“Sometimes I think the war brought us together, as you gave me hope and encouragement. …Thanks alot for you and all people in your city who helps and supports me in a difficult part in my life.” –Yazan, age 15, from Aleppo, Syria in a letter written to me before I left camp in June 2017.
How does one reasonably respond to a handwritten letter with this content knowing what we know now? Yazan found the silver lining on a monstrous black cloud that has the potential to hang over him for decades to come. Yet he wishes to believe that it might be possible that the war—in all of its horror—was the reason our paths crossed. Little did he know that our chance meeting was truly the result of hostile policies against refugees and had the world been more humane in their reactions to the migration of people from war and persecution, there is a very good possibility that Yazan and I would never have needed to meet. In fact, recent research on the European refugee crisis has concluded ‘the late, chaotic and uncoordinated nature of the response was not simply a consequence of the large numbers of people arriving’ (Crawley et al., 2018, p129). Leading me to belief that it is plausible our meeting could have been under better circumstances with decent policy-making and appropriate funding provided by European Union (EU) member states.
As I reflect back on my time in Greece I am shocked by how furious I have become. The lack of formal infrastructure and expert knowledge on-the-ground surrounding the crisis meant that not only the refugees themselves received subpar assistance but that the volunteers serving them also suffered tremendously from the shared indignity of it all. As Crawley el al. (2018, p121) reported ‘… smaller agencies and their volunteers provided immediate support and assistance to hundreds of thousands of people arriving on the beaches of southern Europe, saving hundreds of lives. They emerged as a fifth force not only complementing state agencies, international organizations, international and national CSOs [community service organizations] but indeed bearing the brunt of the emergency response’. As hard as the volunteers tried we were amateurs that could barely comprehend what we had gotten ourselves into. The silver lining to that was an intense solidarity felt amongst all groups working toward a common goal which included the refugees (or residents in the camp), volunteers from around the world and the local Greek people who spent time serving the camp. There was plenty of common ground built and found from this shared experience.
Volunteers extended their stays weeks or even months past what they had originally planned or kept returning time and again to continue their work (Walding, 2017). It seemed as though Greece was a vortex that kept pulling people back in. Many felt that incredible tug to remain or to return, and for better or for worse, I did both. Originally, I had travelled to Greece under the notion I would volunteer for one month. Upon completion of that month I realized what a ridiculously short period of time it was. I had only just found my way around camp, built a basic level of trust between myself and the residents and completed part of my research. After discussions with the NGO, it was decided that I would remain another month and implement my research findings. October quickly faded into January, three months longer than expected, and then a return trip in May lasting another two months.
In total I spent close to 6 months serving as a volunteer with a small Swedish-based organization working on educational programming for children and youth in a rural refugee camp strategically placed out of sight on a mountain an hour outside of Athens. The camp was home to between 500-800 residents with numbers in flux due to the volatility of the situation. In times where human rights are in jeopardy and dignity is hard to find it is often easier for outsiders to speak of the situation in terms of objects or numbers. Victoria Sanford (2003) so poignantly writes ‘when people become numbers their stories can be lost’. It is my belief that pursuing human rights for all people means recognizing them as autonomous individuals that have the power to write their own story. Upon returning home to the United States I was fearful that these stories might be in jeopardy of being lost among the media coverage fixated with numbers and not the people behind them. As a result, I found solidarity giving talks to my community sharing stories from residents in Ritsona with the underlying message of demonstrating we are more alike than we are than different. These became very therapeutic in my own processing of my experience and served as an important way of ensuring individual stories would not go untold.
This chapter is a discussion of both my time serving in Ritsona Refugee Camp in rural Greece, the people I encountered, the education work I performed, and how it all relates to the larger narrative of the global refugee crisis facing the world today. I am delighted to share my personal story and the stories of those I remain close with as a mechanism for building greater understanding.
WHY WAS I EVEN IN RITSONA?
