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    (Pt 2) Lesvos: Boat Spotter, Volunteer Teacher, Coffee Server, & Solo Volunteer (Adventures as a Global Volunteer)


    As I settled into Lesvos and learned the situation, I realized very quickly that the need for “spotting refugee boats” was long past.  The need was no longer to help disoriented refugees off of boats and onto to Greek beaches.  The need was now empowerment through knowledge and skills and recovery from past atrocities by just feeling human.  I was lucky enough to fall into a role as a volunteer teacher and coffee server…and these ended up being my most fulfilling experiences on the island, and the motivators to go it alone on Lesvos…

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

    Part 2 Lesvos: Boat Spotter, Volunteer Teacher, Coffee Server, & Solo Volunteer


    Spotting for Refugee Boats from Turkey: The Impetus for My New NGO

    The primary mission of the NGO I was with was “spotting for boats”. Time for a quick history lesson. The current refugee crisis in Europe stems from the period just around 2016. During this period, tens and hundreds of boats filled with Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, Kurdish, Irani, and just about any other nationality from that region floated into Greece from Turkey hoping to receive asylum in Europe. The influx of people, requiring food, medical care, facilities, and processing, was more than economically damaged Greece could muster, as people poured off boats onto its island shores. The refugees, hoping for a better life, were met with lackluster welcomes as they literally poured off boats into the frigid winter waters with no clue what to do next.

    As these refugees showed up overwhelming the authorities volunteers from all over Europe showed up to fill in the gaps. Rescue swimmers, ER nurses, doctors on holiday, students, moms, and average joes and janes spent weeks and months at a time standing on the shores of Lesvos with binoculars. They waited for the next boat to come in, to swim out and rescue, and serve as first responders for the hypothermic, possibly drowning, and shocked refugees as they waited for the Greek authorities to arrive for official processing. The organization I had just joined was one of the many that popped up to help facilitate volunteers, in a structured way, assist the refugees that were brave enough to make the journey into Greek waters, so that they didn’t die just short of Greek shores. That was 2016. We weren’t in 2016 anymore when I arrived.

    First impressions: “Spotting” for refugee boats floating in from Turkey

    On my first nightshift, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, despite the lack of sleep.  This was my first opportunity to “make a difference” and contribute in the refugee crisis.

    I sat out on a pile of stones under the moonlight, looking out towards the Turkish coastline, dotted with amber lights.  Ayvalik.  That’s the name of the city just across the Aegean waters and where many of the refugees launched from in tiny rubber dinghies.

    Occasionally red and blue lights would pop up in the night, giving us a chance to practice discerning whether they were Greek coast guard vessels or Turkish. Sometimes a moving, bright white light would pop up. A spotlight? Was it a Coast guard boat looking for refugees, or just a fishing boat highlighting potential catch in the sea?

    Knowing whether boats were Coast Guard or fishing vessels was important because if there were coast guard boats searching, it was likely that some intel was floating about refugee in the water.  If refugee boats were in the water, there was a higher likelihood that some would coast to the Greek shoreline and need our assistance.  So, you might ask, what is a refugee boat doing hitting the shores we were on if there are coast guard boats with competent crews looking for them?

    The line demarcating the boundary of territorial waters runs roughly through the middle of the canal we watched over.  According to EU/Greek law, if a refugee boat makes it into Greek waters, the Greeks have to take the refugees in to be processed, at least.  The issue arises when the disoriented refugees on the boats have no idea when they’ve crossed this invisible line.  A coast guard boat speeding toward them could be a savior in the form of a Greek Coast Guard boat, or a Turkish coast guard boat, tasked with beginning the refugees’ return to the places they’re fleeing…Iran, Iraq, Syria, etc.  Because of this, if a large boat heads toward the refugee boats while they’re in the water then they usually take their chances and haul ass to shore, where volunteers are waiting.  Once the refugee boat reaches water too shallow for coast guard vessels to chase, they’re on their own until they get to shore. This kicks in my first moral dilemma of the trip.

    I’m in Greece.  I’m not Greek.  Greece isn’t my country.  So do I have a right to dictate that Greece take in refugees?  Absolutely not.  Do I have a right to circumvent Greek official processes to give “refugees” a chance at a new life?  Absolutely not.  That’s not my place.  In that case, what was I even doing “spotting”?

