If I had to choose one word for this day it would be useless. We spent another 8-hour shift at the camp. Refugee camps are miserable places. And they are dismally miserable in the pouring rain, and it rained like crazy. For most of the refugees there is no where to go to seek shelter, hardly anywhere decent to even sit down. There was one spec of good news, every single one of the ponchos I collected in generous donations to bring with me on this trip were put to good use.
I spent the majority of the day working in clothing; it sounds like a section in a department store but couldn’t be more dissimilar. The camp has a clothing tent where donated clothing is sorted and distributed to needful refugees. The process from start to finish is extremely painful. Helping a soaking, exhausted refugee straight off the bus from the boat change from her wet clothes into used dry clothes once belonging to a stranger is a challenging task. First, communicating with her is a very frustrating game of charades- lots is lost in translation. While she waits in the communal changing tent with 20 or so other women, children and babies I scour the clothing tent to find something suitable. Everything we offer them is donated. Some is better than others. I found myself embarrassed at some of things I had to offer, and at other times had to return empty handed when we ran out of what was needed. Never have I felt so useless. Shoes are an issue, they’re soaked. We often don’t have a suitable replacement, so we’re left cutting up water-proof emergency blankets and after giving them dry socks lining their wet shoes with the blanket pieces to keep the wet shoe from soaking the new dry sock. And so they carry on with giant pieces of foil blankets spilling out of their wet shoes, wearing an ill-fitting pair of stranger’s trousers and possibly a hideous new dry jumper. But it’s all we can do. And a pile of their last remaining material form of identity is left behind, wet in ruins.
The unpacking and sorting process on the front end is also difficult. There are so many boxes of clothing and shoes with little space to work in organising them, this sometimes means we aren’t able to give out something we have that someone needs because we simply can’t access it. Boxes piled to the ceiling in the storage tent possibly contain what my girl in the changing tent needs right now, but I cannot get it for her. The frustrations and feelings of uselessness working the clothing tent are really just a microcosm of the whole camp, and the entire refugee crisis. So much we want to do, so much we cannot. But we are there, trying. And for me, a short-term volunteer there, I have so much admiration for those working there who are giving up weeks and months to do this work, thanklessly and tirelessly. Those are the real heros.
It’s been interesting to work in a refugee camp, controlled by police and facilitated by volunteers. It’s a tricky, dysfunctional relationship (not to mention a lot of eccentric personalities to manage among the volunteer rank as well!), and I see a lot of problems with the place. It’s so incredibly disorganized, which makes this stage of the refugee journey more difficult than it needs to be. The experience could be so much more efficient and overall more pleasant if things were more organised and managed better. But as volunteers there’s little we can do to initiate and enforce any such improvements under the critical and demanding eye of the police. So it’s a process of managing chaos. I see volunteers growing weary and impatient, and before this experience I would not have fully understood or even sympathised with this. You do sort of become a bit exasperated if not jaded working in such a dysfunctional place managing such a high volume of people with extreme needs. Ideologies of “making a difference” are often dashed.
Not every moment is filled with sadness and despair here, however. There are some good moments. They are few and far between, but working in a place like this makes you notice them more, at least when you get a chance to breath and step back long enough to see it.
The morning after the heavy rains the sun came out over camp, casting a much needed bit of warmth and hope. There was almost a collective sigh of relief; “yes we made it through.” Camp was more mellow overall, as with the bad weather the day before we saw fewer incoming refugees. So I was able to spend a little time chatting with a few of them, and I even saw some smiles. Our life experiences and languages may be worlds apart, but sharing smiles is a simple yet profound act that crosses every boundary.
To help, here is where you can go:
LIFTING HANDS INTERNATIONAL
This is a newer NGO born out of this recent trip to Lesvos that I made. Its founder is my super amazing Arabic speaking, Arabic loving friend Hayley Smith whom I joined in Lesvos. She is the single source of inspiration for me taking this on. I support LHI because I know for certain that 100% of people’s donations go directly to those in need AND that LHI is in touch in real time with the actual needs of people on the ground there. Bigger NGO’s are staying on the political sidelines here, and it’s smaller groups like LHI that are doing the real work.
Shannon Ashton, photographer and author of this article, is a photographer by trade, and a story teller by nature. Completely self taught her work includes portraiture and landscapes, but she finds that her university degree in psychology might be as useful in her portrait work as anything she knows about photography! Originally from California, she has lived all over the United States, and London has been her home now for seven years.
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