Looking Back on Greece

Things get to you in places you least expect them to.

Note: No names of people, no pictures of people, period. Except for John Oliver. He doesn’t get a pass.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer in Athens with a team of great people supporting a few grassroots non-profit organizations helping the refugee community there. It was a ten day trip that was a deeply fulfilling experience, but it did happen to come with some emotional snags that I don’t think any of us saw coming. Now that I’m back stateside, I’m getting asked the same question a lot.

“So, how was it?”

The trip was made to have us build solutions in areas where we could help the non-profits, and it was also to try and immerse us in the problems we are trying to solve. In a typical business scenario, it would be called requirements gathering. Over here, it meant spending a few days being in squats, shelters, and refugee camps.

A lot happened on the first two days. I think it was a combination of jet lag, physical exhaustion, and emotional… “un-preparedness” where I didn’t immediately react to anything the first couple of days. It was the third day was when I definitely remembered something click in my head.

We were at the Oinofyta Refugee Camp to meet both the residents of the camp, and the people who support them. It was heartbreaking to learn what had happened to the residents. The struggles they go through to get to the camp and to survive, the challenges they face towards their desire to integrate with the EU (and the barriers the EU itself placed in that aim), and the desire to simply sit down and talk to someone. At the same time, it was heartwarming to see the community that the residents have built. The work the volunteers have done in fostering that community is inspiring, and the warmth and hospitality the the residents have shown us was incredible.

The camp is roughly an hour outside of Athens. When we arrived, we saw that the camp is a lot of open space, a couple tents and structures, and a large concrete main building. It’s also a hot day.

Oh, so very hot.

We had met children who only wanted to play with us for a while (some came with a soccer ball, some wanted piggyback rides, others just wanted to give us the highest of fives, all were super energetic). We had talked to some amazing residents and staff while getting to know the facility. We even got to see their chicken coop.

But for me, it was the welder.

We had a late lunch at a gazebo in the open. Souvlaki on pita. Hot, emotionally weary, and hungry, we all sat down to wait for some chow. A resident sat next to me and said hi. I said hi back. We then tried to communicate, but his English was poor, and my Pashto non-existent. Through a bit of broken conversation and testing the limits of both of our hand gesturing abilities, I learned he was originally from Kabul. He’s not entirely sure where all of his family is. He wants to move to another country in the EU so he can work again. I ask what he used to do.

“I am a welder.”

He shared stories about his old job building frames for various companies, and showed me videos on his phone of him as a welder in Kabul. He takes pride in it. Following that were videos of him and his friends playing leap frog to keep busy (he’s got crazy vertical, for the record).

I had a moment. He’s a welder who just wants to build things.

I got mad. Not at him, but at everything around him. Here is a peaceful guy who simply wants to put pieces of metal together to make new things, and here he is unable to go home because of a war he doesn’t believe in, carried out by actors who don’t represent him. At this point, much like Chris Rock in Lethal Weapon 4, I found myself asking,

“But just a normal guy, this fuckin’ guy? What the fuck did he ever do to anybody? That ain’t right.”

The tragedy of that immediate moment dawned on me. Here I was, talking to someone who was forced to travel great distances in order to seek refuge from a crisis that my own country has played a large part in. What’s that weird feeling I’m getting? Oh, right. That would be shame. I continue to listen to him speak about his home, his family, his desires, and his story is pretty incredible. One of a man who traveled great distances and his only desire is for peace so he can resume a normal life.

And when I say long distances, I mean long. Like, longcat levels of long.

For reference, my flight from Athens to New York City was 11 hours. Try doing this through ground transport.

Imagine starting that journey under duress and threat of violence by immediately leaving everything you own and know. You’re stopping and spending time in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, only to be chased further and further out because of other conflicts. Then you learn you might have hope in the EU, so you risk your life crossing the water to get to Greece, only to find that the EU has shut the borders on you, and your only option is to wait aimlessly in a camp for asylum, or reunification (a ridiculously bureaucratic nightmare of its own) in a land where many people look at and treat you with suspicion (and has massive economic problems of its own).

Now imagine that’s another person, and you’re looking at him directly in the eyes. It was tough for me.

As part of all this, we also had the opportunity to meet and work with people in other tough situations.

Like former translators who worked with US and coalition forces.

If you’re not familiar with the main story with translators, watch this. If you saw this when it aired, it’s worth watching again.

Watch at once if convenient. If inconvenient, watch all the same.

They would share their stories with us, talk about the camaraderie they had with the coalition troops they fought with (and the heavy prices they paid for it), and challenges they face in Greece today. They were invaluable in helping us to understand how our solutions might be better designed. Their abilities to translate across multiple languages is incredibly valuable. And, of course, they gave us their friendship.

A couple awesome people are working to bring refugees together through the creation of libraries in shelters.

For me, this is what I left with. I could talk at length about the passionate group of people who flew in and did amazing things. There’s also an incredible group of Greek and foreign volunteers doing even more amazing things (a project setting up libraries at shelters is a good example), who I could also talk at length about. What I choose to focus on are the wonderful people I’ve had the opportunity to meet. It’s through their stories, struggles, and hopes that I’ve been impacted the most out of everything on this trip.

That is how it stopped being an academic debate at barroom tables fueled by whichever CNN article that’s dug up, and became very real for me. It’s one thing to research statistics and read as many journalist accounts as possible, and another to break bread and laugh together. That feeling was something I found I was unprepared for, and that I’ll carry with me going forward.

So, how was it? Yeah, it was fun. There was laughter, there were also tears. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. It’s changed all of us in ways I don’t think we’ve even figured out yet, and gave us hope when hope is in short supply. It’s created relationships that I hope we use to drive progress in the future.

To how it was, the only word I can think of to respond with is “worthwhile.” I hope these words have given a glimpse into why.

Something tells me I’ll be back.

The organizations.

I appreciate the time if you’ve made it this far. Some people have asked what can be done to help. One thing I’ve learned is that the larger NGOs are mired in bureaucracy and are often at the mercy of political issues.

Smaller grassroots organizations aren’t burdened by a lot of these constraints. Here’s who we interacted with:

  • effect.org: This is the group that leads the expeditions. Our expedition leaders were amazing, and they take a unique approach to travel and volunteer work.
  • doyourpart.org: This is one of the non-profits we supported, run by some of the most dedicated people I’ve seen. They run the camp at Oinofyta, and you can donate directly. Direct requests are also often posted at needslist.co and is another great way to support.
  • oinofytawares.com: Part of the camp, but deserving of its own shoutout. In building a community at the Oinofyta camp, some residents with tailoring skills are creating bags and other products from the former tents they used to live in, and other donated materials.
  • weneedbooks.org: A couple amazing people decided to help build communities in the shelters through books. It’s self funded at this point and always welcomes help.

Also, read. Read and learn as much as you can. There’s lots of great places to start, but always learn as close to the truth as you can and approach things with an open mind. It sounds like a bit of a cliche, but it truly is important no matter where you are.

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