One of the most rewarding and enriching experiences of my life so far has been my time volunteering on the Greek island of Chios. In February and March this year I gave my time to welcoming refugees to this tiny island with Action from Switzerland. On Chios, we work closely with the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team, an umbrella of independent volunteers and grassroot NGOs from all over Europe. It is here I discovered a new family.
Volunteering on Chios is not for everyone. It can be dirty, sweaty work, like unpacking boxes of donated clothes and camping supplies, sorting and stacking and organising. Or like moving supplies from the large warehouse on one part of the island to a smaller storage space where volunteers can organise “beach landing kits”. Or perhaps taking a shift in the laundry, washing, drying, folding and sorting the clothing left behind on beaches, to re-use for the next landing.
It can be heartbreaking. Volunteers hear some terrible stories, but it’s our duty to listen and bear witness to what has happened to these people, and to show them we hear them and care. You see women and children, desperate for food or clothes or just some small treat, something out of the ordinary, like a single piece of candy or a football. You lose contact with a family that boards the ferry to Athens, and you keep them in your thoughts, excited when a co-volunteer reports that they have seen them on the mainland. Once you meet them, you carry them and their stories in your heart.
In February and March this year, the landings were the axis on which the volunteers’ world spun. Every volunteer was expected to carry a full carload of clothing, food and water, at all times. You never knew when the next boat might appear on the Turkish side of the strait, a dot of bright orange that became a grey or black dinghy filled with frightened faces, wet and tired and hungry bodies.
Things have changed a lot since my stint on the island. The EU-Turkey agreement came into place not long after my teary flight back to Switzerland. The boats slowed but didn’t stop. The camps which allowed freedom of movement became detention centres. People got hungry, desperate. There were demonstrations and protests and hunger strikes. Few, if any refugees were actually able to apply for asylum as the government and larger NGOs struggled to manage the new systems.
After a while, the gates of the camps were reopened and refugees were once again granted freedom to move around the island. A slow trickle of individuals and families makes its way to Athens, where they will live on the streets. Those who remain are tired, frustrated, confused.
Volunteering has also changed significantly, even if the feelings of camaraderie and self-fulfillment remain. It’s easier now to engage with refugee individuals and families one-on-one, build relationships, learn their stories. Now the emphasis is on physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Action from Switzerland’s flagship project, the Athena Centre for Women, is just one of the opportunities to improve the lives of refugees now and for the future, whether by leading a class or workshop, or just by being present in the centre to listen and engage and show a friendly, kind face.
Now is the time where the volunteers truly can shine. Every skill we have is useful, whether it is knowing a foreign language, or being very organised, or just being a good listener. Volunteering is about self-discovery: maybe you will learn something amazing about yourself, a new skill or a strength you didn’t know you had in you before.
Lastly but most importantly: volunteering is about humanity. It’s about giving something of yourself to someone in need. It’s about caring, respect, humility, passion, commitment.
It’s about love.
We need committed volunteers on Chios to support our work and share your talents. If you are 21 years old or over, if you are able to fund your own flights, transport and food on the island, and you can stay for a minimum of two weeks, please sign up. We need volunteers from late August into 2017, and we are especially in need of Arabic or Farsi speakers. We would love to see you and share this experience with you.