An Idiot’s Guide to Volunteering

On US TV they always use the same numerical prefix when a character has to give their phone number: 555. The networks did this because, back in the day, viewers would actually try to phone up Batman to report a crime or tell him where the Joker was hiding out; the idiots actually believed what they saw on TV was real!

Unfortunately, this summer, I made the same mistake.

I watched a TV programme about Syrian refugees and, like the gullible American public, I believed what I saw too. Not only that, but I wanted to phone Batman as well because things looked really bad. Adam West is still unavailable, so I tried Google and eventually ended up in Athens for a couple of weeks.

This is the part of the blog where I begin to sketch out the ‘experience’ and how I really ‘connected’ with people. But I’m not doing that because a) you don’t want to read that, and b) it is utter balls. And because the truth is that it’s given me so much to think about, I don’t really know where to begin, other than to say that, firstly, I wish I’d gone for longer, and secondly, I wish I’d gone last year when they needed much more help.

I’m also going to confess here that on the flight over I had a cunning idea about how I would help the Syrian people: I would write a biting and satirical blog using the backdrop of the Olympics in Rio to report on a fictional Olympiad set in Greece (the home of the Olympics, duh). And by juxtaposing the two events, I’d skilfully highlight The West’s deeply worrying ability to simply avert its eyes from humanitarian crisis, in a way that Bono could only wet dream about. In this conceit, traditional competitions taking place in Rio, such as Volleyball and Men’s Hockey, would be contrasted with more edgy activities. Events like, Running Across Turkey with Everything You Own or, Swimming in Freezing Cold Open Water in the Dark for Hours with Your Children? That kind of thing.

But then I got there and I had to throw all of those ideas in the water because, as the internet likes to say, reality. More of which, a bit later on.

The old basketball stadium at Elliniko is where most volunteers begin their journey. Like Rio, this year, Greece spunked their 2004 Olympic money on stadia that they would never be able to maintain, and for which they paid corrupt, tax avoiding developers and contractors through the nose, putting the country in a particularly vulnerable position when the crash of 2008 came knocking. The Stadium is one of the very few structures not to have cedar trees growing up through it and its current incarnation is as a warehouse for all the non-food items that people around the world send. The first thing you notice here is the disparity between the sheer volume of stuff (a lot) and the people needed to sort it out (not enough).

Here, you are also briefed by your respective NGO about what you should expect to find at the refugee camps and how you should behave, which is, basically, no refugee selfies.

So far, so good.

So I spent the next week or so at a refugee camp. Unfortunately, I’m just not skilled enough as a writer to convey the experience without drifting into cliché territory, though it might be worth mentioning that my one recurring thought was that it was a very psychedelic experience, and by that, I mean psychedelic in the true sense of the word: mind altering. The 40 degree heat also helps.

What is also worth saying is that it is not, in any way, a negative experience. It’s occasionally uncomfortable, but more often than not, it is an incredible privilege to be around, and in complete awe of, people with the strength and courage to save their families from tyranny and war.

To briefly return to the reason for me ditching my cunning blog idea, simply getting to know some of the children, who have already been through unimaginable trauma and sometimes simply want to be held, or fed by families who have almost nothing to share, is a deeply humbling experience and one that makes the very idea of employing satire as a device, not just ridiculous and counter-productive but, perhaps, obscene and another reminder of my idiocy. It is an honour and a joy to be around these people.

Another unexpected pleasure is meeting the other volunteers, whose company is massively flattering. These fine people are almost exclusively Spanish, (though the Swedes, Portuguese and Norwegians are not very far behind) and almost certainly more attractive, intelligent, friendly and generous than you. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before they asked me a lot of questions about Brexit and, following much explanation and apology, they still managed to hide their contempt for Albion behind polite but disappointed smiles.

But after the first couple of encounters, apologising for retreating from Europe, refusing to accept our quota of refugees or just being a nation of idiots becomes pretty annoying. And before I go further, let me justify my use of the word idiot.

In Classic Athenian Democracy, an idiot was ‘someone who was characterized by self-centeredness’, one who thought of themselves and nobody else; a more refined definition than our use of the word, connoting fool or dolt, though those connotations of stupidity are still there, but these people are stupid because they only think of themselves. And that definition is the one, I fear, we’ve returned to.

Since Brexit, I’ve been particularly chafed by people telling me that I should respect democracy and, therefore, the people who voted to leave the European Union. And yet, I am still waiting to hear their argument. Apparently, I am supposed to accept that they were not driven by xenophobic or racist feelings, or a complete misunderstanding of the difference between EU immigrants, non-EU immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. That that they knew better, that they had the future of our children in their minds, that they understood the economic arguments better than the Governor of the Bank of England, the IMF, the European Central Bank, the World Bank and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And, finally, that they didn’t just vote in protest, as a grunt or a kick in the establishment bollocks because we live in a climate of political illiteracy or, alternately, simply out of utter arrogance, greed and selfishness.

I accept none of these arguments.

As the sixth (and sometimes fifth) richest country in the world, we voted to look after number one, and perhaps it is poetic justice that we won’t get any of the stuff we were promised, like an end to freedom of movement or the weekly £350M NHS ‘pup’ we were sold. These people were voting for themselves and nobody else. They are idiots. And they have been made into idiots by a ‘What do I get’ culture. And even though I voted to remain, I am part of that culture too, so, so am I.

Turn on the television, walk down a street, read a newspaper or magazine. We’ve built a culture on the promise of personal material reward. Work hard and get this, you deserve it. Except, once you’ve got it, what do you do then? You have to find something else to want. That is basically it. We have been made into idiots: to think of ourselves, if not exclusively, then certainly before others. If I’ve learnt anything in Greece, it’s that the Ancient Greeks didn’t.

When democracy was still wet behind the ears, everyone, apart from the idiots, of course, was thinking about what would be best for everyone. The idea of actually thinking of others rather than oneself is one of the foundation stones modern civilization is built on and, being there, I started to wonder what had happened to it. Being around people who have been thrown at your mercy has a way of focusing the mind too. I know I’m dangerously close to Geldof territory here but let us be clear: the vast majority of us live in a fucking theme park; our ethical dilemmas about buying avocados or ordering from Amazon are a bit silly.

So what about having a go at this ‘thinking about others’ lark then?

Since I got back, I can’t get enough: I help out at a homeless shelter and have started teaching English to asylum seekers. I know that I must sound like an incredibly smug and sanctimonious twat, and I was only there for a week or so, and not everyone can do it because… (don’t worry, I can hear your voices already, because that used to be my voice too) but really, I am an idiot and I did do it, so anyone can. And finding a way of opposing or disagreeing with me, is simply a way of avoiding doing something yourself.

I’m not trying to be a hero. I’m not trying to put anyone on a bum trip. I just thought I’d share the thoughts of someone who is trying not to be an idiot and, honestly, just trying feels pretty good.


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