What You’ll Find in This Post:
A list of the volunteer organizations we worked with
How I felt about the kind of volunteering I did
My thoughts on my ideal way of helping others
Some of us in the tractor trailer we just cleared out at Pampiraiki. Photo courtesy of VCU Globe.
I went to Athens as part of the “Athena Service-Learning Trip Abroad” which, naturally, focused on aiding the refugee crisis in Greece. We visited Pampiraiki Warehouse, Za’atar (the Orange House), Hope Café, and City Plaza, so before I get into the meat of this post, here are some links that can connect you to these places:
A note: City Plaza—a “squat”—doesn’t exist anymore, but all the people got homes.
With that established, know that this post is not about what it was like to volunteer and/or learn at these places; I don’t want my overall experience to skew your thoughts about any of these organizations because all these organizations were doing something good in a variety of different ways. So, what will I talk about in this post? I suppose it will be more of a personal reflection on what I learned about myself when it comes to volunteering abroad and volunteering in general.
How volunteering made me feel
Packaging sanitary napkins at Pampiraiki. Photo courtesy of VCU Globe.
When it came to volunteering, I’m glad I was able to learn about the ins and outs of the crisis from the people who were there physically there, like leaders of nonprofits, other volunteers, and the refugees themselves—both recent arrivals and long-established ones. I also appreciate the fact I was there in the name of aid. It was my first trip abroad that was not centered around art or design, so being there for a different reason entirely (and having that reason be solely in the name of learning & helping) was a healthy experience. It gave me a more rounded view of what life was like on the international stage.
Through the course of the trip, though, I found myself increasingly unsatisfied with the way I was contributing to the crisis. At first, I felt guilty; I felt bad for not feeling good about the good I was apparently doing. I was in tears about it. However, after voicing my feelings with some people back home, I realized that I felt this way because even though I was helping, it wasn’t the way I wanted to help. I understood the value in the kinds of activities I was doing—helping prepare lunch for survivors, unloading trucks, making “goody bags” of supplies for new arrivals—but I also felt like I could do more if I went about my aiding in a different way.
Cutting vegetables at Hope Café. Photo courtesy of VCU Globe.
My first thought, honestly, was I’d rather give them money, “them” being the organizations. I felt bad because it seemed like if I were to do that, I’d be supporting from a distance, as though giving them a monetary donation was in some way “less than” unloading a truck or prepping food. However, the reality is that they could probably do a lot more with my $1,000 than the 30 carrots I chopped. The catch with this, however, is that I didn’t have $1,000. So, I asked myself what I did have in terms of skill, finances, time, interest, physicality, and personality.
I knew I was patient and a good listener. I knew I wasn’t tall or physically strong. I knew I wasn’t a fan of the outdoors, wasn’t comfortable getting dirty, and that I genuinely enjoyed learning. I knew I liked consistency and greatly disliked unpredictability. I knew I was a full-time student who occasionally made minimum wage. I knew I was a visual artist and writer, and that I had a passion for storytelling. And when it came to storytelling, I knew I was the kind of person who loved taking one piece of information and magnifying it—blowing it on the proverbial big screen—and making it accessible to as many people as possible in a simple and interesting way.
All this and more in mind, I realized that the fact I didn’t know the people that my volunteering was directly affecting made the gesture feel a little empty. It was like I was physically there & present, and yet, at such a distance. To add, the kind of help I was giving felt helpful in the immediate, but not in the long run, and that didn’t sit well with me. I felt bad helping and leaving, likely never to encounter these people or the situation again in any capacity.
When it comes to physically volunteering while being present
The big lot that leads to Pampiraiki
You know that saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” That’s how I feel about physically volunteering, as in to say, the kind of volunteering that asks me to be physically present for just a short amount of time. There’s still value in aid that helps in the immediate, but I prefer the kind of aid that stays constant, something that those in need can fall back on because it will be there indefinitely. I wondered, what if I could teach someone a skill that they could then use to survive once I wasn’t there? If I could teach someone a trade, like braiding hair, or even just familiarize someone with the ins and outs of whatever political situation they found themselves in so that they’d know how to navigate their next move. Thing is, I didn’t feel I had any skills or knowledge that could really help someone in the ways I just described.
To add, this still wasn’t my ideal mode of volunteering
You remember how I said that the fact I didn’t know the people that my volunteering was directly affecting made the gesture feel a little empty? Well, this—coupled with some other experiences I had in Athens—made me realize that the ideal way I’d want to help people is to tell their stories. I felt that if I could hear the “story of them”—hear whatever they were willing to share—I, in turn, could share it in the best way I knew how: Through my art practice. I’d want whatever I’d create would be an entryway for a larger audience to become aware of not only the stories of these individuals, but the overall situation they were in. I want to use an image to convey emotion and suss out empathy and understanding from people who are otherwise removed from the situation.
A great example of this is the photographer Platon. You can Google him, see his website, read this New York Post article, or watch his episode on the Netflix series Abstract. What they all boil down to, though, is that he uses his art to tell the story of a larger situation through capturing people and their individual stories. That is what I’d want to do, that is how I’d want to help.
I did get to hear one story, though
The stories you hear while walking around a new city, right?
While browsing for souvenirs, I met a craftsman, a guy who made leather & wire bracelets. He engaged me in conversation, and even though his ultimate goal was to take me on a date, he still took the time to tell me his story. I learned he was from Yugoslavia and that he had immigrated to Greece during the civil war (which I knew nothing about before this moment). I learned what he had lost in the war, what he’d left behind in Yugoslavia, and what life had been like for him in the near thirty years since arriving in Athens.
His story had a relatively happy ending, which made me want to know even more stories—the good experiences and the bad ones. I want to have a holistic view of what went down in any crisis that effects a group of people, anything from a mass genocidal civil war to local social injustice. To add, the U.S. has a weird tendency to report on something—war, terrorist attacks, disease, police brutality—only to suddenly stop talking about it after it’s no longer . . . interesting? I’m not entirely sure of the logic between U.S.-based news cycles, but it still seems odd (and perhaps apathetic) to talk about a humanitarian crisis every day for two weeks, then suddenly stop even though the issue itself hasn’t gone away.
To counter this, I want whatever way I tell the story of a situation to be ever present in peoples’ minds, I want it to stick with them. I don’t want them to get compassion fatigue, but I also don’t want them to feel & forget.
If it’s one thing that the service aspect of the Athens trip taught me is that I can do more. I can do more. Though I have no qualms with service-learning trips, I learned that I don’t need a one to help me help others and that I get to define my own modes of helping. I realized that there is no “best” way to help; it all depends on the person, their situation, and the situation they’re trying to help with. The idea of aid looks different in so many ways and now I believe that as long your actions help who you want to help in the best way you know how—the best way you’re capable of—then that is the best way.