I’ve read a lot about Lesvos since I’ve been back and what it finally comes down to is that it’s very hard to describe how it made me feel and why I decided to go to Greece in the first place. I’ll do my best.

I had been traveling through Europe for three months and as much as I enjoy touristy things and partying, I was starting to get tired of that lifestyle. I needed more direction. I needed something to work on. I was starting to feel sort of self-indulgent and I wanted to justify my time, in a way. I had done some volunteering in Vienna with the (sadly now disbanded) refugee support organization, Train of Hope. You can read about my first experience with refugees here:

Refugees in Vienna

That experience really opened me up to the struggles of a marginalized people. In their homelands, it’s too dangerous to stay. In their new surroundings, they’re often looked down on or feared. There are millions of people without a homeland right now. Not just a homeland, but no place where they can eve work toward a better life for themselves. All they can do is keep moving until someone takes them in.

I’ve never been in that kind of situation. Nobody I know has. For all the struggles I’ve been through, this is one particular plight that I’ll never have to worry about as an American. I think that’s why a lot of Americans can’t (or decide not to) understand. They don’t have anything they can relate it to and they’ve never seen a humanitarian crisis this bad in person. That’s probably part of the reason why I’ve been so disappointed in the reaction of the American government. They’re quick to offer military aid in situations like this, but don’t know how to be a moral leader when it comes to helping these people find a home. There’s also a real problem with racism in the United States. (Note: That’s not only in the US. It’s present in every country to varying degrees.) If you were Syrian and all you saw on TV was Donald Trump, wouldn’t you think America hates you? My disappointment in the policies of my country motivated me to get out there in the thick of it and show everyone that we’re not all assholes.

Another motivating factor is that I know that even though some parts of my personal and family life have been really difficult, in many ways I’ve been so, so, so fortunate. Besides being a white American man and all the undeserved privileges that are inherent in that, I’m economically stable. I have people who care about me. I don’t live in a war zone. At times I feel a little guilty about how good I’ve really got it. I’ve thought a lot about whether I deserve it, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s okay to be lucky as long as you appreciate it and do your best to help people who aren’t as lucky.

I think that’s part of why I have so much empathy for people who are struggling. I’m a sensitive man, as men go. A few times on the beaches and in the camps, I had to step away for a minute to collect myself and avoid outright bawling. Now sometimes all it takes is to read personal accounts or watch videos of families seeking refuge and I cry. I know that under slightly different circumstances that have nothing to do with my own choices, I could be exactly where they are. If I was born in Syria, I’d be fleeing with the very same refugees that I was helping. Because of the circumstances of my birth, I’m the one volunteering instead of the one fleeing. It’s a powerful thought experiment.

So with all of this rattling around in my head, I decided to spend my last few weeks in Europe doing the most important thing I could think of. Helping people as best as I could.

There’s a concept I’ve heard of called “enlightened self interest.” My understanding of the basic idea is that people want to feel good, and one of the ways to feel good is to help other people. I think it’s a real motivator for me. I do care about other human beings, so trying to help makes me feel good about myself. It makes me feel valuable and worthwhile. It connects me to the world around me and gives me purpose.

Another positive benefit in volunteer situations like this is the wonderful people you meet. The type of people who decide to spend their time and money dedicating themselves to a project like this are truly the cream of the crop. The volunteers on Lesvos are among the best possible humans with the warmest hearts you could ever hope to meet. And then there’s the refugees themselves! When I think about the life or death situations they were put in and the choices they had to make to even get as far as Greece, I’m constantly amazed at their drive and strength of character. Hearing their stories first hand motivates me in a deeply personal way.

I can’t adequately describe to you how grateful for the experience I am. When people ask me about my four months of traveling, Lesvos and the refugee crisis are all I talk about. Clearly it had a major impact. I wish I could go back right now, but I legally can’t due to an expired EU visa.

The rest of my trip was great too. I think traveling is important and everyone should get out there in the world on whatever terms they decide for themselves, but my time in Greece on the beaches and in the camps is going to change the way I look at travel forever. Where will I end up next? How can I use my vacation time in a more focused way to help people who are struggling? I’m not sure yet, but I’m excited to find out.

For more about my time in Lesvos, check out these other posts:

Lesvos: What I actually did while I was there

Lesvos: One story of the refugee experience