    My logic, was that by the time any boat gets to where I would be (on shore) which they’ve done based on their own motivation and direction, all I would do is provide first aid and keep them corralled until Greek authorities arrived.  CPR, hypothermia, treating for shock, all of that I could do to the best of my ability with no issues (based on training from my past). If a refugee fell out of a boat within view I could swim out and tow them in, just as I would do for anyone having trouble in the water if I saw them while at the beach (although Steve G and some of his buddies would disagree…but my swimming abilities have improved immensely in the last 13 years).

    That was it.  With respect to Greece and Greek laws I was comfortable waiting for these people (refugees) to help provide first aid and hospitality until the Greeks arrived only because by Greek and EU law those refugees had a right to at least be processed, if they’d made it this far, into Greek waters and onto Greek land. I would rather not see someone drown 15 meters off shore or sit freezing on a beach slipping into hypothermia during a gap in that process.  This was something legal that I could palate, but was it worth the time and price of a ticket to get to Lesvos?  Time would tell.

    After hours of staring through binoculars toward the dark ocean, observing for the dim light of a cell phone bobbing p and down on the waves in the distance and listening for the shout of some indistinct voice for help, the sun gradually came up from behind the dark mountains of turkey and lit up the coastline. It was beautiful.  The water of the Agean sea that poured through the channel was crystal clear with its turquoise tint and rocky shores.  To imagine something so beautiful and welcoming now could be so risky, scary and foreboding in the dark confusion of night was nearly baffling. Isn’t it always that way? The darkness of the unknown always bears the most potential for fear, no matter where you are in the world.

    The Start of English Classes: A Worthy Pursuit

    The next day I had the pleasure of observing one of the more promising projects undertaken by the organization I was with.  In partnership with another NGO on the island, they had begun teaching English classes at the request of the refugees.

    A couple of times a week, a volunteer teacher would drive to Moria Camp, where the refugees lived, pick up a cluster of would be English students, take them to some much more enjoyable space(a cafe, the shore of a bay, a restaurant) and teach English.  Mind you, none of these people (except for 1) was a teacher prior to this experience. For some of the volunteers, English wasn’t even their native language.  Now as much as this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it wasn’t.  It was the exact opposite.  The volunteers didn’t focus on what they didn’t know, they used the assets of the situation and their personal strengths to connect with the refugees, understand the needs of the refugees, and to the best of their ability they tried to fill these needs.

    One pair of volunteer teachers I enjoyed watching did amazingly well. The girl, despite not being a native English teacher, was so emotionally tuned in and friendly that it seemed like overcoming the language barrier, between English, Farsi, Arabic, and Pashto, was effortless. At the same time, the analytical and professorial fella (who was a native English speaker) managed to chime in at just the right times to teach grammar concepts, share the load, and give his partner’s brain a short break. Together, they were a great teaching pair. They started with zero resources and a lot of ambition and ended up filling a genuine need in the lives of the refugees, ultimately giving the refugees power to communicate wants and needs as the navigated their new home (Greece) and the overall asylum processes.

    This, in my opinion, was a great example of volunteering.  There was a need for something deep to be fulfilled in a lasting way…the ability to communicate in the places that these refugees wished to go in the future.

    As I sat back and watched the pair tap dance through a very practical English class, I realized how valuable and difficult teaching English was.

    In most places in the world, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The person who speaks up when in need gets the help. These people, the refugees, came from parts of the world where English is not commonly spoken – only observed in the movies and on TV, or reserved for facilities of higher education and international business. Now, English was imperative for them. These people were in a position where effective communication was essential to survival. Communicating information about their pasts (refugee, asylum seeker, or “economic migrant”), communicating their state of health, inquiring about the safety of their environment, sharing their ambitions for the future with an official screening their viability as a potential citizen for the asylum process , and (most importantly) communicating the value they posed to bring to their prospective new countries would all be possible…if they could speak a common language. English is that common language.

    Knowing Greek would have facilitated miracles in the process of being pushed through the “refugee system”, but their next best bet was English. English would help them clearly communicate and assimilate. Not just on Lesvos. More importantly, in the rest of Europe.

