Volunteer stories: Joan (Aug 18)

06/12/18

I wonder what it’s like to leave everything behind—home, family, friends, career—to start over a completely new life. I personally can’t wrap my head around the concept of doing something so extreme. But when you work 15 hours/day and barely make enough to stay afloat, “the big move” may be the best option. My thirty-something-year-old cousin and his wife, who live in Greece, took this thought into serious consideration when the country’s economy hit rock bottom and demoted them into precarious​ ​​positions in which they were forced to work longer hours but yet, still faced the possibility of losing their jobs at just a moment’s notice. They divulged to me that just the mere idea of leaving their entire life behind to start anew in the U.S. gave them heart-wrenching nightmares.

Luckily, their families were able to support them through the particularly trying times, and currently they have been fortunate to settle into jobs with somewhat increased job security. Of course, job security will continue to remain a major concern, but at least for them, it has been ameliorated some.

Now, imagine if one awoke on a what could have otherwise been a typical morning to a thunderous bang—a bomb explosion—and survived only to discover his/ her entire neighborhood obliterated and loved ones screaming, crying, physically wounded, or worse, dead. Those people cannot take the thought of moving simply into serious consideration—they ​must​ move. Fast and impulsively. They do not have the “privilege” to ponder the idea as my cousin and his wife had.

As someone who frequently travels to Greece during the summer to visit family, I quickly became aware of the crisis. I learned of the Syrian refugees who trek to Turkey, then to some island in Greece (specifically the likes of Chios, Kos, and Samos), then maybe to some refugee camp on the mainland, and finally (or, hopefully?) to Athens, where they could apply for asylum in another European country. I then learned about the horrific conditions under which the refugees who reach Athens must live; while they wait for their asylum papers to be processed, many resort to living in derelict, unsanitary housing, such as the abandoned Hellinikon airport, where access to proper food and water supplies is limited. While it seems they had expected for Greece to be a pitstop before continuing their journey deeper into Europe, the stop has become the opposite of temporary—approximately 60,000 refugees in Greece are left in total limbo. And unfortunately, while the media mainly emphasizes the Syrians, there are numerous from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan; also more recently, there has been an influx from Africa, namely, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali.

My family members explained how they found the situation heart-breaking, and of course, would be willing to help in principle. They even explained how for the Syrians in particular, they felt a stronger willingness to help at the outset of the refugee crisis because of Greece’s history with Syria. In the 1920s, following the Asia Minor catastrophe, thousands of Greeks in Anatolia sought refuge in Syria, and many Syrians supported them with food and other staples garnered from various charities.​ ​Presently the tables have turned, and most Greeks, although willing, find it increasingly difficult to help the refugees, because, as can be seen by my cousin’s experience above, they themselves are plagued by economic distress. I knew I could help, though.

So, I investigated various volunteer programs in refugee relief within Greece, but unfortunately, when I went to complete forms, I was disappointed to learn I did not meet the age requirement. But my father, who often attends film screenings by the A.S. Onassis Program in Hellenic Studies at New York University, informed me of a poignant documentary that had recently been shown, entitled the 722 TMX Engineer Battalion, featuring Refugee Support. The documentary detailed a refugee camp in Alexandreia; it explored the role of the Greek army and NGOs in organizing the camp, the daily life of the refugees, and the evolving relationship between the locals and their new neighbors. Since the prominent NGO featured in the film was Refugee Support, I searched into it and was elated to discover an organization for which I met the age requirement and could volunteer. Several weeks after I completed the online form, it was solidified—I was to volunteer at LM village during the month of July in 2017. And little did I realize I would return in July of 2018!

As summer approached, friends and family inquired me of my plans. So I mentioned the volunteer work I planned to do in Greece. Most were encouraging, although, I could see some were hesitant at the prospect. Many grapple with the complex politics of immigration, but I think we must put politics aside and realize that this is a major humanitarian issue. Why should civilians suffer the casualties of a power struggle of which they are not part? They are merely innocent victims. But the constant Islamophobic, anti-refugee rhetoric derived from the mainstream media and politicians has unfortunately procured the refugees a maligned reputation.

When I met the other volunteers the night before my first day of work at the camp, they all raved about their experience. While they explained that their daily tasks were often tiresome under the scorching July sun, it was all of the families they had met along the way that made the experience worthwhile.

As I stepped foot onto the camp the morning of my first day as a volunteer at LM village, the first thing​ ​​I saw was a group of young children gathered near the market, deeply engrossed in some kind of game. Any fears or anxieties I may have had prior to volunteering at the camp immediately vanished at the sight of one of the little boys. It seemed he had lost his front two baby teeth fairly recently and now, his adult ones just beginning to bud. He peeked at me from afar and proceeded to smile a beautiful, gummy, toothless smile. It was that little boy’s smile made me realize how lucky I was to be a volunteer at such a place for the next few weeks.

