the refugees.  Lucky for me, my new NGO had a new teaching project underway.

The organization had started offering English classes and already had a few classes full.  This was something I could get behind.  The coordinators did a great job slowly building up the classes at a level that they were capable of managing and teaching.  Two of my favorite volunteers had done an amazing job teaching English to people who spoke no English at all – all accomplished without any prior experience teaching, any actual training, and with minimal resources and support.  Impressive.

By the time I arrived, the pair had learned a ton and unintentionally created a list of stalling points in the current English classes and “teaching curriculum”. This list of pain points would turn into one of the most valuable projects I was involved in on the island: creating free English teaching resources to get refugees to and beyond survival level conversational English as quickly as possible (checkout the product of the efforts at www.aBrotherAbroad.com/GivingBack).

Mission 3: Coffee, Tea, and Smiles

Lastly, the NGO ran a café it had created recently. Filled with computers, a delightfully relaxed atmosphere, a nice sound system, and stocked with free coffee and tea, I could immediately see this project had a ton of potential.  The big idea behind this project was to create a “safe space” where refugees could relax, learn, and feel normal away from the stresses of Moria Camp.  A center of emotional decompression.  For anyone that knows anything about emotional trauma and PTSD (which most of these people likely suffered from), positive, normal, open interactions with a tribe of people in a safe setting is invaluable.  As I would understand it, for the handful of refugees that would call this café “Home” the effects of the café would be much more than I expected.

 

The Situation on Lesvos from the Mouths of Volunteers: Tense, strained, and disjointed

Conversations to follow with other volunteers filled in the missing details I needed to know about the situation on Lesvos.

Fascists, or Nazis if you prefer to call them that, were growing in number on the island of Lesvos.  The week prior to my arrival, a riot and clash with the police took place in Sappho Square, the main square of downtown Mytilene. One such incident stemmed from a non-violent protest by the refugees in which the refugees sat in the square to protest the living conditions in Moria Camp.  The reaction of the stressed populous that identified as fascists was to counter the protest “not so peacefully” which ultimately ended in police intervention and a riot.

The NGO landscape was scattered with players ranging in size from hundreds of personnel in some organizations, to singletons that showed up hoping to save the world on their own.  On the large side (from the “GO” crowd) UNHCR had a mysterious presence guiding the long term direction of camps on the island.  The Red Cross was around as well, providing a range of health related services and other essential services that were unfortunately insufficient for the large number of refugees on the island.  A step below the Red Cross was another interesting organization, which many of the volunteers exchanged stories about.  It was an America NGO called Eurorelief, notorious for being staffed with evangelicals on one end and volunteers who could use a couple lessons in how to “handle” people who had been recently tortured, abused, persecuted, and force to leave their homes due to wars.  Most of my interactions with Eurorelief made me question why they even tried to come and “help.”

One step below those larger orgs (in size) were many NGOs covering a spattering of missions.  They mostly grew from grassroots activities during the high traffic times of 2016.  Ranging from the provision of education and essential medical services, like One Happy Family and Doc Mobile, to providing showers and emotional support services augmenting the overly taxed infrastructure of Moria Camp, like Shower Power, to the necessary but not so thought of activity of just making people feel normal, like at Home for All.

On the final rung of the volunteer ladder were the singletons and rogues…who were oddly my favorite.  From the girl who showed up self-funded and snuck around the camp handing out hygiene packs to women, to the expat that realized the kids of the Greek community on the Greek Island might enjoy a movie, these individuals managed to bypass the volunteer system in an interesting and very productive way.  Their stories, thinking, and approaches to solving problems were some of my favorite.

My Dilemma: The Question and Value of Voluntourism

As I entered this situation I had one question foremost in my mind to keep me focused – with my mission on the island being to help as many people in need as possible in a lasting way, what was the best and most efficient way to help on the island?   How could I spend my time in such a way that the answer to “why volunteer?” would be a resounding,”because I enacted persisting, long term change in a way that would have otherwise not been possible.”

Even more, what were the risks? How could I fall into the potentially dirty traps of “voluntourism” and hurting the overall situation more than helping?  Perhaps the biggest risk was becoming too narrow sighted and focused on the details, ultimately failing to see potentially negative impacts on the big picture, as is commonly the case with voluntourism

What is voluntourism, you might ask.  Voluntourism is a newer travel trend that combines volunteering with tourism, and from what I’ve observed doesn’t do either very well. Voluntourism normally plays out when a person volunteers to help a cause during some kind of holiday or vacation, hoping to make a positive impact while at the same time enjoying some respite from normal life. The problem is that in many voluntourism instances the objective is lost or muddied making it potentially directionless experience.  Is the volunteer primarily participating in the activity to feel good, or is helping the recipients of assistance in a lasting way more important?  In some cases, these two potential goals may coincide, but more often than not, the voluntourism experience is a gross waste of resources at best and detrimental to the population “being helped” at worst.

