Volunteering with refugees in Lesvos: a reflection
So, that was it. The time of helping out those in need, putting myself aside and “making the world a better place for you and me”.
At least, that idea is now in the past. The reality turned out to be different and now, two weeks later, it's time for an evaluation.
First, a week in Italy where I slept nights of 10 to12 hours, time to slow my mind down and now, in Manchester, where it's a whole different vibe and a whole different climate. Far from the beaches, feta cheese and pizza and the 30 degree-days. Talking with my friend here that also supported me during my time in Greece and now I still feel the frustration and disappointment I also felt on the island. A cloud that covered me a lot even though the sun was always shining.
Most of you readers will know that I recently found myself on the island Lesvos for three months. Joining different projects, all with the hope to make the people that need happiness and a break from their struggling life, a little better. That mission worked out, even though on a very small scale, knowing that there are about 12000 refugees that are stuck on the island.
I started with Shower Power, a project that provides showers and a time to relax for women and children. Something that is really hardly needed when you live in a refugee camp with hardly any facilities. I helped out some days in the warehouse Attika were they do a great job making boxes with toiletries and clothes for refugees. And the last 1,5 months I helped out in Pikpa, a self-organized refugee camp with around 100 vulnerable refugees. Not that anyone is not vulnerable after leaving all they know and have behind, not being accepted anywhere and fighting for their life, but that is another story. In Pikpa I mainly found myself in the shop, where our residence (as we lovably called the inhabitants) were welcome to come shopping every second week. A great way to meet everyone with all their ups and downs. Because how much we would have loved to give everyone all they needed, a nice colored or patterned shirt in the right size, or shoes that fit the season and the rest of your style, we didn't had enough money to make that happen. I was already happy when everyone had the choice between a cap OR a bag, yay! And week by week, the Pikpa residence grew on me.
Even though I am usually a quite social person that likes to make friends with many, here on the island I didn't feel much like it. Two reasons. First of all, the more I travel, the more I select the people I want to get closer with. The more I want to spend my time and energy wisely. The second reason was that I was just not here to make new friends. I've kind of been traveling for the last three years with meeting all kinds of people and chilling on beaches, this was just not the time for me to get into that. Also not the place, I would just pick another where there is less tension between locals and their 'visitors', and somewhere with a beach with less stones and more sand ;)
Anyway, because I didn't spend much time with them chatting after work on the beach, going for drinks in the evenings of doing weekend trips with them, I didn't really felt part of the Pikpa team. This was a little weird because one part of me made this decision so in my free time I could spend more for the reason I was here: helping refugees. But the other part of me didn't always like it, not being part of a really wonderful group I saw everyday. A discrepancy in me that costed me energy, if I liked it or not.
But, I was on a mission, and besides running the shop, I was working on some other nice projects. Within Pikpa I restarted the jam session which were such happy gatherings! I went around with a djembe, motivating people to come over and all gave it a go. These moments you do it for, a good time together where we forgot why we are here, only enjoying each others company and smiles. Other than that, I set up a photography workshop. We had some polaroid cameras, we explained to our students something about photography and gave them a theme in which they could make some pictures. In the end we all put them together and reflected about the process and results. I loved seeing their enthusiasm and creativity, giving them something else to do and think of. Going off the beaten track helps always best for me, so why not for them?
Besides these little creative activities, I also gave an arty workshop at the women's center Bacheira, where
I thought the ladies how to make a stone-wrap-necklace. You know, the one I'm always wearing. Again,
the enthusiasm made me so happy! Some picked it up so quickly and in my last time one of the ladies
that came often took over the class. Feels great to be able to leave something behind.
And I visited a family from Syria that lives in camp Moria often in the weekends. I became friends with
this beautiful family of a mom and her 5 daughters between 10 and 25 years. They were always friendly,
made me laugh and feel welcome and gave me presents I could hardly accept.
The further my time progressed, the more I realized that I can express myself best by using my qualities,
which are letting people feel comfortable and to be creative. It's funny and interesting to notice with
myself how I came to the island to give, and left with gaining so much knowledge about myself, but
also about worlds politics, how NGO's work (or don't work) and how people behave in an environment
where they came as 'the helper'.