    I’ve realized many things during my travels, and one cluster of realizations is how lucky I am to have been born and raised in a place and situation that provided me so many assets from the start. One of the most valuable of these assets is the ability to speak English.

    In every country I’ve visited, from Argentina to Vietnam, if the locals didn’t speak English then they usually didn’t speak any other language but their own. My best chance to communicate globally has always been either to learn the local language or use my English.

    By teaching these refugees English, this pair and everyone else in the NGO I was working with was empowering the refugees. Empowering them to take full control of their future. Empowering the refugees to ask, “What does your country need that I can help with?” Then giving them the ability to understand and react to the response. These teachers were empowering the refugees to communicate with potential coworkers at prospective jobs. For the younger ones, by teaching English they were empowering the refugees to continue their stalled education in a new country.

    This brings me to a point about volunteering, in my opinion. The best volunteering opportunities, and aid in general, fill one of two areas, no matter where it is in the world. Critical needs for the present and empowerment for the future.

    The first set of worthwhile volunteer opportunities provide irreplaceable things that are critical to life, critical to surviving until the next day, so that the people can have the strength and energy to work towards standing on their own two feet. These critical needs include medical care, mental health care, clean food and water, and basic facilities so that one can feel safe. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Any volunteering opportunity that fulfills needs on the lower portion of that triangle, in a way that is meant to facilitate tomorrow, and not intended to be provided forever, is a great opportunity to volunteer, as long as it leads as soon as possible to independence via the second cluster of volunteer opportunities.

    The second cluster of volunteering opportunities empower refugees, or anyone for that matter. The opportunities provide intangible skills that can be used to build a life. A self-reliant and productive life. These things include teaching English, providing a basic education, training in vocational trades that could lead to employment, teaching the languages of the country currently lived in. This second group of opportunities empower the refugees such that eventually, they won’t need volunteers or NGOs to provide the first cluster of opportunities. There’s a kicker though – for this to be a sustainable model, it should be expected that one day the refugees would become the teachers. Volunteers shouldn’t exist indefinitely. Good volunteers aim to make their own existence (as a volunteer) unnecessary.

    Teaching English fell into the second bucket, so I decided to throw my all into it.  I was now a volunteer teacher.  An unexpected, but welcomed experience.

    The Café: Coffee. Smiles. High fives. Simple as that.

    Last was the café, an idea that I severely underestimated in the beginning of my volunteer stint.

    “The café” was a partnership with a local couple to create a safe space for refugees in the town of Mytilene, with free coffee, tea, and snacks, comfy chairs, plenty of computers, and lots of respite. Far away from the problems of Moria Camp and the refugee crisis chaos, this café would be a place where refugees, volunteers, and Greeks could all come, hangout, connect, and benefit from what happens when we genuinely connect with each other.

    At the time, the café was only open for a couple hours each day and, understandably, there weren’t many visitors because the café had opened about one month prior. There was a regular, a very gentle and nice Kurdish guy who would drop in and treat the place like home. A few other people would drop in from time to time as well. For the first couple of weeks I was on the island, the café remained oddly calm and silent, and that may be why I underestimated it. I’m glad this tiny little café ended up being one of the highlights of my volunteering experience.

    The Start and Gradual Buildup of My Volunteer Experience

    My time on Lesvos started out slow. All three of the English classes, a group of Arabs and Kurds, a group of girls and women, and a group of Pakistanis, were already being taught so there wasn’t much to do in the area of teaching English. The café was generally dead, as any café would be when just starting.

    The nightshift, “spotting,” grew more boring and worthless with each shift. The night was peaceful and eventless, just spent staring out towards the mountain silhouettes on the Turkish coast and wondering if the lights of ships passing were those of fishing ships, cargo freighters, or the coast guard. I grew to loathe the spotting because it seemed like a waste of time and energy that could be spent doing other, more worthwhile activities. Being up half the night left me too groggy to be proactive and productive the next day. As I spoke to the other volunteers, I realized more than a couple shared my thoughts. Despite my angst, I conceded. I had agreed to come “help” on Lesvos with this specific organization doing whatever they deemed worthwhile. Even if this did feel like a waste of my time, I had given my word so I would stick with it for the period I agreed to. At least for now.