A prime example of voluntourism: elephants in Asia.  Most of you know someone that has “volunteered” with elephants. Elephants that have been “rescued”?  This experience is commonly seen as superior to the tourist traps throughout Southeast Asia that let you ride elephants for a fee after you watch them do tricks and paint a picture for you.  The problem is even many of these “elephant sanctuaries” perpetuate a cycle of exploiting the same elephants that the volunteers are trying to help, and most volunteers don’t even realize what’s happening.

Many of these “elephant sanctuaries” haven’t actually freed the elephants.  The “sanctuaries” are just paying the owners of the elephants to let the elephants stay at the sanctuaries, essentially renting the elephants from the owners so that “volunteers” can enjoy the experience of “volunteering” with the elephants, paid for by those volunteers.  By participating in this, the volunteers finance and perpetuate the cycle of elephant ownership and exploitation for profit.  If the volunteers understood this was happening, would they be so excited to join in and show off the pictures?

Whether you believe that elephant exploitation is wrong or right is not the point.  The point is that the volunteers, by way of their own activities and by their own standards, are doing more harm than good in the situation.  This is the dilemma of voluntourism, and it happens much more often with people than elephants.

Is volunteering helpful in the long term?  Would my instance of volunteering be helpful in the long term? Given these questions I had, it was interesting that during my time on the island, I met a social anthropologist who was researching the “culture of volunteers”, and how effective volunteering really was.  I enjoyed more than a handful of conversations with her on this very topic and chatting with her definitely made me take a deeper look at things.

After many of the fiascos I had seen on the island of Lesvos, I seriously questioned the value of mass volunteering, how to avoid voluntourism, and who was actually suited to volunteer with refugees (without becoming a detractor to progress or a wall flower).  Like a good researcher though, the social anthropologist ninja-like in her information collection and provided very few answers (she promised answers would be in the paper to be published sometime in the next century).  However, she did do a great job with Socratic dialogue, asking me questions that encouraged me to view the volunteer experience from a different perspective.  I absolutely benefited from this alternative perspective…I think you will too…

 

– Continue to Part 2: Teaching English, Serving Coffee, & Going Free Agent –

 

For more information on the dilemma of the value of volunteering and some tips for positive impact, checkout this article: “Voluntourism: What is it, and how to avoid it

 


More Background and Context on the Refugee Crisis in Greece & Lesvos

 

Why does the island of Lesvos matter in the European Refugee Crisis?

This island, with its crystal clear waters, rocky beaches, and warm people, is a key point in the European refugee crisis for two reasons:

  1. The location.  With the island of Lesvos being only 8 miles from the coast of Turkey, and the Turkish city of Ayvalik, Lesvos has become a prime stopping point for refugees as smugglers connect refugees with dingees (and vague directions) to float across the channel in the dark of night.  This high traffic to Lesvos leads to the second issue that makes Lesvos an internal affairs highlight…

 

  1. The Humanitarian Crisis due to overcrowding at Moria Camp creates inhumane conditions. Moria Camp is a refugee camp in the center of Lesvos that could be described as something between purgatory and hell itself.  Housing over 7,000 refugees in a space designed for 2,000 people leads to extremely unhygienic conditions, facilities and resource shortages, fights in food lines, and, when tension and stress becomes extremely high, fights and riots.  Moria Camp is akin to a prison that refugees are allowed to leave but forced to return to each day until they are either granted passage, a passport, and safe haven in a European country or just decide to return “home” – even if “Home” is a war ravaged country like Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq. Both scenarios happen more often than you think. People are granted passage to Europe often, but people go “home” to die too.

I’ve used mapping software and headcounts of refugees to analyze the situation.  Moria camp has 10 times the population density per square mile as New York City, without having the infrastructure (facilities, disposal, septic, etc.) of New York City or the medical and resources support of New York City.  I know firsthand that families are packed 6 (families, not people) to a trailer in some cases and the streets smell of human waste and trash.  The conditions are deplorable, at best.

 

For both of these reasons, there was a storm brewing on the island that I didn’t expect.  From politics and riots to interesting experiences with navigating the NGO landscape, avoiding “voluntourism”, and finding a worthwhile purpose amid the chaos, Lesvos would prove to be a challenge. Albeit a worthwhile challenge, and a welcomed one.  I agreed before arriving that I would fully throw myself into the situation as global citizen and global volunteer.  I would contribute as much as I could at every opportunity, constantly work to improve any situation I walked into, and follow my gut in finding a way to improve every situation I walked into

Spoiler alert.  I ended up “going rogue”. “My friends” “bent” a few laws to get a closer look at things Moria Camp.  My views regarding the refugee crisis and volnteerng shifted the more I witnessed. I left the island more confused than I was when I arrived. I wasn’t necessarily wrong when I arrived, but when I left I was aware of facts that didn’t know existed and questions I’d never considered to ask when I started.  Granted, I don’t think the experience changed me or who I am at the core – but – it did make me more aware of what I believe, helped me grow, and helped me mature.

