Refugees have fled from horrific danger and warfare, walked through hellscapes much deeper and more terrible than will likely ever be within my realm of comprehension. They have defied the odds to have made it out alive, and must then mentally adjust to the knowledge that their home as they have known it, is a thing of the past. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends. Still, they are ignored and diminished by so many, a practice so rooted in ignorance, the breeding ground of fear, the cousin of hate. It baffles me wholly.
Because of this, I was compelled to volunteer this summer, and found myself spending two weeks at a refugee camp in Greece. Beneath trees that boast chatters of cicadas, the residents of Ritsona refugee camp live beneath strung-up tarp, in a dusty purgatory. The vast majority of the 520 residents are Syrian, all living in what I have been told is one of the bleakest camp situations in the country. The residents live in tents, dealing with horrible sanitation, drainage, and proximity to a hospital or pharmacy. Many of the residents were originally told that their stay at Ritsona would be temporary -- one month, tops -- and have now been there for over a half a year. The NGO’s (Non-governmental organizations) working at Ritsona are continually at odds with the situation at hand, dealing with a sick mixture of a country with little means to begin with, a heinous war, and surprising (for me) places where government refugee agencies are failing to step up. My particular organization, Echo100Plus, handles the distribution of essentials to the residents. I was also given the opportunity to teach a daily German class for adult residents, which was an absolute joy and honor. The few NGO’s working at Ritsona fight tirelessly to counter these flimsy foundational pillars to the resident’s current state of affairs, but it is no easy task.
On my first day at camp, I was confronted with the first of what would be a constant stream of hard truths. For the sake of fairness (imperative when trying to provide with limited means), I had to tell a pregnant woman that she had to wait until everyone had gotten bread before she could come back for more. I fought the familiar lump in my throat every time I had to get donated baby shoes for a resident parent, especially when I could not wholly provide what they needed. I sat with a man in the camp, on two rickety chairs, and he spoke to me in broken English about how living as a refugee is like living as a prisoner of society. My khaki volunteer vest hung heavy on my shoulders. I bored my eyes into his, I listened intensely, but still the chorus of cicadas chanted louder: you will never understand.
I am not without qualms to the volunteer experience. I am wary of the white savior complex, and resent the selfish motives in doing these types of things. A few years ago, I did some work with Habitat for Humanity in a very destitute area of Poland that I ended up feeling was mostly put on for the feel-good aspect of the participants.
That being said, I truly believe that this organization is not of that category. I am working with a group of brilliant, selfless people from all over the world, who have come with honest intentions and work tirelessly and tangibly, unaffiliated with anything other than wanting to contribute. Some have been and will be here for months. In the rigmarole of emotions, a lot was positive and inspiring. Many of my volunteer friends find themselves returning to camp after their initial weeks.
I found that the man I spoke with at camp is a poet, and in our discourse we clasped hands in joy at the realized connection. Beneath the trees he read some of his work, and I mine, neither one of us understanding, but each appreciating the musicality of the pieces and what it is to be a writer in general. Our exchange of poetry has been regular ever since.
I ended the day playing soccer with several residents, kicking around a flattened ball until sweat showed on our clothes and our bellies ached from laughing.
These are the things that connect us, this is how we understand.
I went on to become friends with Abu, the poet, and many other residents who still teach me daily lessons in resilience and love. I ended my time absolutely dreading leaving and saying goodbye to my new friends. I sought out to connect with residents who were open to it, as I wanted to be a facilitator of coming together in shared humanity. Then, all at once, it was time for me to go back to the doting arms of Swiss relatives for a week, and then back to America. My privilege beckoned and burned a hole in my chest when Maram, a 10-year old girl who liked to dance with me to static-y radio songs, asked if she would see me tomorrow. I knelt next to her and sadly told her that it was my time to go home.
Head hung and speaking to her shuffling feet, she rattled off names of volunteers that had left, mine included, closing with, “Everybody go. I stay.” My chest caved in.
I will never understand what the life of a refugee is like, nor will I claim to understand. I have struggled, now, with the guilt upon return. Why should I be able to come and go? Why should I be able to live this life? The people I met at Ritsona are pillars of human resilience, and I will carry their lessons in strength and love with me for the rest of my life.
I interviewed with a Swiss newspaper upon my return, and though I appreciated the exposure to the state of affairs for refugees, I believe that a lot was misconstrued and the focus was not where I would have liked it to be. The takeaway was essentially that these people were “just like us!” -- showering daily, loving their kids, etc. I resented that. We do not need to prove that the people I met at Ritsona are “just like us!” because they are not. They have withstood things that we do not know; they have looked monsters, unimaginable beasts, in the eye. Also unlike us, they need help; it is impossible reclaim normal life with the floor fallen out from underneath.
We are American, Swiss, Syrian...
German, Italian, French...
We come from countries.
But first and foremost, it seems to be forgotten that we are of the world.
I had the particular privilege of using my money to go to Greece and volunteer at a refugee camp, but that is not the only way that my capabilities have manifested. I have been given a life where I am able to prioritize altruism, I am safe, free, and can pursue what I so choose. I encourage you, now, to consider your own privilege, beyond criticizing the unfairness of your status, in comparison to others in this world. That is easy; identifying the disparity's unfoundedness and being self-critical may make you feel better, but it helps no one. Gather up the things you care about and sound the alarm, in whatever way you can manage. Educating yourself and others is wonderful, and often leads to even more tangible work. Vote for politicians who prioritize what matters to you, get involved with local elections. I do not believe that it is a time to live idly, and I know much of my generation can attest to that.
In the wake of this world crisis, and many others, I encourage you not lament over the nature of your privilege, but to use it as a tool for the betterment of all.
Click here to donate to Ritsona directly.
Mural by resident Ismail Yazidi
My friends,Talal and Sawsan