    As time went on, more and more volunteers came up with reasons not to be on nightshift, and fewer volunteers were showing up to our organization. This meant that instead of being awake at night, staring at the water, for one or two nights a week, it was steadily going up to three or four.

    As this problem slowly grew like a monster of irrationality that we ignored in the corner of the room, I learned that no one in our area of the island had even helped with a boat landing during the hours of darkness in months. Around this time, I raised the concern that we were wasting labor hours, money spent on gasoline, and money spent on rental cars to stare at the ocean every night when no one was actually doing anything productive. We were doing it “just in case”, to help a boatful of people for 45 minutes at most. Meanwhile, only a 15 minute drive away, 7,000 people were living in conditions comparable to some of the worst I’ve seen in my life. The conditions in Moria were so bad that more than a few of the refugees were considering going back to their home countries to die. Literally. Meanwhile, we were content wasting gasoline and time staring at the water.

    In response to my comment that there were “better things we could be doing with our time” the manager informed me that I should have known the organization’s mission before I arrived and I should have checked the news to see what boat landing activity was like. Now, this straw broke the already impatient camel’s back. I’ve done crap jobs before, and done them well without complaining. I’ve followed through whenever I’ve given my word, because that’s what respectable human beings do. On that same note, I can’t remember many times that I’ve ever been held a “moral hostage” as I would call it. I can’t remember the last time someone has demanded that I do something senseless, irrational, and worthless because I gave my word that I would help, and then thrown my commitment in my face when I called out the irrationality. I think this person clearly misjudged the person they were dealing with.

    As the coordinator finished explaining why nothing would change and we would still be expected to stare at the water each night, I looked left just in time to see my last fuck walk right out the door.

    I would respect my commitment, just as much as the manager respected the resources I was using to do the job requested. On the same note, if at any time I felt like doing something different or saw another opportunity that suited me more, I was going to take it without question. The only reason I was on the island was to help refugees. Not for my pride. Not for my ego. Absolutely not to facilitate the mission of anyone’s organization and not to preserve anyone else’s job or ego. Things on Lesvos were about to get very interesting for me. I’ve always preferred an interesting life over other options.

    Going Solo

    The coordinator’s comments were well timed because a friend had just messaged me about an opportunity to volunteer as an interpreter in Moria Camp. At present, I wasn’t allowed in Moria camp, according to Greek law. Anyone who wanted to enter Moria Camp had to be registered with an organization approved by the Greek government. Otherwise, being present in the camp was illegal, so the interpreter gig was a great opportunity to get closer to the real problems and help refugees in a meaningful way.

    There was one catch; I hadn’t spoken Arabic in 7 years. I figured I would fake it until either I got found out or I improved enough to do the job adequately. Fake it ’til I make it. Classic approach.

    I showed up day one ready to help out the medical NGO I was doing ad-hoc translation services for. Additional doctors were in for the week so additional interpreters were needed, which is why I was there. Oddly enough, interpreters throughout the camp were in such short supply that they were willing to accept me.

    My job was simple. I would sit outside of the modular, portable building where medical services were being provided and would register patients for new appointments, check-in patients for appointments, and process arriving patients by getting basic information and filling out an information sheet about their issues. Sounds simple enough, right?

    Let’s take a step back. Moria Camp has 7,000 people and it was meant for 2,000 people. There aren’t enough personnel to provide medical services. The refugees only approach medical personnel when they are in need, sick, uncomfortable, and agitated, and these are people that have been through extremely emotionally damaging situations in the past 3 months – and it was going to be my job to sit in this overcrowded and tense camp to register these people and say “I’m sorry, we don’t have any appointments available today” in a foreign language that I hadn’t spoken in 7 years and pray for a good outcome?

    Things were about to get very interesting for me….


    – Continue to Part 3: Translating in Moria Refugee Camp, Steps from Hell, and the Meaning of “A Brother Abroad” “–


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

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      About A Brother Abroad


      Carlos is a nomad, slow traveler, and writer dedicated to helping others live abroad and travel better by using his 7+ years of experience living abroad and background as a management consultant and financial advisor to help other nomad and expats plot better paths for an international lifestyle. Click here to learn more about Carlos's story.