Before arriving here, emotionally engaging in the crisis was optional. You could read an article about the Syrian war, glance at a photo of a baby crying on a Greek beach, and then continue scrolling through the newsfeed and disengage from it. Here on Lesvos though, you’re fully in it.
You’ll see throngs of just-arrived refugees walk past the café where you came to decompress and call home. You’ll see so many life jackets strewn around that they will lose their significance and you will stop noticing them. You’ll spend the day working alongside amazing people and fighting back tears as you come face to face with the human victims of an inhuman war. The beautiful sea will look more ominous. Dinner conversation with other volunteers will center around border closures and Turkish politics. When you get into bed you’ll question why you are the one in a hotel room rather than in a muddy refugee camp. And at night you’ll dream about overcrowded rafts landing in your hometown. You might start to question the rosy worldview you were able to maintain before this.
You might be jarred by feelings of frustration at a world that allows the people in front of you to be so desperate for the things that you already have. You might feel helpless, angry, overwhelmed, lonely, guilty, or lost. Maybe you’ll realize that there is so much more going on here than you simply “helping,” but that it’s difficult to put it into words.
Your emotional defenses might go up. Your brain might try to protect itself from seeing the tragic
reality in front of you by justifying and rationalizing. Insulating yourself does serve the purpose of allowing you to get through the day as a functional helper. But I think that the most important thing that you can do here for yourself and for the individuals you are serving is to consciously let your defenses down, and let yourself feel all of those overwhelming emotions. Come here to learn, come here to break down barriers and conquer fears through conversations. Come here to let your heart be broken.
Do the work, whether it’s giving medical aid, sorting socks, or serving tea, with a heart that is humble enough to learn and vulnerable enough to evolve. Ask questions. Listen. Smile even though you want to cry at the injustice of it all – do that later. Try not to get so absorbed in busyness or in taking photos that you aren’t able to be fully present to whoever is in front of you. Take a deep breath and realign yourself in between interactions because each person deserves your best. During stressful, crowded moments, it’s possible to fall into the trap of losing your ability to be empathetic to individuals, and to see the refugees as numbers or a nuisance. If you feel yourself doing this, take a step back and check in with yourself or a fellow volunteer. The way that you interact with people is as important as the assistance you are providing. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, that will come across to the people you’re there to help, and you’ll have become part of the uncaring, stressed out government operations.
Respect privacy, make eye contact, be calm and polite, and don’t be afraid to laugh. Refugees have told me that we are the first smiles they have seen in a long time, so when appropriate, it’s important to share happiness- especially with children. Take the time to inform yourself so that you can be an accurate source of relevant information. Learn some Arabic and Farsi phrases, and find translators in the crowd to help you. Introduce yourself and proactively offer assistance. When you can, give refugees options. “Blue or black socks?” “Apple or orange?” “Choose one toy from this box.” It sounds insignificant, but presenting people with options is an important way to restore some feelings of control and human dignity.
Recognize that refugees may have come from experiences where being defensive and pushy has been necessary to stay alive. Don’t think that people are being “manipulative” – instead, recognize that they are resilient survivors who have had to learn how to get their needs met. The stories you hear from Lesvos are often full of baby hugs and heartfelt story sharing, but please remember that the gruff, standoffish man has a trauma history and is as deserving of your compassionate attention as anyone else. Remember that these are brave, passionate, loving, fearful individuals. Everything you do for them should reflect this.
It’s important to accept your own smallness. Remember the parable of ‘the starfish thrower’, in which a boy, on a shore of thousands of beached, dying starfish is tossing some back to sea and points out to a pessimistic passerby that while he can’t save the whole beach, that each small act does in fact make a huge difference to the individual starfish being saved. Your small contributions have an enormous impact on each individual that you assist. Embrace the fact that while you may not be doing large scale things right now, that you can do small things with great love (said Mother Theresa). And when a passionate community takes on enough of these small, starfish-saving acts of love, the tide on oppression will change.
Even after working 12+ hours a day, you still might feel helpless, given the scale of the crisis. You might be kept awake by the haunting face of a cold little girl you helped, wondering where she is and if you could have done more. The trauma that the refugees are experiencing is, in a way, contagious, and you’ll likely carry some of what you hear and see here for the rest of your life. An Afghani man I met in Moria camp my last night on Lesvos reminded me that it’s important to be sensitive to others’ pain. Even if it hurts, without the ability to be empathetic, we would miss out on a key part of being human.
