My experience volunteering with refugees in Leros


My experience volunteering with refugees in Leros

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One night while I was having sushi with three friends in San Francisco, one of them told me about teaching chess to refugees in Greece. I went into that night expecting great food (which I got), but walked away with more: I learned about Echo100Plus, an organization where I’ve just spent two and a half weeks volunteering.

I had read a bit about the refugee crisis, but mostly in surface-level headlines that don’t capture peoples’ actual experiences: X number of people have been displaced this year from war; some countries have taken in a higher proportion of refugees compared to other countries; some Europeans welcome refugees with open arms, others fear that local job opportunities will decline with the influx of new population.

But despite any individual viewpoint, one question that I’ve been thinking about is: how is this fair? How can we stand by as people lose their homes, or worse, their family and friends as a result of complex, historically-layered geopolitical conflicts, and say that they don’t deserve a safe place to live? People love their homes. People love their culture, tradition, food, national heritage. Why would they pack up and leave? Because without the violence that prompts people to move, there would be no refugee crisis.

I arrived in Leros — a small island close to the western shore of Turkey — having just a few expectations; but they were quickly disproven. For one, I expected some people to dislike me for being American because of our military’s involvement in middle eastern conflict over the past decade and a half. On the contrary, every person I met, without exception, was nothing but warm and kind to me. One night while I was playing games like jump rope, tag, and duck duck goose at Pikpa, a shelter for more vulnerable children and families, I had a chance to chat with some of the kids’ fathers; one from Afghanistan and one from Iraq. They told me that they loved Americans because everyone they met from the United States was nice. They said that they recognized the difference between people from a country, and that country’s politicians whom they may or may not agree with. It felt like a conversation I’d have with my family around the dinner table. Before I left, one of them pointed to his daughter and meant to say, “this is my baby,” but accidentally said, “I am baby,” and the rest of the group around the table started cracking up.

Although I was volunteering, and doing what I could to serve others, the experience enriched me more than I could imagine. One person in particular who touched my life was a teenage Afghan boy who hung out at The Hub (kind of like a school where Echo facilitates language classes, movie nights, music, etc.) every day. Due to liability, residents at the Hub need to be 18 and older, but despite that — he stuck around just to talk with volunteers. He said that it’s better to truly know someone, to have friends around the world, than it is just to say ‘hi’ and keep moving. He demonstrated a rare and inspiring selflessness, always sharing food with people around him and helping move stuff in and out of the car (which we endearingly call the “POS”, or “piece of shit”, due to its wonky brakes, non-existent horn and airbags, slight uncleanliness, and sometimes-unintentionally-opening doors. After Matt, one of the coordinators from the UK, left the keys in the car, I asked, “aren’t you worried someone is going to steal it? To which he smiled and replied, “I hope they do”).

There are a few places in the world that have inspired me to be the most authentic version of myself. One of them was Camp Tawonga: a Jewish residential camp near Yosemite where I worked during the summers of ’09 and ’10. I loved caring after kids, clowning around on the basketball court, freestyle rapping while brushing my teeth, staying up late to chop it up about life. It’s amazing that in Leros, under much different circumstances in a completely different part of the world, I felt the same thing. I could do all the things that I did as a camp counselor 8 years ago. I offered to teach beatboxing classes, not knowing whether the residents would be into it or not and was met with enthusiasm. Beatboxing at the Hub reminded me of being in 7th grade, hanging out on my friend’s porch and listening to “Rahzel,” one of best beatboxers in the world, on burned mix CDs and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. I hope the guys who came to my class keep doing it and incorporate beatboxing into their guitar playing, singing, or any spontaneous opportunity to have a jam session on the street.

Another expectation was that volunteering at Echo would be more hard work than fun, but it was definitely both. Even the less glamorous, but still important, work like moving hundreds of pounds of donated clothing to be distributed for winter was fun. It was a good excuse to crank up the volume loud in the storage warehouse and do all the moves at the end of E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go.”

One takeaway from the experience — which has also resonated other times I’ve traveled — is that regardless of where you are, people are people. It’s impossible to know the depths of another person’s struggle, whether they’ve experienced loss, are traversing miles and miles of unfamiliar land and navigating a complex and imperfect legal systems to be with loved ones - but that should inspire us to unite and care for each other.

I will miss my experience in Leros; the white and blue Greek homes that line the coast, the vibrant colors of the landscape that pop out in the sunlight, the hospitable culture that feeds you far more than what you order, eating souvlaki almost every day, the peculiar way that stray cats randomly jump out of dumpsters, excursions to see ancient monasteries on nearby islands — it’s all a part of a glorious experience. The truth is, there’s way too much to write about. What I will miss most are my new brothers and sisters from all over the world. I hope to reunite some day.