Lesvos to Chios to Athens: Volunteering in Greece

December 15, 2015 ~ Demetra Szatkowski
warehouse items from Chios. only in Greece

warehouse items from Chios. only in Greece

I have been trying to write this post for a few days now, but I’m so sick and my head is so clouded and stuffy and my throat hurts so much that I can’t even focus enough to make it all flow or make sense.

I was doing so well, trying to prevent the inevitable with my herbs and my hand sanitizer and it was really working! And then I shared drinks with 6 other volunteers on a night out (a story in itself) and immediately, there it was.

Everyone is sick here. I’m also the most pathetic sick person in the world. And as shitty as I feel in my bed, I keep thinking about becoming sick as a refugee and having to sleep outside.

My first day in Moria, I was setting up tents in preparation for the incoming rain and a doctor brought an awful-looking refugee up to me. “He has a bad lung infection,” she said. “He needs a tent, and he needs blankets and water, immediately.” I ran for those things. Now, with a cough sounding similar to his, I cringe thinking about how he must have felt, sleeping in the cold rain that night. (This was before the new medic area at Moria was set up at the bottom of the hill.)

Anyway, I have since left Moria, spent a few days on another island called Chios, and am now in Athens. My flight home leaves this Friday.

The border to Macedonia has closed, as of a few weeks ago, to people who are not Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghani. Thousands of people were stuck there, in Idomeni, most of the time without food or water or anything. There were many fights among different nationalities (created by the segregation at the border!) and it became an intense and sometimes dangerous place. Now, the camp is being cleared out, and everyone not of the chosen nationalities is being sent back to Athens. They have a choice to either be deported back to their country of origin (very dangerous for some), or to try to claim asylum in Greece (a really bad idea, because of the economy.) Thousands of people with literally nowhere to go. Some have sewn their mouths shut in protest.

I left Moria mostly because I was beginning to feel kind of useless. I also was getting pretty tired of the way some of the volunteers there were acting.

Most volunteers are truly helping here, which should be appreciated, and not discredited. I don’t think that what I’m about to say discredits anybody’s help. But I think that it is necessary to point out the behaviors that were happening there that nobody wants to talk about, because it affects people on a daily basis and it diminishes the effect some could have. I also am trying to be really honest about my experience as a volunteer, which includes the fact that I’m not perfect. Maybe my reactions to things aren’t always perfect, either, but I do stand by what I say and how I feel.

Among the many great things happening… There was also a lot of sexism (and sometimes even racism) in Moria. One of my friends said, “I have never felt so silenced as a woman as I do at this place.”

It’s true. It’s kind of a weird mix as there are also many women in leadership roles, but the sexism still exists.

I have been blatantly ignored more than once, even when I repeated myself multiple times, only to have a white male repeat what I said and then actually be listened to. It even happened once when my (male) friend actually noticed and called it out by saying, “You know she’s speaking, and you’re still only talking to me.”

It happened when a male worker physically moved me out of the way a few times while he walked past, by grabbing ahold of my shoulders and moving me like a child. He never would have touched a man that way. “Seriously?” I said. “That’s so rude.”

“Well then we’re rude people,” the man said to me, uncaringly, barely even looking at me. “This is the way we work.”

It happened when a man was talking about moving boxes and said something along the lines of “I need some men (sorry girls, ha) to help me tomorrow.” Never mind that I know many women stronger than him – it’s also just in the way the statement is made and presented.

It happened when two girls went to distribute blankets and were “surrounded by men” and “felt uncomfortable.” It happened when a woman was assaulted – and the reaction from all the male volunteers was to declare that women should no longer walk around at night without a man accompanying them. “We have to keep the women safe,” they said. Never mind that my friend and I, both girls, had distributed blankets alone the night before and felt perfectly secure. While I totally validate a woman’s experience of feeling unsafe, if you feel uncomfortable doing something, don’t do it anymore. The solution isn’t for a bunch of boys to decide that we need men with us at all times. I never once felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and neither have many of my female friends. I think a big part of it is knowing how to assert yourself, and also knowing that these are regular people, not foreign animals that are out of control.