Before we get too far, let me backup a little. I want to preface this by saying that I had never done volunteering work resembling this in the past. I didn’t have training in humanitarian assistance and I’m not fluent in any foreign languages. What I did have was a background working with vulnerable youth populations and a passion for education. So why was I even in Ritsona? And why did I go back?
On one level I would like to believe that similar to those that had come before me and those that came after me we have all felt a strong call to action; particularly after witnessing the news media over the course of 2015. Everyone can remember the images of severely overcrowded rubber dinghies washing up on the shores of the Greek islands and the scenes of chaos as rescue workers attempted to safely receive those traumatized individuals. A moment that raised social consciousness over the issue was the image of a drowned toddler’s body discovered on a Turkish beach after his family attempted the perilous journey across the sea to Greece. These new stories coupled with being physically located in Europe studying human rights made it feel like a duty. This was especially true since completing my master’s in Gender, Globalisation and Rights in August of 2016, I was suddenly gifted with incredible amounts of free time. With the crisis playing out on the shores of the European Union I knew I had a chance to put my newly acquired knowledge to good use. Looking back, it was an obvious choice but I will admit it scared the hell out of me in the moment. I had huge reservations about traveling to Greece and working on-the-ground in a crisis situation. Many of those hesitations I can attribute to my naivety, lack of experience and, one must not forget, the media reports sensationalizing the work of extremist groups such as the Islamic State in the recent attacks in Europe as being stemmed from the welcoming of (supposedly) too many unvetted refugees. I was wary but determined.
I’ll add that I am also a very naïve optimist who wishes to see the best in humanity. Which means I am steadfast in my belief that if an opportunity presented itself for you to lend either your hand, your treasure, or your talents to help a fellow human, that any of us would do it. I will resurrect the overused quote by Mahatma Gandhi and argue that you must “be the change you wish to see in the world”. I recognize that a decision such as this, to upend one’s live for the sake of others, is often one made based from the heart rather than on logic. And this process of thinking from my heart follows my decision-making during the months I spent in Ritsona.
Once I had determined that this was a path I wanted to explore, it was much like any other job hunt. I began researching organizations on the ground and open roles that needed filling. I used Facebook to join groups of other volunteers in Greece to get the latest posting information and share my own skillset in the groups hoping someone from an organization may see it and find my skillset appealing for a project they may be engaged in. I applied for many positions and hoped to land one that would be able to cover my living expenses while I was on the ground. Most of the organizations at that time were so desperate for hands that they were offering housing for volunteers that stayed longer than one month. Most of the positions I applied for were in the realm of youth education particularly because of my background working with underserved youth populations and experience working in higher education assisting first generation college students at a US institution.
Although it certainly was a unique combination of events that led me to Greece, like any job hunt, it ended up being a personal connection that brought me to Ritsona. Ultimately, a classmate from my master’s program went to Greece ahead of me and gave me the courage to pursue the same. While she was in Greece she discovered that Ritsona was in desperate need of educational resources and offered my name to a volunteer coordinator. It was through that connection that I was offered a position researching educational opportunities for the refugee youth trapped in Greece for the organization I AM YOU.
I AM YOU is a small Swedish-based organization that was founded in 2015 on the shores of Lesvos, the Greek island that became a hotspot for refugee boat arrivals. Its two co-founders served as volunteer emergency responders—note that neither had humanitarian experience or expertise–during the unfolding humanitarian crisis and due to demand they felt compelled to create I AM YOU, a volunteer-based humanitarian response organization. I AM YOU first functioned primarily on Lesvos assisting with sea arrivals and providing donations and support to Moria refugee camp on the island. After the EU-Turkey deal was signed in March 2016, Moria camp was closed to NGOs and was reverted back into a detention center (I AM YOU, no date). At the same time, Greece saw over 40 ‘hospitality centers’—read that, camps—emerge virtually overnight as an estimated 61,000 refugees became trapped as borders officially shut (Harris, 2016a). I AM YOU was then asked to provide support for a new camp that had been established on the site of an abandoned Greek military base, which became known as Ritsona refugee camp. Since then, I AM YOU continues to have a presence in the camp along with several other small to medium sized NGOs, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and the Greek Military who oversee the camp.
