I didn’t come to Lesvos with a very specific plan. I’m the type of guy who often makes these things up as I go so I can have the benefit of maximum flexibility. In terms of volunteering, this meant that if there was more need in one area, I could easily shift my effort to a new project. I did a fair amount of reading up on the situation in Lesvos before I got there, but I really got the impression that I would have no idea what the needs would be from day to day because the situation on the island changes constantly with the number and location of the refugees and with changes to the systems and regulations around their ability to seek asylum.
Basically I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I read somewhere online that a good place to start would be a smaller refugee camp called Pikpa, so I booked a hotel kind of nearby and just kind of showed up for two weeks in December.
Pikpa: The Village of All Together
Pikpa is a camp for more vulnerable groups of refugees: sick people, pregnant women, people with disabilities, etc. It’s an old summer camp with some cabins, some UNHCR huts, and a few big tents. They’ve been welcoming refugees since 2012. When refugees started coming to Lesvos in greater numbers this summer and fall, Pikpa got pushed to its limits. Since then, other camps have sprung up and taken greater numbers of people and Pikpa has been able to improve conditions and start building for the future. While I was there, only about 50-75 refugees were there at any given time. Relative to some other camps on the island, it’s pretty quiet and peaceful. You can actually stop to have conversations with refugees and other volunteers. I think it was a great place for me to start, because those conversations helped me get a good grip on current events and the role of various camps and NGOs/volunteer groups.
At some locations on the island, there’s so much to do that it’s just all about getting through the day. It can feel very frantic at times. Pikpa isn’t usually like that. Because there’s some breathing room, the projects at Pikpa are more about building infrastructure for the future. Right away on my first day, the self-run volunteer leadership set me to work on various projects to improve the conditions for people housed in the camp. I helped dig paths to the bathrooms and spread gravel over them. I helped build shelving units for the pharmacy. I helped sort clothing donations and do inventory checks of things like sleeping bags and emergency blankets. It was that type of work.
The Food Distribution Run
One other important task that Pikpa is involved in is cooking and distribution of food to other camps with fewer facilities to be able to support the number of people who are there. Pikpa has a relatively large kitchen facility and at the height of the crisis, they were cooking as many as a thousand hot meals twice a day to deliver to Moria and the other camps. A couple days into my trip, I went on one of the distribution runs to Moria, which is the main camp where Frontex and the EU has decided to centralize the registration process. That means that every refugee has to pass through Moria at some point.
This distribution run was an important moment for me. We rolled up to the camp with a van full of food and I saw what the main camp actually looks like. There are two main sides of the camp. One side is literally an old prison with barbed wire fences. A Greek police officer wouldn’t let us drive into that side, despite the thousands of hungry people on the other side if the fence. We drove around to the other side, which is just a hill with a bunch of tents. There were loads of people just milling about, some trying to get up to the registration lines, some trying to keep warm by camp fires, some going down to the clothing distribution tent because their clothes were literally still smoking wet from the raft journey across the water. That’s how fresh off the boat they were.
There was a brand new large tent set up specifically for food distribution, but as soon as we opened the back of the van, people started swarming. An experienced volunteer named Constantine with a thick Boston accent started yelling for people to get in a line that started about three meters from the van. He managed the line and gave people plastic forks. Once they got their fork, they could step forward to where another volunteer and I would hand them the pre-packed hot food from Pikpa. Many of them would beg me for more food for their family or their friends, even though we had a strict one-meal-per-person policy. I broke a few times for people who looked really desperate and gave them extra food for their families. We gave out several hundred meals and there were still people who didn’t get any asking for more.
After we finished, a volunteer came from inside the compound and asked if we had any food left. She said there were a thousand hungry people inside who could have used that food. We had to tell her the police wouldn’t let us through. Sometimes it seems like there’s never enough.
It was at this point that my viewpoint started to shift. Pikpa is great and is providing important services, and I met some people there who I deeply admire, but I started to think that my skills might be more needed at Moria…
The Mytilini Coastline
Around the time I decided to at least partially shift my focus, another important event occurred. I had arranged through the Lesvos volunteer accommodation sharing page to share my hotel room with a German girl named Catherine. Catherine was volunteering in clothing distribution at Moria, and wanted to make an extra effort to work with the refugees directly as they were coming off the boats. There had recently been a shift in which coastlines the boats were arriving at due to the €3 billion in aid money from the EU to Turkey to crackdown on smugglers. The smugglers didn’t stop– or even really slow down. They just changed location, making it harder to predict where the refugees would be landing. Catherine wanted to independently help out the stretch of coastline by the city of Mytilini with boat rescue. She had rented a car and invited me to go with her.
Catherine and I, along with two other wonderful volunteers that Catherine had met in Moria, started going out to the beaches at around 5am to watch for boats and provide what services we could to the people disembarking on the beaches. Catherine had done some fundraising back home in Germany, so she rented a car and we went and bought dry socks, water, some food, and other supplies.