It happened, as I mentioned in my last post, in the middle of complete and almost scary chaos when I had a good idea to end it and had to repeat myself a million times before another man spoke up for me and people agreed to do it.

It happened constantly, and I was constantly shocked by it. “You forget, most of the world is that way,” my friend said to me.

Racism, too – I was blown away to hear a volunteer here refer to “those fucking Pakistanis,” before spurting off a bunch of super inconsiderate phrases.

My friends and I just looked at each other. “You’re volunteering in a refugee camp..” I wanted to say, but since this man had put a lot of money and time into the camp, it didn’t seem worth it.

*****

New volunteers coming in and trying to completely take control has also been an issue, I think. Taking a leadership position is great, but not by ignoring the experience that others before you have had.

One time, when I was doing distribution, a Greek woman came and started helping. I informed her that when evening came, we wouldn’t distribute blankets where we were, but that we would have volunteers going to each tent and distributing them that way.

She put an empty box right out front and started to fill it with blankets. “But it’s cold,” she said, “Nobody will know we have blankets if we don’t show them.”
Yes they will, I told her. People ask for blankets 500 times a night. It works more efficiently if we go to each tent.

I had made the same mistake a few nights before – if we hand out blankets at distribution, some people end up with 10 and some people won’t have any. There’s no way to control it. Someone told me I shouldn’t do that, and a bunch of us then agreed there was a better way to do it.
I had to leave for a while and when I came back, this woman had stacked the entire distribution area full of blankets. We had blankets in storage that should have lasted us at least a couple days. She went through them all in one night.

I was upset when I came back and irritated by her telling me “but people are cold” as if I didn’t care about that. We know people are cold. But it’s also important to understand how to ration things so that everybody gets something. That means that maybe everybody will be slightly cold instead of one person being freezing and one person being super warm.

But I can deal with that, because that I understand. I had made the same mistake before. It comes from a good place, even if it’s frustrating. I think maybe stressors like that are just part of being an independent volunteer.

What I cannot tolerate, though, is people coming in and acting like a dictator, telling people what to do without caring how they come across.

A boy showed up one day from Canada and essentially took over the distribution area, which was what my friend and I had been doing. He came in with a clipboard, checking things off, changing the system, and having everyone report to him. When I arrived that day, everything was a complete mess. They had closed the men’s side down and were letting women and children inside the distribution area. There were children screaming, people pushing in line outside, people taking forever inside, and it was just chaotic. I asked him what was going on and why people were inside.

“I already tried. Fine, then you fix it!” He shouted at me.

“Well, okay,” I said.

My friend and I moved everyone gently back outside. We backed up the line, tied a rope, and started letting people come forward to get clothes two at a time. We sent the men away, telling them they should come back later – we were only taking care of women and children right now. Within half an hour, the line was moving smoothly and everything was fine.

“It’s going pretty well,” I said nicely.

“It didn’t work,” the boy said smugly.

“What?” I said. “Yes it did.”

“No, it didn’t work. They’re all calling you a bitch.”

“I don’t really care what they call me, we have a line and it’s calm again. It worked.”

He told me that he was in the military and had 9 years of experience with Save the Children. I guess that means he knows better than me?

This is the problem, I think. This boy was helping, in a way – some people like to be ordered and those people were responding really well to him taking a leadership position. And I don’t mind someone taking charge as long as they’re still open to listening to other people’s ideas.

We must all be open to hearing that we’re wrong.

When I came in the next day, in time for my shift, and I asked him if I could relieve anyone, he glanced down at his watch and dismissively said, “We’re fine.”

Honestly, I felt unwanted, and excluded from the place I had been working the entire time. And while maybe in a different situation I would have tried to mend the conflict or get someone else involved or take charge a bit more, the reality was that he was going to be there 3 weeks longer than me, and it was probably more valuable to everybody there (especially the refugees) to just let his system be in place, not to cause more issues, and to just let it go. While I didn’t totally agree with the way things were being done, things were still getting done, and that was the most important thing.