THE NEED FOR REFUGEE EDUCATION IN GREECE
In September 2016, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants was drafted with special commitments towards ensuring that education is a priority and that it is provided within a few months of the migrant or refugees’ arrival. The bold commitments outlined in the declaration are expressions of political will from leaders around the world. Section 32 reads:
“We will comply with our obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We will work to provide for basic health, education and psychosocial development and for the registration of all births on our territories. We are determined to ensure that all children are receiving education within a few months of arrival, and we will prioritize budgetary provision to facilitate this, including support for host countries as required. We will strive to provide refugee and migrant children with a nurturing environment for the full realization of their rights and capabilities.” (UNGA, 2016, p7, my emphasis).
Providing schooling for refugee children and youth falls under Greece’s own international obligations and this declaration was further proof of the international community’s recommitment to see education take a priority for this population. In a 2015 survey by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) conducted at various border locations around Greece regarding the surge of Syrian refugees the most frequently mentioned occupation of those fleeing was student (UNHCR, 2015). In my own surveying of the youth in Ritsona I found most had been forced to leave their studies, either high school or university, with only one or two years left until graduation and they were eager to pick it back up again. In Greece, the youth population represented 30% of the total refugee numbers (MCNRC, 2016) which at the time the country was reported to be hosting over 61,000 refugees (Harris, 2016a).
Since the borders to the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia closed in March 2016 shifting the refugee situation in Greece from transitory to static, providing formalized education became a large priority for advocacy groups and NGOs. A report by Save the Children found that in May 2016 one hundred percent of the children and youth refugees in Greece were out of school (StC 2016). This was because at the time Greece was unable to accommodate refugee children or youth into their formal education system yet. It wasn’t until October 10th, 2016 that the first refugee students were allowed into formal classrooms, eight months after the borders closed (Kolasa-Sikiaridi, 2016). In their initial reporting, Save the Children found that it had been an average of 18.2 months (or a year and a half) since refugee children were last in school (StC, 2016, p11). Many organizations, refugee parents and the youth themselves called upon Greece to prevent further disruption of learning and provide these children and youth a chance to get back into school (StC, 2016).
In their response, the Greek Ministry of Education Research and Religious Affairs put together an education plan that addresses all ages (see MERRA, 2016). The first stage of the plan concerned immediate interventions at the reception centers and camps across Greece and began with gathering data on the children in camps and creating child friendly areas (MERRA, 2016). This process took 90 days to complete with the report being released in June of 2016. It was later decided that children would be integrated into local Greek schools between the times of 2-6 PM in order to offer psychosocial support and not to overwhelm the school systems.
Ritsona was one of a small number of camps to introduce students to Greek schools with the piloting of this program. Children between 6-15 were the first to gain education hours in the formal public school system but the Greek system was slow to receive them. By February 2017 the ministry was still working on the first phase of its education program attempting to place every child between the ages of 6-15 in a Greek public school. The second stage which focused on adolescents and adults had still not begun. During this time, adolescents in Ritsona continued to remain out of school and desperate for structure and direction.
When I arrived in October 2016, I AM YOU had identified the youth as a target group that needed educational intervention. This became increasingly more apparent as I first entered the camp to see zero gathering spaces designated for youth. There was an established female-friendly space, a clearly marked off and secure area for children and even a makeshift gym building where adult men tended to gather; the youth were all but invisible. In fact, a report titled Don’t forget about us: Voices of young migrants and refugees in Greece highlighted that youth are ‘often overlooked in humanitarian action, these adolescents and youth rarely have access to educational and skill-building opportunities, or to adequate healthcare and protective environments.’ (MCNRC, 2016, p5).
