It’s not about us

The most common question I’ve been asked since our time volunteering with refugees ended has been something along the lines of: Was it difficult for you? How did you deal with it emotionally? Wasn’t it hard to see all the things you saw?

I completely understand why people are asking, and it’s really, really nice of everyone to care about our wellbeing. But it keeps surprising me that that question comes up first, rather than a question about the people we were there to support.

Volunteers do visibly struggle with burnout and the challenging environment in which they are working. It’s not easy and the work is never done, so everyone (myself and Tom included) has a tendency to skip that break or that weekend rest and keep going. As the crisis continues and donor fatigue sets in, while the living conditions and health of refugees deteriorate, that pressure is only getting worse for volunteers on the ground.

That said, Tom and I managed pretty well and, even if we worked like crazy at times, we kept each other in check. It’s surprising how quickly a situation becomes normal to you. The sights, smells and bad conditions in camps or unofficial settlements were all relative after a while – one place has a few portaloos and a tap so it’s better than the other with no sanitation; yes, this camp has wild boar but at least it doesn’t have a snake infestation or forest fires threatening to burn down the tents.

The things that got me most were not the conditions, but those off-hand comments that remind you how things could have been if your passport had a different country name written on its front cover. When I was asked how I got to Greece and explained that we drove there, the frustration of a refugee that she was treated so differently – that I’d been easily let through so many countries that denied her passage – was clear. And the young girl at the port who asked me where I lived and when I replied “an apartment in Athens”, triple-checked that I had a real roof not a tent before making a roof shape with her arms above her head just in case she’d misunderstood my English.

Before we left Greece, families that we’d got to know well treated us to coffee or dinners in their basic ‘homes’ – we sat cross-legged on the floor and were offered so much more food than we could eat. And then we were gone, travelling (freely and with only a cursory glance at our passports by staff at the ferry port) through Italy, leaving behind everything that they were forced to keep dealing with for many more months.

It's very easy for us to get away

It’s very easy for us to get away! Photograph by John O’Nolan, Flickr.

We kept an eye on what was going on – checking posts on the Athens Facebook group, worrying about whether the medication we’d left for a young boy with kidney failure would be enough, or if anyone would keep taking fruit and vegetables to the Hotel Oniro squat when we were gone – and we still keep in touch with those we can. But we could rest and distance ourselves from it after a time, in a way that refugees just can’t.

We are really grateful for everyone who has read about our time as volunteers and asked questions to understand more. There is one final important lesson that I’d like to pass on. I heard it repeated regularly by volunteers and it helps explain my surprise at your most common question to us:

For many volunteers, the mantra is ‘it’s not about us’ – whatever we are feeling, however tired we are, however difficult it might be to hear another story of suffering and separation, it is nowhere near as hard on us as those who’ve fled their homes because of war or insecurity.

We’ll stop writing about the refugee crisis for a while, and will focus future blogs on our time in Ghana (we’ve been here almost two weeks now). But wherever we are, we definitely won’t forget our experiences and the challenges that refugees continue to face in Athens, Calais and elsewhere. We know that other long-term volunteers will keep doing what they can to provide support and improve conditions. But it is only with a significant political change that I can see any end in sight for this crisis – it’s time Governments learnt that mantra too and got on with providing practical solutions to these problems!

If you’re interested in continuing to follow what’s happening on the ground, we recommend these pages and groups on Facebook: Care4Calais1, One Human Race2, and Athens Immigrant and Refugee Support Group3. If you’re thinking about volunteering yourself and want to ask us any questions about it, please do get in touch.