Over New Years, I spent a few days working with refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos, an island that has seen nearly a half a million refugees pass through. Why did I go? Feeling heavy with frustration from all the negative, ignorant banter plastered all over the media regarding the value and fate of the refugees, I felt a strong pull away from all of that fruitless antagonism towards finding a real way to help and in turn breed a bit more love and compassion. These goals were apolitical. And from my advanced perspective I am convinced that love and compassion are not only contagious, but they do wrought change. I also went to Lesvos because I knew I could share with the world my experience in word and image to deliver the truth of what I witnessed and most of all to spread the love. The world is hurting, and these poor refugees are caught in the crossfire. Love, not fear, is the only answer.
My first day on Lesvos was not at all what I expected. And the first thing I learned about refugee life is there is no plan and things roll as they will, often along the path of most resistance. There is no itinerary. There are only unknowns. Refugee life is not a planned existence, and from the glimpse I got that week each moment is a constant act of adaptation for survival. As an aid worker you learn quickly that flexibility is essential. There are so many volunteers on Lesvos, a whole community of them from all over. Many here on their own, and also lots of organizations represented. The efforts there have evolved greatly over the last many weeks and months. The first day was a kind of orientation: seeing where things were happening and learning more about what goes on to help incoming refugees.
Driving along the north shore we encountered a newly arrived raft. Raft debris and life jackets are littered all over the shores of Lesvos, but it’s not as common to come upon a raft so recently landed. So we stopped to have a look. The refugees on board had already made it ashore and were progressing through the system of camps here. Stepping inside the raft, we spent a few moments trying to understand the nature of their journey feeling what the raft is like from within. Inside the raft sits a pool of water and a few stray drowned gloves and soggy empty bags. Probably 40 people crammed in such a small, unsteady vessel, each likely to have paid an extortionist’s sum of €1000-1500! The lucky ones make it over wet and freezing. The unlucky ones fall victim to the harsh waters overtaking an overloaded craft. No one takes such a perilous journey without good reason to escape an even worse fate. I can only imagine. And yet these shores are no respite, and mark only the beginning of an incredible, formidable journey ahead.
As the sun hung high, we visited the life jacket graveyard, where thousands of refugee life jackets are dumped. About 450,000 refugees have come through Lesvos alone. There are many more life jackets strewn all over the island, but the critical mass of them, are deposited in what has become a life vest mountain range. Seeing this place put a measured visual on the scale of the numbers. Each story is filled with tragedy, and this is tragedy of mass proportions. Standing here I am almost embarrassed that I might have ever questioned coming to help. How could I not?! There are so many, and each’s needs are so great. And I am simultaneously overwhelmed with inadequacy. How will I affect any noticeable change when the needs are so great, so never-ending? My dear friend who inspired me to action to join her on this trip said “their time on Lesvos is a blip along their journey, and we are a blip on that blip.” The difference one volunteer can make feels so infinitesimal, so hopelessly imperceptible. Standing in the valley of life vest caverns I am filled with discouragement. Through the despair of it all, I reflect on the same nagging truth that got me here in the first place, that it is through the small acts of the hands of many that will bring goodness here. The real work was yet to come.
Jumping in to work in a refugee camp is what one might call baptism by fire. I was thrust into action working in the refugee camp at Moria. Later, back in my hotel room, showered, the smells of the camp lingered just as the scenes from the day. My thoughts are so scattered trying to process all that I saw and experienced.
The most important thing I learned is in fact that there is little I know, little any of us know.
As with the life of a refugee, life at a refugee camp is pretty much a chaotic mess. If you asked me what I did all day I couldn’t summarize it in one or two sentences, or even a paragraph. The tasks were so varied, and so rapidly changing. I felt like a pinball being tossed from one thing to the next.
People come here from all over the middle east, arriving freezing, haggard, wet, exhausted and scared. At Moria they register with the government, a process that is extremely unpleasant that includes hours in queues in freezing temperatures, often dealing with abusive police. Their journey from countries all over the middle east (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen–just to name a few) has already been long and arduous. They arrive here, and in many I see a glimmer of hope that they have finally arrived at a place where they will be able to rest and get real help. The sad truth is Moria is not that place. My heart breaks to see that glimmer snuffed out when they realize there is no place to sleep here for most, the queues will be long, we’ve run out of dry clothes and worst of all, no one has any answers for them.
Despite the language and cultural barriers, I see immediately the people arriving are just like you and me. After all the many faces I greeted off the buses all day long, I feel like I have more questions than I have answers, but I can say with certainty of heart that these people are my brothers and sisters. In the small moments of helping people get dry clothes, finding a doctor for an injured lady, holding a mother’s baby when her arms grew too tired, finding a warm place for a family to sit while they wait for their their turn in the queues, helping a thirsty girl find water, helping confused people get their registration tickets, playing games with the children in the queue, I saw mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, families . . . and I catch a glimpse of the real people behind the plight.
Their identities as “refugees” melt. They are simply people.
The worst part of being a refugee volunteer is not having answers for people, or being able to help them they way they really need to be helped (as is often the case, mostly due to the high volume of people coming through and limited resources). The best part is when you are able, even if just in the moment, even just with something small, to actually help. And in that moment it’s all worth it. I held a baby in the queues for over an hour one day. My back was already aching from standing and running around all day. As we stood in yet another queue to try to find the single mom a place in the family camp, she fell asleep. She had no idea really who was holding her baby. She was too exhausted to care. But for a brief window she found relief. It will take 1,000 more moments like that for her to get where she can rebuild her life and a life for those children, but we do each make a difference.
It is not with one grand act that humanity is brought to pass, but a thousand tiny ones.
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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