For the first month I spent a great deal of time meeting with youth in camp and researching educational policies produced by the Greek Ministry of Education Research and Religious Affairs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), along with the international practices for education in emergency situations. Although the population would sometimes fluctuate my reports tallied an estimated 158 residents in Ritsona were between the ages of 15-25. In an effort to build a foundation for future success I concluded that it was most important to equip this population with the tools they would need to make a smooth transition into a formal educational setting once relocated to their next country. Because there was no way of knowing for sure which country any resident would be relocated to—it was determined that English language lessons should be the underpinnings of any engagement with the residents 15+ that were interested in furthering their education. To do this, we needed to create a designated space for the youth that offered them a space of their own; not only to learn but to build agency and develop a voice for themselves.
CREATING A YOUTH SPACE IN RITSONA
In mid-November, after securing space in an unused part of camp the first youth program in Ritsona was born. I AM YOU did not have funding to financially support this endeavor which meant we had to get creative. We first named the program “Createens” to be short for creative teenagers, but the name didn’t last long. From November through January the program offered English language classes in the afternoons specifically for youth ages 15-25. The lessons would start sometime after lunch and typically lasted an hour and a half. What we ended up learning during this time was just how mind-numbingly bored the youth in camp were and therefore, how eager they were to absorb any new skills we were willing to teach. Seeing the new space as an alternative to being bored in their cramped living quarters the youth would stick around for hours after class had ended. At first, we hadn’t planned anything so we would use that time to share tea and coffee and get to know one another. It was through this space that we generated art projects, offered training classes for resume writing and together wrote a Ritsona newsletter which was sparked out of their desire to be storytellers.
Recognizing the camp was made up of failed volunteer initiatives, either due to issues with funding, a gap in volunteer support or little institutional knowledge being passed down from volunteer to volunteer, this seemed to be the norm for projects inside these inhospitable and unstable living environments. Regardless I was determined not to disappoint the youth. English was still a main priority and there never seemed to be enough time in the day. Part of my initial research was recognizing the importance of the youth having access to computers and internet that allows continued learning via online resources, registration in free online courses offering skill development or even providing a place to do research on their next country. However, a huge obstacle remained: the absence of internet and infrastructure such as computers in the camp.
In early January, after putting a call out for donations a fellow volunteer was able to secure 15 laptops for use in the Createen space. I then started a GoFundMe request for 325 US dollars to purchase wifi hotspots, SIM cards and internet credit, a printer, USB sticks for the students and additional furniture for the space. Within a few days the goal had been met by many generous donors and I was able to purchase all the materials needed to furnish the youth space into a wifi study zone. Each of the laptops were loaded with various educational apps and Microsoft Office products. Specific websites were blocked and unsafe word searches were identified as a means of safeguarding the youth using the computers. The space was redesigned to resemble more of a casual coffee shop feel and look less like a classroom. It provided the youth in camp time to use websites and enroll in online courses that required internet. This independent studying was meant to bolster the learning taking place inside of the structured English classes.
MORE THAN A SPACE
The creation of a pilot youth program at Ritsona was about more than filling an educational gap for these ambitious out-of-school teens. By having a designated space where they could come, relax and be themselves it opened up windows for me and other I AM YOU volunteers to provide aid, guidance and support on issues that we could have never learned of without the creation of this space.
After several weeks of attending classes one unaccompanied boy aged 20 revealed his glasses had been broken along his journey from Syria and he struggled seeing and reading. He was embarrassed to ask for help but with the trust built in the space he came forward to seek assistance. Unfortunately, in a crisis situation there is little attention paid to non-life threatening problems such as corrective lenses. Mohamad had visited the Red Cross in camp but was told an eye exam wouldn’t be possible for months. Several volunteers decided to pool their money together and pay for the doctor’s appointment and a new pair of glasses. Speaking of the gesture and his new glasses, Mohamad wrote, “you gave me a new view of life”.