I didn’t have to be there, though. And so after spending the next two days feeling literally useless, as all other areas appeared to be handled, I decided I would go to Chios with a friend.

*****

We had heard that there was a lot of need in Chios, but the call for help turned out not to be entirely true. The independent volunteers on Chios are just starting out, so, as one put it to me, they’re on “step zero.” They don’t really have any tasks for anybody to do yet, and they mostly need people who can stay a few weeks and help to integrate their new system into place. Since my time in Greece was running out, I wasn’t sure how long I would want to stay.

The first night there, though, I did experience something important. It’s something I had heard many times but never actually saw for myself.

Other volunteers and I heard there were three families left in the UNHCR camp on the island (the hundreds from the day before had taken the ferry.) We made a bunch of sandwiches and took a crate of bananas and went to the camp to deliver them.

The man working there looked at what we had. “Our rule is no food,” he said. “Since there aren’t many people here tonight, I’ll let you go with the fruit, but no sandwiches.”

“Why not?” We asked him.

“Rats,” he said convincingly, as if we would totally understand. “People leave crumbs behind and we have problems with the rats.”

I nodded. “Okay, maybe we can watch the people eat them to make sure they don’t leave anything behind.”

He hesitated.

“They can eat them outside,” my friend suggested.

“Yes,” I said, “we’ll make sure they eat them outside.”

To put it into perspective, the rooms the people were in are these tiny IKEA huts. It’s basically 4 walls with a piece of foam on the floor. There is no electricity or bathroom or heating of any kind. It’s just a giant box. But sure, we’ll tell the people they need to eat their food outside.

We went in and delivered the food to very grateful people. On our way back out, we stopped to talk again.

“They didn’t want to eat them right now,” we said, “but they promised to eat them outside.”

The man nodded. “Okay, because we are not supposed to let food in. No food from outside. The rats.”

“Do you clean the rooms?” My friend asked.

“Yes,” he said, “but crumbs can still get, you know, in the corners.”

I just looked at him. “So do you feed them?”

“Yes, they get energy biscuits. Trust me, they have all they need.”

“Energy biscuits” sound like something exciting, but they’re not. I’ve eaten one. It’s UNHCR’s version of food. They are basically like tiny shortbread cookies, and the main ingredient is sugar. They have the word “glucose” stamped into them.

“That’s all they get all day,” we said, disbelievingly. “And we can’t bring any food into camp.”

“They have enough,” the man said. “A process is underway to begin feeding people in the camp.”

I wanted to scream. What about the people who are hungry now? I really can’t process that. We aren’t feeding people because you might get mice??

“Why are they still here?” We asked instead. “Why didn’t they take the ferry?”

“They don’t have any money for the ferry,” he said. “We’ll pay for them, but we wait a few days first to see if they really can’t come up with the money themselves.”

I have this whole conversation recorded, by the way. I could not even believe what I was hearing.

This is what makes me upset. There is this big organization that could be helping the most. Instead, it’s like they help halfway and then leave everybody else to pick up the rest of it. Independent volunteers now need to find a way to legally feed people, and in the meantime, sneak sandwiches.

*****

So we left Chios, and are now in Athens, volunteering here. Figuring out where to go and what to do.

I’m currently fighting myself, in a way. The part of me that usually takes care of myself super well when I’m sick. The realization that I can’t because I brought things to prevent getting sick, but nothing to really treat it. The fact that I’m in Greece and don’t know where to buy anything. The way my body aches and my throat and chest burn and my eyes just want to keep closing. The part of me that’s like, I am such a baby. The part of me that threatens to just become totally emotional and overwhelmed because there’s only so long I can keep everything bottled up. The part of me that struggles to shut it down, for now. Only 3 more days. Help for 3 more days. 

I was suppose to fly to Naxos (another island) for my last two days here, so that I could let everything sink in and decompress. I booked everything in advance because I thought I wouldn’t want to waste the money, and that would force me to take those days to transition. I knew I wouldn’t want to but I’d need it.

It didn’t work. I think my flight there left a few hours ago.