For the next several days, the four of us patrolled the beaches. We spent most of that time cooperating and working with an incredible group of lifeguards from Spain. Seriously, these guys have their act together. They’re strong swimmers prepared in wetsuits and trained in first aid with all the appropriate supplies. They even had a doctor in their group. They started at 11pm and went all night, sometimes until 2pm the next afternoon. Between our little group and the lifeguards, I felt really privileged to be working with such amazing people.
The way it went for most of the boat rescues was the lifeguards would go out into the water and help guide the boat in and then a combination of the lifeguards, our group, and possibly others would help people off the boat and tend to their needs. Often, people were wet and cold and needed dry socks, shoes, and pants. Sometimes they were so cold that they were hypothermic and seemed to be in a state of shock. We would help them into emergency blankets (used the proper way, as close to the skin as possible, usually under the shirt) and try to get them warm and dry until the UNHCR coordinator could arrange for a bus to come and take them to Moria.
Later in the morning, around 10am or so, there appeared to be more groups out on the beaches. I think it’s easier for the other NGOs to work during the day and I suspect that more volunteers are compelled by that dramatic moment that they’ve seen in pictures and video lifting babies off of refugee boats, than by the equally important but less glamorous work of collecting trash or sorting used clothing or any number of other things that need to happen in the camps. The trouble was that the overnight and early morning shifts sometimes are undermanned. As many NGOs and volunteers as there are during the day, sometimes a boat would arrive in the early morning and there would be nobody but us individual volunteers to take care of the people. The bigger NGOs with more resources are doing great work, but can’t be everywhere at once. At the time I was on Lesvos, there were gaps in coverage that could only be filled by individual people stepping up to take care of them. My fellow volunteers and I did our best to make sure that every boat full of people had support, and a few of those boats only had our little group to help.
During that period, we would go do boats in the morning until the other groups showed up and then head to the camps to do other work. I spent some of that time at Pikpa, but started to work on how I would fit in at Moria.
I’ll hold back some of the more colorful language that I would use to describe Moria. I’ll just say that during the time I was there, it was the area of the island that needed the most help by far. It’s the camp that everyone had to go through at some point, because it was that only place anyone could register.
While I was there, they had instituted a system where refugees get in one line to get a number. That number is where they can get in the other line for actual registration. They use this system so that people don’t have to spend several days in one registration line, sleeping and camping in the dirt to not lose their place in line. Frontex can only process so many people per day, and at times the wait was as long at ten days, even for people who had the money to be able to move on quickly after they’re registered.
My first shift at Moria was in the clothing distribution tent on Afghan Hill. I spent about four hours dealing with a constant line of wet kids and families needing dry clothing. Sometimes there are some dry clothes available down on the beaches but more often the refugees stay wet until they arrive at Moria. That shift was a constant frenzy of people I did not share a language with asking for things that the distribution tent may or may not even have. Some people are very sweet and grateful but others understandably get frustrated with the process. It’s not easy. Some things (such as men’s shoes for example) were in constant short supply. To a certain degree, as a volunteer there, you have to disconnect from your desire to help every single person in order to serve the most people possible.
I’m grateful for that experience, but decided that it was not the best place for me. I had missed out on some amount of sleep due to the boat shifts and was a bit frustrated myself. In retrospect, I was also probably getting sick around this point in time. That may have contributed to my lack of energy for the pace of clothing distribution.
There’s another tent out on the hill that’s for kids. I have a lot of experience working with kids, so I decided to give it a shot despite my suspicion that there could be an overrepresentation of volunteers there. Everyone wants to help kids. The kids’ tent is where I feel like I found my niche. I’m a professional sports mascot at home, and it turns out that’s actually really good experience for interacting with kids who don’t share a language with you.
We played, made art, colored, played games. They hugged me, climbed on me, high fived me. I built some really meaningful (if short lived) relationships with these kids. I care about them even now and I wonder where they and their families have ended up. I’ll probably never know.
When I first arrived, I think I undervalued the importance of connecting with kids as a worthwhile use of volunteer time. It’s something I’m good at and I learned how important it really is to provide children with a sense of normalcy and play. Yes, they are fleeing war zones and they’re stuck in poor conditions in a refugee camp far from everything they’ve ever known, but that just makes it all the more important to be able to make connections and play like any other kid in the world. It’s essential to their development. Other, more direct humanitarian services provided by volunteers (like, I don’t know, food and shelter) are also essential to the cause of providing a better quality of life to a marginalized people, but this is where I fit in. With the kids.
After two weeks– probably two of the most important weeks of my life– my European visa was expiring and I had to leave Lesvos. If my Shengen visa hadn’t expired, there’s a decent chance I’d still be there. I met some of the most amazing people there, volunteers and refugees alike.
I hope this account helps show the impact an individual, short term volunteer can have. There are a lot of bigger organizations with more resources that I could have gone through, but I didn’t do that. I just bought a plane ticket and went, and still found important tasks to take on. In fact, that flexibility gave me the opportunity to individually find the best fit for my time and skills.
If you’re thinking of volunteering and there’s a good fit for you with one of the bigger NGOs, go for it. If not, go anyway. Be respectful of the missions of others, get educated, and find a spot where you can fit in. I did, and I’ll never regret it.