It is my belief that the myself and the other volunteers we were eager to assist with Mohamad’s problem in this way (quick and independently) because it was something we actually had the power to solve. Oftentimes the problems were not that black and white. Many simply didn’t have a solution at all. One Monday another young boy, Ahmed, didn’t show up to English class. When we went looking for him it was discovered that he had injured his foot over the weekend and was in a lot of pain. A sharp metal scrap commonly found strewn all over the ground at camp had broken through his tattered flip-flops and had dug through his skin. Leaving him with a nasty open wound which made it hard for him to walk. I was completely distraught over the situation and bothered by the fact that he had received no medical attention because the Red Cross functioned only during the week inside the camp. It was because he trusted us that we were able to get him into see the professional medical staff who cleaned the wound and bandaged up his foot. Due to the timing of the injury and the lack of immediate health care, once he was seen by professionals they were unable to provide him with a tetanus shot. This was an infuriating consequence and could have put Ahmed’s life in danger had he contracted the deadly bacteria.
Another incident that volunteers often felt helpless over were the attempts by the youth to be smuggled out of Greece. Over the course of the 6 months I spent in Ritsona, several unaccompanied youth were successfully smuggled to other countries in Europe where they planned to seek asylum. Not all were a success but each time we would hold our breath waiting to hear that they were safe. It is important to differentiate traffickers from smugglers because the two are often conflated but carry distinctions. People ‘traffickers smuggle their passengers without their consent, and with the intent of enslaving them, forcing them into prostitution or imprisoning them until the repayment of a debt’ (Kingsley, 2017, p73). By contrast, people smugglers, although they may be cruel or even mistreat their passengers, are paid to transport migrants from one country to another. Ultimately ‘their role is one performed with the consent of the migrant’ (Kingsley, 2017, p73).
One incident that is particularly memorable for me was when an English student, Ali, aged 16, revealed his plans to be smuggled out of Greece that evening. He had already tried 13 times–all unsuccessful–and he confided in me that he would commit suicide if returned to Greece a 14th time. As a show of his gratitude he gave me his watch for me to remember him and we said our tearful goodbyes. This was an absolutely devastating moment for me knowing that there was little I could do but provide him support and try to encourage him to stay and follow the legal asylum process. It should be noted that asylum claims in Greece and the pace of relocation at that time was very slow. In 2016, it was reported that only 5% of the total accepted for relocation were actually sent to their next country (Crawley et al., 2018, p136). Truly, there was nothing I could do except pray that he was in good hands and that he would make it safely. The choice to be smuggled was his to make and in a dire situation where most choices had been taken from him I was not inclined to impose any additional restrictions. Ali messaged me several days after to proudly announce his safe arrival in the Netherlands. He has since flourished and moved from a camp to a youth center near the city. He was allowed to enroll in school almost immediately and provided with the dignity that Greece was empty of. Now whenever he posts a photo he is smiling which was something I rarely witnessed from him in camp.
Although I might have felt helpless during some situations it became abundantly clear that the relationships that had been built as a result of the youth space offered an avenue for the youth to seek support they were otherwise lacking. Having someone to listen to their problems and to care about them as autonomous beings was an especially important outcome of this educational endeavor. After my departure in late January 2017 another organization onsite took over the Createens program and morphed it into an exceptional version of my initial hopes and dreams for the space. Lighthouse Relief now runs what has been renamed the Youth Engagement Space (YES) at Ritsona and have built it into a model that I believe should be carried forward in humanitarian situations worldwide.
