When I planned my trip to Greece to volunteer with refugees, I anticipated distributing 2000 menstrual pads (read about that here), and the rest was unknown.
When I arrived to Athens, I found myself in the ambiguous situation of being an independent volunteer, taking leads from Facebook connections. There is no refugee-volunteer guidebook, and we depend heavily on social media. I was lucky enough to be connected to Norman Hering, a Psychotherapist who moved to Athens to volunteer. He led me to the Port of Piraeus ad hoc refugee camp.
The port is the landing ground for refugees moving from the islands (mainly Lesvos) on their way to western Europe. In the early stages of the crisis, the port housed more than 5000 refugees at a time in disgraceful and dangerous conditions.
In March 2016, the borders closed. Thousands of refugees became stranded in Greece, a large portion in Athens. Since then, the Greek government has moved refugees around to various camps. Some refugees have found housing in Anarchist squats, Christian centers, and, more and more, on street corners. By the time I arrived at the port, around 2000 refugees were there. Now, less than two weeks later, the numbers are nearing 1000.
The port is an intersection of tourists and Greeks traveling to the various islands, port workers, residents, and refugees. Various NGOS are present at the camp, but a majority of the volunteers who I met were like me: passionate, non-NGO affiliated individuals from various parts of the world.
The concrete landing of Gate E1 is littered with tents housing refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Alongside the tents are portable toilets, which volunteers clean daily, and portable showers where the refugees are allotted 6 minutes to bathe with little or no soap. A volunteer keeps order of who will shower next by writing a number on each person’s arm and dispensing the tiniest amounts of shampoo. One morning, I saw my friend Almas, a 20-year-old from Afghanistan with the number “96” scrawled across his arm. At 5pm I noticed the “96” still there. I asked why he hadn’t showered yet. “Water finished,” he said with a disillusioned and unsurprised shrug.
The port is one of many camps where refugees are waiting. Waiting to procure enough money to pay yet another smuggler to get them into Germany, waiting for papers to process so they may seek asylum, waiting to be deported back to their home country because they have lost hope.
These people escaped war-torn nations, traversed across land and sea only to find themselves trapped in tents with no resolution in sight. They are filled with trauma, and that trauma is overflowing into the volunteers who are giving up their jobs, relationships and homes to help them.
I am not an expert in mental health. I have no degrees or certifications in the field, but as a human, it is clear to see and feel the suffering of others. From the children to adults, refugees to volunteers, trauma is insidious in the camp.
A majority of my time at the camp was spent with the children, a mix of Afghans, Kurds and Syrians. During our play times, I noticed how they would oscillate from childhood joy to blinding aggression in a matter of seconds. One child that I became attached to, Mousah an 8-year-old from Syria, would hug and kiss me and ask me to play. Then in a blink of an eye, he would shut down or start lashing out.
One afternoon I found him quietly hidden in the corner of the container holding all of the kids’ supplies (papers, markers, toys, etc.). He was not supposed to be in the space, so I had to take him out. At first he was incredibly aggressive, kicking and hitting me as I took him out of the container. I held him close and started to kiss his cheeks and forehead telling him, “I love you, I love you.” He relaxed in my arms and I found a shaded spot away from the camp’s chaos to hold him. For nearly an hour he rested in my arms, tearing up and relaxing into his own exhaustion. It was one of the most peaceful moments I experienced at the camp.
I witnessed first hand PTSD among the children including depressive and suicidal behaviors and severe attachment issues between refugees and volunteers.
A 13-year-old from Syria, Abdullah--who volunteers and mental health workers agree is somewhere on the Autism spectrum--displayed suicidal thoughts and even named his own depression. When I first met him, he was doing math problems and drawing shapes. We talked about how he liked math, and then he suddenly became sullen. He drew pictures of helicopters dropping TNT on a building, and beneath it wrote, “I am finished. Sorry.”
When I told Norman about Abdullah’s statement, which expressed as suicidal thoughts, we scrambled to find someone to translate for us so we could better understand his call for help. It took us nearly an hour to find a refugee able to translate into English. Abdullah told us that he wanted to leave the camp, that he was depressed and that he thought about killing himself.
I wanted so badly to tell him that everything was going to be okay, that it would get better. But how could I? He was removed from his home in a violent way, and now he is stuck sleeping in a tent with his family. It is impossible to tell a child things will get better, especially when I don’t believe it myself.
Over the rest of the week I spent ample time with Abdullah. We would sit and talk, using Google translate to share our thoughts. He would oscillate from engaged and happy, to closed and drawing pictures of bombs falling on his family’s home. When I said goodbye to him, he broke down in tears and walked away from me without saying a word.
As a volunteer, it was impossible to separate myself from the trauma and heartache of the refugees, and I saw this inability in other volunteers too.
The volunteers exhibited mental health issues that were rooted in a foundation of uncertainty of what is to come, witnessing the trauma of the refugees, and capacity burn-out. Many of the volunteers, short-term and long-term, are exhausted and unable to establish boundaries to keep their own mental and physical health in check. While the Greek government is providing bare minimum support for the refugees--a consequence of their current economic crisis--the refugees are increasingly depending on the assistance of volunteers.
It was not uncommon to see a volunteer step away from the camp to cry or write an emotional post on Facebook. In these dire situations, where the level of need is so immediate, volunteers quickly integrate into the camp and it becomes unbearable to freely walk away while the refugees remain stuck and waiting.
Volunteers work with an understanding that our efforts and contributions are short-term patches for an issue that requires large-scale solutions from governing bodies. We work knowing that there is no help coming from other avenues, and that, for now, we are all the refugees have to depend on. And that is a burden not a single volunteer knew they would be taking on when they decided to come to the camps. I certainly did not.
Clearly shelter and food are paramount, but when children are talking about taking their own lives, it is absolutely necessary that mental health needs to be considered and addressed. Volunteers, like myself, are ill-equipped to deal with these serious mental health issues. We can only do our best to hold space for the refugees, and, eventually, we all go home.