Otherwise, the camp was a depressing site. There was garbage strewn about, numerous emaciated dogs slumping around (as they lack the energy to run and wag their tails as most dogs do), and bungalows that seemed to sag in the heat. Although better than most other refugee camps, as it was once, over a decade ago, a luxury resort for vacationers, it is in dire need of repair. Of course there is no money to properly renovate the camp. During my first time there, we volunteers not only ran the market, but we tried to clean up the grounds. I found myself constantly sweeping garbage off the pathways by the market and resident houses, only to find them just as dirty and unkempt the following day. After many days, I was overcome with frustration. We soon realized we had approached this problem the wrong way—we did not provide the refugees with any sense of agency. Rather than clean up after their mess every day ourselves, shouldn’t we have instead encouraged them to clean up after themselves? While it seems that many residents view their lives at LM Village as “temporary” and thus do not care to keep it clean, unfortunately, the majority stay longer than anticipated. And so, it is in fact important to create a clean space in which all residents feel safe and comfortable. They all deserve this much—even if the camp is not necessarily “home.” Thus, we organized “clean-up” events, incentivizing residents to clean up the camp with the promise of a reward of fresh watermelon at the events’ end. While children were usually the only ones willing to participate in such events, their actions, fortunately, created a positive ripple effect; some mothers began to approach us to ask to borrow the brooms to clean the areas outside of their bungalows as well as neighboring ones.

When I returned to the camp the following summer, I was thrilled to see the grounds cleaned on a regular basis by staff of the IOM along with the residents on the camp. So, this year, of course in addition to the market (which has also improved with the new token system!), we volunteers focused more on providing direct services to the children and women.

In order to make more time for children’s activities, we decided to scale back market hours. We reduced the market to morning hours only, so as to reserve time in the afternoon for the children. While the first few days saw only a couple of children, the numbers skyrocketed by the end of the week once word got around. From origami butterflies to bracelets to soccer to dance, the children have (hopefully!) enjoyed this array of activities.

Although we tried not to become overly attached to the children, as we are transient people in their lives, many of them came up to us with open arms, embracing us in the warmest of hugs.​ ​​ While this shows the unconditional love for others that children possess, because many of them are young, I do not think they entirely grasp or even remember the precarious, life-threatening situations their families experiences. However, their mothers and fathers definitely remember, and such traumatic experiences continue to haunt them. As a result, many are too emotionally drained to play with their children. That’s why I think the kids were always so excited to have volunteers with whom to play.

The children’s fathers suffer much at the camp because they feel they cannot meet society’s expectations of them as men. That is why rather than being productive, I noticed many of them just sat out on the porch, lazily smoking cigarettes and drinking their strong Arabic coffee throughout the day.

In order to ameliorate this problem, Refugee Support recently created the “Empowerment Fund” to help these fathers become economic actors in their own communities. Refugee Support provides some money and coaching support to those with business ideas as a way to help them get started. Although men have mostly benefited from this fund, Amal, a widow struggling to support her two children, too has used it to advance her business in teaching languages to others (check website for her story!).

When we look to the women at the camp, we see they suffer as well: they are expected to fulfill their traditional roles, yet lack proper resources. As a result, they prioritize the needs of their children and husbands, often to the detriment of their own well-being. That’s why our group of volunteers sought to create a community meeting/event space for all of the women at LM, completely absent of men and children (nursing babies were the only exception), so they could share their past experiences and concerns about current life on the camp. It would be indoors and the windows covered by drapes, so that no one could peek inside if they decided to take off their hijabs in order to feel more comfortable in the space. While we planned to initially jumpstart the weekly meetings to ensure smooth operation, our hope was to eventually turn it over to the women. In that way, they would empower themselves.

Due to the language barrier (as we volunteers did not know Arabic nor Kurdish), we found ourselves desperately searching for women at the camp who knew enough English to translate our signs advertising the first women’s event. We walked from house to house, excitedly knocking on doors and thrusting the signs toward the women to read, sincerely hoping they would come. Because many of them stared at us and the signs in bewilderment, we worried
that they were not understanding this idea of a women’s event and would not show. That wasn’t the case.

To our surprise, over half of the women at the camp came! A kind, patient young mother translated back and forth—from Arabic to English—during the entire meeting, allowing for all of us to engage in thoughtful dialogue. The women voiced their concerns without hesitation. Their normally projected view on the camp as as submissive, quiet, and covering, ceased to exist in this safe space. By the meeting’s end, they played some Arabic music so we could all dance together. Some women even took off their hijabs and let their hair loose! I truly hope this women’s event has continued since I’ve left LM.

By providing the families on the camp with the tools and opportunity to help them help themselves (whether through the simple act of picking up garbage, to the more complex empowerment funds and women’s events), Refugee Support fulfils its mission—aid with dignity. Please consider dedicating some time to volunteer or donate for this incredible organization.