Notice your feelings. Ask yourself why you are having a certain reaction. Engage with what’s going on for you- don’t push it away. Remember that every emotional response you have is valid, and that you are having a normal reaction to an abnormal experience. Take some time to put intentional thought into what you do at home to decompress. Do you run? Call a friend? Journal? Cook? Read? Look at the stars? It’s important to figure out how to incorporate those self-care things you do for yourself at home into your volunteer experience. Talk to other volunteers who may be experiencing a reaction similar to yours. Whenever possible, organize a small group dinner or coffee gathering- digesting what you are going through informally with peers is hugely helpful to integrating this intense experience you are having. It’s important not just to remember that you aren’t alone, but also to perhaps hear someone else give voice to a reaction that you have had. Be aware of the very real danger of inexperienced volunteers developing lingering unhealthy emotions as a result of the trauma that they’ve been exposed to. If you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, anxiety, irritation, hopelessness, a change in eating patterns or exhaustion, you may be experiencing ‘compassion fatigue‘ which is the same thing as ‘secondary traumatic stress.’ It’s possible that these feelings can become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Please consult a professional if your negative feelings persist or worsen.(Link at the end.)
Keep yourself safe. Take breaks, and step out if a situation feels unsafe or beyond your ability. You can only give so much of yourself. Recognize that if you’ve chosen to come here, it’s likely that you have a “helper” personality and could burn yourself out with your own enthusiasm. Reserve some of that energy for yourself, and to share with fellow volunteers. Be kind and respectful to Greek locals and authorities and to fellow volunteers. Assume goodwill, avoid casting judgement, and please reach out to talk. It’s likely that all of the other volunteers you meet have been working hard and biting back tears all day as well. Even if you don’t know a fellow volunteer very well, don’t be afraid of offering a genuine “How are YOU doing?” Actively creating that space to talk about what you’re experience can build strong relationships, and help process and integrate what you both are experiencing. You’re in a unique, passionate, multicultural community, so engage, and learn from it.
Once back at home, it might feel alienating to try to talk to friends and family about what you’ve experienced here. Even if they love and support you and the refugees 100%, you have been in such a huge, traumatic, and completely foreign environment, it’s going to be difficult to feel understood. Be gentle with them, say what you need, and accept their love and concern for you.
And loved ones back home reading this: Listen! Ask open-ended questions. Read the news so that you know what to ask about. Look at your loved one’s pictures. Be supportive and empathetic, even if you don’t totally understand it. Keep listening, and create a space between you where it’s always safe to talk about the volunteer experience. Ask what your loved one needs to feel supported. Get engaged yourself in the refugee crisis.
If a stranger, or someone in your life, is unsympathetic or hostile, don’t take it personally. You’ve had the opportunity to see behind the curtain that the mass media paints for us. If you are ready to engage with someone who doesn’t ‘get it’ please do so from a calm, informed, and respectful place. If you’re not in a good place to challenge someone’s opinion, then respectfully decline to engage. In the same way that no refugee ‘owes’ you their story and opinion, you don’t have an obligation to be the great defender of the crisis. Though, if you are able to be an informed, respectful, advocate back home, that is great! In all of this, be aware of your own privilege, and let the things you become aware of here influence how you interact with people. Be a humble advocate. Don’t make the story be about you. Give the refugees a voice.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the combination of war in the news and the individual tragedies in front of you. To be optimistic sometimes seems absurd, and it flies in the face of what sensationalist mass media wants us to believe, but we must be optimistic. We have to be able to see that traumatized children can still play, and remember that thousands of volunteers have come here, with the support of friends and family, from around the world. We have to be able to enjoy a beautiful sunrise, see the love and hope a young Syrian couples shares, and appreciate the Greek grandmothers who rock scared refugee babies to sleep. We have to recognize that we are part of community of people who are as bothered by this injustice as you are.
When you get back home, don’t fall back asleep. The transition back to daily life can be difficult if you disengage. Instead, allow what you’ve seen here to change you, and continue to seek out ways at home to advocate and to remain involved. Keep in touch with the people you met while volunteering. Having borne witness to this amount of tragedy should break your heart and break you out of the comfortable worldview you’ve had before this. Some have described that in hindsight, their life feels like it is divided between “pre-Lesvos and post-Lesvos.” Some are unhappy back at home, in what feels like a shallow life, until they book a return ticket. It is difficult to ever fully “leave” the island. The crisis hasn’t ended because you’re back at home, and Lesvos is not the only place where tragedy is happening, so continue to support the refugees, and to foster better understanding in your own community. Be proud of your contribution to humanity during such a dark time, and be grateful that you were able to be here. Wherever you are, be the reason that others can be optimistic about humanity.