I had no real frame of reference for what to expect other than the relatively sterilized images from mainstream media of what a refugee and a refugee camp look like, and no idea of where I was even going or doing until just a few days before I left.
So, while my heart told me to expect a difficult journey, my head was pleasantly and deliberately ignorant. Even while I was there, the urgency of every minute of every day overrode my ability to let the situations that I was facing sink in.
It’s not until now that I’m two and a half weeks home that I am fighting against the weight of the experience; once there’s no boxes to haul or winter clothes to sort or food to distribute, my mind can be set to wander.
In total, I spent time at 7 different camps from Athens to Alexandreia, from squats to “official” resident camps.
Having such a wide lens of comparison, you could almost convince yourself that the more organized, more supported camps were “nice.” Relatively speaking, they were, if your standards of measurement are how much trash is on the ground, how badly the air smelled as you got out of your car, or if shelters were proper canvas tents or discarded bedsheets.
But in reality, they are all horrible places to play house indefinitely. They are terrible places to raise children, let alone birth them. That is no reflection on the selfless volunteers, mostly self-funded and unpaid, who work from early morning to sunset on all the small details it takes to help hundreds of refugees exist from day to day.
The world’s responsibility towards these refugees is so much more than just food, water, and shelter. While providing those basic needs takes up a great deal of time and money, there’s more to being human than being kept alive. Small touches like the proper “boutique” found in Alexandreia, complete with a dressing room to allow for some dignity while selected your allotted two sets of clothing a month. Having both men’s and women’s deodorant available for selection in the shop where rations are distributed tent by tent. Taking the time to sort through donated aid received from all over the world to remove the things so worn and tattered their previous owners wouldn’t even keep them for rags. Holding someone’s hand and laughing about your complete inability to communicate with each other. Breaking up a fistfight between ten year old boys armed with rocks or listening as someone recounts that time the Taliban tried to kill them. Those things are important too, and those are all things I did during my time as a volunteer.
In the two and a half weeks since I’ve been home, there has yet to be a day where I haven’t contemplated when I’m returning to Alexandreia, what I can send in the meantime (kites!), and how I can support their efforts to provide things like housing for newborns and their mothers and extra food beyond Army rations.
There is nothing that compares to the sense of community that I felt during my short stay there, both with the residents and my fellow volunteers. People willing to leave their own lives, their own countries, their jobs, and in some cases (like mine) their own families and children to do physically and emotionally demanding work day in and day out just because it seems like the right thing to do, are amazing people to meet and work alongside. People willing to leave their own lives, their own countries, their jobs, and in some cases their own families and children to escape from the unspeakable horrors of war and oppression are amazing people to look in the eye.
Saying that the experience changed my life isn’t a strong enough statement. Now that I am home, those beautifully devastating eleven days are now free to replay over and over and get my full attention, whenever they want. The sounds that seemed to just float above my head while I worked — the crunch of dry and dusty gravel, a distant argument in a language I don’t understand – have now settled in to accompany the photos and notes I took to form memories that wait for an idle moment or a similar sound to surprise me with how powerful they can be in hindsight.
I think the answer is to return early 2017, although I’d leave tomorrow if I could.