Impossible Work

The hardest decision every day was when to leave. Because it had to happen at some point- at some point, I had to eat, I had to sleep, I had to charge my phone and go to the bathroom (2 bathrooms for the hundreds if not thousands at the camp means that’s it for everyone- there’s not like some secret bathroom for the volunteers). But there was always another boat. Always another thousand sandwiches to make. Always a crisis of some kind. And it was virtually a guarantee that the moment I decided to leave, and insist on staying away, the whatsapp group would start recounting another horror story and urgent need for dry clothes, a doctor. What made it especially difficult to step away is that, sometimes, leaving meant that no one is left.

Many volunteer meals look like this: hiding in a corner, eating a sandwich, sitting for the first time in hours. Hi, Ellen!

There was a schedule, we were all on rotations. The schedule moved around as the coordinators best anticipated- recently they added full night shifts as, for a brief stretch, more boats were arriving at night than during the day. Gossip abounds as to why we had fewer boats during the day: volunteers linked the prime minister of Greece’s visit to Lesvos at the time to the evidence we saw of increased security and diminished refugee presence all throughout the island. But there were not enough of us, there were too many refugees. Amongst us we have some beyond valuable resources such as skills and practices, languages and experiences, and even a chipper, can-do disposition or two, but still, we are volunteers, and human. And we all have to sleep.

“Can-do” spirit in Eliot climbing the tent to fix the broken curtain. Hi, Eliot! Photo credit Abdullah.
To be fair, it seems clear that everyone- government officials, local business owners and fishermen, tourists, refugees, and everyone in-between- feels ill-equipped to deal with this seemingly unending crisis. But the fact that a motley if extraordinary crew of mostly short-term volunteers is expected to bear such a heavy burden of responsibility for the welfare of thousands demonstrates, well, many things. It demonstrates that no one else- the governments, the UNHCR, the folks we would expect to deal with such a thing- is able to. It can feel like it demonstrates that no one else cares- the smugglers seemingly content to abandon their charges for dead, many (not all) locals with a NIMBY (“Not In My BackYard”) attitude towards caring for refugees, the UNHCR appearing in person so rarely as many volunteers feel abjectly abandoned by them amidst the chaos. It also demonstrates the volunteers’ unbelievable, sometimes superhuman capacity. I can’t shake the resentment that this is someone else’s job. I suppose I’m used to “this”- whatever “this” usually is- being someone else’s job. Because this job isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible.
Multiple 7 am ticket shifts look something like this.
I watched and joined so many other volunteers in burning out, losing sleep and getting sick, and after only a couple of days, turning robotic, harsh to the point of seeming uncaring, all energy drained except for when adrenaline kicks in. Either stress dreams or lethargy plaguing us. Self-care quickly evaporating, or at least becoming minimal and guilt-fraught. As a result, many of us work even off-shift, beyond the 12 hours allotted us already. Many of us respond to calls for help, just as many of us necessarily, miserably, shut our phones off and try to get some rest. And that’s just the normal days. And just, for me, for 2 weeks. Many volunteers had been there for months. Many never take full days off.
The boat that capsized, dragged into the harbor. Photo credit Eliot.
My last day was the worst day, and not only because it felt like abandoning my post, that it felt like everyone was leaving, and that, as we all know, with winter coming, the challenges were about to get more extreme and desperate. I had always planned on staying for just 2 weeks, but it became clear immediately that I would try and find a way to come back. Even still, the guilt in not staying and the guilt in me finding relief in leaving the emotional chaos warred inside of me. My last day, I met with the awesome coordinators to discuss how I could go about fundraising for them once I’d left and how I could continue to be involved. That’s when we got word that there had been a terrible accident: a boat had capsized and the coast guard was on its way with the survivors. The coast guard roared into the harbour, deposited over a dozen wet and bleeding refugees, and rushed out again to retrieve the remaining bodies. All volunteers within sight mobilized with food, water, emergency blankets, calls for doctors, what would have been almost normal by then.
But words like survivors and bodies had been used, telling us immediately that the situation was both serious and deadly, not normal. This we could also read on every single one of the faces of the refugees we attempted to care for. Children were scooped up and held close for warmth and comfort, men shakily tried to smoke their cigarettes, their eyes looking into nothing, doctors fluttered around patching up hand wounds and volunteers insisted on new clothes for everyone. The mood was different. These refugees had just witnessed several women and children, their wives, sisters, sons and daughters, killed beneath the waves. The shock they were experiencing was palpable, thick, impossible. And once their immediate needs were met, there was nothing left to do but sit with them, and sit with it. Soon after, the wailing began.
Deaths are a heartbreaking occurrence on Lesvos. When a baby that had been in the water for over an hour died of shock in the middle of a night previous, some volunteers were there to witness it, and the grief rippled through the volunteer group, not to mention the family of the baby and the others who had been on that boat. A few other bodies had been found another night by the coast guard, and again we mourned. Because one is one too many.
Because these deaths are so utterly, completely avoidable; they’re the result of bad policy and smugglers maximizing profit in order to illegally, and dangerously, fill refugees’ desperate need to escape. But this is 2015. There are airplanes. With far less than the thousand euros or more each refugee spent to risk their life, they could have purchased a direct flight to Sweden, or Germany, or the United States, and the worst they could have faced would have been bad airline food and a cramped foot. Instead, almost 3,000 people have died crossing the Aegean this year alone, with hundreds of thousands more having to carry on and pass through. And the best we can do is try and keep the conditions of their awful journey above sub-human: a sandwich, safe passage to at least the next point, but the influx is tremendous and the resources are so few.
There are stories of love and triumph amongst the passage of the refugees we are privileged to witness, too, of a baby born on the beach in Lesvos and families and couples staying together in spite everything. Many Syrian facebook friends, my own age and college-educated, victoriously declare, “Germany!” or, “Made it to Holland!” And I hope what they find there is peace, safety, prosperity, not racism, stagnation, and worst, deportation. But my last day was not about those stories or those hopes, it was about lives ending at what should have been only the beginning of a new chapter.
The devastated remaining refugees were taken away by the police. The day became more difficult for volunteers from there. Police shut down transport on the island, and with boats still arriving, our camps filled up bursting past capacity, our volunteers’ ability to do anything stymied. Not on shift anywhere, knowing that the refugees’ grief was about to affect me beyond the point of being useful, I walked away to our food storage. I made sandwiches, at least a couple hundred, to be delivered to the camp where operations were now halted. It was slow, it was miserable, and, facing the impossible work of making sense out of senseless grief, it was all I could think to do.
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