And by noticing all of these things, life on the island became very hard for me. Yes, I did what I could to help out and surely did great stuff, but I wish I could have done so much more and have left with a real change. It feels like what I've done was the size of a drop in the biggest ocean, a grain of sand on the longest beach. It frustrated me a lot seeing weeks, months and years from people going to waste because of bad made decisions. The UNHCR, the most powerful and rich organisation on the island, was in my opinion the biggest cause of this. It is the company that aims to stand up for refugees but to me, for sure not the one that uses their power best. And I don't just want to shout it, I also want to share what I've seen so you can make up your own mind about it.
Let's first give you an insight in the life of people that arrive in Lesvos. Refugees that arrive on the island by boat get from the start treated like many people treat animals these days. Most of the boats will arrive by night, as the chance of being caught and brought back to Turkey is smaller. When they are unlucky, none of the non-profit organization that help with boat landings will be there before the Greek coastguard and they will be put in a bus without medical help or food and have to wait till it's 08:00 AM, the time they can register themselves in camp Moria. Here they will get a tent and from there on, they have to figure out themselves how they will get out of their misery. Hardly any information about the process, how to get and use lawyers, where to get clothes from (like Attika), that there are organizations (like Shower Power and Bacheira) where they can get a break out of the camp, how long anything could take. So far I don't blame the UNHCR, even though I think they might be able to make this process a little better as it is not really a great way to start your time in a new country and a new continent.
From there the waiting started. They go to interviews and based on this, Greece decides if they may stay in Greece or not. You will get appointments for these interviews, but in case the UNHCR likes you to ask something else for the progress, you have to get to their office within one hour, otherwise your process might be delayed with a few weeks or month. It's also possible they will let you know on the day itself that you can take the ferry to Athens and you have to pack your belongings and leave your new friends behind. This is very inhumane and disrespectful to me, these people have to be ready every moment of the day without knowing what might come up. It makes it harder to go to the city for shopping or work as a volunteer somewhere.
Secondly, the UNHCR aims to have one toilet per every 30 people and in case of an emergency 50 people per toilet. In Moria, which is a camp that has already existed for 2 years and thereby not an emergency camp, has 1 toilet/dixie for every 80 people and from what I've heard, they are not that clean.
Another example is that last winter they didn't even prepare camp Moria with having enough blankets, even though winters can be tough, as it was snowing the year before... In the end, Attika, which is an NGO which is existing on donations, took care of handing out blankets as they fill up many gaps on the island. To compare, the UNHCR has a budget of about 120 million euro per month, only for Greece. What I hear and see around me, a big part of this is going to big loans, fancy cars and expensive hotel rooms in the absolutely beautiful hotel I passed every day on my way to Pikpa.
And the last thing that shocked me a lot is that they know about the torture room that is located next to Moria, and they didn't really seem to worry about it. It does to me, all these people flee away from their home country because of the war and ISIS, but it seemed to be presentive in Moria as well.
So, that was my frustration about the UNHCR. Hopefully you can understand my disappointment better now? After all, I was happy to leave and felt gracefull to be free to leave when I wanted to. I realized this till the last moment, when I saw that the only person that got double checked at the douane was a lady with a hajib.
But I wasn't just happy to leave, I had mixed feelings. The residents from Pikpa became a little bit like a family, saying happily “good morning Anouk” to me every morning when I walked into the camp, friends like Zigo from Somalia that called me almost every day to say that he wanted to hang out and I had the best moves with on the dance floor and not to forget the loving full family in Moria that always welcomed me warmly in their cold – not temperature wise – ISO box.
All these people are really so positive, friendly, warm and giving in circumstances that are so frustrating and cruel. It's really something to learn from and I respect each individual for their strength to come this far: crossing unknown countries and the Aegean sea in a rubber boat by night while not being able to swim. May all their wishes come true, were my last words that
came straight from my heart to my new friends I left behind.
Want to look into one of the organizations I told you about above or want to make a donation? Click on the name of the or the organization and a website will open.