Takeaways from volunteering in Greece

I don’t believe there is anything brilliant or earth-shattering in what I’ve learned from my experience volunteering on Chios. In many ways, it wasn’t what I learned, but what I remembered or realized for the umpteenth time and doing so in a context that was entirely new for me. I think there were some surprises in what I took away, but only because they are things that I had forgotten about because (1) we do so on purpose, because we don’t want to look at ourselves in the mirror and (2) we don’t want to be confronted by difficult aspects of our societies.

The refugee situation is effed up

And I don’t have a clue about the solution. Maybe some of you have ideas. I just hope some smart people are coming up with solutions to this. In the end, though, it’s going to be about politics not because what is happening is wrong.  People continue to drown and get taken advantage of by smugglers and mafia along the entire migration route from Syria/Iraq/Afghanistan to the refugees’ “final” destination somewhere in Europe.  Human rights abuses occur.  And nothing changes.

One of the problems is that the crisis can’t be simplified. There is no silver bullet. And I wouldn’t trust anyone who thought so. The end of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan would help considerably, but that is only a partial solution and, realistically, this is not happening anytime soon. Even if the wars were to end, Europe still has 1,000,000+ new refugees within its borders that are becoming more of a political hot potato each day. Even if the wars were to end, I’d wager a certain flow would still continue.

There are so many moving parts on so many levels that it’s hard to even capture what an overview of the situation really looks like. Each local area that is dealing with the refugee crisis, from small towns in Syria to islands of Greece to cities in Germany, are dealing with this and have their own issues and realities. Each country, from Syria to Turkey to Greece to Serbia to France to even the US, has different problems related to the issue. The global politics are a factor as well. What happens between permanent Security Council members. What is going on between NATO and Russia. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia. And then you have the trans-national groups like Al-Qaida and Daesh that are playing a key role. The Taliban as well. Even Boko Haram and Al-Shabab, as there are refugees from sub-Saharan Africa arriving too. And then there are economic migrants taking advantage of the opening of the EU’s borders (or trying to).

I had a hard time keeping track of what was going on on Chios much less what was happening in Athens and the rest of Greece. And even less than that what is going on in Turkey. And what is the EU, as a whole, doing? What are each countries’ policies? What is Frontex’s role? Why are refugees stopped one day and not another? There are also vast differences in what is said to be happening and then what is actually happening. It’s all very confusing and there are so many interests at play from economic to political, from government interests to that of organized crime. This is now a well more than billion dollar “industry.” Policies and actions change every single day, because of different reasons from public opinion to the media’s spin to the bombing in Istanbul. So many factors have the potential to change both policies and perspectives very quickly. It’s a complete mess.

There was a great piece in the Guardian from yesterday that lays out nicely how chaotic and morally skewed the response currently is in Europe, but the solution presented isn’t as simple as portrayed.

You don’t want to create terrorists amongst the refugees?

Then give them a warm meal when they arrive in Europe. Give them two. Give them warm clothes and a place to sleep that is decent. Give them clear information and instructions on how the process works. Return to them a little bit of the dignity that they’ve lost through the ordeal they’ve been through. (I actually see that giving dignity back to people, alongside providing basic needs, is the primary service that volunteers can provide.) The reality is that they are already in Europe. Period. Unless you start to ship them back to somewhere, you best start to be more welcoming or else you run the risk of creating the very thing that you fear: terrorists.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes: the frustration, the anger, the helplessness to provide for one’s family when you have to say to people that there is no food or you don’t have a blanket for them. And Chios, and Greece in general, is a garden spot compared to what is ahead for these refugees. There are so many obstacles and barriers for the refugees and the current situation for receiving them is not conducive to creating an environment where they feel welcome.

In the end, everyone is human

This came as probably the most “eye-opening” of takeaways from volunteering. Which, honestly, shouldn’t have, but I was not expecting this at all for some reason. Call it naïveté. It’s that, no matter the context, the group of people or the situation, humans will always act like humans. Human behavior will always dictate social interactions with other humans. Duh, right? It’s one of the aspects that I forgot. No matter how much time I’ve spent in places with extreme poverty or how many times I’ve read Lord of the Flies.

And what I mean by this is that, given a group of people, you are always going to have those that are nice and those that are not. Those that are generous and those that are greedy. Those that are patient and those that are not. Those that are have egos and those who do not. Those who feel entitled and those who do not. Those that are proud and those that are not. Those who have integrity and those who do not. There is the run of the whole gamut, from one end of the spectrum to the other, for all of these. And it was the same for refugees as for any other group of people I’ve ever worked with.

I was thanked, hugged, hand-shook, appreciated, praised, prayed for, but I was also cursed at, yelled at, given the dirtiest of looks, tugged at and harassed. I was made to feel like I made someone’s day and a few moments later would be made to feel like a horrible human being. To quote my initial reaction to my first night working at Tabakika, “You can see the best and worst of humanity in a matter of five minutes.” This never changed. Nor will it ever. We are all only human.

Kids are kids

In the same vein of there always being a constant, kids will always be kids. And this was an utter joy to see on a daily basis. You realize (again) how resilient children are under the direst of circumstances. They do take a lead from their parents and they are vulnerable in so many ways, but all they really want to do is play. All they want to do is have fun.

We know this about kids already, but if there is some kind of object around (or even not) and you have 1 or more children present, she/he/they will invent a game. I’ve seen this with rocks, orange peels, broken toys, half-deflated balls and rotted shoes.  And it’s only understandable to them.

And like any playground, you would have your different types: the leaders, the followers, the mischievous ones, those who would play by themselves in their own little world and be 100% happy, the bullies, the curious ones, the builders, the questioners, the huggers, etc., etc.

Yes, I did see trauma and shock with some children. You would try to make them smile or react to you in some way and they would just stare back at you without an emotion present. It was eerie sometimes, because you know this was not right. But, the far, far majority would just act like kids anywhere in the world and look to have fun.

Refugees are people too

I think one thing that happens repeatedly by almost everyone involved in this refugee crisis, from NGO staff to the UN to volunteers to the media to each and every one of us who has conversations about the issue wherever we are in the world, is that we refer to the refugees as if they are one person and that they are all the same. It’s always, “The “refugees” this” or “The “refugees” that.” I’m just as guilty of this as anyone.

What we forget is that every refugee is an individual person like you or I. Each refugee has a personality and has dreams and desires. Each is their own person. Each has a name. This all may sound cliché, but it’s 100% true. We forget. We tend to lump them all together, and of course it’s difficult not to, but it is possible to think of them not as just one generalized group, but a diverse group of individuals who want to improve their lives just like we would want to if we were in their position.

These people could be you or I under different circumstances. We could be in their situation someday. I have friends who were in their situation in the 1990s. Would we act any different? Would we be less hungry or cold? Would we not want to protect our children any less?

Even having the experience I did, I’m guessing I will slowly go back to the lumping them all together again. When you are not present, not talking directly to individual refugees on a daily basis, it’s hard to keep this in mind. It’s easier to forget than to keep present. But, we can try.

Photo: Frontex boats in the harbor of Chios

About the author


View all posts


  • I can’t agree more with Sue – the more I read you, the more I want to share your blog (which I do, for those you can read English at least), and the more I think many more people should read it and hear from your experience, or better, these pieces of life, (in)human (un)dignity, hope(lessness) that are part of our world and so much more interesting than much of what we can read in the news about this refugees crisis and all what is behind/beyond and ahead of it. Thanks so much for all this, Josh

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *