On volunteering

I’ve been meaning to write a post on volunteering for some time, but only have gotten to it now that things have slowed down. It’s probably for the best anyway, because I have more to draw from. Not that that is a lot. I feel like I can speak to everything yet nothing at the same time. What is my two+ weeks of volunteering in such a crisis when I’ve met people who have been doing this type of work for decades?

Part A

What I’ve found most fascinating about this thing we call volunteering, especially in this extreme case (this isn’t doing a bottle drive around the neighborhood), is that it draws all different sorts of people who are here for all sorts of different reasons.

You have those who work hard for a few hours and then go home to continue on with their daily lives. And you have those that judge people who only work a few hours as not being committed and make how many hours you’ve worked into a competition or about bragging rights. You have those who “work” for 10 hours, but actually only do for 2. You have those who work 25 hours straight and give every piece of themselves for those 25 hours, sleep for a few hours and do it all over again. And everything in between.

There are volunteers that are here for glory and do little. You have those that are here for little and are heroes. Some here are lost. Some were lost and now found. Some will stay lost. Some that need a cause to drive them to find purpose and some that know that this is their purpose. Some are here, because they are bored. Some because they simply want to be useful in lives where they don’t feel so.

You have families that want to teach their children the value of service and giving back. And retired people who have seen the world and yet still want to make it a better place instead of sitting in retirement. There are parents of children who left the kids behind with their spouse to come and help.

Some stay for a few days. Some stay for a year. Some who use every bit of vacation time they have to lend a hand when they can. You have groups of 20 and armies of 1. Some squat. Some stay in the nicest hotels.

There are volunteers who are refugee tourists. There are those who risk their lives to save refugees and willingly do so.

There are volunteers who are refugees themselves who have stayed for months to help instead of moving onward. And, if you want to call them volunteers, there are those who are registered refugees and can move on to Athens, but stay for a while longer, for hours or days, to help interpret, because we are in such dire need for help with communication.

There are eccentrics. There are intellectuals. There are revolutionaries. There are volunteers who are jobless or are students and those who wait tables or run companies or are politicians. There are professional volunteers and novices.

There are some that are the nicest human beings that you will ever meet. And some not so much (although far fewer in number).

Whatever the reason people are here, they genuinely do want to help. And there are some amazing people. Some who have had bright pasts and some who have bright futures. Amidst all this hardship and heartbreak, and the difficulties the refugee crisis presents, it does give you hope to be among a group of volunteers, because you know these type of people exist everywhere worldwide and humanity will never be without them.

Part B

Most of the people working with NGOs here in Chios are Greeks. Some were born and raised on Chios. One of the conversations that does not get old for me is when one of them asks me from where I’m from and I tell them. And then they ask, “You came all the way here to help? You used your own money for this?” “Yes.” They are so utterly confused by this. They understand some Europeans (not all), but not anyone outside of Europe. One of my closest colleagues here has asked me this 3 times and still doesn’t understand why I would do this. I love what this type of message conveys to the people here that hundreds of volunteers are coming from thousands of kilometers/miles away to lend a hand, to show solidarity.

There is the other side as well. Many of the refugees also understand that more than a few of the services that are provided them (being saved by the beach rescue teams, the food provided them, the source and distribution of clothes) come from volunteers. I’d like to think that, despite not the most welcome reception by the Greek government and the EU, they do experience support from people, that they are not alone and that no matter how hard things get that there will probably be a smiling volunteer somewhere to lend a hand along the long road.

Part C

Volunteering, however, is not all rosy as the above might communicate. In my short time as a volunteer, I’ve witnessed the politics of volunteering, territoriality, egos that would not fit into a truck container, nastiness and lack of communication. So, in reality, even with the theoretic altruistic basis of giving one’s time for free to help in such a situation, the same goes for volunteering as any other situation in which humans are involved.

Coordination is difficult. There are different groups with different interests that overlap in terms of purpose, sometimes more than others. There are groups. There are “independent” volunteers. There are rogues. And there are very different points of view on what should be done. Some align with UNHCR/the NGOs, some not. Some work with the system in place, some not. It’s quite complicated.

And we consider ourselves lucky here in Chios, because it’s more or less under control right now in terms of numbers (of volunteers). From what I’ve heard and others have experienced, Lesvos has been overrun by volunteers. Too many volunteers and not enough work. Not enough coordination.

Since Christmas has passed, we are seeing more and more volunteers. We have seen some that have left Lesvos, because of the volunteer situation there, and are here to find a better one. We know that January will also see a boom in the quantity of volunteers. Chios will no doubt eventually look like Lesvos given time. I’m keeping an eye on this, because as soon as things get to where I can be less effective than I know I can be, I’m thinking of heading to Athens and working in a camp there until my month is finished. Apparently, refugees are being turned away from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) border and are heading back to Athens, so it’s creating quite the cluster there. So, we’ll see how things play out over the next week.

Also, the weather is not looking good here for the next 7+ days. It snowed today and the winds are gusting upwards around 35 mph (56 kph), so no refugees are arriving. I’ve continued to help with documents for volunteers, so still have work to do, but after these types of things are done, I could probably be more useful elsewhere. We’ll see!

My next post, unless there is some huge wave of refugees in this bad weather, will be the more personal side of how I myself came to be here on Chios.

I hope everyone has a fun and safe Happy New Year.

Note: The photo for this post was taken from the island of Inousses, to the northeast of Chios, where I was the other day and where many refugees have been arriving, as it’s that much closer to Turkey. This is a Greek Coast Guard boat that is picking up around 50 that were on shore to be brought to Chios/Tabakika.

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