The guilt of leaving (even for a short time) to Lesvos

I took one of the huge ferries this morning to Lesvos for the weekend to check things out on the volunteer- and NGO-laden “Ellis Island” of Greece. I have a few friends of friends here working for NGOs and volunteering, so wanted to take the opportunity to see what is happening. I will be more observer than volunteer for the short time I’m on the island, taking a break after 12 days in a row working. It’s a three-hour jaunt to the north with Turkey consistently out your right-hand window. The Aegean Sea seems relatively calm today, the temperature is a mild 55 F/13 C and the skies are mostly sunny. Quiet a nice day in fact.

This means that, if the refugees start coming again, Chios is going to be slammed, because of the pause in arrivals for several days because of weather and the capsized boat. It’s unknown how long it will take before the boats start crossing again after the tragedy, but it could happen at any moment. And I’m on Lesvos, not on Chios and not in Tabakika.

This has me feeling guilty. I think this is quite normal for any kind of humanitarian volunteer work (or even paid humanitarian work when you go offsite, depending on how you view your job). From what I can gather from my own feelings of guilt, it comes from three different places, equally tugging at the back of my conscious:

  1. I want to do more and I feel bad knowing that more is required yet I won’t be there, especially if things get busy. It’s not, “Oh, I wish I could have handed out one more pair of socks” (although you will get that from some people). It’s that there is a constant need for support to the refugees from volunteers, because the support is not there through official means (UN, governments, NGOs). It’s hard to let go of that. Especially when what I’m going to be doing is taking a break on an island that also has refugees and doing little more than writing about what I see. I see that is also important (and which has equated to a sizeable chunk of funds to spend directly on refugees), but still… It’s different and not quite the same as seeing beaming kids with full tummies and dry clothes.
  2. You also build a bond with those you are working with. Both NGO/UN staff and fellow volunteers. Especially after almost a month when I now know almost everyone who works in/around Tabakika. It’s stressful, you’re in this together, the highs and lows, and you have each other’s backs. I depend on them and they depend on me. I feel guilty for not being there for them when they finally do have new arrivals.
  3. I am replaceable and I 100% realize that, but at the same time the problem is that there is just not someone in Tabakika to step into the role that I’ve assumed. It’s not rocket science and many, many, many people could do the same, but if you don’t have anyone there to do it, that is another problem. I’ve been the only volunteer at Tabakika for the last 3 days. When there aren’t refugees, the volunteers seem to drift off to I’m not sure where. There is work to be done, but it’s become quite clear that people don’t like working on clothes/warehouse duties. So going away for three days feels like I’m leaving a gap. It will be filled. It has to be, but doesn’t make me feel any less guilty for leaving.

I’m going back to Chios on Sunday night and I will be back at Tabakika working on Monday morning, and there is still work to be done, GoFundMe money to be spent, but this already signals the beginning of the end of my time on Chios. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet, but will for sure write about it later when I am leaving for Athens at the end of next week.

After having folded thousands of clothes the past 3+ weeks, I folded my own clothes for the first time since arriving. Where I am staying has been doing my laundry and they return the washed clothes in a large plastic bag, unfolded, but I have tended to just put the clothes on directly from the bag instead of folding them and putting them away somewhere. I’m still living out of a suitcase. Because I was leaving for the weekend to Lesvos, I had to pack up my suitcase to store it while I was gone and this meant folding my own clothes. It may sound funny, but it was almost surreal, like I was in the wrong place and time. I can always work for a washing service when I get back to the US if I’m missing folding clothes. I will write a post on folding clothes in the future.

And, today, for the first time since arriving I’m not armed with a knife (for opening boxes) and a marker (for labeling boxes). It’s also an odd sensation. Like something is missing or I’m forgetting something. Weird how your mind works. Being without them will not be that hard to adjust to compared to what will go through my mind every time I fold clothes again.

First observations of Lesvos



  • I saw more volunteers in my first 15 minutes in Mytilini, the main city/port of the island, than we have on the entire island of Chios. There were swarms. Even though they get 2.5-3 times as many refugees as Chios, you can see where their reputation comes for being overrun with volunteers. Will get more of the scoop over the weekend.
  • This is a much more happening place than Chios in general.
  • The camps here are outside the city, unlike Chios, so you don’t see as many refugees in town, although they do have to go to Mytilini to board the ferries to Athens, but I’m guessing they are bussed in, because of the distances, whereas on Chios they walk to the port and spend most of the day (as the ferries leave late-night) in/around the harbor area.

Statistics: Chios arrivals (week prior to 6 January), Greece arrivals (week prior to 6 January)

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