REFLECTION ON VOLUNTEERING IN A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
‘When you’re there, every single minute of your day you’re doing something important for people. When you get back, every minute of every day is inconsequential. And now you’re aware of what’s happening in the world and there’s nothing you can do.’ (Walding, 2017). This quote is from a former volunteer on the Greek island of Chios and perfectly captures my own reaction to the experience. We physically showed up, gave all of ourselves to every minute of every day and there was such an honor in being able to do this important work that anything after it felt meaningless. The work was emotionally, physically, and spiritually demanding. The term volunteering simply does not capture the experience nor does it pay tribute to the incredible influence volunteers had due to lack of a coordinated EU response. As a result, many volunteers from all over the world provided the necessary infrastructure but also bore the burden of that surmounting pressure.
‘This grassroots response to a humanitarian crisis was unprecedented in modern times. There is no doubt it saved countless lives. But there are also signs it has taken a huge psychological toll.’ (Walding, 2017). The psychological impacts of taking on an experience such as this one were heightened for various reasons. I’ve identified a major one being the overall lack of experience some volunteers had in aid work coupled with the inadequate living conditions refugees were forced to endure. Memories I have of the camp environment still shake me to my core.
When I first arrived in Ritsona the 500+ residents were living in canvas tents provided by the UNHCR. These tents served as only designated sleeping spaces and to call them a shelter was laughable as they provided very little shelter from the elements. The tents trapped the blistering summer heat making them unbearable to remain inside with the soaring Greek summer temperatures. Then by early November as temperatures fell at night the tents were equally as useless and residents were worried about their fate as winter approached. As winter finally arrived other camps reported deaths due to freezing temperatures and poor living conditions. Residents were stuck sleeping on the ground for 9 months in Ritsona where they endured snakes and scorpions creeping into their tents or were forced to find their way to the shared toilets in pure darkness each nightfall when wild dogs and a wild boar would roam the camp in search of food scraps. A hot shower didn’t exist in Ritsona for a full 10 months after the camps inception and there were regular shortages of food, water and basic medical supplies. The food provided by the army consisted of small, bland prepackaged meals often accompanied by an orange or rationed pita bread. These meals were the only food served in camp for an entire year before the Greek government transitioned all camps to food cards.
No one could have really prepared me for how much these scenes were going to weigh on my soul. Being witness to how we as a humanity have cast aside entire childhoods, demoralized and dehumanized the most vulnerable of people in such a casual setting was infuriating. I grew very angry over what I felt was stupid bureaucracy. The Greek asylum process or medical services for refugees never seemed to move as fast as they should when human lives were on the line. There were arbitrary rules enforced that only added to human suffering and indignity such as the distribution of clothing or food being designated for specific times and days. This forced residents to line up and walk one-by-one to be handed their rations; a deeply humiliating process. An example that comes to mind was of the distribution of donated shoes for residents. The organization in-charge declared Tuesdays to be shoe distribution day which meant if a resident’s shoe broke in the days between they were forced to make due or walk barefoot until the next distribution day.
The overwhelming dejection was tangible inside the camp; I would describe it as the feeling of forgottenness. After continued research and reading, I now know that this sense of forgottenness is the status quo for refugees around the world. Especially for those in protracted refugee situations, ‘[r]efugees may be counted as humanitarian beneficiaries, but they often do not count as rights-bearing subjects, nor even as recognizably human, like us.’ (Hyndman & Giles, 2017, p 1). My inexperience allowed me to wear a cloak of ignorance that soon became weathered and worn.
There is still an unimaginable weight on my shoulders although the helplessness I first felt has subsided. When you are there it goes unspoken that everyone feels overwhelmed, heartbroken, and angry as hell, all while being called to action. But then you leave and you return home and are surrounded by people who don’t quite understand what you’ve been through. I began to feel incredibly guilty and discovered that this is a burden experienced by many former volunteers as those interviewed by Walding (2107) confirm. The guilt was paralyzing at times. I have since come to terms with my anger and guilt and, ultimately, I’ve had to reconcile that there is equally meaningful work to be done to assist refugees and immigrants here at home, outside of the emergency response.
