In July of 2016 I participated in a study abroad that allowed me to experience the content of my courses first-hand. While the trip in its entirety was an experience unlike any other there are several moments that I point to as having the most significant impact.
Among these are many that I have shared with you already, but perhaps the most profound was my visit to the Elpida Home for Refugees in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was difficult for me to process this experience and as a result I have not written anything of consequence about it until now, when I am sharing it with all of you.
I failed to write on this sooner, even in a private reflection, for several reasons. The most prominent being that there was simply too much that I did not know how to put into words- too much context, too many emotions, too much guilt, and so on. For months afterwards I was only able to discuss it with friends who had been there with me.
Eventually I realized that I simply wasn’t sure what lens I wanted to share this through- would it be more compelling to discuss it like a story? How much factual context do I need? How academic is too academic? Eventually (today, basically) I decided that it didn’t matter and that my own hesitation would only contribute to the continued neglect of this issue.
I will preface by discussing the word voluntourism: defined as the intersection of tourism and volunteering or travel for charity work, it often gets a bad rep. This is not without reason as research has demonstrated that such work, under certain circumstances, can cause more harm than good.
For clarification, I am not advocating against volunteering while traveling, but instead encouraging a deeper understanding of the impact you will have if you do so.
That said, our time volunteering at the Elpida Home for Refugees was essentially voluntourism, but was also so much more than that- it wasn’t about taking photos of volunteering with children or making ourselves feel good, but instead about doing whatever we could to help, even if it was only for a day.
For just about all twenty something of us, it was our first in person exposure to refugees; suddenly these people, these victims, that we’d all spent years learning about and striving to help were here and real, and right in front of us. To say it was jarring would be a gross understatement.
When we arrived at Elpida early in the morning, we were split into several groups based on what we would be doing that day. I remember wanting to use the bathroom when we arrived, but I refused to due to my steady stream of thoughts which manifested in “I don’t want to take anything from you” over and over and over again. It repeated in my head constantly until suddenly I was outside in a yard with a group of young Syrian children who just wanted make me laugh. I soon forgot about the guilt that I had felt so strongly and was able to enjoy their company, all warm smiles and easygoing taunts.
We spent hours in the sun playing soccer, volleyball, and just hanging out with these children who spoke varying degrees of English and Greek; communication was remarkably easy in spite of the language barrier. Later in the afternoon we were joined by three adult men, who were less quick to speak to us directly, but just as happy to engage in whatever game had begun on the blacktop.
As the sun beat down we pressed on, for the sake of the game that we were all thoroughly enjoying- I can’t remember ever smiling that wide. Eventually, the kids took a water break, only to offer us all to share the cool liquid from the jug sat in the shade- with absolutely no hesitation. The older men did the same and it felt like a steak through the heart, to see them so happy to give us that small comfort, when they had been denied so much, for so long.
What is often forgotten is that refugees are just people. They had jobs, homes, families, and entire lives in their home countries before being pushed out by violence. Now, they have very little. At most sites, there is little for them to do, terrible food for them to eat, and inadequate shelter to house them. What they have gone through is unimaginable, yet these children and these men were happy to simple have a few more people on their soccer teams.
I will never forget meeting Ahmed Khan, one of the founders of Elpida, earlier that same day. He explained to me that when he first learned about the refugee crisis he dropped everything and began doing whatever he could to help. His efforts culminated in the creation of the Elpida Home for Refugees, in partnership with the Radcliffe Foundation. Elpida is a ‘prototype’, if you will, camp designed to allow a higher standard of living for refugees while they await their next steps. Through a deal with the Greek government, Elpida was built in one of many abandoned factories in Thessaloniki- it was converted from a run down warehouse space into a communal living space where families each have their own quarters (complete with doors and locks) and the kitchen can be used by all. In addition, Elpida offers medical care and various academic and creative activities.
It may not sound like much, but this is unprecedented- there is no other facility that allows these people to live like people; what Elpida has done is astounding. You can read more about it here.
About a week later, two nights before we were all going our separate ways, I was discussing the experience with a friend who admitted that he felt guilty; we had spent an entire day at the facility, but that was nowhere enough.
Without mentioning my own feelings, he shared that he had walked into the facility feeling terrible, and selfish, and didn’t want to take anything from them; it was remarkable to know that someone understood so clearly how I felt at that time. Eventually, it came out that we both wished to have been able to spend more time there- to do more in whatever way we could.
Even now, six months later, I want to return. I feel like I have so much to offer in assistance, but there is only so much I can actually do, which is frustrating to say the least.
If you have read this far, I thank you, and I encourage you to learn more about the refugee crisis and what you can do to help. We as humans have a responsibility to uphold the humanity of others. We must strive to be content, and refuse to be complacent; refugees must not be forgotten, no matter how distant their plight may be from your own.