Why am I writing about the refugee crisis and the situation on Lesvos?

 

1. To provide Americans another perspective on what is happening in this refugee crisis and who the people are which we call “refugees”.  Maybe we can pull some lessons from the experience.

In preparing for the trip, I had a lot of difficulty finding a balanced perspective of what was happening on the ground in Lesvos, and Europe, with the refugee crisis.  It was even more difficult to find a perspective on the US’s place (and potential responsibilities) in this picture, within the context of Europe, the causes for the refugees, and activity on the global stage.  So, with this, I’ll aim to tell one, cohesive story a balanced perspective of the US’s place in this dilemma – and I’ll let each person reading assess the impacts, moral ramifications, and responsibilities of the US from there, based on their own value system.

2. To force a conversation about “survival ethics”

In the discussion of how to create the most ideal global conditions, the “ideal” outcome is nearly impossible. There is too much power imbalance, too much poverty, too many broken or stalled economic systems in place in resource starved locales, too little shared knowledge, and too many moving pieces sliding out of balance as we try to fix each of them.  We’re dealing with the aftermath from too many wars, conflicts, and genocides.  There are aren’t enough resources to save everyone, right now, especially without significant sacrifice.  That is the cold, hard truth.

With that said, are those justified reasons for not trying at all?  For any human being that feels any kind of connection to other people, the likely answer is no.  This raises a discussion about survival ethics.  What is the right thing to do, and the right way to approach the situation, when it seems impossible to save everyone and the act of trying places you (or your country) at risk?  What are your moral obligations in this situation? Those are the basics of survival ethics.

In 1996, there was a tragedy on Mount Everest. During the incident, a slew of things went wrong in a growing tide of domino effect like issues, and several members of summit teams lost their lives.  John Krakauer wrote an interesting book about the incident titled “Into Thin Air”.  Since the first details of that incident came out, people have continued analyzing the situation about what the “right thing to do” was for all parties involved.

Should the members that survived the failed Everest attempt have gone back to find the ones that did not survive?  What if the surviving members weren’t physically able, were the still under moral obligation to return for their “team”?  What if the surviving members were physically able but paralyzed with fear?  Is fear a justification for allowing survival instincts to override rules that encourage a trust filled community?  Most Everest summiteers know the odds of dying on Mount Everest were 1 in 10, so, if the summiteers knew the odds of death, does this absolve everyone else of responsibilities?  What is the answer?  The answer…is extremely subjective, and varies from person to person, but, the discussion about to define the best answer is what is important.

In the refugee crisis, Greece is economically crippled and can barely take care of its own citizens but has to follow EU laws and do the humane thing, by accepting and “caring” for refugees. Greece is geographically disadvantaged in the European refugee crisis because as long as conditions are better in Europe than elsewhere (and the EU exists) refugees will always come.  Countries such as Norway, Sweden, and the US can easily dictate a policy and watch as it takes effect, living out success in a vacuum while conflict zones descend from flames to embers and finally ashes.  Countries like Italy may take a hard xenophobic stance, severely limiting entry.  Countries like France, that once upon a time used the assistance of migrants to rebuild, could still justifiably recoil due to fear ignited by recent events.  All the while, countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE may refuse to provide anything but a tourist visa, despite such similar religion, language, and culture.

What is the right thing to do?  That depends on your survival ethics.  If you’ve lived a cushy life devoid of risk or exposure to “the have nots” and hardships then I’d bet you don’t know much about your own survival ethics.  Let’s get you thinking about them.

3. To broach a productive discussion around the statement “they can go back home”

Look at the comments below the Youtube video of Moria (embedded above on the page) and you’ll see this as the overwhelming sentiment in response.  “They can go back home.”

Yes, you’re right. They can go back home.  You, as a citizen of your land, have a right to request such a policy from your government.  You can request of your leader that the homeland security services send these refugees back to their home countries, where the will likely die and their potential as productive members of a society will be wasted.  No matter your stance, I think it is your right as a citizen to, at least, request this.

However, I do believe we have a moral obligation to understand the impacts of our stances and ultimate choices, and accept responsibility for what we choose, even if we stand the chance of never seeing the effects of our decisions.  I think we should at least understand the plights of the people we are turning away, the situations they are returning to, and the odds they face.  If you can do that and, after applying your own brand of survival ethics, still believe the same then I respect your decision.  Until then I would gamble that the opinion to “just send them back” without question comes from a place of fear and ignorance perpetuated in a cultural vacuum or a nearly homogenous population.

4. To allow others to grow and shape their own perspectives by vicariously experiencing through stories of my time on Lesvos

5. To provide information to anyone else interested in volunteering to help with the refugee crisis. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at carlos@abrotherabroad.com.

 

– Continue to Part 2: Teaching English, Serving Coffee, & Going Solo –

 


More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis


 

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