Given the human suffering taking place in a humanitarian crisis, I argue you inevitably give more of yourself which differentiates the experience from how we typically define volunteering. An experience such as this should change you and if it doesn’t then maybe we need to be immensely concerned that empathy has been lost. In this context it is generally understood that volunteering means working for an organization without pay. However, I felt that my time spent volunteering was significantly more encompassing than that limited definition implies. Instead I have chosen to identify my time in Ritsona as an exercise in what Deborah Dunn calls ‘bearing-witness’; seeing my time through a lens of service as opposed to volunteering (Dunn, 2014).
To ‘bear-witness’ is about more than seeing, more than simply observing or being present. Dunn argues it goes one step further and we must ‘bear some responsibility for what we have seen’ (Dunn, 2014). During my time in Ritsona I did witness unimaginable suffering however, I also witnessed incredible strength and the ingenuity of the human spirit. I had the privilege of befriending residents, sharing meals together, welcoming babies into the world, celebrating holidays and even partnering on projects or initiatives to help other residents. These experiences reshaped my limited understanding of the label ‘refugee’ into one less focused on the trauma that forced this label upon them but centered around their capacities as individuals. Upon my departure I knew that I had a responsibility to hold a light for those I had the privilege of knowing in Ritsona. I felt a duty to not let their stories go untold or be washed away by the headlines or politicians more concerned with numbers instead of names; trauma over capacities.
ADVICE TO OTHERS
It cannot be repeated enough but educate yourself on the international precedent and standards when it comes to refugees and migrants rights. Learn how current US policies are either in accord with or in violation to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Stay up to date on the high-level UN conferences being called to address the topic worldwide. After the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants signed in September 2016, the world promised more initiatives and more conversations. Right now we are at a moment of transition and are reshaping the way we talk about and treat refugees and migrants both in domestic policy and on an international stage. Stay informed and inform others! Migration has suddenly become a dirty word but history tells us that people have migrated since the dawn of time.
I cannot stress this enough but seek out reputable NGOs and explore smaller organizations such as I AM YOU or Lighthouse Relief to support with financial contributions. These organizations are more than likely doing the grunt of the work and your support of their good efforts is critical!
While is not my intention to stop anyone interested in pursuing a path of volunteering I do want to advise against blindly embarking on just any international opportunity. There are likely endless possibilities available to you locally that offer a more lasting positive impact and have potential for real long-term change. My advice to others would be to seek out local opportunities with resettled refugees, immigrant rights organizations, literacy groups, human rights groups or nearby resettlement organizations. These are all excellent ways of serving similar populations of people that often don’t receive as much news coverage.
If you do feel compelled to dedicate a part of your life to aiding refugees trapped in Greece my biggest piece of advice would be to spend some time reflecting. First identify your own strengths, educational background, trainings and specialties to figure out what you can bring to the situation. Be honest with yourself and be sure to manage your expectations. A key part to this is finding a position that will provide the most benefit to those in need so be sure to research organizations and review the positions they are looking to fill. If you can’t seem to find a call for your specific talents then maybe it is best to support and uplift those already on the ground with a financial contribution. Oftentimes what I witnessed was that organizations needed funding more than they needed bodies. Our initial “createens” project could have never been a success without small donations from family and friends back home. I promise you that your money can often go further than you would ever think in situations such as these. However, if you do travel to volunteer promise me a few things. One: You will do your homework on the organization you plan to volunteer with. Two: You will commit at least three months of your life because truly anything less is not worth it. And three: you will practice good self-care both during and after your return and find a network of other volunteers you can lean on. Believe me, you’ll need it.
I don’t mean to downplay the incredible work of all the volunteers in Greece who gave up so much time in their lives but the lack of formal infrastructure and the reliance placed on the backs of amateurs was a huge failure of the EU’s response. By continuing to serve as volunteers it provides a scapegoat for governments and the international community and has the potential to take away precious resources that organizations should be putting into the residents. A great example of this is the volunteer structure some organizations have adopted which requires volunteers to pay for the ‘experience’. Some have even been seen charging thousands of euros and promising a volunteering experience which focuses much more attention to the recruitment of volunteers (their housing, food options, and weekend excursions) than it does to the humanitarian work it claims to stand for.
