I showed up on Lesvos a little cocky maybe. I’d done crisis social work for years, seen plenty of dead bodies doing trauma intervention on accident scenes, and generally spent my adult career sitting in the trenches with members of my community who were marginalized by homelessness. I hadn’t thought of the emotional impact that being in the refugee crisis would have on me.
I’m realizing though, that continual witnessing of this trauma, even when processed in a healthy, supported way, doesn’t necessarily build an emotional suit of armor to let you keep doing the work unaffected. Instead, there’s a compounding effect, as my awareness of injustices increases. My heart breaks a little more with each cup of coffee or tea I distribute, and each donated hat I give to a cold person- whether on Lesvos or in Old Town Portland. Each sad story I hear, or infected wound I wash, or wool blanket I pass out, chips away at my optimistic world view. In the moment, I’m strong, I’m smiling, I’m entertaining the kids. The moment isn’t about me and my emotions.
But when I let myself reflect alone afterwards, it’s hard not to continually come back to the realization of “the world fucking sucks.” On my good days, I can justify, rationalize, forget, distract, convince myself otherwise. I can see the good in individuals. I can operate out of hope and continue to function as an effective helper and storyteller.
But then some afternoons are like today, when I’m blindsided by a black wall of despair while eating lunch in a grocery store. I was sitting alone, near two men also eating lunch. One was severely disabled and in an electric wheelchair. The other lovingly and patiently helped him eat. It took a long time, but I heard kind words and laughter, and smiled to myself at the bond they obviously shared.
Then, a lightning bolt of memory came out of nowhere to sharply illuminate a moment from the beaches of Lesvos that I’d apparently buried.
It’s hard to think about.
It’s hard to write about.
We’d just brought a full raft safely to shore, and had passed the babies and small kids to dry land, steadied men and women as they waded up the rocky shore, and helped toss backpacks to their relieved owners up on the beach. The last two on the raft were young men, probably my age, sitting and waiting for help off. The younger of the two, we realized, was paraplegic.
The volunteer operation moved unbelievably efficiently to build a makeshift ramp on the crowded beach. Four languages were being shouted overhead, parents were crying and praying thanks on the beach, the black raft lurched around slowly in the waves, and kids stared at their busy new surroundings, tugging their lifejackets off. The two men waited patiently on the raft as other passengers and volunteers crowded around to help the paralyzed man to shore. Within minutes, a ramp made of the wooden wreckage from another boat tied on top of lifejackets linked the raft to dry land, and several men carried him to the beach.
Everything happened so fast. I don’t even remember what I did, though I’m sure I was involved in the scene. I remember it as if I were a disjointed head floating around the beach, noticing details, but not really taking in the logical timing. I must have gone from the raft to helping parents get their kids into dry clothes, because that’s what I always did, but it all blurs together now.
I didn’t even watch to see how that man got from the beach to a camp. That wasn’t my job in the scene. I didn’t even stop moving to wonder at his bravery, or at his companion’s dedication. Were they brothers? Where had they come from? What unimaginable terror could drive someone to leave their home, their family, their wheelchair behind, in a desperate effort to find a better, safer life? I didn’t have any of these thoughts that day- I just went on to the next task at hand, because that’s what you have to do in order to function.
But today, on a mundane Monday a few months later, I suddenly remember his pursed lips, and sunken, whiskery cheeks. I remember seeing more determination and grit than I’ll ever have, as he entered the European Union for the first time, carried by fellow refugees and volunteers from around the world.
If you’re a volunteer, or have worked in social service, you know this feeling. You probably have hundreds of faces that flicker unbidden across your consciousness. Shadow memories of places and faces and stories that invade a pleasant brunch or leave you weeping silently behind your sunglasses at a stoplight.
I hear the voice of the pregnant Syrian woman, who came up to me in a chaotic scene of dozens of just-arrived refugees to quietly whisper “Help. I think I lost my baby. I’ve been bleeding for days.” And in that moment, you don’t think about how shitty the world is to allow this, you just get her and her family into your car and get them to the field medic station, and then dive back into the chaos on the beach. If you pause to think, you’ll be overwhelmed.
But then months later, at a bar back home, a friend asks you how Lesvos was, and you accidentally slip out of character from your usual canned response because all you can hear is that Syrian woman’s voice, and all you can tell your friend is how shitty the world is to allow this.
And reading the news about the deteriorating crisis kills you a little bit because those statistics have smiles you know, stories you’ve heard, and hands you’ve held. You’ve opened up your heart to feel the unimaginable impact of war and terror on humans, and you can’t go back to being the blissful person you were before this.
I don’t think you ever really leave Lesvos, or Idomeni, or Zaatari. I don’t think you can ever unsee urban poverty in the backyard of your own city once you’ve looked at it with a vulnerable and open heart. I think that that’s okay. Let what you’ve seen become part of who you are.
Dean Brackley, an inspiring Jesuit who I’m fortunate to have gotten to meet in war-torn El Salvador before his death, says this. “let us teach solidarity, walking with the victims, serving and loving. I offer this for you to consider – downward mobility.
And I would say in this enterprise there is a great deal of hope.
Have the courage to lose control.
Have the courage to feel useless.
Have the courage to listen.
Have the courage to receive.
Have the courage to let your heart be broken.
Have the courage to feel.
Have the courage to fall in love.
Have the courage to get ruined for life.
Have the courage to make a friend.”
I’ve got a seldom-seen tattoo on my thigh of the words “Ruined For Life.” The thirteen letters are each in the handwriting of a different close friend, community member, or other person who somehow influenced me in being able to embark on this life that feels more authentic. It’s a reminder that I’m not “ruined” in the popular sense of the word, but rather a “ruined” version of the person I was before I ever had a conversation with someone experiencing homelessness, or peeked behind the curtain of what the media tells us about Islam. For the past several years, it’s been a physical reminder of my aspirations to be counter-cultural, to examine my role in the world, and to act against injustices where I can. I have so much to learn, but am fortunate to know so many people who I can learn from, and who inspire me to try to be as “ruined” as I can be.
So while I’m seeing a therapist, and reading and journaling about the effects of secondary trauma on helpers like myself, I’m also okay with embodying some of that emotional burden. I don’t think that I would be an effective service provider if I didn’t emotionally engage, and it would be impossible to not carry some of that home with me.
I’m going to keep on loving and working and taking care of myself. I’ll keep writing about it, in the hope that this resonates with someone, and I’ll keep engaging where I can be effective in providing direct service and in storytelling- whatever that looks like.
The world is pretty shitty and unjust, and I don’t know what else I can do besides keep on.
(And sometimes cute dogs give you kisses by the river and everything is fine.)