For the first week of volunteering on Lesvos I didn’t take out my camera or write a post. I was busy working. I felt uncomfortable with the aggressive throngs of photographers crowding the beaches and outnumbering volunteers. I wrongly assumed that there was an over abundance of coverage here.
Then the Paris attacks happened and all of a sudden, the mainstream news I had been following shifted its tone. Suddenly, it seemed, the US was terrified of the very people that I was helping off rafts in Greece. Suddenly, governors were jumping on the bandwagon of bigotry and proudly proclaiming to their constituents that Syrian refugees would not be allowed into their states. I can’t describe what an emotional blow that was- to feel like my country was abandoning the very families who I had been working hard to protect and welcome. I’ve felt isolated, and betrayed on behalf of the refugees. It’s impossible to feel the anti-Muslim sentiment the media tells me to feel when I spend all day talking to and shaking hands with the people who I’m supposed to fear. The headlines I read break my heart in ways worse than seeing sobbing mothers on the beach, or the hope that I know will be short-lived in men’s eyes. The refugees think that they are escaping oppression, but there is no end to the horrible journey that they are on.
(Just arrived safely on the beach of Lesvos)
I wish that I could be optimistic. I wish that I could propose a solution. I wish that these people weren’t forced from their homes in the first place. But each time another overcrowded raft makes its way to shore and terrified refugees pile off of it and into our arms, the terrible reality hits me again and I remember that we are collectively in the same slowly sinking raft. Whether in Damascus, Beirut, New York, Paris, Portland, or Lesvos, our futures are bound together. We have the same desire to live in peace, the same enemy, and the same desire to hold our children close and give them every good thing. Extremists, whether Donald Trump or ISIS/DAESH, will tear the world apart. Both sides use fear and xenophobia to turn people against each other and incite hatred and violence. Both bombs and hateful Twitter posts tear at the seams of the already delicate fabric holding the world together.
For me, volunteering on the beach here in Lesvos is no heroic rescue mission. Those stories do happen every day, and I’m privileged to work alongside the people who do so. For me, it feels important to just be in a position where I can share a genuine smile, a hi-five while yelling “welcome” in Arabic, drive a tired family to the nearest refugee camp, or help an overwhelmed mother by entertaining her frightened toddler. At a time when the world is fractured by mistrust and fear, maybe it’s these shared moments that are the most heroic. The beauty of that kind of heroism is that you don’t have to be on Lesvos to do it.
(Sunset over the apocalyptic-looking beached refugee boats. Most arrive in rafts, some pay extra to take boats like this, which are theoretically safer.)
This post is about you, and the people passing through Lesvos, not about me. But if you don’t already know me, I’m a 27 year old American woman who did social work for a long time before uprooting and seeing where else in the world I could fit in. California, Oregon, and Alaska are home. I came to Lesvos in early November after a 2-month backpacking trip through the Mediterranean with my boyfriend, Scott. After hearing the stories of tragedy on the media, I couldn’t leave this part of the world without doing something, so I changed my flight to come to Athens instead of back home. Once here, I joined up with a fantastic Norwegian volunteer organization, A Drop In The Ocean, whose mission is to make refugees’ journey safer from the shores of Lesvos. In addition to welcoming arriving boats to the beaches, we provide emergency medical assistance, dry clothes, transportation, and manage storage centers for incoming donations and keep a daily lookout for boats in distress. I plan to be here for a month, and am absolutely NOT a reporter! 🙂 I’m trained as a Wilderness First Responder, and have done trauma intervention and worked with families in crisis and poverty, and can sort incoming donations like a monster.