Europe and the world’s response to the influx of refugees to the shores of Greece has faced wide criticism both during and particularly after the height of 2015. Crawley et al. (2018) document that the EU was slow to respond and failed to effectively share responsibility in a ‘pragmatic and principled way’ (p135). While we won’t ever know for sure we can assume that had EU member states altered their approach the crisis would not have required mass amounts of ordinary volunteers and small NGOs such as I AM YOU to bear the ‘brunt of the emergency response’ (Crawley et al., 2018, p121). However, with this response also came fresh initiatives often overlooked or not traditionally considered part of humanitarian action such as educational and skill-building opportunities for youth. In Greece we saw refugee youth represent 30% of the total refugee numbers (MCNRC, 2016) yet they were left out of formalized education in the Greek system and often not provided a designated safe space inside the camps.
Yazan, Mohamad, Ali, Ahmed and all other youth experiencing exile deserve a space to be seen and heard in crises everywhere. What we found in Ristona was that providing youth education and access to educational opportunities proved to be key to building strong relationships with this vulnerable population. The establishment of Ritsona’s first youth program, Createens, provided the foundation that generated an avenue for the youth to seek support they were otherwise lacking. Creating space for these young people to explore their unique capacities, develop further as individuals and continue to exist in an educational environment helped affirm themselves as autonomous beings and not simply as ‘refugees’.
Returning to the question of how one should respond to the words written by Yazan, a 15 year old refugee wishing to believe the war was to blame for our paths crossing. I see the larger question as one about dignity and rights. Although I am deeply touched by his words, such gratitude should have never been needed. Yazan, like the thousands of other refugees who travelled through Greece to reach safety in the EU, was entitled to a more coordinated response. Ideally the response would have avoided what has been coined ‘the containment chronotype’ which focused too heavily on preventing migration over providing protection and support to those who needed it (Landau, 2017 in Crawley et al., 2018, p136). Therefore, I believe the best way to respond to Yazan’s words are to live up to them. Don’t let his gratitude be a pat on your back but instead a call for further action and questioning. We must all bear-witness to his story and assume responsibility for why he and the 68.5 million others living in exile around the world today are continuously denied their human right to seek asylum, to be treated with dignity, to safety, to education, to adequate housing and more.
This chapter is a reflection and discussion of my personal experience while serving in Ritsona Refugee Camp in rural Greece from October 2016-January 2017 and again from May- June 2017. The stories told were chosen to provide examples of the relationships I was able to build as a result of a designated youth educational program. I have great respect and admiration for all those I met while serving in Greece, residents and volunteers alike, and continue to maintain friendships with many. Each of their stories, mine included, contribute to the larger narrative of both the global refugee crisis and the self-proclaimed European crisis. I am honored to have been asked to share my personal story and the stories of those I remain close with as a mechanism for building greater understanding regarding the situation in Greece.
1) Why do you think the European ‘crisis’ was labelled this way? Do you think it was a crisis?
2) Do refugees have the right to education in host countries? Why is it that youth are often left-out of the response to humanitarian situations?
3) How could we continue to improve our humanitarian response to include initiatives for youth?
4) Discuss how tools such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees could help inform the world’s response to the growing refugee ‘crisis’?
5) Why do we respond by placing refugees in camps? Can you think of one alternative to housing refugees in camps?
6) What is the difference between volunteering and ‘bearing-witness’?
7) Is volunteering always the best option? Discuss some of the problems of volunteering in humanitarian crises.
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United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) (2015) Syrian Refugee Arrivals in Greece: Preliminary Questionnaire Findings, UNHCR. Available at: http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/download.php?id=248#_ga=1.164430783.1486853563.14690964 09 (Accessed: 6 November 2016).
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